Topic Areas and Contacts

The following is a list of research areas within the School of Agriculture and Food. If you are interested in discussing potential research projects in any of these areas, please contact the Academic listed. You should also consider speaking to Subject Coordinators and /or staff who have taught you in any specialist areas.

AGRICULTURAL SCIENCES:

Agricultural economics, agribusiness and resource use in farming and environmental systems

Research Area 1: Agricultural Economics

Questions of farm and environmental resource management and policy are vital today and will remain so in the future. The agricultural economics discipline provides a unifying framework for assessing the benefits and costs of changes in agricultural and natural resource use for individuals and societies. The imperatives of food production for a growing population with reduced impacts on natural environments using limited resources require urgent attention in Australia and around the world. Agribusiness and supply chain analysis is becoming increasingly important. Examples of recent project work include: (i) a survey of dairy farmers in the Broken Catchment, (ii) development of integrated spatial database and application for Goulburn Broken catchment and (iii) development of preliminary viticulture bio- economic models.

Initial contact Dr Bob Farquharson  bob.farquharson@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 2: Agribusiness value chains

Research projects are suited to the analysis of different agrifood / agribusiness industry segments in Australia. The projects might employ industry strategy or supply / value chain analytical techniques. These are suited to students with study backgrounds in agribusiness / agricultural economics.

Prof. Garry Griffith ggriffith@unimelb.edu.au

A/Prof Bill Malcolm bill.malcolm@ecodev.vic.gov.au

Research Area 3: Agribusiness ownership and governance

Ownership and governance patterns are changing in relation to agricultural and agribusiness assets. These patterns are accompanied by different motivations for investing into these asset types. Analysis of trends in the area is suited to students with a background in agribusiness, financial management or agricultural economics.

Peter McSweeney peterm1@unimelb.edu.au

Ros Gall  rosgall@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 4: Dairy Systems Innovation

The number of robotic milking systems being used in the Australian dairy industry is increasing, but challenges remain for their integration into pasture-based production systems.   A number of project opportunities exist to investigate aspects of this integration utilising the new robotic milking facility at The University of Melbourne Dookie dairy farm.  Project topics include investigating voluntary cow movement around the system, understanding cow pasture intake and nutritive value, and methods for estimating pasture mass.

Dr Brendan Cullen bcullen@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 5: Agricultural Economics / Value Chains

Suited to students with knowledge of food market structure and operation, and the principles and methods of price analysis. This research program includes a range of studies that cover the whole marketing system for food products and those aspects that have efficiency or policy implications. There are potential studies in the area of marketing margins for different types of products, in descriptions of market structures, in mapping value chains, and in testing particular hypotheses about market behavior. Examples include estimating price transmission elasticities for Australian food products.  Other project areas focus on economic perspectives on recent changes in the structure of food retailing and work in testing hypotheses about non-competitive behavior, in developing models of different food markets, and in assessing the efficiency of price formation in spatial markets. Suited to students with knowledge of livestock production and marketing systems, and farm management principles. This research program also includes a range of studies which aim to describe and model livestock production systems and then examine the economic impacts of interventions in those systems.

Prof. Garry Griffith ggriffith@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 6: Water resources

Project opportunities exist in the area of integrated water resource management particularly in relation to the evaluation of economic, social and environmental integration of catchment systems. Important to this understanding is both valuing water and calculating water reliability in irrigation systems. The value of water depends on what it is used for and has both a spatial and a temporal component to it. Water reliability (how much they get and when) is a key determinate of the value people will pay for water. Students who are interested in determining the value of water in Australia’s various catchments and/or who want to model water use in catchments should discuss.

Assoc Prof Brian Davidson b.davidson@unimelb.edu.au

Animal metabolism and physiology

Project opportunities which exist examining better understanding of animal metabolism and physiology toward achieving productivity and profitability improvement in production systems. Indicative areas include:

Research Area 1: Nutritional strategies to ameliorate heat stress in production animals

With increased intensification of production, forecast increases in temperature and participation in tropical production heat stress is both a current and emerging problem for livestock production. There are several projects spanning the physiology of heat stress and cost to production in poultry, pigs, dairy cattle and sheep. There is a particular focus on the damage caused by heat stress to the gastrointestinal tract and metabolic shifts underpinned by altered hormone sensitivity, oxidative stress and respiratory alkalosis. With these mechanisms in mind there are specific projects to optimise nutrition as an adaptation strategy for tropical production or use as “summer rations” against seasonal heat waves in sub-tropical environments.

