What Dirt Can You Dig Up From the Past?

We’re digging deep into the secrets of the environment this week, with Emilie Dotte-Sarout who is an archaeobotanist. She lets us in on some of the stories she’s discovered, including tales of the people science forgot.

Particle Podcast is about science and the people who just love it. It’s produced and presented by Rose Kerr (@rosie.zkerr). Particle is powered by Scitech, and you can whisper your secrets to us at @ParticleWA on Twitter and Instagram.


What can you dig up from the past?

  • Host: Rose Kerr
  • Guest: Emilie Dotte

Rose Kerr – Particle would like to acknowledge and pay respects to the Traditional Owners of this land we record on, the Whadjuk people. We also acknowledge the role of Aboriginal people as the first scientists in Australia.

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Rose Kerr – Welcome to the Particle Podcast where we talk about science and the people who just love it. I’m your host, Rose Kerr, and this season, we’re talking all things environmental. Today I’m joined by archeobotanist, Emilie Dotte. She stopped by to chat about uncovering the secrets of environments past. What do you actually do?

Emilie Dotte – I’m an archaeologist. And I’m a specific kind of archaeologist, because I’m an archeobotanist, looking at botanical remains that we find when we do excavations in archaeological sites. And archaeological sites, of course, are places where people used to live in the past.

Rose Kerr – And when you look at a botanical sample, from an archaeological perspective, what do those samples or fossils actually look like?

Emilie Dotte – So they are not very impressive, because most of the time, they are pieces of wood charcoal that can be quite small, or they’re fragments of seeds. More rarely fruits. Sometimes we actually have the entire ones, but it’s very rare. And very often they are charred, that’s why they’ve been preserved. So it’s very rare to find desiccated or waterlogged remains, which are actually looking more like what you see every day.

Rose Kerr – Is it rare to find those kinds of samples because normally organic matter breaks down?

Emilie Dotte – It is rare, unless it’s charred. So charcoal is actually one of the most widespread type of remains that you’ll find in archaeological sites. Also, because people make fire they will they’ve been making fire since before we were humans actually, even before our own species. So yeah, everywhere there was human people there were fire. So you always almost always have wood charcoal.

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Rose Kerr – How do you get to become an archeobotanist?

Emilie Dotte – I first wanted to be an archaeologist. But then when I started learning at university about the different things that you can do, as an archaeologist, I became really interested in the questions around the past relationship between humans and our environment. And and then to be able to answer this question, you need to look at the actual remains from the environment. So you can either become a zooarchaeologist, for example, looking at bone remains from animals, or plant remains basically. There are other options, but these are the two widest ones. And I became really fascinated by botanical remains and how you can identify them, look at them under the microscope. And what that means in terms of how people use the plants.

Rose Kerr – Yeah. Has the relationship between people and the environment changed a lot over time?

Emilie Dotte – Yeah, I guess the moment when it became really when it changed a lot was first when people started manipulating plants, but also there’s not just the plant, but the forest themselves. And that led to what we call domestication, and then agriculture. So that was the first step. And then more recently, during the Industrial period in the 19th century, we really accelerated the way that we were impacting these plant environments around us. And so yeah, the acceleration really happened in 200 last years, I guess?

Rose Kerr – And what kind of evidence is there for those changes? How can you tell?

Emilie Dotte – Well, so there are lots of different evidence, but in terms of plants, just looking at these remains that we find in archaeological sites and identifying the plants, that gives us an idea of the type of vegetation that was growing around. And then we can link that to the time, the period of occupation and the type of activities that people were conducting. So for example, when if we look at hunter gatherers, we’ll be looking at the hearth remains from everyday fires, and sometimes from their cooking as well. But by looking at the remains, we have an idea of the forest that people were visiting together, this would, for example, or gather the seeds that were using. And we can see how that changed through times. But then also, if we’re looking at industrial sites, and for example, metal prediction sites and the type of wood that we’re using to create the heating process for the metal, for example, in south southeast Asia or in Europe. We also have a way of reconstructing this forest and we can see how they started losing in terms of diversity of the taxa that were present. And also we can recognize the size of the wood that was being burned. So that also gives us an idea of what people were using and how they were managing this wood resources. But then, if it’s only one type of remainder it doesn’t mean a lot. So you need to cross that with other type of botanical remains like pollen for example. But also, as I was saying, bird remains, and sediments, and paleoclimatic type of reconstruction. And when you put all of that together, that’s how you can tell the story of how people were interacting with our environment.

