Professor Rebecca Lester

Director, Centre for Regional and Rural Futures

The plight of the ecologically devastated Murray-Darling Basin forms a major focus in the work of Rebecca Lester, a Professor of Freshwater Ecology and the Director of the Centre for Regional and Rural Futures (CeRRF) at Deakin University.

Leading the charge to save the Murray-Darling Basin

The giant river system spanning three Australian states has been ravaged by drought and the onset of climate change, impacting salinity, erosion, algal blooms, water quality and native fauna.

Prof. Lester is working to develop a Basin-wide ecological response model, including investigating climate adaptation. It’s one of an increasing number of focus areas for Prof. Lester and her CeRRF team as the effects of climate change accelerate; others include growing the resilience of drought-impacted communities, investigating the response of regional streams to restoration efforts, and research into how aquatic insects respond to their environment.

Endlessly fascinated by the world and its organisms

'I find the world that we live in endlessly fascinating in terms of how it operates, and the organisms that live in it and interact with their environment,' she says. 'I’m keen to find ways to develop management solutions that are sustainable for both humans and the environment.'

Embracing research from an early age and driven to find opportunities to make a difference, Prof. Lester obtained Bachelor’s degrees in Science and Engineering from University of Melbourne, a PhD in aquatic ecology from Monash and worked in research roles at Flinders University and the CSIRO before joining Deakin University in 2011. In 2019, she received the Deakin Vice Chancellor’s Award for International Research Collaboration.

'I chose to work at Deakin because of its strength in marine and freshwater biology and ecology, its focus on partner-oriented and applied research, and because the calibre of researchers is excellent,' she says.

Broad skills needed for an array of emerging issues

Prof. Lester focuses on aquatic ecosystem management, including intersection with ecological theory, species and community ecology, as well as human and environmental processes that affect ecosystems. 'I’m also interested in social and economic impacts of natural resource management,' she says. 'I specialise in synthesising knowledge across disciplines and developing predictive models. I also have expertise in ecological statistics and modelling, and experimental design.'

Such a diverse skillset is necessary when tackling a broadening array of demanding issues, but Prof. Lester also thrives on the processes of research, problem-solving and passing on her skills to new generations of researchers.

'I love working on collaborative projects, where the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. Working with individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives means that I always learn something new, and this interest is reflected in the range of topics covered by my research,' she says.

'I hope that my research adds to our ability to balance human needs and environmental outcomes, and to understand how that balance may be affected under future climates.'

CeRRF questions and answers

We sat down with Rebecca to find out about the Centre for Regional and Rural Futures.

About CeRRF

What is the Centre for Regional and Rural Futures, and what inspired you to become its Director?

CeRRF develops innovative research solutions for regional and rural communities by collaborating with industry, government, the community and not-for-profit sectors. We contribute to the design of smarter technologies to enhance regional and rural productivity across agriculture, soil science, ecology, and economic development.

I was inspired to become CeRRF’s Director because I had ideas about how to better support PhD candidates and postdocs undertaking early career research that I wanted to put into practice. There is a perception that scientists should pursue either ‘blue sky’ unadulterated research or industry-led projects, but I believe we can do both by successfully building high-quality research into everything that we do with industry. Researchers need to foster strong relationships with industry partners to identify and work through ‘real world’ problems, delivering industry solutions and science outputs. Being the Centre’s Director has allowed me more time to focus on this idea.

What do you enjoy about being the Director and how do you balance that task with your own research?

I most enjoy the incredible range of projects upon which I have the opportunity to work, and the interesting people associated with those projects. I am fortunate that [Faculty Executive Dean] Karen [Hapgood] and [Deputy Dean] David [Halliwell] give me the freedom to take CeRRF in the direction I want to take it. A lot of the areas that we work on, such as food innovation, drought resilience, sustainable water management, and regional development, have come into sharper focus since the COVID-19 outbreak, which has given CeRRF – and indeed, Deakin – the chance to work with a range of different stakeholders. There is now a greater emphasis on research collaboration with other institutions and industry players which affords us better opportunities to apply our research and have real impact.

What do you think distinguishes CeRRF from its competitors?

CeRRF sits in an unusual space in terms of the breadth of our research. Our core focus is to create value for communities and industry partners and that’s quite a unique strategy; we need high academic output but the driving force is our outfacing impact, which spans regional communities to government agencies and the companies with whom we work. While we cover a broad range of research areas, our approach is bespoke, and we have a strong reputation for tailoring solutions to our partners’ specific challenges. CeRRF operates under a very collaborative model, within Deakin and beyond, which enables us to bring together the right people, tools and skillsets to respond to particular problems.

