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Bringing marine science dreams to life


Jessica Nelson
15 October 2020
man diving underwater in scuba gear
Marine Science student Jordan Ivey

Whenever Jordan Ivey fits his scuba mask and jumps into the ocean, it’s as though the saltwater is welcoming him home.

He remembers the first time he truly experienced the magic of the sea like it was yesterday. He was in Vanuatu, body surfing and there were colourful fish swimming around him. In that moment in the ocean… everything made sense. He felt safe. Alive. Hopeful. On that day, his deep love for the ocean and the marine life it held was born.

Now 26, Jordan, a proud Indigenous man with South Sea Island heritage, is studying his Bachelor of Marine Science and Management at Southern Cross University.

Last year he was awarded the prestigious New Colombo Plan Scholarship to spend a year in Fiji and the Philippines to expand his marine science knowledge and work closely with coral and fish researchers. And this November, he plans on joining world-leading coral researcher Professor Peter Harrison, Director of Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Centre, to assist the research team during nature’s most exquisite natural phenomenon, the annual Mass Coral Spawning event on the Great Barrier Reef.

Marine Science student Jordan Ivey
Marine Science student Jordan Ivey

But Jordan’s pathway into working beneath the ocean’s surface has not been a typical one.

Less than a decade ago during high school, Jordan was told his grades wouldn’t be strong enough to pursue a career in animal research.

“When I had that meeting with my career adviser in high school, I was dead-set on becoming a zoologist. After many discussions and reviewing of my grades I was told that I was not smart enough to pursue that dream as a realistic career. This realisation hit me hard and made me rethink what I wanted to do and I ended up lowering my expectations of myself. I started focussing on sport and spending time at the beach and I almost failed school for not showing up to class enough,” he said.

Jordan always had a strong connection to the ocean through his heritage and growing up near the coast in Northern NSW. He had studied a marine science subject in high school and considered studying a business tourism degree to live and work at a tropical resort. But after receiving very low grades in his final year 12 exams Jordan decided to enter the workforce.

“My childhood dream was crushed. My grades were terrible and my future was not looking bright. I hit rock bottom with no university acceptance, no career trajectory and no plan. I entered the workforce and bounced around a few different jobs, sometimes working two jobs just to be able to pay for living out of home.

“The year after high school my beautiful daughter Lillith arrived, which made me reassess my life. I was unhappy about not having a career and did not want my daughter to grow up seeing her father as being unsuccessful. I ended up securing a mechanic apprenticeship as I had an interest in cars and was happy about finally having a career, even if my passion for cars didn’t quite match my colleagues around me.

“I eventually went for my open water scuba diving ticket for my 21st birthday, which invigorated my passion for marine life again and later that year I saved up to visit the Great Barrier Reef. I spent time with an eco-tourism guide on one of the dive boats learning everything I could about the reef and the crisis that was happening underneath our flippers, with the degradation of coral reefs around the world. This was all I needed to reignite the fire that had been lit within me as a child. It reinforced my passion to help protect the marine environment.”

However, Jordan hadn’t yet completed his apprenticeship and didn’t want to waste his hard work.

“I persisted with my trade and ended up finishing my apprenticeship early, which meant I was able to enrol into university using my Certificate III. This got me into my desired degree of Marine Science and Management, but I still held my doubts from high school and that I could not complete university. I had heard through multiple people about an award-winning pathway program called the Preparing for Success Program (PSP) offered at Southern Cross Uni, that prepares people for University and how to write academically. I decided to study the program over the summer before starting my degree. It taught me many valuable skills that have since assisted me throughout my university studies, but more than anything I was stoked to get three distinctions and one high distinction, which gave me the belief that I was not only capable of doing university but completing it at a high standard.”

After graduating from PSP, Jordan then enrolled in the Bachelor of Marine Science and Management degree, setting the goal to apply himself and see what he could achieve. To his surprise, in his first semester he received four distinctions.

“I was stunned. These high grades meant I could finally start dreaming again about my future career ambitions. Not only could I work on a dive boat or in a marine related field, with these grades I could be even more ambitious and chase a career as a researcher to help save reef systems around the world. I then received my first high distinction, which gave me even more motivation and the impetus to use my success to motivate other people to study the PSP program, even if they hadn’t been able to finish high school.”

Jordan then received his first Scholarship through Southern Cross, which helped cover his living and family expenses while he continued to focus on study and research, and giving back to the University community.

“I was involved in the Indigenous community where I often spoke to future Indigenous students and their parents about study options and I then became a mentor for the University’s Equity and Diversity Office, allowing me to present to primary school and high school students allowing me to share my life and schooling experiences with them.

“I also became a Southern Cross University student ambassador which opened a door for me to be able to reach out to people and use my story and background to help motivate people, mainly high school leavers, which was really an audience I wanted to reach, especially students that didn’t think they were capable of pursuing their passions – I want them to know they can.