Rose Kerr – It’s like collecting lots of different clues.

Emilie Dotte – Yes.

Rose Kerr – Is it challenging to identify different plant species from archaeological remains?

Emilie Dotte – Yes, but there have been techniques that have been developed. So what you need first of all, is a very good reference collection. So that means for example, I’ve been when I started working in the Pacific, and in Australia, there wasn’t a lot of people who had been doing my special kind of speciality in archeobotany which is wood charcoal. So I first had to go in the forest basically and collect wood samples with botanists who could tell me who were the living trees, because I know dead plants, but I don’t know living plants that well. (laughs) So I would cut some wood sample from each of these trees, and then burn them myself. So that I could look at them under microscope and see what they look like after they’ve been burned, and what type of anatomical features they have. Describe them. And then when I have my archaeological charcoal, I can compare them with what I have in my reference collection. And it’s almost like if you look at people in a room, and you can recognize faces, and that’s how it works with wood charcoal. But you can do it in a very quantitative way, by just describing the anatomy, the vessels and the rays and these kind of things.

Rose Kerr – That’s fascinating. So you almost have to do your own experiments.

Rose Kerr – To find out stuff that already is there.

Emilie Dotte – Yes. Yeah.

Rose Kerr – So cool.

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Rose Kerr – What’s the role of arts in your job?

Emilie Dotte – Well, I guess we, in archaeology, we are part of social science, because we’re looking at societies, but we’re also part of arts because all these questions that we are investigating, ultimately, kind of go in the direction of, you know, big questions and reflection about what it is to be human, and how you interact with the world around you and with other people. And, and there are different ways of answering and looking at these questions. And you can do it through different form of arts as well as science. And, and with archaeology, for example, we start with some very scientific quantitative data. But then once you have all this information about the plants, for example, that people were there, you have to tell a story. And that’s probably when you start getting into the arts kind of thing. Because if you just expose, you know, table with your results, it’s not gonna have a big impact. You need to use that to tell a story about how past and so you have to make an interpretation at some point.

Rose Kerr – Do you feel like you know a lot about humans?

Emilie Dotte – I feel like, I know, what could be considered a lot, but in comparison to everything we don’t know. Yeah, it’s it’s still very small, like, and especially archaeology, because it’s I always say it’s a bit like a big puzzle, where you have only a few of the pieces of the puzzles, and a lot of them are missing. And you have to create your understanding of the story of the past with only these little pieces. And sometimes new pieces will come and it will change the whole story. But that’s what is exciting, I guess, about it.

Rose Kerr – Does that happen often, that the whole story changes?

Emilie Dotte – I don’t think it happens that often. But it does happen, you know, in every generation of archaeologists. So that’s probably fairly often in itself.

Rose Kerr – It’s kind of exciting.

Emilie Dotte – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Keeps it keeps it fresh.

Emilie Dotte – Yes.

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Rose Kerr – I’ve read a little bit about your Pacific Matildas project. Could you explain that to us a little bit more?

Emilie Dotte – Yes. So it’s a new project. And it’s another side of my research, which is not about applying archaeology, but about understanding our discipline, by understanding its history. And so how archaeology developed as a western science, especially how it was applied in the Pacific and Australia. And so I’ve been working on this for the past five years. And by working on this project, it became very evident that it was a lot more difficult to find information about the first women who were archaeologist or before you called them archaeologists. So I thought we really needed to develop a specific project to spend time, first of all looking for these women in the archives, and then also how to tell their stories, because actually, some of these women are present in the archives. It’s not even that they’re not represented in the historical documents. But their stories kind of became erased of the narratives that we tell each other about the way that our discipline developed. And there are lots of reasons for that, not just the fact that, you know, we like to forget women, it’s also because they had less rights, for example. So it was harder for them to access diplomas and to access actual positions, professional positions, or to sign for example, as authors on works that they have been doing with their husbands very often. And so that means that the generation after them would quickly forget their contribution, even though a lot of them were quite well recognized by their colleagues, and all the male colleagues who had a better reputation. They would all recognize the work done by these women collaborators, but it’s after that they kind of disappeared from the narratives.