Research Area 2: Improving performance in first parity sows

First parity sows (gilts) comprise ~22% of the Australian breeding herd and are essential for sow replacement. However the progeny of gilts are born lighter than progeny from later parity sows, with this reduction in body weight being persistent for life. Previous results have demonstrated shown poorer gastrointestinal barrier function and development in gilt progeny. In part this is due to poorer milk production in the younger gilts and future research will investigate methods for modifying milk composition and production.

Research Area 3: Toxin binding agents

Hygiene challenges and contamination of stock feed with moulds, fungi and endophytes can increase morbidity and mortality in production animals. This project will investigate the efficacy of in feed binding agents at reducing toxicity of commonly encountered toxins in cell models of the gastrointestinal tract.

Research Area 4: Sheep Production

There are several projects available that are part of a large MLA and Grasslanz Technology NZ funded Major Research Project aimed at developing strategies to mitigate production losses associated with perennial ryegrass toxicosis in sheep. These include (i) efficacy of feeding rumen detoxifying agents to reduce alkaloid absorption in sheep and (ii) comparison of sheep performance grazing perennial ryegrass containing novel entophytes.

Research Area 5: Dairy Sheep and Goat Production

A series of projects are available aimed at improving the productivity and profitability of dairy sheep and dairy goat industries in Australia. The major emphasis of these projects is on nutrition, growth and lactation physiology but other project areas will be considered subject to availability of resources.

Specific projects include (i) determining optimum growth curves and optimum age at first joining in dairy lambs and kids, (ii) determining the optimum lactation length in goats and (iii) investigating strategies to maximize energy intake as whole grain and conserved pasture (hay and silage).

A/Prof Brian Leury brianjl@unimelb.edu.au

Prof Frank Dunshea fdunshea@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Kristy DiGiacomo kristyd@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Jeremy Cottrell jcottrell@unimelb.edu.au

Animal Science and Welfare

Research Area: Animal Behaviour and Welfare

Suited to students with demonstrated interested in one or a combination of animal behaviour / physiology / biology. The research program in the Animal Welfare Science Centre encompasses a wide array of studies on animal behaviour and welfare, on animals, particularly farm animals (e.g. pigs, poultry, dairy cattle and sheep) but also on zoo and companion animals. These studies are mainly focused on the effects of housing, husbandry and human effects on animal behaviour and welfare. Some of the longer term projects currently running which provide opportunities for Honour or Masters project include, for example, (i) welfare implications of housing systems, both indoor and outdoor such as free-range systems, for sows, laying hens and meat chickens, (ii) welfare implications of different types of environmental enrichment for group-housed growing pigs and sows, (iii) effects of visitors and animal handlers on farm and zoo animals, (iv) development and application of animal welfare training programs for animal handlers and companion animal owners, and (v) development and validation of welfare indices for assessing animal welfare in the field for farm, companion and zoo animals.

Prof Paul Hemsworth phh@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Ian Bland ibland@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Jean Loup Rault raultj@unimelb.edu.au

Climate Change

Climate change will impact our ability to produce food products and poses a significant challenge for agricultural systems to secure future food demand. Mitigation efforts are now unlikely to meet requirements and to avoid impacts adaptive strategies need to be implemented. Climate change will also impact on plants differently, depending on their climatic suitability and range tolerance. As climate change advances, some plant species used in agriculture may struggle in their current environments, while others may encroach due to improved suitability.

Research Area 1: Climate change impacts and adaptation in fruit trees (including grapevines)

Fruit trees are particularly vulnerable to future climate change due to their permanence and longevity. Understanding both impacts and potential adaptation options for the fruit tree requires combining physiology, climatology and management options. Research projects in this space include modelling analysis looking for climate trends, relating climate to physiology and overlaying adaptive responses to consider their benefit in minimising risks. A recent example of project work was an investigation into differences in flower bud types in response to different temperature conditions.

