Member Spotlight: Sam Dawson

Our member in the spotlight this week is Sam Dawson. Sam is in the final throws of her PhD at UNSW and has been an office bearer in the Sydney chapter of SCB. Sam has taken some time to tell us about her research, working with conservation managers and working with an active SCB chapter.

SCBO: What has been the highlight of your research to date and what has been the most interesting thing that you have learned?

SD: I am currently finishing my PhD examining vegetation restoration in floodplain wetlands. The research has focused on the efficacy of flooding as a stand-alone restoration technique and the effect of land use legacies. We have found that flooding works best where there has been relatively little land-use, but longer land use duration leads to slower restoration rates and decreased chance of success. Increasing flooding frequencies, however, are associated with higher restoration success and could be used to counteract legacy effects. This is useful for both managing existing floodplain restoration projects (Macquarie Marshes, Lowbidgee, Tooralee, etc) and helping inform strategic purchases in the future.

SCBO: What was the personal highlight of your work?

SD: Absolutely getting to work so closely with wilderness managers. The National Parks Scientific Officer who is responsible for monitoring and management of my study site is one of my supervisors. Its been a huge help to have someone who knows the system so well, including all of the previous studies conducted and what troubles you come across in the field. Plus it is great to share data and ideas with the person responsible for management into the future. I also spent time with the previous farming property manager (who still manages the surrounding area) and some of the local community who are part of the Environmental Water Advisory Committee. It was a really great experience to have so many people around who were interested and involved in the study area.

SCBO: What do you see is the future of Australian Wetlands?

SD: I think a lot depends on what we as a society decide to value and protect. Admittedly, I am only really familiar with the wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin, so focussing on these, a lot of degradation is a result a few processes; conversion to agriculture, invasion of exotic species and river regulation (with associated diversions). Of the wetlands left, most are continuing to decline in health, largely due to continuing alteration of timing and amount of flooding. Studies have estimated the amount of water needed to either halt degradation or improve ecosystem health and current environmental flows are likely insufficient for both. So if we are going to preserve our floodplain wetlands into the future, we need to increase environmental flows and improve delivery. Yet any allocation of environmental water makes it unavailable for other users and not all of society agrees with this use of water (remember the protests surrounding the first draft of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan). So I think the future of these wetlands rests on whether we decide to use a limited resource for wetland health or agriculture, the former would conserve these wetlands for the future, whereas the latter will produce smaller wetlands of poorer health and risk ecosystem collapse, similar to the Coorong Lakes in the Millennium Drought.

SCBO: You were on the Board of the Sydney chapter of the Society during your PhD, can you tell us about your experience and how you fit everything in?

SD: It was a bit of a juggling act at times. The main thing was to know (and say) when you had time to help out and when you didn’t. The other people on the board were great in this respect, everyone was busy but at different times. It is really easy to get caught up in exterior projects when you are doing you PhD and a bit of this is good, but you just have to know your work and your project and make a call on when you can fit things in. But the opportunities being so closely involved in the chapter made the extra effort well worth it, I met so many more people in conservation and have built a strong network of friends and professionals in this region through the society and specifically the chapter.

Where do you see yourself going next? What’s your dream job?

I am really enjoying applied research and would love to continue in it. There are so many unanswered questions out there and a lot more research needs to be done before we can fully understand restoration processes and outcomes of actions. This might include continuing in academia but I would also really enjoy working as a scientist in managing bodies or NGOs. The key for me is working in the applied arena, especially in projects that help bridge the science/policy gap, which is critical in managing the growing number of conservation issues.

Thanks Sam! If you know someone who should be featured in our member spotlight, or have questions to ask, please get in touch!