How do you see CeRRF contributing to Deakin's strategic priorities? What are your priorities for the Centre?

CeRRF’s research is aligned to each of Deakin’s key priorities: enabling a sustainable world; advancing society, culture and the economy; building safe and secure communities; creating smarter technologies; and improving health and wellbeing. Our research strengths – which include regional development, climate adaptation and drought resilience, smart sensing and agricultural technologies, irrigation, sustainable agriculture and food security, soil health and environmental remediation, plant science, and food innovation – reflect the most urgent local and global challenges and shape our strategic direction.

CeRRF projects

What are some of the major projects CeRRF is working on?

CeRRF was recently named a key partner in the new $8 million Victorian Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub. Based at the University of Melbourne’s Dookie Campus, the Hub is one of eight established under the Australian Government’s $5 billion Future Drought Fund to stem the economic, social and environmental impacts of drought. CeRRF will draw on its expertise in climate adaptation and drought management, irrigation and water use, smart sensing, regional scenario planning and strategic design to equip farming communities with knowledge, technologies and practices to adapt to the State’s changing climate.

We are developing a basin-wide ecological response model for the Murray-Darling and investigating climate adaptation in the basin, which includes six of Australia’s seven longest rivers and covers about one-seventh of the Australian landmass – one of the country’s most significant agricultural areas. This will provide decision-makers with new capabilities to assess the value of water delivered for the environment.

We also have various water research projects underway across Australia, exploring topics ranging from the effects of human-driven change on river health to smart irrigation and sensing technologies in rice and cotton systems. Collaborators include Barwon Water, Water Research Australia, Corangamite and Mallee Catchment Management Authorities, Sunrice, and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation.

The Great South Coast Economic Futures report, prepared for local governments with Regional Development Victoria support, concentrated on high-value economic development pathways including green hydrogen industrial research and development, water-secure agriculture and horticulture precincts, and sustainable land-based aquaculture. The report cemented CeRRF’s leadership in regional development and we are now responding to requests for studies from other regions.

Overseas, we are exploring the development of cost-effective technologies to remediate oil-contaminated sediments in Kuwait, and an ACIAR-funded project is looking at ways to increase the sustainability, productivity and economic value of coffee and black pepper farming systems in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Higher Degree by Research 

What disciplines are you looking for in your HDR students and how can prospective students engage with CeRRF?

We are happy to embed HDR students in any of our research. We offer PhD opportunities in specialty areas including irrigation, agricultural innovation, soil science, ecology, GIS land-based mapping, predictive capacity (climate science), and regional development. We encourage prospective candidates to identify the area within CERRF in which they’re interested and to contact the relevant research leader to determine whether we can match their interests with our offerings.

How do HDR students contribute to the work CeRRF is doing? Where do you see your current HDR students working in the future? How do you see them contributing to the field in future?

We try to bring HDRs into existing research projects to provide training opportunities with industry partners in a broader context, and to give us more capacity to take on interesting ‘value add’ opportunities outside our usual project load. This is a win-win situation for everyone.

The future of CeRRF

What do you think will be some of the most exciting or groundbreaking uses of CeRRF’s research in 10-20 years’ time?

Many parts of Victoria and Australia haven’t been able to see a clear future for a long time; a lot of young adults leave country regions for the cities and our rural areas predominantly produce commodities – they don’t typically value-add or have access to city-standard services. COVID-19 has provided an unprecedented opportunity to decentralise; flexible working means that everything doesn’t need to be in cities anymore – we can create vibrant regional centres and economies where people can live and work in a way that is viable. Disruption brought on by the pandemic and international events, including Biden’s election in the US, also have renewed the focus on climate and sustainability. We are rethinking the ways that we use our resources – land, water, energy – which again turns the attention to our regions, building on existing identities and natural capital and exploring how we can add value to – rather than alter – that. In Griffith, Deakin pioneered an initiative to link teenagers with cadetships in local regions, and we are focused on building our regions to create ongoing education, career and lifestyle opportunities for young people. In 10 or 20 years, we want to be able to demonstrate that CeRRF’s research has had a resounding impact; that we’ve contributed to the development of robust regional communities that support economically sustainable ventures, are great places for kids to grow up, and generate positive environmental, cultural and social outcomes.