In 2012 Simon Irvin became a mentor for the Indigenous Traineeship Program, where he met 19 year old Natalie Habilay, who — four years later — has become a fulltime technician and mentor herself.
Feature image for Natalie Habilay and Simon Irvin

Mentee to Mentor Natalie Habilay and Simon Irvin

Natalie Habilay (Photo: Lyndon Mechielsen); Simon Irvin (Photo: Darren Jew)

In 2012 Simon Irvin became a mentor for the Indigenous Traineeship Program, where he met 19 year old Natalie Habilay, who — four years later — has become a fulltime technician and mentor herself.

SIMON — Aquaculture Production — Team Leader, Agriculture: Bribie Island is the operational site for CSIRO aquaculture. It’s always a little bit crazy here. We’re running projects with barramundi, Atlantic salmon, tiger prawns, looking at their feed, the animals’ health, and also breeding.

It’s very hands-on, there are plenty of things to do, and we realised a trainee is probably a good fit.

Natalie started when she was 19. She was certainly the youngest person in our team. It was refreshing to get a younger staff member on site. We get used to maintaining animals and experiments in a set way, and young people bring new ideas, a fresh approach.

During the traineeship selection process Natalie was in high demand, and it was pretty obvious to us why. We saw fairly quickly just how hard working she was. We get a lot of graduates and they get a bit shocked about how technical our work can be. Natalie was just so willing to do anything. She’s been so happy to try different things that her skills improved quickly.

Around the facility Natalie’s always in demand with our project leaders, requesting her time on diverse projects — and that surprises a lot of people. As a trainee, you’re meant to be doing a lot of learning. Natalie quickly became a valued staff member who was trusted to collect important data and do a job at a much higher level than we expected possible from someone so new to the industry.

She’d been with us for just three or four months and was doing her job so consistently well — and was such a quick learner — that she was still being supervised, but not to the degree that you’d expect…

It’s probably been understated in the past, but Natalie had a major role in the animal husbandry of some of the first Atlantic salmon ever to be reared in Queensland. That is a huge achievement. We’re at Bribie Island: a sub-tropical environment. We’re used to working with barramundi and tropical prawns. Natalie was given the responsibility of looking after a temperate cold water species. That’s a high level risk. In the end it was a very successful project. Her efforts in that project led to Bribie Island being one of the main areas in Australia to work on Atlantic salmon.

Simon IrvinI think what’s similar between Natalie and I is we’re both very committed, with an attention to detail. We’re both producer-concluders in that we like to see a task through from beginning to end — we’re very similar in that respect. I see a lot of myself in Natalie when I was her age.

For me, the Indigenous Traineeship Program hasn’t been different from my other supervisory roles. But the program is a really nice fit — tropical aquaculture and iconic species such as a barramundi, spiny lobsters — there’s such a good opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff to engage with communities in northern Australia. I think it’s a great opportunity for CSIRO and everyone working in remote northern areas.

I did not expect the traineeship program to be such a positive experience for me, our projects, and aquaculture in general. It’s been a huge success, highlighted by the fact that we’ve got Natalie working as a fulltime technician in our team.

With the appointment of our third trainee, Natalie was actually on the interview panel. That was really nice. She’s come full circle from being interviewed and under pressure, to contributing to the selection criteria and short-listing. Natalie has really high standards. Having her on the panel and having her as a mentor to the new trainees has made them stick to her high standards. I think we’re really lucky.


NATALIE — Research Technician, Agriculture: Seafood is a massive percentage of what’s consumed by Australians and the world. We really need to understand what’s going on and come up with diets for commercial fish and other aquatic species.

If we keep relying on commercial fish, we’re going to run out eventually.

Natalie Habilay, formerly part of the Indigenous Traineeship Program, has taken on a fulltime role at CSIRO and has even started mentoring new trainees with a little help from her mentor, Simon Irvin. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen

Natalie Habilay with a Black Tiger PrawnAt the moment I’m testing different ingredients. People go “oh it’s just, like, food stuff”, but once you actually understand it it’s pretty cool.

When I started I didn’t really know what to expect. At first it was tough being the youngest in the team. Because everyone was so much older, I felt like they didn’t really know what to do with me. They had their ways and they came to work every day and did what they did.

And yeah — it took a while for them to come around. But once they sort of realised ‘what she can actually do’ — they didn’t really treat me like I was young then.

It was really good when I first started working with Simon. He spent a lot of time with me, teaching me, giving me my own mini-projects to run: feed things like making my own diets, little tests with water stability.

Simon would just say “we’re running this trial, this is what we need to do,” and then just leave the rest up to me. I would basically come up with the daily protocol and make all the data files.

I think what’s similar between Simon and myself, once we set a task out, we just do it. And once we get started, we both get really focused and sometimes can get caught up in it and be a bit oblivious to what is going on around us.

Definitely one of the best things I’ve done so far was being on the interview panel for the new traineeship role. It was a really good perspective, to be on the other side of the table.

Before that, the salmon work we’re doing here has been something that I’ve really loved doing. Starting it was a massive, massive project; though I think I do pretty well under pressure.

Simon puts a lot of trust in all his staff. He eased me into it, letting me start looking after the fish more and more every day until gradually I became the lead technician.

I think it’s good to have that independence because, for me, I feel like Simon trusts me.

And plus, we’ve gotten a lot of awards for that, so that’s been a really cool thing to do.

For me, I think it’s important to celebrate the achievements in any culture, it doesn’t matter if you’re Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or not. But I think things like NAIDOC Week are really good at putting the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff out there.

I think science and research have a lot to offer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, like sustainability into the future. But I also think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, especially, have so much to offer science as well. At the end of the day, they know their land better than anyone else. If we’re not using the knowledge that these people have, it’s a big loss for science.

At the end of the day I’m employed to do research, but I’m really lucky that I can also be a mentor to others as I’ve done the program as a young Aboriginal woman.

The Indigenous Traineeship Program is an awesome idea and was a lot different to what I expected. I would definitely not be where I am now if I didn’t apply. Though for others, if they’re really good throughout their traineeship, there should be plans for them to have a job at the end.

I will say, out here at Bribie, it’s an awesome team to be a trainee in. Everyone’s really good with teaching you what they know, so it’s easy to learn. And because it’s such a small team, it’s easier to fit in. I think I was just lucky that the position was out here.


One of our programs focussing on providing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with opportunities in STEM fields is ASSETS – applications are open now for Year 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students to attend a nine-day summer school in Adelaide, Newcastle or Townsville. ASSETS is part of a broader Indigenous STEM Education Project funded by BHP Billiton and delivered by CSIRO.