Research student profile: Vicky Aerts

Project title

Effect of smoke from bushfires and prescribed burning on plant physiology

Project overview

In the last decade Australia has endured a long drought period resulting in an increase in the incidence of bushfires and a subsequent increase in smoke. This increase in smoke has emerged as a major risk for some agricultural industries. For example, wineries in Western Australia and Victoria have experienced considerable financial losses due to smoke taint in wine. The effect of smoke on grapevines and on other agricultural and native species is relatively unknown. With the predicted changes in climate, the trend for an increase in annual bushfire events and the resultant smoke is inevitable.

The aim of my project is to analyse the effect of smoke from bushfires and prescribed burning on agricultural and native plant physiology. I will expose a range of native and exotic plant species to smoke generated from different types of fuels and for different lengths of time and determine how it affects physiological processes such as photosynthesis. In addition, I will investigate leaf anatomy to see, for example, if hairy leaves have different responses to smoke than non-hairy leaves or thick sclerophyllous leaves are affected differently to thin, mesophyll leaves. At the end of my study I will model my results to allow me to scale up to landscape level.

This subject has rarely been studied and only a few physiological studies are currently known. Therefore my research will add greatly to the understanding of the effects of smoke on plant physiology. After successful completion of my PhD the results will contribute to infrastructure management plans and provide preventive measures for smoke exposure to agricultural crops for a range of stakeholders.


I am from the Netherlands and I obtained my Masters Degree in Forest and Nature Conservation with a specialisation in Ecology and Management at Wageningen University in 2007. During my study I got interested in forest fires and undertook fire management courses at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in UmeĆ„ in 2005. Still interested in forest fires I decided to do my internship in Australia at the University of Melbourne, department of Forest and Ecosystem Sciences with the Bushfire CRC. I enjoyed my internship and decided to continue the project I was working on for my thesis. After I finished my Masters I left the science world and took a job as a management trainee at Saint-Gobain Building Distributions the Netherlands B.V. Here I worked in the Environment, Health and Safety Department where I was responsible for the timber certification. For this I implemented a management system for certification of timber which led to the company’s obtainment of the FSC and PEFC accreditation. After working for a couple of years I decided to go back to the science world and applied for a PhD in bushfire research at the University of Sydney.

I have been granted a Bushfire CRC scholarship to support my PhD study.

In 2011 I attended the Nature Conservation Council Biennial Bushfire conference in Sydney and the annual Bushfire CRC conference. Also I attended the postgraduate course ‘Increasing Photosynthesis in Plants’ at Wageningen University.



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