Dr Sigfredo Fuentes sigfredo.fuentes@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Pangzhen Zhang pangzhen.zhang@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 2: Climate change mpacts and adaptation in grazing systems

The Australian livestock industries are particularly vulnerable to future climate change, both directly from heat stress and indirectly through impacts on the forages. This project will use selected case study farms to understanding both impacts and potential adaptation options for the livestock industries, identifying key risks within the case study farms, modelling of a range of adaptation options and developing appropriate risk management frameworks.

Prof. Richard Eckard Richard.Eckard@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 3: Evaluation of climate change indicator grasses in Australia

The native grass species Themeda triandra is known to grow in southern Tasmania right through to the Kimberly region in NW Australia; there are attributes of this broad genetic variation that may hold the key to future climate adaptation. Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) underpins most of temperature pasture production in Australia, but is known to have a limited temperature suitability; this species may struggle in its current distribution into the future. Kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum) is a sub-tropical grass rapidly encroaching into more southerly latitudes in Australia and could be seen as an indicator of climate change.  This study will use a combination of growth chamber and modelling studies to investigate the likely changes in suitability of key pasture species used in Australia.

Prof. Richard Eckard Richard.Eckard@unimelb.edu.au

Crop Physiology

Research Area 1: Sustainable agriculture – innovation and efficiency

Research projects can be undertaken on the several related themes.

1-Understanding combined effect of abiotic stresses on wheat production. Crop plants experience more than one stress (biotic and/or abiotic) under natural field conditions. Therefore, it is important to investigate the effect of combined stresses and genetic potential of existing wheat varieties to sustain the production

2-Exploring wild lentil species to widen the gene pool of cultivated lentils. Wild relatives of crop plants have traits of interest especially, resistance to biotic stresses and tolerance to abiotic stresses, which usually do not exist in their cultivated species.

3-Understanding effect of P (phosphorus) priming and microwave treated soil on P uptake efficiency of lentil cultivars. This study will help researchers to explore options to maximize nutrient efficiency in sustainable way to enhance the lentil production.

Dr Dorin Gupta dorin.gupta@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 2: Crop physiology and farm systems modelling

Tedera (Bituminaria bituminosa var. albomarginata) is a perennial forage that will shortly be commercially released for farmers.  Being a legume Tedera fixes its own nitrogen, but there are no reports in literature of the fixation potential or the factors affecting it. A project opportunity exists to conduct a glasshouse trial and evaluate symbiotic fixation and aspects of plant physiology.  The opportunity would suit a student wishing to undertake future work in pasture or crop physiology.     Also much remains to be known about how best to integrate the species into various farming systems that contain livestock.  A newly developed model of Tedera exists in the APSIM model and can be used to start to explore some of these issues.  A further project would suit a student wishing to become more familiar with farming systems modelling and the evaluation of mixed-farming systems.

Dr Andrew Smith andrew.smith@unimelb.edu.au

Plant pathology

Projects are available in the following areas:

  • Evaluation of the biology, life cycle and host-pathogen relationship of fungal plant pathogens involved in diseases of horticultural and agricultural crops including chili, potato and pyrethrum.
  • Molecular taxonomy of fungal pathogens causing leaf necrosis of Australian native plants

Prof Paul Taylor paulwjt@unimelb.edu.au

Plant Physiology and Remote Sensing

There are new and emerging technologies for monitoring plant water usage, rapid plant health assessment and pest monitoring. Project areas include:

  • Unravelling night-time water uptake and transpiration mechanisms in plants using sap flow sensors, gas exchange and chemometric techniques
  • Automated recognition of disease and insect attacks in grapevines using infrared thermography and artificial neural networks
  • Developing wireless automated information systems for in-field monitoring of pests from plants by using automated pheromone traps
  • Development of robotic systems to measure canopy architectural parameters at high spatial resolution for crops.
  • Using newly developed infrared thermography scanners to detect plant water status for irrigation scheduling

Dr Sigfredo Fuentes sfuentes@unimelb.edu.au

Rural Innovation Research Group

The group analyses many social dimensions of agriculture including:

