UNSW presents



UNSW joins forces with award-winning photographer Tamara
Dean in a unique collaboration that transports us outside the
lab and into the landscapes where our researchers work. Essay by
Ashley Hay, author and science writer.




4 November – 13 December
Level 4 Rooftop Cafe
Australian Museum
1 William Street, Sydney

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Dr Duane Hamacher – Nura Gili Academic Programs Unit

UNSW astronomer Duane Hamacher is looking to the heavens to unlock secrets about Australia’s ancient past. His Indigenous Astronomy Group is working with Aboriginal Australians from different language groups across the continent to compile legends thought to document cosmic events and natural disasters, such as meteorite strikes, floods and volcanic eruptions. Read more...

Hamacher, who has compared some of these legends to the geological record, believes they harbour a vast untapped reserve of knowledge, dating back thousands of years. He has linked one legend, describing a vengeful fire-devil from the sky, to a meteorite impact in the central desert about 4,700 years ago.  

Location: Royal National Park, Bundeena, Sydney


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Heat stress
Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick – Climate Change Research Centre

As the Earth’s average global temperature warms, heatwaves are becoming more intense and more frequent. UNSW climate scientist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, from the extreme weather team, is developing new ways to measure these sustained periods of hotter-than-normal temperatures, which can have catastrophic impacts on human health, infrastructure and the environment. Read more...

In 2003, a summer heatwave in Western Europe contributed to more than 70,000 deaths. Perkins-Kirkpatrick is also studying winter heatwaves, or warm spells. While not as lethal, they still present major challenges: prolonging the bushfire season by drying out fuel, worsening droughts, and constraining crop yields by altering rainfall patterns and reducing soil moisture.

Location: Wanda Beach sand dunes, Sydney


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Toxin terminators
Front: Associate Professor Mike Manefield, Dr Matthew Lee and Dr Robert Barnes – Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences

Groundwater contamination is a major public health concern and Sydney is not immune. Large industrial sites like Homebush and Botany and numerous dry cleaning operations across the city are polluted with carcinogenic organochlorines. Read more...

UNSW biotechnologist Mike Manefield and his team have developed a "natural solution" to clean up the mess, injecting hundreds of litres of bacteria – bred in beer kegs to target and break down the contaminants – into aquifers. Underground, the bacteria consume the pollutants and then die. The method, which has been commercialised through Micronovo Pty Ltd, is cleaner and more affordable than the usual energy-intensive water treatment options.

Location: Port Botany, Sydney
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Subterranean sleuth
Katie Coleborn (Research Associate) – Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre

Bushfires are essential for the survival of many native Australian plants, but climate change is altering their frequency and intensity. To get a measure of these changing patterns, UNSW researcher Katie Coleborn is heading underground to collect information about stalagmites – the vertical carbonate formations that grow in caves. Read more...

These formations grow layer by layer, over thousands of years, as rainwater dissolves minerals from limestone and deposits them in caves. Similar to tree rings, each layer reveals clues about the environment at the time. Coleborn is searching for a bushfire signature in the layers to piece together a timeline of ancient bushfires, to better understand what the future may hold.  

Location: Wombeyan Caves, NSW. Additional photos – Katie Coleborn with UNSW Honours student Ingrid Flemon.
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Fire fighters
Associate Professor Jason Sharples and Rachael Quill (PhD candidate) – Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Sciences

In 2003, the Canberra bushfires spawned a 500-metre-wide fire tornado. UNSW Canberra mathematician Jason Sharples was part of the team that first described this unusual and terrifying phenomenon. Read more... 

Sharples uses mathematical methods to analyse the dynamic, and sometimes counterintuitive, behaviour of extreme bushfires, which are so intense and colossal they evolve into actual storms. Rather than travelling with the wind, Sharples has seen intense fires travel rapidly across the wind, and says observable physical processes are the cause. With team members including Rachael Quill, he’s developing new models to predict this behaviour to keep emergency personnel, and the public, safe.

Location: Googong, NSW
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The possum whisperer
Hayley Bates (PhD candidate) – Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences

With fewer than 2,600 in the wild, Australia’s Mountain Pygmy Possum (Burramys parvus) is listed as critically endangered. But UNSW biologist Hayley Bates sees hope for the alpine-dwelling possum, which is little bigger than a mouse. Read more...

While studying the predators that hunt these diminutive creatures, Bates has discovered the possums can survive at much lower altitudes and in warmer climates than previously thought. It’s welcome news, as climate change continues to shrink and fragment a habitat that is already under threat from ski lodge development, bushfires and invasive predators. With captive breeding programs underway, new possum populations could soon be reintroduced to more temperate Australian regions.

