Protecting our most precious resource: The Aussie researcher ‘testing the waters’ in Michigan

Exiting his plane and entering into one of the country’s deadliest bushfire seasons, Michael Scobie returned to Australia in January – greeted by severe drought and extreme heatwaves.

It was in stark contrast to where the University of Southern Queensland researcher had been living in Michigan, one of the wettest, coldest regions in the United States.

The father-of-two moved there with his family for six months to work with Michigan State University as part of his PhD studies into international water management and irrigation.

“Coming home was pretty heartbreaking, to be honest,” Mr Scobie said.

“Everything was just so dry. We had just seen the abundance in North America and the seasons changing from bright green in the summer, to orange in the autumn, and finally white with snow in December.”

Mr Scobie’s Felton Valley home, near Toowoomba, which has an average rainfall of 690mm, had just 170mm in 2019.

“We sold almost all our cattle before we left to go overseas, but when we got home there wasn’t a blade of grass left on the place.”

Despite water scarcity, he said Australia was a world leader in irrigation research.

“Australia’s long history with drought has paved the way for innovative thinking,” he said.

“Australian research, particularly in the irrigation space, is some of the most advanced in the world.”

Combining his Australian findings with what he learned during his six months at Michigan State University, the PhD candidate is now pioneering research applicable to a range of conditions facing small farmers in developing countries.

“My PhD is on decision support systems for irrigation in developing countries,” he said.

“The technology that I learned about in the US, I took with me on multiple visits to Vietnam.”

“We’re doing similar tasks on different continents under varying climatic conditions.”

With engineering and science degrees from the University of Southern Queensland under his belt, Mr Scobie is well on his way to achieving a doctorate, delivering his Confirmation of Candidature last week – the most significant milestone in the first year of PhD study.

“I’ve spent ten years thinking about doing it, and now I’m finally on the way.”

His next step will see him working with coffee and pepper farmers in Vietnam to help them understand and manage their water use to maximise yield and profit.

*Michael Scobie’s collaboration with Michigan State University was part of the Australian Governments prestigious Endeavour Research Leadership Award – supporting overseas study opportunities and professional development for Australia’s highest-performing students, researchers and professionals.*

man in field with sky behind him
His next step will see him working with coffee and pepper farmers in Vietnam to help them understand and manage their water use to maximise yield and profit.