An Australian yellow wattle flowering

Meet our 2024 Honours students

19 April 2024
Welcoming the 2024 cohort.
Congratulations to Arielle Saunders, Sanaa Shah, Alana Barbaro, and Lauren Hocking who have been awarded the SEI Honours Research Fellowship, and Antonio Izzo, the recipient of the Iain McCalman Honours Research Award in partnership with the Chau Chak Wing Museum.

Please take the time to learn what SEI's 2024 Honours cohort are studying by expanding the accordian tabs below.

Australian courts often characterise stronger climate action as a ‘matter for policy’ and Parliament, not the judiciary. I’m researching whether, and in what circumstances, the Australian common law could develop to characterise climate action or inaction by public actors (particularly government ministers) as suitable for judicial intervention, such as through imposition of a duty of care on public actors.

In 2022, Australia’s Federal Court overturned a decision that imposed a duty on the Minister for the Environment to consider young and future generations when considering whether to approve projects that would contribute to climate change (Minister for the Environment v Sharma). In that appeal judgment, two judges noted that a duty of care was not a suitable vehicle for encouraging stronger action on climate, notwithstanding their acceptance of climate change as a threat to the safety of young and future generations. The third appeal judge expressly disagreed with this assessment.

I’ve been reminded several times of the Sharma decision over the past few years as I’ve worked in both not-for-profit and academic research positions, and I’ve remained intrigued by the differing opinions of the judges on appeal and at first instance, what this judgment says about judicial power, and in the implications that the characterisation of climate change as ‘unsuitable’ for judicial intervention has for climate action in Australia.

With my research I hope to explore the appropriate boundaries for judicial action in the context of climate change, and in doing so consider the capacity and suitability of the common law to respond to challenges that will be posed by our changing climate. I’ll also consider how modern developments in policy (including the growing intersection of human rights law and climate change) and the ever-evolving landscape of climate science might affect judicial decision-making on this issue.

While my project will focus on just one of many deeply complex legal questions posed by climate change, I hope that it might contribute to discussions about the limitations and potentials for judicial action to address climate change and existing commentary about the availability or suitability of tort claims. I hope that it will also provide some helpful discussion of relevant developments abroad and in Australian states since Sharma.

I would like to continue my involvement in research about how climate change will impact, and necessitate adaptation of, the law after completing my honours project. Climate change is a defining challenge of our time, and continued delayed action is only making the issue more pressing.

I hope to use the skills I’ve developed throughout my degree to continue investigating how the law can prevent the worst of its impacts and respond to injustices it both causes and exacerbates.

Environmental NGOs have emerged as a key player in global conservation by purchasing and managing ecologically important land estates, thereby diverting some of the state’s environmental governance responsibility.

However, the growing prominence of ENGOs in protected area conservation has largely evaded scrutiny on the socio-political dimensions of their operations, including considerations of whether ENGOs equitably move away from exclusionary conservation practices, or if they too are organised to perpetuate social injustices.

In an environmental law unit, I was introduced to the concept of ENGOs buying up massive parcels of land to do conservation work on as an alternative to the state solely being responsible for environmental governance. As someone with work and volunteer experience at different ENGOs, I found the growing governing authority of the non-profit sector in conservation highly intriguing but was surprised at the prevalent lack of research in the area, especially regarding the social implications of these initiatives.

In settler-colonial societies such as Australia, conservation practices often have a historical legacy of exclusion and forced displacement; however, considerations of equity and justice continue to be overlooked in conservation management. My research therefore aims to integrate environmental justice frameworks into ENGO-led conservation governance in Australia.

As a signatory to the 30 x 30 target, Australia has committed to conserve 30% of its land and waters by 2030. This effort will be significantly propelled by Private Protected Areas, mobilising landowners and ENGOs in the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems that fall under private lands. The exclusion of social equity considerations in private conservation initiatives led by land conservancy ENGOs, despite their rhetoric of collaboration, undermines the long-term sustainability of these efforts by neglecting the perspectives and needs of Indigenous and local communities in the surrounding areas. In the face of increasing environmental pressures in Australia, understanding the social implications of the growing involvement of ENGOs in private conservation will be crucial in identifying strategies and policy recommendations that holistically enhance the effectiveness of protected area management.

Beyond my honours project, I aspire to continue my involvement in environmental research with a focus on emancipatory environmental advocacy. I am passionate about research that empowers communities and raises awareness about the disproportionate vulnerability that the climate crisis imposes on communities around the globe.

As someone from Indo-Fijian heritage, I am particularly interested in advocacy on Pacific climate justice and the promotion of equitable and sustainable climate action that amplifies the voices of frontline communities. 

This project seeks to provide a baseline understanding of the diversity of highly understudied soft sediment communities, and how they are influenced by proximity to coral patch reefs. We will investigate whether these relationships are influenced by coral health to uncover the vulnerability of soft sediment communities to changes in coral driven by anthropogenic stressors.

My research focusses on the ecology of benthic inter-reefal habitat, which actually makes up around 95% of the benthic habitat in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. While volunteering on a field trip to One Tree Island, I got a taste for just how diverse these systems are, and how little they have been studied. With a background in wildlife conservation and marine science, this research gave me the opportunity to contribute to the conservation of a neglected marine system, and help to draw attention to how little we know about the complexity and diversity of the ocean.

