Taking the plunge
She gets claustrophobic taking off a jumper, but 25-year-old science graduate Andrea Gordon has no qualms about plunging the depths of the ocean and exploring long, submerged cave systems.
On most weekends the PhD candidate in Pharmacology can be found scuba diving in local Adelaide reefs or exploring the spectacular water-filled sinkholes and caves around Mt Gambier in South Australia.
"It's a totally different world down there and cave diving provides a great outlet for my PhD studies, which are very intense," Andrea said.
Now in the final stages of her PhD, studying the effects of drug dependency on newborn babies, Andrea is conscious of the need for balance in her life.
"I'm passionate about my studies but I'm also a great believer in extracurricular activities. The University of Adelaide has given me opportunities to excel in both."
Penetration cave diving is one of the most challenging and potentially dangerous sports in the world. Comprehensive training is required, in which specialised scuba equipment is used to explore water-filled cave passages.
Andrea first took the plunge in 2001 when her partner gave her a Learn To Dive course for a birthday present. She joined the Adelaide University Scuba Diving Club, a decision which she acknowledges as being critical to her success in the sport.
In a relatively short time, Andrea has progressed through the four levels offered by the Cave Divers Association of Australia: cavern, sinkhole, cave and penetration.
At 25, she is the youngest woman in Australia to hold a deep cave penetration certificate. This allows her to dive in some of the most inaccessible and spectacular caves in the country, many with several kilometres of underwater passages.
In 2005, Andrea took her first trip out to Cocklebiddy Cave, located under the Nullarbor Plain. This is Australia's longest underwater cave--and one of the world's--offering 6.7 kilometres of scuba diving. Over the years many scuba divers have attempted to set world records for penetration in this cave.
The speleological wonders of the Nullarbor are extensive: pure white rocks, crystal clear water, vast limestone caverns, rockfalls and saline subterranean lakes that extend for several hundred metres.
"It's hard to describe, but the word spectacular comes to mind," Andrea said.
In 2006 Andrea also secured a $1000 Sports Scholarship, courtesy of the Adelaide University Sports Association (AUSA). This has funded a second cave diving expedition to the Nullarbor.
On the academic side, Andrea was due to complete her thesis in late 2006. She has spent the last few years studying withdrawal symptoms in babies born to drug-dependent mothers.
"For the past 30 years methadone has been used during pregnancy to stop women from using heroin. A new drug --buprenorphine--is now being trialled as a treatment for heroin dependence during pregnancy," Andrea said.
"Buprenorphine has not been approved for opioid-dependent pregnant women and I'm studying whether it has any harmful effects. A few trials have been done in the world, but mine is the first to compare buprenorphine to a controlled population.
"About 120 drug-exposed infants are born in South Australia each year. The majority are opioid-related and many suffer terrible withdrawal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea.
"If these symptoms are not picked up early, there is a great risk of these drug-dependent babies dying due to excessive fluid loss. Also, there is evidence that methadone-exposed infants often experience cognitive deficits later in life, including attention and learning problems.
"There are some initial test results that suggest buprenorphine does help minimise drug withdrawal symptoms in babies, but a lot more research needs to be done," Andrea said. ■
Story Candy Gibson