Belle Tissott to GeoHipster: Data Science and Teenage Bird Angst

Belle Tissott
Belle Tissott

Belle Tissott is an Assistant Director of Product Development at Digital Earth Australia, where she works to develop new methods to process and analyse satellite imagery in order to map and better understand Australia’s land and water. She is a programmer and mathematician, with a strong drive to do what she can to make a positive impact in the world.

Belle was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: You came to spatial from IT, does that mean you have geo-imposter syndrome as well as programmer-imposter syndrome?

A: Yes, yes and a little bit more yes!

One of the things which has been both amazing and confronting working at Geoscience Australia is just how many insanely smart people there are here. And whilst it’s incredible to work with and learn from such talented peers, it is almost impossible not to doubt whether you’re good enough to be a part of this, and (for me) to wonder just when everyone will realise you’re a fraud.

I recently started opening up with peers about my self-doubt, and to my surprise, it didn’t make them think I’m incompetent. They were understanding, supportive and tended to share their own doubts and fears in return. Realising that imposter syndrome is a pretty universal thing certainly hasn’t removed the feelings entirely, but I find it has made them easier to ignore.

Q: I’ve heard you describe yourself as a hippy. Can you elaborate?

A: My parents moved to a hippy commune near Nimbin in New South Wales in the 70s, and built a beautiful house in the forest. We had limited power, no mains water and an outside toilet. I grew up there as a ‘free range’ kid, playing in the mud, swimming in the creek and adventuring in the forest. It was fantastic, but very different to your average suburban upbringing. I distinctly remember being shocked when I was to start high school and we were expected to wear shoes EVERY day!

Interestingly whilst I feel like a hippy here, I feel pretty conservative when I go home to Nimbin. I think identifying as a hippy comes from what I see as important and noticing how it’s different from the norm. I feel like ‘normal’ society trains people to put a very high value on wealth and reputation, whereas these things are extremely unimportant to me. I just want to be happy, have a positive impact on the world and those around me.

Q: As a hippy, how did you get into IT?

A: Very much by accident.

I dropped out of school after year 10 and went to TAFE (Australian vocational training) and did a Diploma in Apparel Manufacturing. Throughout my studies I struggled with the way the fashion industry treated young girls, and realised by the end of it that I couldn’t comfortably be part of this toxic world. I was lost. My boyfriend at the time was applying to do Bachelor of Information Technology at university the following year, and, very much as a joke, I applied too. It sounded interesting enough, I liked computer games and problem solving, but an IT-based profession wasn’t something that had ever crossed my mind, plus I didn’t finish school! To my utter shock I got in and loved the programming side of it. I could lose myself in learning languages and creating something from nothing.

Q: As an “IT gurl”, how did you get into Geoscience Australia (GA)?

A: I had a friend working as a contractor at GA and she was aware of them looking for more developer staff and thought I would be a perfect fit. I didn’t think I had the skills they were after (that good old self-doubt messing with ability to push forward), however she encouraged me to apply anyway. I was offered an initial contract of just 6 weeks working on their metadata catalogue. With only 6 weeks guaranteed and being the primary income earner for my family, I couldn’t leave my existing job, or relocate my family to Canberra, so this made for a very challenging period. I moved to Canberra alone, worked for GA during the day and did my other work over evenings & weekends, and went home to see my partner and kids every 2 weeks for just a couple of days.

All went well and I was offered a 6 month contract continuation, I left my other job and we packed up our life and made the move from sunny, warm, beachy Byron Bay, to freezing cold Canberra. Later in the year a lead dev position became available and I scored that to become a permanent part of the GA family!

Q: As a GA staff member, how did you get to work in Earth observation?

A: Ah, I think this goes back to when I was out of work for a while when my kids were young. I decided I should go back to university so I would be more employable after the time off. I chose a BSc majoring in mathematics and statistics (because I thought studying maths would be fun!). It was, and it wasn’t… I loved the maths, but got a full-time job part way through, so ended up working & studying with two young kids, which is not great for your sanity!

Anyways, how does this relate to EO? So, working at GA I was doing web development, which is what I’d always done. However, some fabulous managers saw that my maths/stats background could be good for scientific development work, so I got the opportunity to learn Python and work within the Digital Earth Australia team creating products from satellite imagery. I realised pretty quickly that this was where I was meant to be. I didn’t even know it was what I was looking for in a job, but I love everything about it now!

Q: You moved to Canberra, the center of bureaucracy, from Byron Bay, the center of… non-bureaucracy. Tell us about the two cities.

