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November Monthly Spotlight: Melissa Cook

Melissa Cook: Australian Youth Ambassador, Plant Pathologist and more!


We are pleased to introduce our November Member Spotlight: Melissa Cook!

In 2012 to 2013 Melissa lived and worked in Tonga as a Plant Pathologist with the Tongan Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forest and Fisheries, under the auspices of the AYAD (Australian Youth Ambassador for Development) aid program.

Tell us about your time in Tonga

I loved my time in Tonga – it ignited my passion for international development and I am still nostalgic about my experiences and friendships I formed during my time in the Friendly Islands.

Prior to working on Tonga, I had just finished a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne, and an Honour’s degree at La Trobe University. While I had worked throughout my degree, my time in Tonga was the first ‘professional’ job I had in the industry.

I lived in Nuku’alofa with a few other AYAD volunteers, but unlike them my assignment was based out at the Ministry’s research centre in Vaini. I remember that every morning I would have to be picked up in a shanty old truck (with the wheels almost falling off!), or I would bike ride out for up to 30 minutes. I was quite isolated from other volunteers who worked in Nuku’alofa, but that helped me to really connect with my counter-parts and colleagues.

What are some challenges you faced?

While I had an amazing time in Tonga, I did experience some challenges. At times, my core assignment responsibilities were difficult to accomplish due to limited resources and staff available within the Ministry. When I first arrived in Tonga, the person who had requested the AYAD volunteer had moved to a different part of the Ministry but had not told the staff member (who would be my counterpart) about my incoming assignment due to a gap in handover procedures. 

I felt that the first few months of my assignment was spent having to ‘prove’ myself to my counterparts who were all much older than me, and compared to the counterparts other AYAD’s had for their assignments. While it was a rocky start to the assignment, by the end of my time I think we formed a mutual respect for one another.

What were some of the highlights of your assignment?

The people I met in Tonga, for sure. I still keep in touch with many of my Tongan and AYAD friends - some who are as close as family. 

What impact has your time in Tonga had on your 

Working in Tonga as my first professional placement has taught me to be resilient and resourceful. I think it’s made me a better scientist. Having that experience straight out of university, I’m much more resourceful when it comes to dealing with adversity and scarce resources. This has helped me with my career and now when I’ve been training and managing my own team of technical staff. 

Since we are so lucky to have access to technology and supplies in Australia I think sometimes resourcefulness can be lacking in graduate scientists and I strongly recommend working internationally in developing nations as a way to build your career.

I also really enjoyed delving in Tongan culture – hosting a kava circle is one of my more memorable experiences especially listening to the beautiful singing by the Tongan men. 

I also signed up to Polynesian dancing classes together with a few other AYAD volunteers and learned how to perform the beautiful and demure Lakalaka, and Tau’olunga. We also learned out to perform traditional dances from the Cook Islands and Samoa which were very different. Near the end of my time in Tonga I put on a cultural dance performance with other volunteers for our community which was met with thunderous applause.

Dance is a wonderful way to connect with culture, and I’ve carried that love with me throughout my travels including when I went to Carinval in Trinidad and Tobago! Everywhere I go now, I try to do a learn a bit of the local dance – so far I’ve done Salsa in Cuba, and also dancing in the Cook Islands.

What are you doing now, and what does the future hold for you?

I’m currently living and working Victoria as a research scientist for the Victorian government. I’m also completing a PhD in plant pathology and hope to return to working in international development (hopefully in the Pacific!) in the future. When it’s possible to travel internationally again, I hope to return to visit Tonga soon.