Sustainability, scicomm and species management: Reflecting on the Victorian Biodiversity Conference
Were you aware that there is an enormous amount of biodiversity and environmental conservation research carried out by postgraduate students and early career researchers in Victoria?
This research is contemporary, high quality, and has the potential to inform conservation policy and land management decisions at the local, state and federal level. This work is carried out by passionate students and early career researchers that want to see their findings shared and applied. And yet, much of this research doesn’t reach the very people that it is intended for. Scientific findings are often disseminated solely within the research community via pay-to-access academic journals or specialised and expensive conferences. Sadly, the answers to many biodiversity-related questions seldom make their way to the wider community.
In 2016, the Victorian Biodiversity Conference was created to bridge that gap. VicBioCon is a unique initiative which aims to provide a friendly, accessible and affordable opportunity for postgraduate students, early career researchers and industry professionals to showcase their biodiversity-focused research and projects. It also aims to strengthen existing networks and build new connections between Victorian academic institutions, industry, not-for-profit organisations and local government agencies.
The first conference was held in 2017, hosted by RMIT University in Melbourne. It was such a success that it has since been held annually, hosted by a different academic institution each year. In 2018, it was hosted by La Trobe University in Bundoora, followed by The University of Melbourne in 2019.
In February 2020, the fourth annual Victorian Biodiversity Conference took place at Monash University, Clayton. Over two days, 390 attendees took part in the student-run event, representing 88 different organisations. The diverse program included four plenary sessions, two panel discussions and twelve themed symposia comprising presentations on original research, environmental education programs and land management projects.
The conference opened with Professor John Thwaites from the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, who discussed why scientists should care about the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. Professor Thwaites shared his insights on what headway we are making as a country towards achieving them, and the relative contributions of VicBioCon and its participants. He insisted that researchers need to understand government procedure in order for science to influence policy, and shared his ‘ten commandments’ for positively influencing state and federal government.
The other plenary speakers included Dr. Tessa Fluence, who discussed the importance of how conservation science stories are framed, illustrating her point using three different news articles following the recent bushfires, with each implying a very different cause. On the second day, Dr. Jenny Martin told the story of her career journey from field ecologist to scicomm extraordinaire and provided inspiring advice to a room full of budding scientists, suggesting that knowing your values, and then living those values, will make for a more effective and happier scientist. The conferenced closed with a lively and inspiring plenary from Indigenous representatives Amos Atkinson (Banjarra Warri), a proud Bangarang, Djaara, Waveroo, Wiradjuri man and Mick Bourke a proud Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung man currently working as a District Planner in Forest Fire Management at the Department of Environment, Land Water and Planning (DELWP). Amos and Mick explained the importance of incorporating Indigenous perspectives, especially with regards to the use of fire in land management.
A feature for many attendees were the expert panels, which discussed how science can influence policy and how to find hope in long-term conservation projects. The experts on both panels spoke candidly and passionately about their work, before taking questions from the audience.
The themed symposia were packed with excellent presentations on a wide variety of biodiversity topics including climate change and species resilience, genetics, novel technologies, environmental policy and decision making, freshwater and marine ecology, science communication and community engagement, plant diversity, terrestrial ecology, urban conservation, threatened species, and fire ecology. The quality of presentations was outstanding this year, which made it extremely difficult for judges to decide the student prizes. In the end, the prizes for the best 10-minute presentations went to Emily Roycroft (The University of Melbourne; 1st place), Lauren Tworkowski (La Trobe University; equal 2nd place) and Benjamin Wagner (The University of Melbourne; equal 2nd place). The awards for the best 5-minute presentations went to Alys Young (The University of Melbourne; 1st place), Daniel Nugent (La Trobe University; 2nd place) and Mitchell Cowan (Charles Sturt University; 3rd place). Finally, the award for best poster went to Erin Thomas (The University of Melbourne).
Tickets prices for the Victorian Biodiversity Conference are heavily subsidised to enable students, the wider community and those experiencing hardship to attend. The conference would not have been possible without the financial support of a large group of sponsors, including the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, CSIRO Publishing, Deakin University, Ecological Consultants Association Victoria, ICON Science, La Trobe University, Monash Graduate Association, Monash University, Museums Victoria, NESP Threatened Species Hub, RMIT University, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, The University of Melbourne, Victoria University, the Victorian State Government and Zoos Victoria.
Plans are underway for the 2021 Victorian Biodiversity Conference, which will be hosted by Deakin University in Burwood. If you would like to join the mailing list, be part of the organising committee or your organisation would like to sponsor the next event, please visit vicbiocon.com/contact-us or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Jacinta Humphrey and Christine Connelly, on behalf of the Victorian Biodiversity Conference Organising Committee.