An Appreciation and Farewell to Dr Killian Quigley

SEI’s founding Co-Director, Professor Iain McCalman and Director Professor David Schlosberg reflect on the research and impact of the Institute’s first Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Killian Quigley, as his three-year post comes to an end.

This month, SEI says goodbye to Dr Killian Quigley, who will forever hold the title of our very first Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Killian is off to a new research post after three and a half years of incredibly productive and impactful work with and for SEI, in particular in the development of our focus on oceans humanities and interdisciplinary oceans studies – including innovative work on ‘the underwater turn’ in the field, and in the burgeoning area of humanities research on sea-level rise in particular. One of the inspiring things about Killian’s work has been his illustration of the complex affinities between beauty and biodiversity across a wide range of arts, humanities, and science projects.

The problem with celebrating Killian’s achievements as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at SEI from mid-2017 until now is that he has done so much. We had to confine ourselves to a few highlights because we would otherwise quickly exhaust our article word-limit. We in the SEI pride ourselves in our capacity to cross disciplines, but Killian has taken this to enviable new levels in his work.

Killian Quigley speaking at the Sydney Science Festival event, Jellyfish Behaving Badly, 14 August 2018

SEI’s founding Co-Director, Professor Iain McCalman, first met Killian Quigley in 2014 at the coal-ravaged port of Gladstone on the Great Barrier Reef when he, then a PhD candidate in English at Vanderbilt University, accompanied Iain on a joint US and Australian Underwater Worlds Project. This took them to Heron Island and then by seaplane to land in the lagoon of Sydney University’s Marine Research centre on the ravishing coral atoll of One Tree Island.

Killian’s mission, as he wrote in a later SEI article, was to study ‘the ways that ideas about aesthetics and science interact—sometimes in harmony, sometimes at odds, always in dazzling complicated choreographies– to trace the things and lives that we call nature.’ He has fulfilled this mission in brilliant and multiple ways ever since. Before the end of their life-changing undersea experiences on One Tree Island, Iain realized that he had met someone of exceptional talent — a poet, a philosopher, a literary critic, an environmentalist, a cultural theorist, and a historian. In Killian Quigley, all the rich facets of the environmental humanities are integrated within a single person.

This impression was compounded when the two met again later that year at an international conference hosted by Stanford University to explore how undersea environments had been represented and imagined within Western science and arts since the Enlightenment. Here Killian delivered a paper in his glorious Irish-American brogue on ‘Art and Science in the Rococo Undersea.’ The fruits of this conference were published in a Routledge book of 2019 under the title of The Aesthetics of the Undersea, edited by Dr Quigley and Professor Margaret Cohen of Stanford.

In between that conference and the publication of the book, Killian joined the SEI as a Postdoctoral Researcher – a new position for the Institute. Since then, he has set a standard of scholarship, connectivity, innovation, and productivity that is an inspiration to our postdocs and early career researchers.

“His dedication to the relationship between ocean humanities and marine science has been a key link across disciplines, illustrated most poignantly in the work with geologist Jody Webster on producing a coral-core history of the Great Barrier Reef.”

One of his key accomplishments has been Killian’s role in confirming the place of the Sydney Environment Institute on the broader planetary map of environmental humanities research, and in particular around ocean studies and the ‘blue humanities’. He has done this in large part through his work co-convening and co-organising a large suite of ambitious interdisciplinary projects and programs – across campus, across Australia, and across the globe.

Killian’s work on our Environment in Practice: Artmaking through Crisis series, and on a range of work on the theme of Unsettling Ecological Poetics, has been crucial to the broader engagement of SEI in the environmental humanities. And his dedication to the relationship between ocean humanities and marine science has been a key link across disciplines, illustrated most poignantly in the work with geologist Jody Webster on producing a coral-core history of the Great Barrier Reef.

Between his extensive array of public lectures – from Sydney Ideas to the Sydney Science Festival to Manchester, Davis, UCL, Berkeley, and Stanford – along with SEI articles and other public writings, Killian has committed himself to communicating both his own work and the mission of SEI in the public sphere. This engagement has generated a host of exciting connections, from invited consultations with maritime writings around the world to new research collaborations with SEI and other scholars. This collaborative engagement has set the standard for postdoctoral fellows to follow.

In addition, Killian has also been a key part of our central mission to mentor other early career researchers. He organized and led the Reading Environments Collective, providing a welcoming space for the broad exploration of environmental humanities. In addition, he has been a resource for students who have needed help (and affirmation) cultivating and advocating for their work at and beyond the (sclerotic) bounds of certain departments and faculties – from undergraduates and Honours students, through to PhDs and researchers, Killian has been a supportive mentor on everything from theory to fieldwork to building collaborations.

All of us at SEI look forward to continuing collaborations with Killian from his new perch at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at ACU Melbourne, and await publication of the major work he is currently revising, Barren Beach and Boundless Ocean: Marine Poetics and the Modern.  He and it are destined to make a mighty splash. Many thanks for an incredibly engaged, productive, and inspiring 3+ years, Dr Quigley.

Killian will present the Inaugural Postdoctoral Fellowship Lecture on 1 December, with his talk ‘An Encrusting Ocean’. Register for the event here.