Ausnew Home Care | Eleanor graduates with first-class honours as she pursues palaeontology dream career after chance encounter

Eleanor graduates with first-class honours as she pursues palaeontology dream career after chance encounter

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Eleanor Beidatsch is used to overcoming the odds, but even she thought a career in palaeontology would be a bridge too far.

The 30-year-old was convinced her passion would only ever be a hobby, but her dreams came true nearly 4,000 kilometres away from her West Australian home.

Eleanor recently graduated with first-class honours in geoscience at the University of New England (UNE), travelling from Mount Barker in a van to receive her degree in person.

A woman in a wheelchair with a dog wears a graduation gown and hat. She is near two people standing in black robes.
Eleanor Beidatsch graduated with first-class honours in geoscience.(Supplied: UNE Media)

Eleanor has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) type 1 and has never had use of her legs. Her arm movement is also limited.

"I cannot move myself around at all," she said.

"When I'm in the wheelchair I can move, thanks to the wonders of technology."

The disease, which affects her respiration as well as her mobility, was generally considered fatal by doctors when Eleanor was born.

But in what would soon become habit, she proved them wrong.

A journey across Australia

Eleanor made the journey across Australia thanks to her mum Karen, big sister Kirsten and best friend, Ceridwen.

Each played a role in Eleanor's daily needs but were faced with the daunting task of delivering that on the road, often hours away from the nearest township.

"To pack up Eleanor is the most monumental job, we did that every morning on the road," Karen said.

An older woman looks out the window.
Karen Beidatsch drove the van most of the way from Western Australia to New South Wales.(ABC New England North West: James Paras)

The clan had clocked up roughly 3,800km from Mount Barker when they arrived at the University of New England campus in Armidale, northern NSW.

"We had to fit the van with spotlights, CB radio, a battery bank that runs all Eleanor's equipment like her respirator, a feed line," Karen said.

Big sister Kirsten said the team spent six days on the road, camping at night and often cooking in the dark.

"Managing to camp across the Nullarbor, with someone with Eleanor's degree of disability, on a tiny budget, I hope that others with disabilities can see it is possible," she said. 

Eleanor is on an inflatable matress inside a tent
Setting up each night on the road was a big job, particularly with Eleanor's ventilation system.(Supplied: Kirsten Beidatsch)

SMA type 1 is known as a rare genetic disease, and one of the most severe.

Doctors told Eleanor's mother to expect the worst when she was born.

"I was told to prepare to let Eleanor go, don't get invested," Karen said.

"They said the end is inevitable and that underpinning attitude has been problematic throughout her life."

Not only did Eleanor live, she thrived.

Eleanor smiles at the camera wiht a beautifully coloured scarf on
Despite life's many challenges, Eleanor is all smiles.(ABC New England North West: James Paras)

Chance encounter

Eleanor's passion for palaeontology began with a CD about whale and dolphin evolution when she was nine years old.

But she never thought it could become a career path.

"It's something I put aside and concluded it couldn't be a possibility for someone like me," she said.

But an exploration of the opal fields in Lightning Ridge in 2016 was an inspiration.

Eleanor is in a dusty and dirty landcape
Eleanor has visited Lightning Ridge to look for opals, but she prefers lab work.(Supplied: UNE Media)

It was there the idea of studying at the UNE was floated during a chance encounter with an academic at the fields.

Years later, Eleanor has found where she fits in the vast world of palaeontology.

"I'm more of a lab rat than a field mouse," she said.

"Palaeontology is very physical, but only if you're out digging. [Information about fossils] essentially then gets put online, that is then accessible for people to do lab work, and you don't need to be able bodied [for that]."

Eleanor speaks with Dr Nicolas Campione with a backdrop of autumn trees in Armidale.
Eleanor never misses a chance to pick the brain of UNE's dinosaur expert, Dr Nicolas Campione.(ABC New England North West: James Paras)

UNE geologist and palaeontologist Marissa Betts was a key figure in Eleanor's education, helping to deliver the program online.

Dr Betts' main goal was to dispel presumptions that careers in geoscience weren't achievable for people with restricted motor skills.

"Geoscience is traditionally a more able-bodied discipline; that bias has kept people out of earth science for a long time," she said.

"Making education accessible for all people is something UNE really excels at. It has been a leader at online and distance education for many years."

Marissa Betts smiles at the camera with the autumn trees in the background.
Marissa Betts helped deliver the specially designed online course for Eleanor.(ABC New England North West: James Paras)

Dr Betts acted as a mentor for Eleanor's honours degree, which encompassed two years of postgraduate studies and the construction of a thesis.

"Eleanor is very dedicated, she is really good with communicating … she's excited about the subject matter." 

Eleanor with her cap and gown and her dog button next to her
After receiving her first class honours, Eleanor was invited to give a vote of thanks at the ceremony.(ABC New England North West: James Paras)

First-class honours

The Beidatsch family and friends proudly watched on as Eleanor donned her cap and gown and patiently waited to be called to the stage by Vice-Chancellor Professor Chris Moran.

UNE was well aware of the journey Eleanor faced before she could join her peers on the stage, and invited her to give the vote of thanks at the graduation ceremony.

"The last two years of study has taken me on a journey through time, but also on a journey of myself," she told the crowd.

"As a student with disabilities, the most important part of learning is access and inclusion, and at UNE, that attitude has shone in every interaction."

Eleanor is on the stage with a microphone and her sister holding the speech in front of her
Eleanor was joined on stage for her speech by her sister Kirsten and support dog Button.(ABC New England North West: James Paras)

Although the ominous prospect of returning home loomed, Eleanor was already planning the next step in her fledgling career.

"I have already started the enrolment process of my masters for palaeontology," she said.


Source: ABC

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