  • The adaptive capacity of dairy farm businesses for future climates
  • Trans-disciplinary research designs
  • Exploring social changes in agriculture
  • Rural communities and agriculture industries
  • Agricultural Innovation Systems
  • New roles in extension
  • Young people into farming, succession planning
  • Human resource management on farms and workforce planning
  • Precision agriculture
  • The role of extension in rural industries
  • Benefit / cost analysis of on-farm innovation

Dr Ruth Nettle ranettle@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Margaret Ayre mayre@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Barbara King kingbj@unimelb.edu.au

Soil science

The Soil Science and Greenhouse Gases group is currently offering research projects focusing on understanding the factors that constrain agricultural productivity and effect the environmental sustainability of these systems. These include studies in soil chemistry, physics and microbiology as well as opportunities to work on projects measuring gaseous emissions from agricultural systems in the field (cropping, pasture and intensive animal production).

  • Efficiency of  nitrogen fertilisers and utilization of organic wastes in agricultural systems, biophysical modeling of nutrient cycling processes (Professor Deli Chen delichen@unimelb.edu.au)
  • Nitrogen use efficiency in agriculture, quantification and mitigation of  gaseous emissions from agricultural systems, novel fertilisers (Dr Helen Suter  helencs@unimelb.edu.au)
  • Using wastes as soil conditioners and soil phosphorus dynamics (Dr Tony Weatherley anthony@unimelb.edu.au)
  • Microbial processes of nutrient transformations (Professor Jim He he@unimelb.edu.au, Dr Hang-wei Hu hang-wei.hu@unimelb.edu.au)
  • GIS and satellite remote sensing for soil water modelling and crop performance (Mr. Alexis Pang alexisp@unimelb.edu.au)

FOOD SCIENCES:

Food and Nutrition Politics and Policy 

Research Area 1: Food and Nutrition Politics and Policy

Project topics can be developed on food policy, and the politics and sociology of food systems, including issues related to power relations, sustainability, food security, public health, food waste, agricultural technologies, equity, animal welfare, fair trade, supermarkets, food labelling, nutritional marketing and health claims, local and regional food systems, cities and food, and peri-urban food production.

Dr Gyorgy Scrinis gyorgys@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Rachel Carey rachel.carey@unimelb.edu.au

Food science

Research Area 1: Food Chemistry

Characterisation of α-glucosidase/acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activity in foods and herbs

Polyphenolic compounds from plants and herbs have the potential to inhibit α-glucosidase and/or acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity which might be useful for the treatment of Diabetes Mellitus (DM) or Alzheimer’s disease (AD), respectively.

DM affects approximately 200 million people worldwide and the number is expected to double during the next 20 years. Managing postprandial hyperglycaemia (PPH) is an important treatment strategy for individuals with DM. Control of starch digestion with α-glucosidase inhibitors has been demonstrated to delay and attenuate PPH and insulin response. Naturally occurring, foods compatible and more tolerable α-glucosidase inhibitors offer an alternative strategy to prescription drug in controlling PPH.

AD is a neurodegenerative disease associated cognitive dysfunction and memory loss and is linked to a deficiency of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and the formation of β-amyloid plaques. Both are closely related to a higher level of AChE activity in neuronal tissues. Traditional Chinese and Indian medicinal herbs containing prenylated polyphenolic phytochemicals and historically used for the treatment of memory loss are of particulate interest. For example, the Compendium of Materia Medica Sinica published several centuries ago documented some herbal extract used specifically to improve cognition and enhance memories.

Dr Ken Ng ngkf@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 2 Influence of environmental factors on the production of bioactive components in Vitis vinifera CV. Shiraz grapes and wine

Environmental factors, such as UV, microclimate, and is proven to be important for the production of grape bioactive components, such as phenolics and terpenoids. This research field is to investigate the influence of individual environmental factor on the production of bioactive components in winegrapes. Fermentation will be conducted with Grapes under different treatments. The aroma compounds of grape berries and produced wine will be analysed with HS-SPME-GC-MS. Bioactive components will be analysed following biochemical methods. Sensory study may also be required depends on the situation.

