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Digging up a 4x4 earns kudos in Nature’s Science at Work photo competition


Sharlene King
30 May 2018

If ever there was an image to dispel the myth that science is simply about white lab coats and microscopes, then this photo of Southern Cross University researchers stuck in a swamp is it. The international journal Nature thought so too, giving photographer Luke Jeffrey a gong in its annual Science at Work photograph competition.

Researchers Luke Jeffrey and Ashly McMahon had set up a water sample experiment in wetlands at Cudgen Nature Reserve, behind Cabarita Beach in the Tweed Shire, when they got into strife: Ashly’s four-wheel drive was bogged.

“We weren’t going anywhere fast,” said Luke reflecting on the day in early 2015. “And I was told it’s always a good idea to document all your fieldwork because you never know when you’ll need a photo for a seminar or a presentation, so I pulled out my phone.

“Here’s Ash trying to save his car from getting swallowed up by a wetland swamp. If you want to get stuck in the field with someone, Ash is the guy. He wasn’t worried at all. He knows what he’s doing.”

Nature’s Science at Work competition, now in its second year, celebrates the diversity and importance of the research that scientists devote their lives to. This year 330 entries from around the world were submitted, with one overall winner, six winners and four runners-up selected.

Luke was awarded runner-up for his efforts.

“It’s a good competition,” he said. “Science has the reputation of white lab coats, working in an office or lecturing so it’s kind of cool to see all the other scientists doing their thing in the field to create awareness about what we really do.”

Given it was his vehicle that was bogged, Ash took the predicament in his stride.

“We’d been down that track a few weeks prior without an issue. It was a lot deeper this time after the summer rains. The car was about another foot under the water before I jacked up that side,” said Ash describing Luke’s image.

“Luke has done a good job with the photo. I’ve had my fair share of tricky situations. Those moments are always amusing. It’s the down and dirty side of science, which is what we do a lot of the time. We’re generally pretty muddy.”

At the time the pair had been chasing flood conditions as part of Luke’s Honours research into groundwater in acid sulfate soils and how those affect carbon dioxide emissions from a wetland. Four time series stations, set up at opposite ends of the catchment, were being monitored day and night.

“Years ago a lot of that work involved taking grab samples from the field and returning to the lab for testing on expensive machines,” said Luke. “But in this day and age a lot of that technology is portable so you can take equipment into the field and measure these parameters in situ. It breaks new ground and you gain more insight measuring around the clock continuously. The flip side is that you have to use a 4WD to those remote points to get the machines in.”

Luke spent 13 years as a marketing manager at Billabong before enrolling in an environmental science degree at Southern Cross.

“I had a job a lot of people would envy: marketing campaigns, photoshoots, lots of travel to Tahiti, Indonesia and Hawaii, working with pro surfers and skaters. But with two children I wanted to do something more meaningful and important to me and what my family stood for. A degree in science was something that fitted with our values,” he said.

“I did some research and from word-of-mouth discovered Southern Cross had a really good reputation for environmental science. I never planned on getting into research but the degree led to Honours which led into my PhD which hopefully will lead into post-doc (post-doctoral research).”

Ashly McMahon, who also completed his undergraduate environmental science degree and Honours at Southern Cross University, is close to submitting his PhD research.