Rose Kerr – Why do you think it’s important that we recognize them now?

Emilie Dotte – Well, because they played a role in the development of our science, and they had an influence on the way that we’re working today. But also, as today, for example, I became an archaeologist. And today there are a lot more women than men as students in archaeology, which is an interesting change of demographic, but you don’t have any role model of women in the past, because all the names that we keep learning about are all these important men in our history. So you need to also have, I think this story is about what you know women did and how they managed to do it, or how it was, you know, they had to go through some specific struggles. And also, by looking at these kind of, you know, hidden figures, it directly brings you to also the role of hidden Indigenous collaborators, who were, you know, very often experts in their communities about the past of these communities. So it also brings you to other type of fears that also needs to be represented again, in these stories.

Rose Kerr – Yeah. And hopefully, I imagine by going back and recognizing those people, we can encourage the same kind of balance now.

Emilie Dotte – Yes, of course, it will yeah hopefully have an impact on having a more equitable type of development and relationships in the science that we do today, especially in you know, regions like Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Rose Kerr – How do you think we can get more diversity in science?

Emilie Dotte – Well, first of all, by having these type of stories with a more diverse type of role models, but then also, using these stories to, I guess, understand what worked and what didn’t work, and how we can try to develop better dynamics and change the way that we consider science to be done. And with more discussion, basically, with different kinds of people involved in the work and the communities that you work with, for example.

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Rose Kerr – Who were you before you did this research?

Emilie Dotte – Before I did the research on the Pacific Matildas?

Rose Kerr – Before you even started working as a researcher.

Emilie Dotte – So first, I was a New Caledonian child. So I grew up on the island of New Caledonia.

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Rose Kerr – Popping into your ears just for a moment. Emilie is from New Caledonia. It’s a French territory made up of little islands in the Pacific Ocean. It’s roughly between Fiji and the coast of Queensland.

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Emilie Dotte – And then I was a student in I didn’t start by archaeology. I started by history and cultural anthropology. And then I went into archaeology. But interestingly enough, when I was a child, I wanted to be an archaeologist. So it was really like, kind of coming back to where I wanted to be, I guess.

Rose Kerr – Yeah. Do you remember the moment of inspiration where you were like, “yes, I’m definitely going to do archaeology. That’s what I’m going to focus on.”?

Emilie Dotte – I guess there were two moments. There was the moment when I participated in field work. Just after I finished high school. I went to see the archaeologist who was working in New Caledonia at the time, Christophe Sand and he really nicely he invited me to join the next field work he was gonna do, and that was a fantastic experience. But even after that, I was like, “I really want to do that, but I don’t want to close any door by becoming specialized, so I’m going to start by studying history because it’s larger, and do these kind of things.” But then, after three years at university, I was invited by Christophe Sand, again, who was really important in my decisions to attend a conference that he was organizing in New Caledonia, where there was a lot of archaeologists working from Australia, and the US and France, all these different really highly recognized specialists who came to present their research. And that was a fantastic experience. And I was like, “Okay, this time, I’m gonna go back to Paris,” because I had to go to France.

Rose Kerr – Wow.

Emilie Dotte – To go to university so I am going back to Paris, and I’m doing archaeology of the Pacific. You know, like very specifically.

Rose Kerr – Ready to be specialized.

Emilie Dotte – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – What is an unrelated skill that you’ve learned through your research? Or an unexpected skill maybe.

Emilie Dotte – An unexpected skill? I know how (laughs) I know how to sieve very well. (laughs) Which, I didn’t know before. You kind of also learned how to, you know, leave with the least you can when you have to camp on an island for several days. But I kind of knew that before because of my parents. So maybe, it wasn’t that unexpected.

Rose Kerr – Why did you know because of your parents?