A: The two places are so vastly different, but both amazing in their own way. Byron Bay is full of natural beauty. It has the most amazing beaches in the world as well as lush rain forests and crystal clear creeks. Working in Byron I would pop to the beach for a dip during my lunch break over summer — it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave such an idyllic place, particularly for Canberra. Before spending time in Canberra my view of it was dull, grey, and full of boring public servants. We moved for work. It has FAR surpassed my expectations (though maybe not hard given what I thought of it!).

Belle with household animals

Primarily it’s the people I’ve met who have made me feel so happy to live here. My love of science at times made me feel a little out of place in Byron Bay, where conspiracy theories and alternative remedies are so popular. Now, I’m surrounded by kind, passionate, science-loving, fun people. But I miss the beach and lush forests. I miss moisture in general, I struggle with how dry Canberra is, and the sun in summer is like napalm, so I’m failing at growing veggies. But there are going to be ups and downs of all places, I like to stay focused on the ups of where I currently am — amazing, fabulous people!

Q: What you do is data science, so what does data science mean to you?

A: Data science to me is two-fold. It’s the fun in the challenge of finding new and wonderful ways to process, analyse and interpret insane amounts of data to extrapolate meaning and understanding. But it also is a way I feel I can connect my love of tech and programming, with my passion to do something positive for the world.

Q: I hear you like cosplay, what is your ultimate cosplay character?

A: The character I’ve done most is Harley Quinn. I like the happy/crazy combo, and the black/red is always fun to play with. More recently I however, if I were to have time, I would love to make some Twi’lek costumes as I think making the lekku (long fleshy head tail things) would be a fun challenge.

Q: Tell us about your parrot and teenage angst

A: Ooh our parrot was amazing. During a family weekend walk up Black Mountain we came across an injured fledgling crimson rosella. Despite being warned that it would give a solid bite (it was so tiny I thought it’d be ok), I swooped in to save the day. One bleeding finger later we were heading home with a new little baby. After a check from a vet we were told that it had a poorly healed broken wing and that it would likely never be able to fly so “I can put it down, or you now have a pet bird” — the kids were there, so we now had a pet bird (Pippin).

Surprisingly, the cat was fantastic about it and would lay there while Pip groomed him. At first all was fabulous, and he (I think) gradually learned to fly a little, from head-to-head. As he grew into a teen however he became a jerk and we were suddenly living in a house tormented by an erratically aggressive, but beautiful, sky rat. Pip’s flying got stronger and stronger. Amazingly, at the same time we began to get visits from a rosella family who would sit on our deck and chat to him through the window. One day we opened the door to take washing out and he swooped out to join the family. They all flew off together. It was beautiful to see. We would occasionally see them all at the local park, all very close to each other and him being watched over by the adults in the group.

Q: I found this fantastic picture of you and your kids in Nepal, how was that journey with young kids?

Nepalese mountains

A: It was absolutely amazing for a number of reasons, with the story behind why and how we organised this trip being just as big a part as the incredible adventures we had.

This was a bit of a mental health trip for me. I was unexpectedly made redundant and really struggled to deal with the emotions around it all. I felt rejected and like a failure. I didn’t know how to find the confidence to step back out and look for more work. I just wanted to run away and take some time to process my feelings without the stressors of normal life. The support from my family was what got me through.

Me: “I think I need to walk into the mountains in Nepal”
Matt (my partner): books tickets for the end of the week.

I have a soft spot for Nepal, the people are so friendly and the mountains are breathtaking. This was my second trip there, the first one being 12 years earlier with a 7 month old baby in a backpack. The kids weren’t that young this time (9 & 12), so very capable of walking decent distances. We spent 6 weeks wandering in the mountains and exploring new places together, it was an incredible bonding experience for us as a family and I would definitely recommend it. Also, I came back grounded, calm, at peace with what happened, and confident to get out there and work again.

Interviewer’s note: Belle has booked another trip to Nepal for December 2019 and I take full credit for re-inspiring her!

Q: And lastly, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: I don’t know if I am. I don’t drink beer and I’m REALLY bad at growing a beard. The only time I wear a flannel is when I’m staying with my parents and wear my Dad’s. I am however a decent coffee snob. Firstly, instant coffee is NOT real coffee. Coffee which has been reheated time and time again is NOT real coffee. Plunger coffee is rough, but in desperation I could consume. But really, espresso latte with properly heated (not burnt) milk is my go to.  Or, if I’m channeling my inner hippy, a soy dandy latte (I know, not coffee – but fabulous nonetheless).

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