Growing up in the ‘80s, Nicola McGunnigle was well-rehearsed in the mantra ‘girls can do anything’. Consequently, she had no qualms about leaving hometown Whangarei to pursue a degree in Earth Sciences at the University of Waikato, a study path which, at the time, was dominated by males.
After she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1992 and, having no desire to “start in the real world”, Nicola continued on to a Master of Science investigating the volcanic geology of the Hikuai Region on the Coromandel Peninsula. Her first job out of university was as a Geologist with a, now defunct, mining company in Tasmania. Two years later she transferred to the Pasminco mine in Broken Hill to work at the open cut before moving into mine lease exploration.
With a few years hindsight, Nicola can look back and acknowledge the challenges of working in a male oriented industry. As a fresh graduate the mining industry was supportive of promoting and employing women, but Nicola argued at the time that they should employ the best person for the job, not based on gender. Despite this, she says there were double standards at the mines she worked at in Australia. Female employees were told what they couldn't do and where they couldn’t go. “I rebelled and created my own networks and graduate path which is how I ended up in Broken Hill,” she says. “Dealing with the miners and burly contractors, in comparison to upper management, was no problem at all and I enjoyed respect from my male colleagues.”
Nicola took some time off to travel which pivoted around five months volunteering in Nepal, where she fell in love with the country and its people. The confronting poverty and environmental challenges Nicola witnessed prompted her to side-step a career in the environmental sector, and she returned to New Zealand to work in a consultancy role. The variety of Nicola’s work gave her great exposure to environmental issues with land, water and air – all areas that would prove to be useful to her future volunteer work back in Nepal.
Fast-forward 18 years and Nicola has worked the full gambit of geologist roles in both Australia and New Zealand with regional councils, an environmental engineering company, plus a short stint in geographical information systems (GIS). She describes her career pathway as being more opportunistic than driven. Happily based in Adelaide with her husband Tom and their two young sons, Nicola works for global engineering consultancy AECOM in their environmental group. Nicola’s role utilises skills she’s developed over the years bringing together geology, hydrogeology, chemistry and applying these to assess risk to human health (land occupants or future site users) and the environment.
But it’s Nicola’s volunteer work in Nepal that she’s most proud of and that’s led to publishing her first book, Four Seasons in Nepal. In 2015, Nicola won a volunteering post with Nepali non- governmental organisation International Nepal Fellowship (INF) that saw her family head to Nepal for a year. She kept a blog throughout the family’s preparation and volunteer experience and confesses that once she started writing, there was no stopping her. The blog was named Four Seasons in Nepal after each of the calendar seasons in the year they would be away. As Nicola wrote she realised that in each calendar season the family went through distinctly different experiences.
“From the excitement and adventure of arrival in a new culture and all the learning, to challenges and hardship during political turmoil, yet the rewards of the wonderful work being achieved in the projects that my work was supporting,” she says. “It was a great opportunity to share uplifting stories in a country often only known for poverty or the perverse side of tourism.”
Encouraging feedback prompted Nicola to pad out the online stories into a book when she returned to Adelaide. She’s still got promotional work to do for Four Seasons in Nepal but has already embarked on another piece of writing, looking at the humorous side of travel with kids. “We have a lot of mad experiences to share,” she laughs.
Now the love for Nepal has become a family affair. Both Nicola and husband Tom have taken on roles as representatives for INF in South Australia and Nicola is on the INF Australia Board. Her goal is to network on a local scale to build up INF's identity and support with a vision to leading a trip to Nepal to exhibit some projects and possibly guide participants on a short trek. Nicola’s parents Alan and Beryl, sister Sally and brother-in-law Grady have all visited Nepal and help out with fundraising efforts back in hometown Whangarei. Alan and Beryl even held an INF fundraiser dinner for their 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year with funds going to INF’s ‘Smokeless Stoves Project’ in the Ropla District. With many Nepalis still cooking on an open fire there is a huge effect on deforestation as well as health issues for the Nepalis.
Nicola feels privileged to have had the chance to work and live in another culture. “All challenges aside it was a rewarding and an enriching experience for us all,” she says. “I still get a buzz being able to share the stories of lives being lifted from poverty through the hard work that Nepalis do each day - empowering the poor to help themselves.”