Emilie Dotte – Oh because my parents were very outdoorsy kind of people. So I already had this experience. And that’s actually one of the aspects I really liked in archaeology that you could have these very nerds kind of side with all the books and the libraries and the lab, but then you also had all these outdoor dirty, you know, things adventures. So you had these two sides.

Rose Kerr – What is fieldwork in archaeology like? Do you go out with like, a little spade and dig around? Like, what what is it like?

Emilie Dotte – It depends on the type of sites that you’re working on. Because there’s a wide variety. So there is the adventurous type, where you have to work for several days to find a site, in the jungle, in the mountains. And there is the site where you have to excavate very carefully with your little brush, when you have buttons, for example. But then there is also the site where you have like big structures, and so you have to use a lot of muscle force. And, you know, basically destroy everything that’s around (laughs). Not the archaeological remains, you know, the earth around and these kind of things. So there are a lot of different aspects to the field work. Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Did you ever expect your research to take you so far across the world?

Emilie Dotte – Um, I think I hoped for it. Yes, because I knew that I had to go to France, first of all, to go to university to study archaeology. So that was one first move internationally that I wanted to do. And then, by working in the Pacific, I knew that I was going to have to travel to some of the islands, of course, to work in the field. And I also wanted to be able to work with Australia, because I knew that some of the best centres in Pacific studies are in Australia. So I hoped it would help me to see all these different places. And it has. So I’m very lucky for that. And it’s been really fantastic. And I hope I can do even more, of course.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, absolutely. Is that quite a commonly held thing that people like about studying archaeology? Is that usually what people aim to do?

Emilie Dotte – I think so. But it depends what also you you decide to do. So if you’re in Australia, and and you become really interested in the archaeology of Australia, you’ll be traveling a lot in Australia. Then you have conferences that can, you know, make your travel around the world. But it’s yeah, it depends what kind of field you start getting interested into. And then also, working for a community that you live in, can also be very rewarding. And so I’m now in Australia, because of life events, but also because Australia was really good for Pacific studies. And it provided a really good intellectual context for me to work but also, just socially, like I like living in Australia, much more than in France as someone who grew up in the Pacific. So there is also this kind of thing, but I often think maybe also because I’m starting to grow older, that it would be even more meaningful for me to live in one of the Pacific islands where I work. And to have maybe less of, you know, an academic publication record, but more of a community relationship in the project I do and and in presenting my results, for example. So you can also have a very local career, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be as meaningful or impactful, I think.

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Rose Kerr – We’re gonna jump across to some questions. They’re a little bit a little bit light hearted, just some silly questions. What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever uncovered?

Emilie Dotte – The weirdest thing I’ve ever uncovered. Maybe it’s insect remains.

Rose Kerr – oooh, what’s an insect remain look like?

Emilie Dotte – So you’ll you’ll find like just a part of an insect body, for example. So when you’re excavating, you won’t be able to find it, it would be in the sediment that we keep. So when we’re excavating, we always keep all the sediment, and then we sieve the sediment, or we float it. And this is when you start finding really weird stuff, actually. And sometimes you would find, like, you know, half the parts of an ant, for example, which is actually not from the present day, but an ancient ant, and they can be very interesting, because they can tell you the type of insect that we’re living at this time. And so the type of environment that was surrounding the site at this time, but that can be a bit strange to find. Yeah, that’s not what you’re looking for.

Rose Kerr – How do you know that it’s insect remains, and not just like a piece of dirt?

Emilie Dotte – Yes. So that’s the one of the one of the part of the job after the excavation is going back in the lab and looking at everything that was in your sediment. And so even though you’ve been sieving everything, then you have to sit for long hours at the lab, and then just sort to everything.

Rose Kerr – Wow.

Emilie Dotte – So you’ve got little remains of plants, little remains of burns, little remains of little tools that have been, you know, broken down really small. All kinds of sediment things. And you’ll have insect remains also that I think for a long time, were not were just being discarded.

Rose Kerr – Yeah.

Emilie Dotte – But then some specialists with the proper background, started saying you need to actually look at that, because it’s going to tell you a lot of things about, you know, your site and the environment. And some of these are not, you know, modern infiltrations. But they are actually archaeological remains as well.

