Meet Sineka: Master of Agricultural Sciences student

To start your scientific career as a university researcher or teacher with a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), you need a strong knowledge of your field, determination, connections to researchers who can supervise you and a vision of what you want to achieve.

During her Master of Agricultural Sciences (specialisation in Agribusiness), Sineka Munidasa has managed to gain each of these key qualities and is proud to have started her research journey through an industry-funded study that provides real benefit to the dairy industry in Australia.

“From a young age, I have seen how most farmers grow their crops and rear livestock, and how it impacts the environment. So I wanted to help farmers to do their agricultural activities in more sustainable ways to feed the growing global population,” she says.

Agriculture is a highly scientific industry, where decision-makers must use biology, chemistry and environmental sciences to make businesses profitable and sustainable in the long term. This means they must understand and apply the latest scientific research and technology.

The Master of Agricultural Sciences allows University of Melbourne students to excel in this – and build lasting industry and academic connections – through research projects that directly address real challenges farmers face. This applied research is also a pathway to an industry or academic research career through a PhD.

That has been Sineka’s goal, which she aims to achieve with the flexible master’s structure. The Master of Agricultural Sciences combines valuable and applicable subjects for anyone aiming to lead teams or organisations in the agriculture industry with strong theoretical knowledge through specialisations in animal science, crop production, agricultural extension, sustainable production and agribusiness. Sineka was able to specialise in agribusiness, while also engaging in animal science.

“The University of Melbourne has a very good reputation in agricultural education, and I believe this degree will open many opportunities for me,” she says.

“The course structure was very flexible and the up-to-date scientific methods and understanding in the subjects match the current trends in the agriculture industry.”

Sineka undertook a research project to compare potential greenhouse gas emissions between four different farm systems in northern Victoria, Australia under the guidance of her research project supervisors, Dr (Paul) Long Cheng, Dr Brendan Cullen, Professor Richard Eckard, and Dr Saranika Talukder. This work was funded by Murray Dairy, the Regional Delivery Partner of Dairy Australia and the national services body for the dairy industry, and allowed Sineka to gain experience in a real-world agricultural setting near the University’s Dookie agricultural campus.

As more dairy farms in the region adopt supplemental feeding in response to challenges arising from water availability and climate change, Dr Cheng says this is important work for farmers seeking to understand the potential environmental impact of changes they make on farm, each season.

“Sineka’s work compared emissions across four case-study dairy farms with different cattle diets, which provided an important baseline to evaluate changes in future years,” he says.

“This preliminary research allows farmers to evaluate current emission levels, benchmark their farming system against other farms, across seasons and over a period of years, and then use it as a reference point to set farm-specific mitigation targets using a range of available mitigation strategies.”

“The increased detail she generated by evaluating seasonal data is particularly of interest for the industry, as bulk yearly data doesn’t provide sufficient detail of management changes.”

Sineka worked closely with Murray Dairy’s Regional Extension Officer Lachlan Barnes to achieve these results, adding to her industry networks. Sineka says her research has been the highlight of her Master of Agricultural Sciences.

“I learned many practical applications of scientific theory by doing this major research project, and it also helped me to broaden my network with other professionals in the Australian agriculture industry,” she says.

“As my primary research supervisor, Paul has helped me to identify my potential as a researcher and guided me through getting my work published. He, Brendan and Richard have always guided me to help me succeed, despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Not only has Sineka’s research been published in industry literature so it can benefit the field, but she has also gained a position on further industry research projects, now as a research assistant, a good role for gaining experience for PhD candidacy. She aims to evaluate climate change mitigation strategies in diverse dairy production systems to improve dairy business practices. It’s a dream come true.

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