“I put my hand up for every volunteer opportunity I could. As well as mentoring and tutoring new students, I volunteered with Australian Seabird rescue helping to rehabilitate sea turtles as well as bush regeneration groups.”

He was even named the co-recipient of Southern Cross University's 2018 Sportsperson of the Year award for his significant leadership role as the UniSport Indigenous Nationals team coordinator for the Gold Coast and Lismore campuses, and competing at UniSport events and campus sporting challenges.

Around this time, Jordan began delving more into his Pacific Islander heritage. He wanted to see if there were any opportunities to assist South Sea Islanders University students who belonged to families who had been taken from the Pacific Islands through ‘blackbirding’ to Australia in the late-1800s to work mainly in the sugar cane industry. While some blackbirded families stayed in Australia, others were deported in the early 20th century after the White Australia policy was introduced.

“Unfortunately, there was nothing I could find, which also reflected how little I knew about that side of my culture,” he said. “So, I went to the student services office to ask if there were any opportunities to study in the Pacific, to further my marine knowledge while having the opportunity to learn more about my culture. While there wasn’t much opportunity for a study abroad program, the International office insisted that with my high grades I should apply for the New Colombo Plan.”

After a rigorous two-week application process, Jordan was accepted for a New Colombo Plan Scholarship - a prestigious Australian Government initiative which aims to increase knowledge of the Indo Pacific in Australia by supporting undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region.

“I started designing a research program based on my passions to help protect declining coral reef ecosystems and to educate indigenous south sea islanders around protecting reefs. I chose Fiji as my program destination and moved there in January 2019 to start learning Fijian then transitioned into one year of study at the University of the South Pacific.

“When I first arrived in Fiji, it was definitely a culture shock – I expected it would be a lot more laidback, but because I arrived in the capital Suva it was hectic and took a bit to get used to. But a lot of Fijians are very welcoming and before long I was being invited to play sport with them and being invited back to their villages for family dinners.”

Jordan took on an internship working in coral restoration, particularly with baby corals and the effect of restoration on fish populations, and he witnessed the incredible Fijian coral spawning event in November. He worked with the Institute for Marine Research (IMR) in the Philippines in early 2020, and hopes to return there for further research when travel restrictions ease.

Jordan hopes his final undergraduate grade will result in his first ever journal publication. The paper’s working title is: The Impacts of a Coral Restoration Program in Fiji on the Composition of Assemblages of Small Reef Fishes.

He hopes to study his honours in 2021 and pursue his PhD through Southern Cross under the supervision of Professor Peter Harrison. His goal is to start implementing his own research, and to keep inspiring other Indigenous kids to pursue their passion.

“For me, the future is clear. No matter where you live on our planet, we’re all connected to the sea. We need many things to make a better world, but nothing else will matter if we fail to protect our ocean - it drives our climate, provides our oxygen and shapes our earth’s chemistry.

“My daughter is eight now and she loves the water too and sometimes talks about studying marine science like her dad. These scholarships have impacted my life in profound ways, giving me access to an education I genuinely love and care about, and meeting so many phenomenal people who have helped me open many new doors along the way, and lecturers and tutors who have believed in me and allowed me to push myself beyond the limits I thought I had.”

Jordan said he is often asked about what it’s like studying at a regional University like Southern Cross with its campuses at Gold Coast, Lismore and Coffs Harbour, away from a metropolitan city hub.

“I tell everybody how awesome it is at Southern Cross, being able to have more one-on-one time with lecturers and the chance to apply for opportunities without being swamped out by hundreds or thousands of other people. If I was a big university I would have been lost in the cracks.

“Students at other universities often don’t have access to world-leading researchers until they are in their postgraduate research stage, but I’ve already had opportunities to connect with Southern Cross University marine researchers who are global leaders in their field who have been guiding me through, such as Professor Peter Harrison, who co-discovered mass coral spawning and is pioneering ‘Coral IVF’ larval rearing techniques to restore coral communities; and marine ecologist Associate Professor Daniel Bucher who specialises in reef communities, fish and sharks.”

Jordan said he is excited at the prospect of joining Professor Peter Harrison for the mass coral spawning event this summer on the Great Barrier Reef, where the research team captures millions of coral eggs and sperm, grows the coral larvae in enclosures on the reef and in tanks and releases them back onto dead and damaged corals. The team is always looking at ways to improve the method that is a blueprint for saving coral reefs around the world.

“Not only is Southern Cross a leader in coral restoration techniques, but the Uni has also joined the Reef Restoration and Adaptation (RRAP) Program to help preserve and restore the Great Barrier Reef. The Uni has brought on other incredible researchers to investigate ways to shade and cool large areas of reef, through trialling ‘cloud brightening’ technology to make clouds more reflective of sunlight to protect corals from bleaching during the height of summer. It’s a holistic approach above and below the water, and a multi-disciplinary effort that will help create lasting change.

“I think the future is about the regions, and the incredible people from regional Australia who are rising up to tackle the world’s challenges and create a meaningful impact.”