Rose Kerr – That’s exciting.

Emilie Dotte – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – What kind of non scientists do you work with?

Emilie Dotte – Non scientists? Well, first of all, we always work with the communities. And a lot of these people are not scientists, even though as I said before, a number of these people are experts in local terms in terms of their history, or their environment. I also have to work with a lot with people who know a lot about plants. When I do the reference collection, for example. We also try to work with artists, I mean, real artists not like me, I think, for example, some of the most exciting things that I’m kind of envisioning for the best way of disseminating the results of my research is working with people who can draw and write cartoons.

Rose Kerr – Yeah.

Emilie Dotte – Because I think it’s a really fantastic and exciting way to expose your research. So working with this type of creative people is is really exciting. I think.

Rose Kerr – I can totally imagine that.

Emilie Dotte – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – If you could time travel to any time, when would you go?

Emilie Dotte – I think I would go back 3000 years ago, when the first people who entered the part of the Pacific, which is called remote Oceania, sailed to the islands of the Western Pacific. So there is a specific type of material cultures that has been associated to these time periods, which is called lapita culture. And they created, for example, really beautiful boats with very beautiful, interesting decorations. And we find them in the islands as the first layer of human presence. And we know that these people were incredible sailors because they they were the first to do like long distance sailing anywhere in the world. And so they went and they explored the Western Pacific and all these islands and then after them, all the descendant went to Polynesia. So I would go back to 3000 years ago, be one of these lapita people in on the boats arriving in New Caledonia and discovering this island for the first time.

Rose Kerr – Oh, it would have been so exciting!

Emilie Dotte – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Is it ever? I guess maybe sad is not the right word. But it is ever kind of humbling to see remains of people who lived so long ago? What’s that like?

Emilie Dotte – Yes. So I haven’t worked on a lot of sites with human remains. But it’s always something very special to find human bones. And sometimes there are children’s bones as well, which really, I don’t know why, but it kind of brings even more humanity into you. Because suddenly you realize it’s “Yes, they were real people with real lives.”

Rose Kerr – Yeah.

Emilie Dotte – And so for example, a child was dead. And you don’t really know why until all the studies are done. So it’s, it’s very emotional, I think, to find that. And also, today, we’re a lot better at dealing with much more respect and dignity, with this type of remains. And as soon as you find human remains, you stop the excavation and talk with the community, and how they want us to work with the remains. Do they want us to stop the excavation or continue but leave the bones in place? Or are they interested by what we can tell with all the modern DNA and that is a sort of that type of analysis that we can do and take a little bone and then bring it back. And so everything that happens with that is also really humbling and interesting in terms of human relations.

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Rose Kerr – What’s something interesting about archeobiology, in Oceania specifically?

Emilie Dotte – What I find exciting, because I like the botanical type of remains is the story that we are discovering about the way that people were managing forests and trees in particular, and the importance of trees in Pacific societies throughout history. And so how they moved some trees with them from one island to the other. So the breadfruit, for example, has been moved from Papua New Guinea all the way to all of the Pacific Islands. Because it was a very important staple for people. But also, another species, which is called the caudalie came from Southeast Asia. And people introduced it to Papua New Guinea and then all the Pacific Islands, but for ceremonial reasons. So a lot of the trees are important for food as resources or timber, but also as symbolic representation, and they are planted in specific ways in habitation site or ritual sites. So then that means that trees and the forests become gardens, not just there in terms of agriculture, but also in terms of creating cultural landscapes, and sometimes temples that are vegetal temples. And I really love this, this interaction that people in the Pacific had created with the trees around them.

Rose Kerr – Yeah. That’s so exciting. Can you see some of the effects of that today, if you were walking around and exploring?

Emilie Dotte – Yes. So every time in New Caledonia, when you walk in the forest, there are some specific trees, if you see them, you know that there’s going to be an archaeological site, right under. In Polynesia, every temple remains that still remains today are always associated with one or two types of specific trees. And so these trees are very old, and themselves have regrown, from the seeds of the first tree that was planted there and by the people. So it’s a very specific connection between, you know, the first people, these trees and the actual temples that was being built there. So yes, they’re totally, the trees are totally information in terms of human presence in the landscape.

