Governing Board Meeting held at Tasek Merimbun

Universiti Brunei Darussalam recently hosted the 2nd International Consortium of Universities for the Study of Biodiversity and the Environment (iCUBE) Governing Board Members’ Meeting. This biennial meeting brings together leaders from the member universities to discuss among others, the activities to address, for both research and education, issues and problems related to biodiversity, climate change, and the environment. Members of the iCUBE are King’s College of London (KCL), University of North Carolina (UNC), Korea University (KU), University of Auckland (UA), University of Bonn (UB), Monash University (MU), National University of Singapore (NUS) and Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD). 

The Governing Board Members’ meeting was held at the Tasek Merimbun Heritage Park from 28-29 January 2013, and chaired by Associate Professor Dr Azman bin Ahmad, in his capacity as the UBD’s Acting Vice Chancellor. The two-day gathering convention also included a reconnaissance visit to the Bukit Teraja Protection Forest (BTPF), an expedition to which has been planned for next year and an excursion to the Tutong White Sands area where UBD has several research projects. 

Bukit Teraja is one of the forest reserves and biodiversity hotspots in the Brunei Darussalam’s Heart of Borneo (HoB) initiatives. The main aim of the expedition is to gather baseline data on flora, fauna, geology, climate and hydrology of the Bukit Teraja Protection Forest and its surrounding areas; with potential areas of research including carbon sequestration (as Bukit Teraja is a potential carbon sink for surrounding areas), gene bank research as it is a possible gene bank for rehabilitation and reforestation projects, bio-prospecting (the biodiversity of Bukit Teraja potentially translates to a large number of plants for medicinal and other economic uses) and ecotourism in the Bukit Teraja Conservation Forest, among many others.

The White Sands area is a unique ecosystem and believed to have arisen on Pleistocene terraces formed during the higher sea levels of the interglacial periods in the past. Locally known as Kerangas (heath forest), it develops on the infertile, nutrient-poor, highly acidic sandy soils. The forest is very vulnerable to disturbance, particularly burning, and much of the coastal Kerangas forest in Brunei Darussalam has been seriously damaged. Studies conducted by UBD researchers and students have shown that several different strategies have evolved to allow plants to cope with the poor nutrient status of the White Sands area. One of the most spectacular acts in the Kerangas forest is the carnivory – plants obtain nitrogen by catching and digesting insects. There are several plants in the White Sands area that do this – the Sundews (Drosera), the Bladderworts (Utricularia), and the Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes). Some studies even show how some carnivorous pitcher plants capture the faeces of bats and sequester nitrogen from it. Furthermore, research projects on the impacts of climate change related to the growth and development of some parasitic plants and other flora species are currently in progress.

With the rapid evolvements in climate change and terrestrial landscapes, iCUBE members will be developing more activities jointly in education and research. Professor Keith Hoggart, the Vice Principal for Arts and Sciences and External Affairs at KCL, stated “we would like to see more joint research collaborations, joint publications in top tiered journals and increasing more student involvement in such activities. Hence, creating a snow-ball effect in encouraging and motivating other students to ‘jump in the wagon’ and increase interaction between scholars and students.” 

The iCUBE members plan to collaborate virtually with the establishment of a global classroom, online teaching and iCUBE Research Seminar Series broadcasted via the iCUBE website. The latter will not only benefit the partner universities’ academics and students, but also members of the public.  Professor Hoggart further elaborated “whatever is done in iCUBE for example through the various workshops, research findings and discoveries, seminars etc, has got important messages and lessons that can also be shared with countries from other parts of the world.”

In meeting its objective to be multi- and inter-disciplinary, iCUBE is lining several activities in fields outside life sciences such as in the humanities and social sciences. Bonn University will be organising the upcoming social sciences meeting. Dr Jacqueline Beggs, Director for Joint Graduate School in Biodiversity and Biosecurity at the University of Auckland, commented, “iCUBE partners can leverage against each other’s strengths by encouraging collaborations in non-biodiversity areas such as on social sciences, health sciences and economics; as they are all interrelated to biodiversity and environment. The University of Auckland has a great interest to collaborate in terms of marine and terrestrial systems research”. Dr Beggs added, “biodiversity and environment is a vast field to explore and work on, ranging from value of biodiversity, restoration and rehabilitation of degraded lands, aquatic and marine ecosystems, biodiversity and management of urban landscapes, climate modelling and climate change, hydrology,  and invasive species, just to name a few. There is certainly plenty of rooms for potential and future collaborations among iCUBE partners.”

UBD who initiated iCUBE two years ago has been re-elected to chair and host the secretariat of iCUBE till the next Governing Board Members’ Meeting in two years’ time.