Preparing for an alien invasion…

Estonian Christina Birnbaum has spent the last 3.5 years in the company of some very determined, but not always welcome, species of plants.

Nearing completion of her PhD in plant ecology, Christina is looking at how soil bacteria and fungi affect on the spread of plants, and why some plants don’t tend to become invasive at all.

With some of the strictest customs laws in the world, Australia is constantly challenged in its desire to protect its unique flora and fauna from pests. Christina hopes that her research will help environmental managers find new ways to limit the spread of unwanted plant species.

“The growth of international travel means new plant species are increasingly being bought into environments where they don’t occur naturally,” Christina notes. “Often people bring in seeds on their shoes or clothing without even realising.”

“There is certainly a gap of knowledge in understanding the importance of soil bacteria and fungi in the invasion success of plants, especially in Australia.”

After completing bachelor and master degrees in Estonia, where invasion ecology is only just emerging as a field, Christina says she is grateful for the opportunity to complete her research at a university regarded worldwide as a leader in environmental sciences and biology.

“Australia is the perfect place to study plant invasion ecology,” she says. “And with Macquarie holding top spot in Australia and 14th spot in the world for environmental science, I couldn’t imagine myself in any better place.”

“Being surrounded by such highly-motivated and enthusiastic experts is a perfect working environment for anybody, especially a PhD student.”

Christina has also greatly enjoyed the benefits of extensive fieldwork in some of Australia’s most beautiful locations.

Collecting soil samples from the base of an Acacia longifolia tree in Victoria.

I’ve been able to travel regularly to Western Australia and South-east Australia and get to know the picturesque nature and people of this vast country,” she says.

“A typical field day would involve the collection of soil and seed material, before enjoying lunch under the blue sky, a swim in the ocean and an afternoon processing the samples.”

“Each day we would fall asleep looking forward to the next amazing site.”

Read more about Christina Birnbaum’s research.