The annual conference of the New Zealand Ecological Society was combined with the conference of the Ecological Society of Australia for 2017 in a 5 day conference based on ‘Ecology in Action’. The conference was convened at the Cypress Lakes Resort near Pokolbin, New South Wales, Australia. Overseas conferences can be difficult for students, like me, to get to, but the New Zealand Ecological Society has a strong tradition of helping students and awarded me a travel grant to help with costs. The Biological Heritage National Science Challenge also made a major contribution to the cost of getting me there.
This conference was the first opportunity that I have had to present my research at an international conference, and that is an exciting milestone for any budding scientist. I was fortunate to be scheduled in the first session on the first day (while energy/attention span/enthusiasm levels are still at a high for conference participants). Nervous doesn’t being to describe it, but feedback was extremely positive. It was a great honour to be recognised with the New Zealand Journal of Ecology award for the best student presentation.
There was an inspiring lineup of presenters at the NZES/ESA Conference whose research and ideas have since shaped my own. Here are just a few highlights:
Professor Sue Hartley, Director of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute – Food security is a major issue that is getting worse, but putting ecology to work we can find solutions that will save millions of lives. She said “Get stuck in. Put ecology to work! We can do this.” Her optimism and drive to solve some huge issues was inspiring.
Dr Manu Saunders, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of New England – Ecosystem services should not only be measured on an economic basis – a holistic approach is needed.
Dr Sjerk Geerts, Cape Peninsula University of Technology – This research interested me because the output was more than simply supplying a report or producing a publication, it was putting a solution in action. The problem was the break-down of a pollination mutualism between a sunbird and the candelabra flower. The issue was fragmentation of natural areas, preventing sunbird movement into urbanised areas. They engaged the community for solution by utilising schools to undertake planting, creating a corridor of available nectar producing plants to link up natural areas to urban green spaces that were previously fragmented. This was more than a conservation effort, it was a meaningful educational tool to teach plant ID and planting practices to students and to help them engage with nature.
Dr Martin Westgate, Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University – With 5000 articles being published per day (1 every 0.15 seconds) the tradditional approach to a systematic review is becoming unrealistic. You just can’t read that fast! Dr Westgate presented his research and development of a technological solution that can save up to 97% of your time over doing a manual systematic review.
Dr Steve Morton, Honorary Professorial Fellow, Charles Darwin University – After receiving the ESA Gold Medal, Dr Morton presented a thought-provoking review of life lessons from his career of research. He urged for careful, rigorous methodical thinking; treating everyone well and humanely; and remembering that science is fun! He reflected that once you begin acknowledging your debt you realise how deep the debt goes. This was a truly genuine expression of gratitude for those who had had a part in his life as a researcher. “Cherish the people around you.”
Dr Jamie Ataria, Co-Deputy Director Centre of Research Excellence – Engagement with indigenous can be complex, but the key to walking on water is knowing where the rocks are. Dr Ataria explained how engagement involves two parties just like a marriage, however, in the New Zealand case study it seems that one treaty partner knows a lot more about its partner than the other. The solution is not in creating specific few experts, but is in generally spreading awareness and empathy.
Putting ecology into action works better when you have real involvement from indigenous people – those who have had a relationship with the land for centuries past. This was a theme of the conference that was shared in presentations, and solidified in a fieldtrip. Elders from the Wonnarua Aboriginal Tribe came with us on a journey to visit a site of spiritual significance to the Wonnarua people. In the middle of an agricultural matrix, weathered out of the rocky hillside is a cave that once was a place of teaching, learning and enlightenment for the Wonnarua people. The cave contains drawings dated over 10,000 years back that depict Baiame, the maker of all things, with his long arms outstretched to show the vastness of his creations. The current landowners, though not of Aboriginal descent, became one of the first in Australia to voluntarily put a protection on part of their land to make this sacred site accessible now and for future generations.
The landscape of New South Wales, Australia has changed significantly since Baiame was first painted on that cave – with deep open-cast coal mines scarring the landscape, and agriculture and urbanisation increasing. But ‘Ecology in Action’ is about taking the understanding that we have grown about the natural world and using it to make the world a better place. After the 2017 NZES/ESA conference I have more optimism. “Get stuck in. Put ecology to work! We can do this.”