Ice, dirt and fire: interview with Dr Sam Grover

Ice, dirt and fire: interview with Dr Sam Grover

La Trobe scientist Dr Samantha Grover will sail to Antarctica this December as part of a unique leadership and strategy training program for women scientists that aims to elevate their ability to influence global sustainability.

Dr Grover is one of 77 female scientists from across the globe selected to take part in the inaugural expedition of the Homeward Bound Project. She is based at our AgriBio, Centre for Agribioscience and is an active member of the Research Focus Area Securing Food, Water and Environment.

Having worked on projects in the Australian Alps, Tibet, New Zealand, Indonesia and now taking part in this, Dr Grover reflects: ‘science can definitely take you to a lot of interesting places’.

Antarctica expedition champions women in science

‘What if balancing the gender voice at the leadership table was one of the most effective ways to influence environmental sustainability and reduce human impact on the global environment?’

That’s the question at the heart of the Homeward Bound project, a leadership and strategy training initiative for female scientists to fast-track a sustainable future.

Leaving from Ushuaia, Argentina for Antarctica, Dr Grover says this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity takes place entirely on a boat. ‘The ship takes a week to get down there, a week travelling around the Antarctic Peninsula, and then a week to get back’.

The course content aims to equip the scientists on board with the skills and courage to take on greater leadership roles and responsibilities, thus helping to tackle the chronic worldwide lack of female scientists particularly in leadership positions.

It also aims to bring together these leading scientists from various fields to create a supportive network and generate future collaborations.

‘The women involved in Homeward Bound are inspiring, talented scientists from all different disciplines and three weeks on a boat together will create a strong bond, a network of support that will help us all as our careers progress’ says Dr Grover.

Restoring Indonesia’s peatlands

Currently a Research Fellow, Dr Grover is a soil scientist who studied her Honours and PhD with us. ‘I did my PhD on the Sphagnum peatlands of the Australian Alps, which are a special and endangered ecosystem that occur in the Alpine National Parks of Victoria, NSW and the ACT,’ Dr Grover explains.

‘I studied how the peat soils hold water, how water moves through them, and how these very high-carbon ecosystems store and release carbon.’

Since then, Dr Grover has gained international recognition for her work and become an active and renowned scientist in the Australian soil scientist community.

A testament to her specialist expertise, the Australian government recently commissioned Grover to lead a scoping project to identify how soil science research can support the restoration of Indonesia’s peatlands. Drained progressively since the Mega Rice Project of the late ‘90s, dry and burning peatlands are the cause of the South East Asian Haze.

‘The traditional agricultural practice cultivates only small areas on the shallow peatlands, leaving the forest on the deep peats intact.

‘As part of the Mega Rice Project, the government put in this huge nation-building drainage network. While no rice ever grew there, the canals remain, continuing to dry the peat.’


Now when there are fires, it’s not just the forest burning but the actual soil can stay on fire for months. Canals are still being dug through the peatlands as drainage is required for cultivation of oil palm and acacia for paper production.

Illegal logging also continues in this region, and logs are floated out of the forest in small canals. All of these man-made water ways dry out the peatlands, which are then susceptible to fire.

‘The first big fires were in ’97 and they have continued to become more frequent into the 2000s. The burning peat causes a toxic Haze, air pollution hazardous to the young and old.

‘This haze is an international issue, as the smoke blows to neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia. Cities close down for days at a time each year, causing billions of dollars in economic disruption.’

Indonesia’s peatlands store enormous amounts of carbon, making a significant contribution to the global carbon cycle. Fires release this carbon to the atmosphere and the dried, degraded peatlands can no longer act as carbon sinks. The peatlands are also crucial habitat for the endangered Orangutans and Sumatran Tigers.

At the Paris Climate talks, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo stated his commitment to restoring these degraded peatlands. The Peatland Restoration Agency, a new government Ministry reporting directly to the President, aims to restore 2 million hectares of degraded peatlands by 2020.

The Australian government will support the work of the Peatland Restoration Agency via scientific collaboration.

Arts vs science, and the path to a research career

Dr Grover studied a double degree in Arts (political science) and Science (chemistry), and is able to draw on both in her current soil science career.

‘I’ve always thought soil science is a really cool area where the natural environment – i.e. the chemistry – and the people – i.e. personal and political land management – come together.

‘Certainly with this new project in Indonesia, we’re working to restore the peatland soil and getting into the national-scale policy structural change and personal practise change at the village-level.’

As for the attraction to soil science, Dr Grover says she’s always been interested in the environment. ‘In high school, I set up the environment committee, recycling and ‘adopt a beach’. I always liked science, I was good at science and was encouraged to pursue science.’

Taking a few soil science subjects in her undergrad, Dr Grover says ‘it just made so much sense to me as a way to understand the environment – especially as I had a chemistry background already.’

Dr Grover says, ‘While a lot of my time is spent working alone in the lab or analysing data and writing at the computer, I relish the opportunity to go to conferences where you can talk with other scientists about your work and explore common interests.’

Publishing is also key to success in science. ‘Ray Leuning, a renowned CSIRO climate scientist, told me ‘If you haven’t published the research, then you haven’t done it,’ says Dr Grover.

‘People from around the world that I’ve never even met have read the journal articles that I published from my PhD research and then contacted me to invite me to be part of a couple different global peatland research projects.’ Dr Grover is a keen participant in the RED Unit’s November Academic Writing Month.

‘I’ve always worked on climate change-related projects, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to lead one, and one with such global significance. Because our research is closely linked with the Indonesian government’s desire to solve the problem of the Haze, it really has the potential to affect the whole world, which is just so exciting.’

Find out more about our world-class AgriBio facility and where studying with us can take you.