UNSW Dean of Science wins top Royal Society of NSW accolade

Professor Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at UNSW Sydney, has won the prestigious Royal Society of NSW 2018 Clarke Medal, for her novel research on the impact of human activities in complex marine ecosystems.

The award, presented annually for outstanding research in the fields of zoology, botany, and geology, was announced at a Royal Society of NSW event in Sydney last night. It is the second consecutive year the Clarke Medal has been awarded to a UNSW Science researcher.

Professor Johnston, a world-leading marine ecologist, was recognised for her ground-breaking research developing field-based ecotoxicological experiments that examine the effects of pollution, dredging, habitat destruction and the introduction of invasive species on marine animals.

“I am honoured to accept an award that recognises research in the field of zoology. A deeper understanding of our coastal ecosystems is critical to human survival in a rapidly changing world,” says Professor Johnston. 

“The greatest phyletic diversity of animals occurs in the oceans, in part because that’s where life evolved. I accept this Clarke Medal as an acknowledgement of the importance of understanding the often ‘unseen’ marine life within the broader context of animal biology.”

Estuarine ecosystems

Professor Johnston, who contributes to environmental management programs around the world, is now leading the development of molecular approaches to monitoring the biodiversity and functioning of estuarine ecosystems.

Professor Johnston’s research also identifies drivers of marine animal invasion success – or the establishment of species outside their native range – a frequent event that can disrupt ecosystems and reduce biodiversity.

Adopting an original approach as an empirical ecologist, Professor Johnston’s research is collaborative, interdisciplinary and applied in real world conditions that involves linking with industry, government, students and community.

“This research takes time, a creative and collaborative approach, and bringing together the largely disparate fields of ecology, ecotoxicology and invasion biology,” she explains.

The Royal Society of NSW is the oldest learned society in Australia. More than 50 Clarke Medals have been awarded to date, It one of the most highly prized awards for natural sciences, with the disciplines of botany, zoology and geology considered in rotation every three years. The 2017 Clarke Medal in the field of Botany was awarded to Professor David Keith, Professor of Botany at UNSW and Senior Principal Research Scientist, NSW Office of Environment & Heritage.