Science graduate ‘paid’ to dive globe for a year | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Science graduate ‘paid’ to dive globe for a year

New University of the Sunshine Coast graduate Pablo Fuenzalida is scuba-geared up for an extraordinary year underwater as the only Australasian recipient of a coveted research scholarship backed by Rolex.

The 24-year-old keen shark conservationist is one of three global winners announced by the 50-year-old Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® for 2024.

Pablo flies to New York City this week to network with top ocean researchers, photographers and professionals and officially receive his $40,000 scholarship for 12 months of scientific scuba diving, field experience in marine megafauna movement, and engaging in science communication.

“I almost didn’t apply because I never thought I could gain such a competitive and prestigious opportunity,” said Pablo, who is a UniSC Science Honours graduate with a combined degree in Animal Ecology and Business (Tourism, Leisure and Events Management).

“It will enable me to travel the world improving my skills as a marine scientist, with a heavy focus on marine research and communication.”

Bachelor of Animal Ecology
Bachelor of Animal Ecology

Want to work with animals? In UniSC’s Bachelor of Animal Ecology you’ll study animals in their natural habitats and learn how we can protect wildlife in a changing environment.

The first experience he has lined up is diving with great white sharks off South Australia for a month from 10 June. His sights are then set regions throughout the South Pacific, from New Zealand to Tonga and Chile.

“My Honours research involved shark movement and conservation so I can’t wait to join that expedition off Port Lincoln,” said Pablo, who was born in Chile, raised in New Zealand and came to Australia in 2007.

“I worked three jobs in hospitality in my first year of uni and my marks suffered. But, when I found my passion, I ended up with a perfect 7 grade point average in my last two years at UniSC. And now I’m being paid to pursue my career!”

'I worked three jobs in hospitality in my first year of uni and my marks suffered. But, when I found my passion, I ended up with a perfect 7' - Pablo Fuenzalida
‘Mum made me apply to unis’

While Pablo’s earliest memories were of fun by the beach, he certainly wasn’t ready to study it when he finished high school in Canberra in 2016.

“I grew up in three different countries and was always around the ocean,” he said.

“In Northern New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, I camped on the beach with my parents, and my dad would take us kayaking and fishing. At Airlie Beach in Queensland, I snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef with mum.

“I joined surf lifesaving nippers from the age of seven, which taught me how to be a seal in the water and comfortable in the surf zone.”

When Pablo first moved to his current address close to Coolum on the Sunshine Coast, he developed a love for the underwater realm, observing fish in their environment.

“There’s a great rocky reef off Coolum full of stingrays, turtles, coral and sharks, all of this cool stuff, and it grabbed my attention,” he said.

High school, however, did not. “I went to eight schools over 12 years and hated studying by the time I finished. Mum made me apply to unis but when I was accepted at UniSC I deferred for a gap year.”

On a trip to South America, he had a fateful argument with a local about climate change.

“He was adamant that it was a hoax, and I realised I enjoyed arguing about the state of our declining climate, but I also wanted to have more scientific facts to prove him wrong. I came back to Australia.”

Pablo (right) jumps into opportunities to research the marine environment.
If at first you don’t succeed…

In 2018, Pablo enrolled in environmental management at UniSC but soon switched to a double degree including a Bachelor of Animal Ecology to immerse himself in the natural environment like famous conservationists David Attenborough and Steve Irwin.

“I studied the business side, focused on tourism, leisure and events management, so I had back-up in case I wasn’t good enough as a scientist,” he said.

“But I worked so much to make money in the first two years that I barely passed my subjects.”

His prospects suddenly improved when he volunteered for a special research project, known as an SRP, with UniSC Professor of Marine Science Thomas Schlacher. This led to a casual job as a research assistant with Professor Schlacher.

“I worked for two years in beach ecology while studying, visiting amazing places like K’gari, Double Island Point, Moreton Island and Minjerribah to collect data – and rubbish,” Pablo said.

“We mapped the distribution of marine debris along our coasts to identify hotspots to assist beach cleanup efforts”.

By then, he was hooked on saving the marine environment in all its biodiversity as well as becoming involved in campus life and opportunities at UniSC Sunshine Coast.

He joined the Students as Partners program as a paid peer-assisted study session leader, was employed casually as a Student Ambassador, and volunteered for a work place learning (WPL) course with Senior Lecturer in Tourism, Leisure and Events Dr Vikki Schaffer.

Students as Partners

Join our volunteer program to meet new friends, have a say on student issues, and contribute to the student experience.

The WPL course led to a year’s casual work at Sunshine Coast Council, helping to create and communicate a new citizen science program.

“It really helped merge my degrees and career,” he said.

Dr Schaffer also offered him a research assistant role on a grant project to encourage more inclusivity in citizen science by making participation more accessible for people with disabilities.

The project used cutting-edge technology such as UniSC’s visualisation studio, virtual reality and technologically advanced telescopes to engage the local community in marine and astronomy citizen science activities.

Pablo on campus at Sippy Downs. He enjoyed multiple paid and voluntary roles at UniSC.
The world at his fins

Scuba diving was already a recreation and a study tool for Pablo when he completed a year’s Science Honours degree with UniSC ecologists and researchers Dr Ross Dwyer, Associate Professor Kylie Scales and Professor David Schoeman, as well as Dr Carley Kilpatrick of the Department of Environment, Science and Innovation (DESI).

“My Honours was super interesting, studying the movement and conservation of the critically endangered grey nurse sharks along the east Australian coastline,” he said.

“I wrestled large collaborative datasets into applied statistical modelling to find out what oceanographic predictors, like sea temperature or currents, cause the sharks to move between certain regions and possibly become at risk of negative interactions with humans,” he said.

Bachelor of Science (Honours)

The Bachelor of Science (Honours) is offered in the areas of biomedical science, environmental science, microbiology and biotechnology, public health, and sport and exercise science

Pablo was delighted to receive a UniSC Vice-Chancellor’s Academic Excellence Scholarship worth $5,000 to help ease the juggle between work and study during his Honours year.

He also received an external bursary from the Marine Biological Association to attend an international conference in Auckland to present his shark research at the end of 2023.

“In the end, I got a perfect 7 GPA in the last year of my double degree studies and a perfect score on my Honours research. It was funny – the harder my courses got, the better my grades got.

“Mixing practical experiences such as fieldwork with coding and applied statistics has grounded me in what a modern marine ecologist needs to thrive as an early career researcher.

“I want to find my niche and keep riding this wave – starting with this new scholarship and New York City.”

Pablo now works for citizen science non-profit organisation Reef Check Australia, a job he gained after watching an inspiring lecture by their manager in his first year as a student and volunteering across the region in grassroots conservation activities for four years.

'Mixing practical experiences such as fieldwork with coding and applied statistics has grounded me in what a modern marine ecologist needs to thrive as an early career researcher' - Pablo

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