It was a casual conversation that would change the course of Distinguished Professor Sharon Robinson’s career. The then biochemist, who was researching photosynthesis, had delivered a presentation at a conference in Australia on why the leaves of some plants took on red pigments to survive.
She was approached after the presentation by a fellow attendee, who asked if she had ever been to Antarctica, where there were whole beds of moss that turned bright red in summer.
Her interest piqued, Professor Robinson submitted a grant proposal to study the red moss of Antarctica and what was causing it to change colour. At the same time, she was applying for a role at the University of Wollongong (UOW).
“I told the person hiring me that if I got the job, I might have to go to Antarctica for four months. I don’t think they believed it would happen, but then I got the job and I got the grant.”
More than 27 years later, Professor Robinson has been acknowledged on the national stage for her immense contribution to the field of climate science in the 2023 King’s Birthday Honours List.
Governor-General David Hurley today (Monday 12 June) appointed Professor Robinson a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the annual awards, paying tribute to her significant service to science, particularly the study of Antarctic environmental change.
An internationally renowned researcher and academic, Professor Robinson was among hundreds of inspiring Australians recognised for their contributions to their communities and their respective professions.
Professor Robinson said she was surprised and delighted by the honour.
“The most exciting part for me is the community and public recognition of my role as a scientist, and the impact of that science on the community,” she said.
“It is one thing to have recognition in your discipline, but to see that work valued by the wider community is very heartening and empowering, particularly as a woman in STEM.”
Professor Robinson’s list of accolades is extensive. She is Dean of Researcher Development at UOW, Director of the University’s Global Challenges Program, a member of the United Nations Environment Programme Environment Effects Assessment Panel, and Deputy Director of Science Implementation for the Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future, a program funded through the Australian Research Council’s Special Research Initiative in Excellence in Antarctic Science.
In addition, Professor Robinson was a finalist in the 2021 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science and, in that same year, was named the winner of the Innovation Achievement Award in Wollongong City Council’s Australia Day honours.
Educated in the United Kingdom, Professor Robinson completed her PhD in plant physiology and biochemistry at University College London in 1990 and spent the next few years undertaking research into photosynthesis in the United States and at the Australian National University in Canberra before that conversation sparked her interest in, and career pivot to, Antarctica.
Her research has encompassed the health of plants in Antarctica, and their ability to survive in such extreme conditions. In particular, she has been fascinated by the impact of climate change on biodiversity in Antarctica.
Professor Robinson’s research has been ground-breaking in the field, with her decades of experience enabling her to provide a comprehensive narrative of how mosses and plants have been affected by the changing environment in Antarctica. Using radiocarbon signatures, left behind in the atmosphere by nuclear testing, Professor Robinson and her team have used existing and emerging technology to date mosses, monitor their health and productivity, and track environmental change in the continent.
So, after close to 30 years, what continues to draw her to the wild, southern-most continent?
“I have always been amazed by the ability of plants to survive in Antarctica, by their ability to cope with the environment and how long they’ve been there. There are mosses there that are hundreds of years old, like old growth forests. They are a powerful reminder of how climate change is affecting the planet.
“What happens in Antarctica impacts the whole globe. I have seen first hand how the environment is changing, and it is an urgent reminder that we need to do more to address climate change.
“One of the things that I love about academia, is that if you have a good idea, and can find the funding to support it, then you can bring that idea to life. If you see a problem, you can solve it. I find that very empowering, and that was how I started out, in wanting to know how the ozone layer was affecting plants in Antarctica.”
UOW Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Patricia M. Davidson congratulated Professor Robinson on her inclusion in the King’s Birthday Honours and said it reflected her commitment to the field of science and to educating the community about the importance of acting on climate change.
“Congratulations to Distinguished Professor Sharon Robinson. The University is extremely proud of her outstanding contribution to the field of science and to promoting understanding of climate change. Her research is both fascinating and urgent and has contributed to our global knowledge of the changing environment in Antarctica and, consequently, around the world.
“Professor Robinson’s accomplishments inspire past, current and future students of the University as well as our staff to make a positive impact on our communities.”
India is a Media and Public Relations Specialist at the University of Wollongong