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Kinjia Munkara-Murray

Aquatic ecologist

Kinjia Munkara-Murray

Kinjia Munkara-Murray transformed self doubt into a successful science career

Raised in Garramilla (Darwin), Kinjia Munkara-Murray is a proud Tiwi and Rembarrnga woman who spent her childhood exploring the lush tropical undergrowth of Darwin and the Tiwi Islands. “If you couldn’t find me outside in nature, I was probably inside raising caterpillars into butterflies or feeding mushy bananas to rhinoceros beetles,” she says.

Given this early enthusiasm, you might think a study and career path into science would’ve been a given – but Kinjia’s journey was far from straightforward.

Unsure what she wanted to study after school, Kinjia applied to the University of Melbourne and was accepted into a Bachelor of Arts Extended course. But the degree wasn’t quite hitting the mark – and Kinjia’s grades soon began to suffer.

Discovering science

Kinjia had held back from pursuing her interest in science because she didn’t believe she was “smart enough”. Thankfully, conversations with mentors eventually inspired her to transfer to a Bachelor of Science Extended course.

“It was immediately clear I had made the right decision,” Kinjia says. “I was enjoying university for the first time.”

Kinjia soon landed a summer internship at engineering consultancy GHD through the CareerTrackers program. “The first thing they did was sit me down in front of a microscope and teach me all about aquatic insects!” she says. 

In her final year of uni, Kinjia started thinking about possible research projects and came across a paper that described the Tiwi Islands as a ‘biodiversity hotspot’. Inspired, she contacted the author of the paper – who went on to become the supervisor of her own Master of Bioscience research project!

“This was the highlight of my time at university,” Kinjia says. “Standing on my own country, combining my family’s ecological knowledge with western knowledge to produce research that would strengthen the status of the Tiwi Islands as a biodiversity hotspot.”

A long way from the high school student who thought she wasn’t cut out for science, Kinjia graduated from her Master’s degree with Distinction. 

Shifting perspectives

After her Master’s, Kinjia returned to GHD as a full-time graduate aquatic ecologist. Her role today involves studying the health of waterways around Victoria by monitoring populations of ‘macroinvertebrates’ – aquatic lifeforms including insects and crustaceans.

“Studying insects is my passion, and being able to work with them on a daily basis is the absolute best part of my job,” she says.

Reflecting on her path, Kinjia highlights the importance of ensuring Indigenous people are represented in STEM. “Having more Indigenous role models in STEM would’ve helped eliminate my feelings of ‘not being smart enough’ to study science,” she says.

Her advice to young people starting out in their own careers? “Be kind to yourself, give yourself time, and it’s 100% okay to change your mind on what you want to do.”

Kinja’s study + career path

  • Bachelor of Science (Zoology, Animal Biology), University of Melbourne
  • Master of Science (Bioscience), University of Melbourne
  • Intern, GHD
  • Graduate scientist, GHD

A version of this article was originally published in Careers with STEM: Science.

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