How UC’s environmental science students are making an impact

The University of Canterbury’s Bachelor of Environmental Science with Honours is a hands-on, transformative degree that empowers students to tackle some of the most urgent sustainability issues facing our world today.

Current UC PhD student, Alex Aves, chose to study environmental science because she wanted to work every day on issues that matter. Her work as a UC student has already made an impact. In 2019 she travelled to Antarctica where she collected snow samples as part of a continuing UC research study into airborne microplastics.

“Travelling to Antarctica felt like a dream,” she says. “You step out of the plane onto a thin strip of ice and everything around you is absolutely still and quiet. It brings all your senses alive.”

Alex Aves taking notes during sample collection in Antarctica, 2019. Photo credit: Lucy Howell.

But amidst that pure white backdrop, a surprise lay in wait.

“My role was to collect snow samples from remote areas and analyse them for microplastics,” says Aves. “We brought the samples back to the lab at UC and I analysed them using a special infrared microscope. It
was a shock to see the unnatural colours of microplastics leaping out at me. Even fresh snow samples from our remotest collection sites contained microplastics.”

Aves’ trip represents the first time such remote snow samples have been collected and analysed. The results have provided notable insight into just how far microplastics spread.

View from Castle Rock, Ross Island across to the Transantarctic Mountains. Photo credit: Alex Aves

It’s the kind of work that’s helping researchers understand the big picture of environmental issues, and empowering programme graduates to make a difference.

UC’s Bachelor of Environmental Science with Honours degree, which launched in 2021, is focused on opening students up to a world of knowledge and opportunity. The broad degree offers excellent teaching and research facilities, field stations, industry connections and ‘mountains to sea’ environmental science in a region known for its diverse geographic terrain. It’s also the only New Zealand degree to be accredited by the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand (EIANZ).

UC is deeply committed to sustainability action across research, education and operations, as demonstrated in its work toward the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2022, UC placed first in the world for SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and 50th overall out of 1,406 universities worldwide.

“We’re delighted with this result, which reflects UC’s commitment to sustainability action and reflects the priorities of our Strategic Vision 2020 – 2030,” UC Pro Vice-Chancellor of Sustainability Professor Jan Evans-Freeman said.

UC’s commitment to the environment is palpable at a student level too. Aves says there are lots of community events at UC that make it easy for students to engage in environmental issues and SDG goals.

“You have a lot of opportunity as a student to be a part of that.”

Now enrolled in her PhD in environmental science, Aves has a few years to figure out exactly what her future path will be. But she’s sure about one thing: she wants to create change.

“Environmental issues are the biggest concern we have at the moment. I want to play a role in making changes that will benefit the world, and inspire others to get involved in the decisions that affect us all.”

At a glance:

4-year specialist degree

Six choices of interdisciplinary major:

  • Ecosystem Health and Biosecurity
  • Environmental Change
  • Environmental Contamination
  • Environmental Hazards and Disasters
  • Freshwater
  • Sustainable Coasts

The only New Zealand degree accredited by EIANZ.

UC ranked 50th overall for SDG goals, out of 1,406 universities worldwide.

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