Paradise found

How three reserves are offering unique opportunities at the University of the Sunshine Coast

By Robert Burgin

Do you dream of living in an idyllic location? Want to study amidst immense biodiversity? Harbour ambitions of learning from some of the best in the business, and making a global impact?

The University of the Sunshine Coast has the fortune to be placed within the only stretch of three sequential UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in the world.

This fact positions UniSC – both geographically and academically – to provide an unrivaled education experience.

"Biosphere Reserves are intended to serve as places in which ... new knowledge about the relationship between people and nature is generated. Universities and other research organisations have a crucial role to play - UNESCO

“We’re unique. No other university offers what we have,” UniSC Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Helen Bartlett, says.

“In addition to the three UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and UNESCO World Heritage listed K’gari (Fraser Island), our academic programs offer connections to Moreton Bay Marine Parks and Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital.

“We are very fortunate to have a close working relationship with the Butchulla people, the traditional owners of K’gari and the Fraser Coast region, who have occupied and cared for these lands for tens-of-thousands of years," Professor Bartlett said.

“If a student or researcher is interested in sustainability from any perspective – that could be commerce engineering or health, along with tourism or ecology – there is no better place to learn and apply those findings internationally.

“Current and future school-leavers are making values-based decisions about how they want to live their lives and make a difference in the world, and UniSC is ideally placed to play an important role in that.”

Among those drawn to UniSC in recent years has been English-born doctoral researcher Georgina Hume, who is investigating dolphin populations in the three adjoining biospheres – the Great Sandy Biosphere, Noosa Biosphere, and Sunshine Coast Biosphere.

Comparing the number of dolphins in protected zones with unprotected zones is a central focus to her thesis.

“As opposed to when I studied in the United Kingdom, the key differences are the opportunities and the quality of research made possible via proximity to such amazing wildlife and surroundings,” Georgina says.

“I know other academics and researchers who have to travel to conduct their work, and that comes at a cost financially, logistically and in terms of time, whereas I can be immersed in what I do.

“There are so many diverse opportunities here – different habitats, different animal groups, different challenges – that even if your research isn’t confined within the Sunshine Coast region, you’ll likely be able to travel a short distance and complete it elsewhere within the state of Queensland.”

Aside from the natural wonders at Georgina’s fingertips, the Sunshine Coast offers a high standard of living, employment possibilities in related fields, modern research tools and important career connections.

Exposure to others with similar passions has provided particular value to this formative moment in Georgina’s life.

“I’ve been lucky to become involved in a variety of work alongside my PhD, including teaching in animal ecology, statistics, and working with dog detection teams,” Georgina says.

“My day-to-day life has plenty of variety. I spent three months in Hervey Bay, where I was out on the water most days, gathering information and working with the whale fleet there.

“Between that and venturing out with different ecotour boats further south on the Sunshine Coast, I have collected some very cool wildlife photos that will sit alongside the memories I have of this time.

“The flipside, of course, is that PhD students also need to spend a lot of time at their desk in front of a computer, which is made easier when the Sippy Downs campus is a 100-hectare flora and fauna reserve.”

Georgina’s supervisors include Dr Bonnie Holmes, Dr Alexis Levengood, Associate Professor Kathy Townsend, and Dr Javier Leon.

After more than 20 years living and researching on marine research stations, Associate Professor Townsend is a globally-renowned expert, featured in David Attenborough and National Geographic documentaries.

Her groundbreaking work with a variety of marine species and habitats has led to her influencing government policy on national and international scales.

In recent years Associate Professor Townsend has dedicated much of her time to rehabilitating turtle populations, establishing worldwide networks, connecting the Fraser Coast with research in areas such as the Galapagos Island.

Her passion sees her work hand-in-hand with veterinarians at Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, made famous by the late ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin and conservationist wife, honorary UniSC Senior Fellow Terri Irwin AM.

“Our region is blessed with sea turtles who, are not only magnificent creatures in their own right, but serve as indicators of the wider health of marine environments,” Associate Professor Townsend says.

“They are like the canary down the mine. We keep an eye on them to assess impacts on our oceans and waterways.

“There are so many aspects to sea turtles; people will travel from all around the world to see them, they are culturally important to the First Nations people, and they contribute hugely to the ecosystem.”

Colleague Dr Javier Leon is another whose research stretches across the three UNESCO Biospheres, including World Heritage listed K’gari.

