Passion for plants cultivates top honour for enviro science graduate


For environmental science graduate Michael Dyer – a self-confessed “plant nerd” – following his passion for plants has led to overseas opportunities and won him one of UniSA’s highest honours – the UniSA Honours Medal.

The honours graduate from the School of Natural and Built Environments, who received the medal for his outstanding honours thesis, says he “just worked hard and challenged myself to do the very best I could in every piece of work”.

“I was proud to be awarded the UniSA Honours Medal. I felt like being a recipient of the medal shows how important environmental science at UniSA really is,” Dyer says.

Dyer collected data for his honours project in Fiji after taking up a New Colombo Plan Scholarship. In Fiji he researched an invasive palm tree – Pinanga coronata – which is threatening Fiji’s rare and unique biodiversity.

The palm was the focus of his award-winning honours thesis: “The distribution of the invasive palm Pinanga coronata and its effects on native tree ferns in the Colo-i-Suva area, Viti Levu, Fiji”.

Dyer spent several months in Fiji. His research provided the first set of results in an ongoing project between leading scientists from universities in Fiji, Australia, the Caribbean and Europe.

Research helps protect pristine habitat against invasive palm

Michael Dyer“The topic is important to me because I am interested in plant conservation around the world and Fiji has a very unique flora biota, however invasive species in the Pacific Islands is the second leading cause of species extinctions,” Dyer says.

“I am certain that the palm is threatening rainforest biodiversity but there is still a chance to control it.

“I have also made many great discoveries about some of the rarest plants in the Pacific region.

“This study highlights the importance of planting native species and restricting the transportation of potentially invasive species around the world.

“It also shows how invasive species threatens some of the most pristine and beautiful habitats around the world, including Australia, and there should be a greater emphasis on protecting them.”

The results of this work are now in the process of being published in several journals, as well as being used by the Fijian Government to address the invasion of the palm.

After Fiji, Dyer undertook work at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in Samoa, and is now in Indonesia until the end of the year on an internship focused on forest surveys and protection in Northern Sumatra.

“The greatest thing about interning is improving your skills but for me it’s also been about working with so many international colleagues to address global issues,” Dyer says.

“A highlight was hiking through Fiji's lowland rainforest with a small team – day and night – to help bat conservation. I would suggest other students take any opportunities they can.

“Internships are great because they are flexible – sometimes short – you get to experience many different things and learn many skills.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think about establishing a framework for Marine Spatial Planning in the Pacific – which I did during my work at SPREP in Samoa – especially considering I am just a plant ecologist.

“Internships also allow you to network and they open many more doors abroad and at home.

“Students should take any opportunity to challenge themselves and should try to experience as much as possible, in their local community and abroad.

“With access to great education, we should be inspired to learn as much as possible and contribute our knowledge to shape the world for the better, on every scale.”

His thesis was a cross-institutional arrangement with the University of the South Pacific, supported by the New Colombo Plan Scholarship.

Honours thesis supervisor Dr Gunnar Keppel says Dyer is a great example of what can be achieved in environmental science.

“It was a pleasure assisting Michael to achieve his goals and dreams, and his counterparts at the University of the South Pacific are raving about his accomplishments,” Dr Keppel says.

“Michael’s story shows that students have amazing opportunities in environmental science at UniSA and that, with dedication and perseverance, they can excel.”

Dyer plans to return to Australia at the end of the year to undertake a PhD studying changes in plant distributions and ecosystem change in response to climate change and human migration.

“My work and study is inspired by the beauty and complexity of nature,” Dyer says.

“Understanding and obtaining knowledge about the complexities of nature is the most rewarding experience.”

The UniSA Honours Medal is awarded annually to graduands in each division for outstanding academic merit throughout all years of an honours degree program.