20 June 2022

Climate Change report gives Dinusha’s maps real global impact

Innovation

When Dinusha Jayathilake decided to come to New Zealand from Sri Lanka to study for her PhD in marine science, she never dreamed it would lead to her research gaining global recognition.

It was a friend who alerted Dinusha that her research into undersea plant communities had been cited in an authoritative report of the influential International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released this year, titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

“I was really surprised, I didn’t expect it,” she says. “I’m honoured and happy that the value of my work has been recognised by such an important organisation. I never expected to see my research contributing to real global decision-making.”

Dinusha came to study at the University of Auckland already qualified with a Bachelor’s degree in Botany and Masters in Geoinformatics (now known as Geographic Information Systems). Marine ecologist Professor Mark Costello wanted to undertake mapping of marine plant communities (biomes) and was keen to have Dinusha on board.

“I wanted to apply my skills to a different subject and do something challenging and fulfilling,” she says.

But she was newly married, and it was still a big decision. Her husband Rohana gave up his job as a telecommunications team leader to travel to New Zealand with her and find new employment. Dinusha says they quickly felt at home in the Sri Lankan community in Auckland and were well supported by the university.

Maps help monitor climate change

“I was introduced to high-profile scientists working with marine plants, and to the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) which undertakes policy making on a global level.”

While there is an extensive body of knowledge about plant communities on earth, there is surprisingly little known about plant communities under the sea, and how they can be impacted by climate change.

Dinusha set out to map two common marine plants – seagrass and kelp. “Once we have mapped the plant communities, we can understand what conservation work is needed,” she says. “In some areas there could be two or three types of plants living together. In these places we need to make even greater effort in conservation because they provide a habitat for a range of animals to live, breed, and feed.”

Dinusha’s maps help to provide a baseline of information from which change can be tracked. Part of her project involved projecting what the plant communities would look like in 2100. “I predicted that they were likely to move closer to the polar regions as water in the tropics becomes too warm to sustain them. We need to do as much as possible to protect them now.”

With her maps downloaded more than 300 times during the first year, so she knows her work is of value and is contributing to an emerging picture of the state of the planet.

Teaching and research in Hawke’s Bay

By the time her research appeared in the IPCC report, Dinusha’s life had already moved on. In November 2018, mid-PhD, she gave birth to her daughter. When she completed her studies last year, she felt “a sense of belonging” in New Zealand and started applying for jobs which would allow her to support her family here.

She is thrilled to have secured a role as an Environmental Management lecturer at the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) in Napier. Building on her teaching experience in Sri Lanka, she is loving her time back in the classroom. “I enjoy teaching my students, especially those that return to study after working. I feel valuable to them, and they are valuable to me.”

Alongside her teaching, Dinusha is establishing a research group studying the distribution of freshwater species in Hawke’s Bay waterways and monitoring changes so that targeted conservation work can be undertaken. She has ensured her students are involved.

“Our students collaborate and get real-life research experience. The findings will be useful to organisations such as the Hawkes’ Bay Regional Council, Biodiversity Hawke’s Bay, Department of Conservation, and local iwi.

Taking water samples at Lake Tutira in Northern Hawke's Bay

Working with iwi

“I feel like I’m playing an important role in the kaitiakitanga (protection) of the waterways. I’m learning a lot about the Māori world view, and how much conservation work we can do without disturbing their customs,” she says.

“It is a collaboration with local iwi and hapu. We teach, we guide them, and try to give utmost priority to their culture, while also passing on technology and knowledge to them. It’s a very positive relationship, with more wanting to be involved.”

Dinusha says she is very proud of her achievements and the decision she made back in 2015 to come to New Zealand. “We have a good quality of life here and we are very free. We’d like to stay if we could.”

Other students considering coming to New Zealand should not hesitate, she says. “It is very collaborative and international student-friendly.”

“Get out of your comfort zone and set your challenges as targets. Then you can achieve to your potential and access new opportunities. You have power over your life, so just do it.”

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