Rose Kerr – What can learning about the environment through archaeology teach us about the future?

Emilie Dotte – Hmm. Well, I think it can teach us a lot. Because it can help us understand mistakes that have been done, and that we don’t want to do again. So typically, any stories about deforestation is the kind of really bad example you don’t want to follow again, but also, you know, examples of things that people have been doing properly, and that we would like to keep doing. So if I think about the Pacific, for example, people have learned to use the diversity that exists. So there is a very high botanical diversity in terms of taxa that are present, and they’ve learned to cultivate this diversity. And that’s why for Europeans arriving in the Pacific in the 18th century, they thought everything was a jungle and a native forest, but now that we understand better, and that we’ve been able to listen more to indigenous people as well, we realize that a lot of these wild forest are totally cultivated gardens. But they’ve been doing that by using diversity and cultivating this diversity. That, you know, is the way that tropical forest work. And that’s how they produce the best. So that’s a very good and important example for us to follow. I think, for example.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, that’s fascinating.

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Rose Kerr – How do people normally react when you tell them that you work in archeobotany?

Emilie Dotte – Well, archeobotany is always a bit of a questions. So they don’t really understand if I’m doing, you know, botanical studies, or archaeological things. And archaeology is very often confused with palaeontology as well. So dinosaurs and these kind of things. And then a lot of people tell me, I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a child.

Rose Kerr – Do you say why didn’t you?

Emilie Dotte – Yes, sometimes? I mean, if I have time to talk with the person, I ask this question. And I, and I try to tell them, you know, you can still be an archaeologist, because you can still go back to university and do that. And we have a number of students in archaeology, who are mature age students. And sometimes they’re actually really good because they bring with them their experience from you know, their previous life, that they can apply as specific skills. And also they see things differently. And they have different questions that they want to investigate. So it’s, it’s also very good to go back, you know, after a while, into your first love.

Rose Kerr – I agree. What are some of the misconceptions you think people might have about your role or your research?

Emilie Dotte – So first of all, I think there is this general idea, you know, that you look at the past, and archaeology and palaeontology are the same thing. So all of the past is kind of put together in one same period. So that’s one thing. I think there is a lot of treasure hunting as well. Indiana Jones, yeah. Yes, this kind of cliché ideas. And some people still tell me, I mean, they’re still surprised that we can do archaeology in Australia or in the Pacific. They think there is no thing to find. So you have to do a bit of explanation around the fact, you know, that people have have been in Australia for 60,000 years, and there is a lot of archaeology, Aboriginal archaeology going on, and in the Pacific Islands as well. And, and it’s not just small remains, but actually sometimes really impressive, you know, big temples that you can also find. So maybe there is a lack of knowledge about the past, basically, in the region.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, absolutely. And to finish up with, I would love to know, your favourite fun facts that you’ve learned in your research.

Emilie Dotte – Well, there was one fact that made me, you know, had a little bit of an ironic laugh a little while ago, which is not about the Pacific specifically, but archaeology in general and Europe. And they did all these very expensive DNA studies about own human remains found in Europe, when there was the first movement of agriculturalists, coming into Europe, and they realize that women were moving a lot more than men. And so that women were the one marrying really far away from their original families, and so that they were probably the one who were who did this advance of the front of Indo-European languages, and also agricultural knowledge. So it kind of come back to the Pacific Matildas and all the gender bias, I guess, with suddenly changing the image of you know, these people entering with all the knowledge that we are, we inherited as a descendant of Indo-Europeans. And it was all these women being married to distant families, who actually introduced all of these ideas (laughs).

Rose Kerr – Women deserve more credit. Absolutely deserve more credit. Well, thank you so much for joining us today.

Emilie Dotte – Thank you.

**Cue music (conclusion theme).

Rose Kerr – Thanks for listening to the Particle Podcast. You can find more of our content on all of the socials as well as at Particle’s powered by Scitech and everything we make is made in the wonderful science hub of Western Australia on Whadjuk country.


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