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Gold in Paris, antibiotic resistance and the start of a science career

Student support initiatives open up a world of possibility for rural students

An accommodation scholarship to the University of Sydney gave Kawana Crowe, a proud Wiradjuri woman from Macksville, the security she needed to pursue her science dreams.
Kawana Crowe in Paris standing in front of the Eiffel Tower

Kawana Crowe during her gold medal-winning stint at the iGEM competition in Paris, France.

After a scholarship helped her set up in Sydney three years ago, Kawana Crowe is excited to finally start her honours year. Having always been a naturally curious person, the final year of her Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Advanced Studies represents an opportunity to chase her dreams.

Her research will investigate the genetic makeup of Acinetobacter baumannii, a strain of antibiotic resistant bacteria which causes a large number of hospital-borne diseases.

“I had a little bit of a taste and I really enjoyed it,” she says. “It’s nice to be moving out of the coursework component and do a bit more of my own structured learning.”

The taste in question included a gold-medal winning stint at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) research competition in Paris last October, where her team presented their research on the use of nanobodies in rapid antigen testing. The 16 days she spent in Paris talking to fellow science students and discussing their projects was a great glimpse of a future that Kawana has been working hard towards.  

“I’ve always been particularly interested in scientific research and doing actual lab work. I chose to double major in science. I didn’t have to, but I really like it. It’s where my passion is,” she says.  

Being surrounded by likeminded peers hasn’t always been an option for Kawana. Her father passed away when she was eight, and her mother moved to Macksville, a small rural town on the banks of the Nambucca River, to be closer to family. There were only 25 students in her graduating Year 12 class, and few of them went on to attend University. She was the only one who made it as far as Sydney.

Rendering of Acinetobacter baumannii, a multi-drug resistant bacteria

Kawana's honours thesis will focus on Acinetobacter baumannii, a multi-drug resistant bacteria responsible for a large number of hospital-acquired infections.

“The culture is so different,” she says. “People pursue apprenticeships and take courses. It’s a lot harder for students to even aspire to university.”

Living in such an isolated town on her mother’s single income meant that even though her teachers knew Kawana was enthusiastic for any learning opportunity she could get, saying yes to them was another matter. But Kawana’s mother remained one of her biggest cheerleaders. 

“My mum’s one of my favourite people in the whole world. She's always been so supportive of me pursuing my dreams academically, even though that was never something she was interested in herself,” she says. “I really am who I am as a person because she supported me so much.”

Accommodation was a significant stress factor for both Kawana and her mum when she first moved to Sydney. With no relatives close to the University, Kawana relied on student accommodation and the pricey local rental market. Her mum promised that, come hell or high water, she would get her through the full four years.

Receiving an accommodation scholarship in her second year, which covered the remainder of her degree, was an incredible relief.

“Hearing the news that in the worst-case scenario, where there was no other income, I could still pay my accommodation was really big. I called my mum and she just cried. It takes so much of the financial burden off her,” she says. “I know she stresses about it. I’m really grateful that I can help her back.”

It’s worth doing the hard thing. If you think it's the right thing, but it's hard, it’s still the right thing to do.
Kawana Crowe

Reducing the financial stress has allowed Kawana to settle into campus life and make friends. She’s a self-confessed board game nerd – joining the Board Gaming Society on campus meant that she was able to connect with people and build a social network away from home. She worked as a student ambassador for the University, showing other remote and Indigenous students that there are pathways to tertiary education.

She’s also been able to dream even bigger academically.

“I’m still deciding if I want to go straight into a PhD for the research or if I want to work for a little while,” she says. “It might depend on how I’m feeling after this year. But I am quite passionate about it, so I think I will spend time in the academic world at some point in my career.”

It’s clear that Kawana is deeply excited by the prospect of research – she lists autoimmune diseases, cancer, and animal and genetic conservation as potential avenues for her to pursue.  She’s particularly interested in health research – especially infectious and genetic diseases. Her degree majors allow her to straddle both areas of study.

“I love helping people. But I never wanted to be a clinician – I’d much rather sit up in the lab. So, I wanted to find some way that I could connect the two,” she says.

She acknowledges that her pathway to study and her time at the University haven't always been easy.

“I've still had a fair amount of adversity. The scholarships have significantly helped, but sometimes it's hard you know, particularly during COVID, not having family around. There are still parts of it that have been really hard,” she says.

“But it's worth it. There's not a moment that goes by that I regret any of it. It’s worth doing the hard thing. If you think it's the right thing, but it's hard, it’s still the right thing to do.”

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11 August 2023

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