He is a geographer who, with the aid of citizen scientists, is creating a four-dimensional database covering more than 100km from Bribie Island to Double Island Point.

Dr Leon’s work is a great example of how an academic’s impact can be multiplied by living in the perfect location, with a surrounding and supportive community that sees direct purpose in academic projects.

“By putting the GPS technology in the community’s hands, we no longer have just a handful of researchers surveying a few beaches,” Dr Leon says.

“We have more people we can rely upon and conduct our work to a higher level of accuracy.”

Still in the early stages of her career – but already making a strong impression – is Ella Woodborne, a 19-year-old UniSC student who has been selected for the UNESCO Our Humanature Pathways panel.

A resident of Belli Park, between Eumundi and Kenilworth, Ella began university when she was just 15 years old, having been raised by parents who were conservationists in South Africa.

The Science/Arts student is credited as helping the Sunshine Coast achieve UNESCO Biosphere status, leading to a personal thanks from Sunshine Coast Council Mayor Mark Jamieson.

“Ella is a voice for our youth and proud advocate for positive change, both vital values as we come to understand what it means to live, learn, work and play sustainably as a Biosphere community,” Mayor Jamieson said.

“Her input on this international stage demonstrates to the world the strengths of our region as we work towards our goal of being Australia’s most sustainable region: healthy, smart and creative."

In a further fillip for UniSC, Professor Stuart Parsons – Dean of the School of Science, Technology and Engineering – will be the Australian Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (ACEDD) representative on the National Biosphere Committee.

For every student, researcher or staff member who is drawn to UniSC by programs such as Professor Peter Timms’ koala research, Professor Nick Paul and his seaweed studies, or Dr Gabriel Conroy’s dingo research there are other disciplines which also thrive from being taught within a Biosphere.

Understanding how logistics chains can be structured to encourage sustainability, or ways health services can reduce their carbon footprint, or how constructions can be altered to achieve less run-off and reduced heat emissions; these are all desirable learnings that can be applied elsewhere.

“In any place where we create an economy we make decisions which impact the environment around us,” Professor Bartlett says.

“It’s the delicate balance between having a comfortable, enjoyable existence and protecting the planet.

“Within our Biospheres we are providing end-to-end education which applies to fields as diverse as responsible tourism, commerce, marketing, town planning, even social work.

“One of the beauties of Biospheres is the learning and consultation that takes place to inform sustainable development.

“UniSC prides itself on addressing local challenges, but simultaneously acknowledging the same challenges can be global in nature.

“Our campuses are the ideal places to develop best practice responses that can provide knowledge leadership to the rest of the world.”

UniSC's five campuses span some of the world’s most stunning and educational landscapes, making it a field-tripper’s paradise.

UniSC boasts an active program of sustainability initiatives that addresses both large-scale issues such as energy, waste, recycling and the campus environment, and has developed targeted activities such as the use of green cleaning practices.

In 2022 UniSC was the top-ranked Queensland university in the global scheme that assesses institutions’ performance in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Overall, UniSC was ranked 31st in the world of 1406 universities, earning specific acclaim for the goal of ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’, where it placed fifth.

Other SDGs where UniSC was listed in the top 25 in the world included ‘Life on Land’, ‘Life Below Water’, and ‘Climate Action’.

The Moreton Bay campus of UniSC – the most recently developed campus – is a short distance to the precious mangrove environments that give life to many of the incredible creatures in the Greater Brisbane area, including dugongs, another interest of Associate Professor Kathy Townsend's.

The site of a former paper mill, the campus continues to transform, incorporating new buildings which utilise natural materials which are regenerated in a matter of minutes.

“The protection of Moreton Bay is incredibly important, and as we have done in our northern catchments, UniSC will undoubtedly play a continued role in conservation efforts there,” Professor Bartlett says.

“Our experiences allow us to implement learnings and measures which have been developed in the neighbouring regions.

“The way in which we are transferring knowledge about sustainability between campuses is symbolic of how we can transfer the expertise of our researchers and graduates to the world.”

Already UniSC has international linkages with Harvard Forest (Harvard University’s 3500-acre laboratory and classroom), with Bonne Bay Marine Station of Canada, and Florida Gulf Coast University.

Linkages within Australia include with traditional owners in the Fraser Coast region, on Heron Island, Stradbroke Island, Cape York, Central Australia and the Atherton Tableland, along with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Fraser Island Defenders Organisation and Kingfisher Bay Resort.