At the conclusion of this research, I will be depositing a reference collection of the soft sediment fauna to the Australian Museum, where it will be available for future research. As we face a biodiversity crisis, having an up to date and localised understanding of community ecology is critical. Without a baseline understanding of the community make-up of coral reef benthos, we don’t know what we might be losing. I hope this research will help to shed light on this neglected habitat and support further research into soft sediment communities that inhabit vast swathes of threatened coral reef systems.

I am excited to continue contributing to addressing environmental challenges following the completion of my honours project. Conservation of wildlife and biodiversity is my passion, and I aspire to make a positive impact in this field throughout my career. I look forward to contributing my personal expertise towards multidisciplinary research that tackles these issues.

  • Name: Lauren Hocking
  • Faculty: Faculty of Engineering/Faculty of Science
  • Supervisor: Dr Aaron Opdyke

There is growing evidence suggesting social infrastructure – places that allow people to create and maintain social networks – can play an important role in mitigating and recovering from shocks. My honours thesis aims to investigate the mechanisms through which social infrastructure can create a more effective disaster response and recovery in the Philippines, ranked as the country with the highest disaster risk worldwide.

I was inspired to research social infrastructure due to it being a unique nexus of engineering and social science.

I study a double degree in Civil Engineering and Geography, which has allowed me to think about cities and urban places at multiple scales – including in a technical sense and a more wholistic sense. Studying how people use and value social infrastructure engages the engineering side of my degree by being rooted in the physical construction of spaces within cities, and connects to the geography side of my degree by reflecting on how these places can impact, and be impacted by, the people that use them. It is exciting to get the chance to combine these two areas and contribute to disaster risk reduction efforts by investigating the benefits that this specific form of infrastructure could potentially bring to communities at risk of disasters.

Climate change has already created global adverse impacts, with future changes in climate predicted to intensify hazards. The interaction of these hazards with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity (or lack thereof) will result in disasters, that have immense human, material, economic and environmental losses. These impacts disproportionately affect the world’s poor, and lead to a serious disruption in the functioning of communities.

I hope that my research on the use and value of social infrastructure will aid policymakers in identifying the types of infrastructure projects to prioritise in vulnerable communities, in working towards sustainable development outcomes.

During university I have been working as an undergraduate structural engineer at an multi-disciplinary engineering consulting firm, and hope to continue this after graduating at the end of this year. The building and construction sector contributes significantly to global climate change, presenting an opportunity for greater efficiency in design and reduction of carbon emissions. I hope to join the climate action committee at my workplace and continue to research how structural engineers, through making conscious design choices and advocating for lower-carbon alternatives in their design, can positively contribute to the climate crisis.

  • Name: Antonio Izzo
  • Faculty: School of Geosciences
  • Supervisor: Prof Kurt Iveson

Antonio is the recipient of the Iain McCalman Honours Research Award, in partnership with Chau Chak Wing Museum.

My thesis topic is on the development and governance of public space in Barangaroo after its revitalisation project over the past two decades. Throughout the planning process, public space was renegotiated and reallocated multiple times, which might have affected how people use the space today.

My research is focussed on the governance and management of public space in urban areas and how that affects the people that use it. Depending on the way that we design and manage the built environment around us, it influences who the space is meant to be used by. This is important for understanding unique spaces like Barangaroo. The new development claims to have state-of-the-art sustainable technologies to reduce the environmental impact of the site as well as functional and beautiful architecture, but it is unclear how much of this contributes to the daily use by urban citizens.

I was inspired to pursue this topic for a couple reasons. During one of my urban geography classes, we took a field trip about reading the landscape through Sydney. We identified different things we saw and heard around the city that were clues for issues that affected urban places, including policing and public space. Part of this field trip was focussed on the area around Barangaroo and how its management was changing how people could use the space. I found this to be really fascinating and knew that I wanted to research more into how and why this happened and how it affects our rights to the place. In addition, the way that Barangaroo was designed could be a new model for urban planning projects in the future, like the new Central Square redevelopment in Sydney. Learning more about Barangaroo after the past 15 years of redevelopment could give us better ideas at how to improve on this model in the future to improve equitable and sustainable outcomes.

Public space is often important in cities for providing green areas. These green areas are essential for cooling local air temperatures and can be helpful in supporting local urban ecosystems. As such, my research intends to investigate how public space is distributed throughout Barangaroo and what improves or reduces its quality. While the new development is vastly better than the older shipping port for these climate and ecological outcomes, my research intends to study what improvements there may be for public space in Barangaroo.

I think having a local, historical background to provide context to a research project is vital to it being appropriately contextualised, especially when it is so place-based. The Chau Chak Wing Museum’s collections seemed like a great resource to draw from to inform my research on Barangaroo’s history before the redevelopment project began in the 2000’s. Additionally, the opportunity to be a part of SEI as an Honours Fellow seemed like a great idea to expand my understanding of what research in academia is like and connect with other researchers to form multi-disciplinary relationships.

After my honours project, I plan on working in an urban planning firm for at least a few years, with the aim of contributing to more equitable and sustainable projects. This is to develop new skills in the workplace and apply all of the knowledge I have gained throughout my undergraduate studies. I hope to also continue in research as a PhD student after some time in industry.

Related content