Dr Pangzhen Zhang pangzhen.zhang@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 3: Food safety case studyThere is an opportunity to analyse a food industry case study as a semester-long minor research project. The case study analyses food safety concerns with artisan food production using the HACCP framework. The project work is conducted in a group setting involving weekly meetings and a one day practical activity. It is designed as a capstone activity for those in their final year and who have completed Food Quality and Safety.

Initial contact and approval form to Dr Sigfredo Fuentes - sfuentes@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 4:Food safety, quality and functionality

There are research project opportunities focusing on food safety, quality and functionality, with special emphasis on minimally processed foods. Research topics cover the mode of action of natural antioxidants, fibers, and probiotics, and the effect of various processing and preservation techniques on safety, quality, and physio-chemical properties of foods. Current and future research areas include:

  • Using hurdle technology to preserve and extend the shelf life of fresh produce
  • Antioxidants and their antimicrobial and health benefit
  • Food safety and food security

A/Prof Said Ajlouni said@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 4: Meat and co-products quality and functionality

Meat quality and functionality is influenced by on-farm genetics, nutrition and post-harvest biochemistry, processing and storage of the muscle.  This research project will take an aspect of meat (beef, pork or lamb) and investigate methods (additives, biochemistry, packaging, storage temperature) by which the quality, functionality and sensory appeal of the meat can be improved.  The research may also investigate extracting bioactive elements from meat or organs (heart, intestine) in order to understand and develop higher nutritional value from meat and co-products.  The preference is for students with a strong chemistry background/experience.  Funding may be available for research on pork muscle.

Prof Robyn Warner  robyn.warner@unimelb.edu.au

Prof Frank Dunshea fdunshea@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Minh Ha minh.ha@unimelv.edu.au

Dr Zhongxiang Fang zhongxiang.fang@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 5: Sensory Science - Analysis and Practice

Semester-long minor research projects are available involving sensory science of food and brewages, such as: chocolate, wine, beer, cheese. It is also possible to have a matching food and wine project. For the project completion, students will need to select the specific topic, organise and train a sensory panel, gather data, analyse the data using multivariate data analysis tools and present their findings. Supervisory meetings will be held fortnightly, which will allow to guide students in their sensory projects and analysis.

Dr Sigfredo Fuentes sfuentes@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Pangzhen Zhang pangzhen.zhang@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Damir Torrico damir.torrico@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 6: Effect of Food Processing and Packaging on Food Quality

This theme is mainly focusing on the research of emerging food processing (e.g. combined drying technology, encapsulation) and packaging (e.g. edible/biodegradable packaging, active packaging/coating) technologies on the food quality and safety. This also includes utilization of these technologies in development of functional healthy foods and evaluating their in vitro bioactivities.

Suitable for Major project students.

Dr Zhongxiang Fang zhongxiang.fang@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 7: Fermentation microbiology and quality

Fermentation is a microbial process that transforms raw foods into recognisable products. A a complex microbial community converts flour into bread, grapes into wine, grain into beer and cocoa beans to produce chocolate. This project investigates the microbial interactions which lead to flavour and which can affect the functionality of the foods macromolecules. Traditional microbiological and advanced molecular biological methods will be used to understand the yeast and bacteria present. Laboratory scale fermentations will be followed to understand the community dynamics and macromolecule conversion. Analytical chemistry is used to understand how the food components have changed. Both major and minor projects can be accomodated.

Dr Kate Howell khowell@unimelb.edu.au

Research Area 8: Probiotic and Prebiotic Technology

Probiotics are live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer health benefits on the host. Probiotics are associated with maintaining optimum microbial balance in the digestive tract with a number of well-documented health benefits. Therefore, these organisms such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria have been extensively incorporated into various food products over the last decade. Colonic foods, which encourage the growth of favourable bacteria, are referred to as prebiotics. There is an obvious potential for a synergetic effect when combining probiotics and prebiotics appropriately, because prebiotics promote the growth and activities of probiotics. The growing preference for functional foods favours the probiotic and prebiotic market growth and is expected to reach over USD 66 billion by 2024. Research topics available for major/ minor projects cover the various aspects of probiotic and prebiotic technology from new product development to analysis of functional efficacy of probiotics/ prebiotics.

A/Prof Said Ajlouni said.ajlouni@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Senaka Ranadheera senaka.ranadheera@unimelb.edu.au