Isobel is finishing uni with a degree – and with a huge impact

Publication date
Wednesday, 13 Dec 2023
A woman standing among some trees smiling at the camera
Isobel Bender. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

When she was at high school, Isobel Bender wanted to make a difference, so she started the school’s environment group. It had three members.

Now she’s graduating with a PhB (Honours) having made what her supervisor Professor Jamie Pittock calls “an unprecedented impact on the public good as an undergraduate researcher”.

Professor Pittock explains that Isobel’s findings from her research projects at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU have directly resulted in important environmental policy reviews, governmental briefings, a published paper, and an appearance at an international conference.

“I hear that and I think, ‘Whoah, who is that person?’” Isobel responds as she reflects on her achievements. “You’re not going to get much of a brag from me!” she laughs.

So here is the brag on her behalf.

In her first PhB research project, Isobel undertook the first independent evaluation of the implementation of the 2002 Snowy Water Inquiry Outcome Implementation Deed to restore Snowy River flows. What she found was that water flows never reached the promised levels, alongside failures in transparency and review mechanisms.

Professor Pittock took Isobel’s report to the NSW Minister for Water, leading ultimately to the Commonwealth agreeing to review the Deed.

“It offers new hope to restore degraded rivers in the NSW Alps,” Professor Pittock says.

“It was an incredible project to be part of,” Isobel says. “It was sad that the water hadn’t been returned, but it was satisfying to be able to document that, and then see that being used for advocacy. I’m glad it was useful.”

After completing a subsequent policy analysis of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, Isobel says she sought a project which would allow her to bring a social science perspective to an environmental issue, and help affected people directly.

The result was her honours project on the death of snow gums in the Australian Alps, focusing on how park managers can manage the dieback.

“The problem is essentially that snow gum dieback can ecologically transform the landscape,” Isobel explains. “If you lose a dominant tree cover then the cascade effect from that can be horrific, especially paired with climatic influences.

“Park managers then have this impossible task where they're tasked with trying to keep the ecology of the park exactly how it is, even when they're facing unprecedented changes right in front of them, that they don't necessarily have a lot of control over.”

Isobel’s project involved interviewing park managers about their needs and challenges and studying how land managers in the United States have responded to the death of key tree species.

She then presented her findings to relevant government agencies, with an overwhelmingly positive response to what Professor Pittock calls her “exceptional” research.

“I think it's come at the right time when people really need a language to describe what's happening, and also a language to help them change the way they're currently doing things,” Isobel reflects.  “Because I think that mentality of resisting change at all costs is no longer something that's viable, just because of the nature of some of these changes.”

A smiling woman sitting at an outdoor table
Isobel Bender. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

Of all her achievements during her degree, this project is the one she’s most proud of, she says.

“When you're dealing with something as real as snow gum dieback, bringing in social science is not usually what people first think of as a solution, right? But what my project exposed is that we need the social science angle, because it helps us to think differently.

“That’s the beauty of the Fenner School, that blend between ecology and social science, and I wanted to have both in all my research projects. That’s how you actually start doing useful things where you actually get some traction onto the ground.”

Even before taking to the graduation stage, Isobel is already working in roles for the Australian River Restoration Centre and 18Fifty3, an Indigenous corporation for land management. This is on top of completing her Certificate III in Conservation and Ecosystem Management.

“Am I tired? Yes!” she laughs. “Hence the bags under my eyes. I’m exhausted. But it’s been a really, really satisfying end to my degree.”

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