For Angus Warfield-McAlpine, an Environmental Science degree was the threshold to a new passion for conserving coastal ecosystems.
Angus left school early in Year 12 to complete a carpentry apprenticeship. But while working in construction, he became concerned about the impacts of the industry on the natural environment.
“I was working in the oil and gas industry when I became aware of fracking and the impacts of the fossil fuel industry on the global environment, so I enrolled at USC to understand the environment at a deeper level,” he said.
When he graduated in May, he received a University Medal for his outstanding grade point average of 6.88 out of 7 – the same week his study into the mangroves of Weyba Creek Conservation Park was published in the international science journal Drones.
Angus's research, which was supervised by USC Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography Dr Javier Leon, assessed the ability of drones to capture forest metrics in a mangrove environment.
“Mangroves are vital ecosystems that store carbon in their biomass, but they are declining across the world due to deforestation and are threatened by climate change,” Angus said. ”More data is needed to ensure their ecological integrity is maintained.
“Our research found that drone mapping could be a more cost-effective, timely and non-destructive method of measuring the height and volume of mangrove canopies to inform carbon inventories.”
Angus began his Honours project with Dr Leon earlier this year, using drones and artificial intelligence (AI) to quantify the recovery of cyclone-damaged mangroves on Hinchinbrook Island. He developed his skills in the use of these environmental technologies during what he describes as the two highlights of his degree – travelling to Borneo on an Australian Government New Colombo Plan scholarship, and interning with the CSIRO in Canberra.
In Borneo, he worked on vegetation surveys, camera trapping and image classification.
“We travelled by longboat upstream to an isolated research station at Kuala Belalong to explore the rainforest and delved into the complex cave systems in Mulu National Park. Our group also experienced flash floods, mid-air turbulence and mischievous monkeys,” Angus said.
“In Canberra, my three-month CSIRO internship solidified the skills I developed during the degree and taught me new skills in the pivotal area of AI.
“Under the mentorship of researchers at CSIRO’s National Research Collections Australia, I was able to train a computer algorithm to recognise the species of eucalyptus seeds, which could potentially be developed further to allow non-experts to identify any type of seed using only an image.”