Location: Kosciuszko National Park, NSW
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Rethinking Extinction
Dr Thom van Dooren – Environmental Humanities

Some crows are passionately conserved, while others are persecuted as pests, says UNSW environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren. Interested in the ethics and politics of extinction and wildlife management, van Dooren is studying different humancrow relationships around the world to understand our shifting interactions with wildlife in the context of climate change, urbanisation and biodiversity loss. Read more...

In some locations these ominous creatures thrive, while in Hawaii and Guam, they teeter precariously close to extinction. Growing out of a larger body of work that has focused on a range of endangered birds, from North American whooping cranes to India’s vanishing vultures, his current research aims to help re-imagine conservation and cohabitation strategies that account for the cultural significance of threatened species.

Location: Sydney Park
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Plant power
Floret Meredith (PhD candidate) – Big Ecology Lab

Over millions of years, plants have developed sophisticated defence mechanisms, such as spines, protective bark and even poisonous toxins. UNSW ecologist Floret Meredith is testing whether island plants evolve differently from mainland counterparts, which are assumed to face more pressure from animals. Read more...

Islands have been considered natural labs to study evolution, and are often used as refuges for endangered animals, but Meredith says we’re currently operating on hunches about how their ecology works. By comparing plant specimens from islands with sites along Australia’s east coast, she is unlocking their evolutionary secrets.

Location: Oatley Park, Sydney
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Sea change
Dr Adriana Vergés – Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences

Sydney’s cherished marine ecosystems are undergoing potentially catastrophic changes, says UNSW marine ecologist Adriana Vergés. Stronger ocean currents and warmer temperatures are bringing tropical and subtropical fish further south into temperate ecosystems. Read more...

These invading fish can destroy native kelp forests that are vital to biodiversity, says Vergés, who has seen similar destructive habitat loss in Japan and parts of the Mediterranean. To keep Sydney’s marine ecosystems healthy, she says we need to reduce our carbon emissions and introduce new fishing regulations.

Location: Chowder Bay, Sydney


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Marine mathematicians
From front: Nina Ribbat (PhD candidate), Dr Paulina Cetina-Heredia and Dr Amandine Schaeffer – Coastal and Regional Oceanography Lab

Swift currents, swirling eddies, powerful storms and a changing climate. UNSW physical oceanographers are combining seafaring with mathematical modelling to better understand the dynamic forces that influence the health of ocean ecosystems along our coasts. Read more...

Using data from satellites, moorings and autonomous underwater vehicles, scientists are investigating the ocean circulation across Australia’s continental shelf; drivers of primary and biological production; factors modulating the replenishment of marine populations along south-east Australia; and ecosystem resilience in Sydney Harbour’s estuaries, where fresh water meets the ocean.

Location: Botany Bay, Sydney


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The dingo tracker
Daniel Hunter (PhD candidate) – Centre for Ecosystem Science

Across thousands of square kilometres of World Heritagelisted wilderness, UNSW ecologist Daniel Hunter tracks dingoes. To protect their livestock, pastoralists routinely cull these top predators. Read more...

But the practice is allowing red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and feral cat (Felis catus) numbers to surge, with knock-on effects across the ecosystem. Hunter believes that dingoes act as "guard dogs" for smaller, ground-dwelling mammals, protecting the country’s unique biodiversity. Australia already has the world’s worst mammal extinction rate, and killing dingoes could make things worse. Another method Hunter is investigating to keep fox and cat numbers down is to reintroduce another apex predator, the Tasmanian devil, to the mainland.  

Location: Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, NSW
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The urbanist
Dr Scott Hawken – Smart Cities Research Cluster

To make our future cities more sustainable and productive, UNSW landscape architect Scott Hawken is looking to the ancient Khmer Empire, which impressively integrated agricultural productivity and water supply into the mega structures of its capital, Angkor. His work is part of an international collaboration to manage and preserve the medieval city. Read more...

Closer to home, Hawken is challenging the idea that Australian cities need to be grey, concrete and detached from food production. Using remote sensing technology, he’s creating 3D maps of Sydney, searching for under-utilised spaces. The goal is to retrofit existing buildings, infrastructure and landscapes to create multi-functional spaces, new public parks, and rooftop gardens. 

Location: Paddington Reservoir Gardens, Sydney


Wild Researchers – interview with Tamara Dean

Tamara Dean is an award-winning photographic and installation artist based in Australia whose body of work powerfully explores the relationship humans have with the natural world. Tamara’s work is held in a number of public and private collections and she is represented by Olsen Irwin Gallery in Sydney.

In this video she discusses her inspiration for Wild Researchers and how the project brings together her two loves – nature and art making. The exhibition was developed and commissioned in 2014 as part of Tamara’s UNSW Artist-in-Residency. Her multi-sensory art installation, Here and Now, premiered to critical acclaim at Studio One in February 2015, assisted by the University’s Creative Practice Lab. 

Wild Researchers is an initiative of the UNSW Media Office and is supported by the Division of Advancement.