Cartier Masthead Final Weeks

Hipster boys come and go, Law Degrees are forever

Emma Macdonald

You can never study too much, nor travel too far to broaden your horizons.

Katherine Quinn is a 29-year-old Canberra native who swapped a secure legal pathway as a Judge’s associate to sell all her worldly goods and be the first Canberran to ever apply for a student visa for Norway.

Several long winters and some close encounters with reindeer and Katherine has now been invited to return to Oslo to present at the First Postgraduate Colloquium on Frontiers of International Environmental Law. She shares her inspiring story on reaching for the academic stars.

How long have you been in Canberra?

I grew up in Canberra and I completed my undergraduate Law Degree at ANU, before I was accepted into the Public International Law Masters program at the University of Oslo. At the time I applied in 2015, I was the first Canberran to ever apply for a student visa for Norway.

My focus throughout my studies was on using international trade law structures to achieve environmental protection; I wrote my thesis about bee colony collapse and ways to achieve bee conservation through the international law framework. I graduated at the top of my cohort and that is why I have been invited to participate in this colloquium at the end of the month.

KQ and dad at ANU graduation 2013

Katherine Quinn and her dad on graduation day at the ANU.

I also spent the European summer working with an environmental litigation NGO in London called ClientEarth. They have had many environmental victories; for example they successfully sued the UK government over air quality, and are making inroads to stop the logging of ancient forests in Poland. I am now looking at undertaking a PhD in either Norway or the the UK.

What drives you in the field of environmental law?

The subject matter I am studying is extremely important: environmental issues and climate change will become the defining issues of our lives in the coming decades, and it is vital that conversations about these issues continue to occur.

Would you like to see more women undertaking the sort of research you do?

I think it’s important for young Canberran women to understand that there are vast opportunities out there for them if they are willing to work hard and strive for academic and professional success.

In Australia, more women than men achieve undergraduate degrees, but fewer women than men undertake postgraduate study. Globally, higher degree programs and academia are saturated with men. It’s a challenging path but I would like to show Canberran women that there are ways to access academia both within and outside Australia.

How scary was it to leave your hometown?

I took a huge risk in going to study in Norway; I quit my fantastic job as a judge’s associate and sold all my worldly belongings and relocated to a country I’d never even visited before. And it was absolutely the best thing I’ve done in my life.

Katherine Quinn and Liz with sled dogs in Tromso

Katherine (right) and a friend meet some sled dogs in Tromso, Norway.

What sparked your interest in the environment?

My mum and dad raised me to respect the natural world and care for the environment. Growing up I always had pictures of polar bears and orangutans stuck up around my room, and I have a collection of Greenpeace campaign badges from when I was a kid – they’re ‘vintage’ now! It’s hard to work in the environmental sector and not have it spill over into your home life.  For example, I am the biggest, most annoying recycler ever. My housemate often finds me fishing recyclable items out of the garbage bin and ‘sorting’ them appropriately.

I’m a vegetarian because I can’t deal with the guilt of eating meat when I know that meat production is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. And I’ve recently been learning about ways to cut down on food waste in my household, because food decomposing in landfill is also a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions!

Given the massive environmental problems humanity is going to face in the coming decades, I think every individual should be doing everything they can to reduce their environmental footprint.

How were those first few days in Norway – a totally foreign land?

It was incredibly scary but also unbelievably exciting.  It was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken – I gave up my lease, sold all my worldly goods and packed for cold weather. But when I first arrived in Oslo it was the end of summer, and the weather was about 25 degrees and sunny, so I felt like I was still in Australia! I later learnt that Oslo has about five days like this a year.

The hardest part was the middle of the Norwegian winter – in Oslo there are only about three hours of dim sunlight each day, and the sun just hovers above the horizon.  When snow arrives it brightens things a bit, but it was pretty tough spending Christmas away from my family, in the dark, with day time maximums of minus 18 degrees!

Reindeer on the road in Tromso, Norway.

Reindeer on the road in Tromso.

What will you be presenting at the colloquium?

My presentation is about potential ways of using World Trade Organisation (WTO) law to achieve environmental protection. Because there is no international environmental court to adjudicate and clearly set out the law in this area, international lawyers often look to other legal frameworks to try to achieve environmental goals or to track the development of the law.

International trade law develops quickly, and has a high level of compliance by countries, because most countries want to foster lucrative trade relationships with their neighbours. This means that the way environmental issues are treated in the WTO can be highly influential in the global order.

Do you ever regret leaving the path well-travelled (judge’s associate) for something less financially stable?

I think the well-traveled path for a judge’s associate is to move on to practicing as a solicitor, often staying within the same area of law and appearing in the court they used to work for. However the judge I worked for has seven degrees, including two PhDs; he has travelled a lot and studied in Rome and Washington D.C., so he has been a role model for me in pursuing a life of academia and adventure.

I always think of that Mary Oliver poem that says ‘what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?’. It’s important to take risks. No regrets.

What are your plans for the next year (or two!)?

There are a few options on the table for the future; I’d love to do a PhD, and I’m talking to a few universities about that, including the University of Oslo and a couple of universities in the UK. But I also like the idea of doing something a bit more hands on and making a contribution to my beloved home country. We’ll see where the wind blows me next!

What would you say to your younger self before you arrived at the ANU?

I’d tell myself to spend less time worrying about hipster boys in skinny jeans and more time studying. Hipster boys come and go; law degrees are forever.


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author