PhD Candidate (James Cook University)
The stinging effect of climate change: Investigating the impacts of coral bleaching on coral venom ecology
I am an early career marine biologist, pursing my PhD at James Cook University in Far North Queensland, Cairns. My research will determine how coral bleaching will impact on a corals’ ability to produce the stinging ‘cells’ (and associated venom) required to catch food and defend themselves, in turn providing critical insights into how coral reefs are impacted by climate change.
I am also employed as a casual technician for Fisheries Queensland, where I interview recreational fishers at local boat ramps, and contribute valuable data towards the long-term monitoring of recreational fishing activity within Queensland.
I am fortunate that both positions provide regular opportunities to engage with various stakeholders, represent women in STEM, and share my knowledge, experience, and passion for the marine environment with others. In doing so, I strive to lead by example, mentor, and inspire young women and girls to similarly pursue a career in STEM.
Queensland is the proud custodian of one of the most unique, complex, and diverse ecological systems on Earth, the World-Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef (GBR). In addition to the immense social and traditional value of the GBR, it is estimated that the GBR has an economic value of $6.4b annually, directly supporting over 39,000 jobs.
Unfortunately, as with many other coral reefs around the world, the GBR is becoming increasing under threat by climate change, specifically through ocean warming. Over the past century, the temperature of the worlds’ oceans is estimated to have increased by 0.13°C per decade. By 2050, the total increase is projected to reach 2°C above the historical average. Temperature increases as little as 1°C above mean summer maximums, even for short periods (days), can have a profoundly deleterious impact on corals.
Many coral species form a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with a type of microscopic algae, zooxanthellae. In exchange for inorganic nutrients, the zooxanthellae may provide corals with up to 90% of their daily energy needs. This partnership is fragile and is easily disrupted by changes to the temperature of the seawater. Ocean warming places significant stress on both the coral and algae, by altering minute metabolic and cellular processes within each, ultimately leading to oxidative stress in the coral. In an attempt to protect themselves, corals will expel the zooxanthellae. As a result, the corals will lose the colouration provided by the algae and become distinguishably clear or white, a phenomenon known as “bleaching”. While the process of bleaching itself is a strategy employed by the corals to combat the effects of increased temperature, it is not without consequence. The loss of zooxanthellae and associated energy that they provide, leave the corals with a significant energy deficit, resulting in reduced growth, reproduction, and survival. In addition to the direct impacts that bleaching has on corals, bleaching may also have indirect impacts on the wider ecosystem and the organisms that rely on corals for food and habitat.
A major aspect of this that has had little attention to date is how coral bleaching (and associated loss of energy) will impact on a corals venom ecology, i.e. their ability to produce and use critical stinging organelles and venom to catch food and defend themselves. My research is at the forefront of trying to uncover these important impacts, and in doing so, provide vital clues as to how these changes may alter coral reef communities.
To date, there has been six major coral bleaching events on the GBR, the worst of which saw up to 60% of reefs impacted in some capacity. Unfortunately, the incidence and severity of bleaching is predicted to only increase into the future. Ultimately, findings from my research will provide critical information for how corals on the GBR are, and will continue to be, impacted by bleaching, which in turn will assist in the monitoring and assessment of the overall health of reef, and inform management decisions aimed at protecting the GBR for future generations.
Growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, the pursuit of a career in science was not a natural, nor easy, path for me. I am scarred by the distinct memory of my Year 10 science teacher saying I was “an idiot” in front of the entire class, simply because I struggled to comprehend complex concepts. It was in that moment, that I lost all faith in myself, and all hopes I ever had in becoming a marine biologist were gone. I withdrew from science, and it took many years for me before I dared to even dream again.
I have had to overcome many personal struggles and fight hard to find and make my own opportunities. I took a chance, and as a mature age student, I applied to study a Bachelor of Marine Science and Management. I packed my bags, moved north, and surprised myself when 4 years later I successfully completed my degree with 1st Class Honours, and was offered a PhD scholarship. Rather than following the traditional progression of academia, I was compelled to find myself and my feet in the world however. As such, I travelled, became a dive instructor, got my commercial boat licence, worked as a commercial coral collector, and as a marine educator, before getting a full-time job at Fisheries Queensland where I stayed until the pandemic hit, and was given a second opportunity to do a PhD.
As such I have demonstrated ambition, and the willingness to take a chance, persevere, and overcome setbacks. I have not done it alone though. I have been incredibly fortunate that throughout my own journey, I have had access to many strong female role models to support and encourage me along the way. My personal experiences have given me the humility, empathy, patience, and understanding, and has given me exceptional skills in conveying complex topics to others. To add to this, am not afraid to share my vulnerabilities, and open up about my own struggles. As such, others find me relatable and are comfortable to approach and confide in me. To this end, I often find myself in a position where I am mentoring women and girls from diverse backgrounds, from school-aged girls through to fellow PhD students.
Through lived experience, I acknowledge the importance of having patient teachers, and a strong support network. I consider myself extremely fortunate to now be in a position where I am able to pay it forward and make a positive impact. My mentors have shown me that with hard work and perseverance you can achieve anything. By continuing to put myself out there to chase opportunities, I hope that I can inspire others to follow suit. I will always continue to find the time and ways in which I can further help, support, nurture, and celebrate others that are in need. And it is for those reasons, that I believe I am an excellent role model for young girls and women wishing to follow a career in STEM.
In the hopes of demonstrating to young women that they too can successfully pursue a career in STEM, I regularly engage in a broad range of activities in the community. The activities that I undertake include, but are not limited to;
STEM Professionals in Schools: I represented Fisheries Queensland as in 2019 in this initiative jointly run by the Australian Government Department of Education and CSIRO. This program encourages scientists to volunteer their time and promote STEM in local schools. As part of this, I successfully ran hands on practical workshops teaching year 7 -8 students how to taxonomically identify and dissect various prawn species. I was also given the opportunity to share my experience working in STEM, and provide advice as to how too they may be able to pursue a similar career. I was able to show the young girls (and boys) present in the class, that women can work in science, and especially in Fisheries, which is often viewed as male dominated.
Queensland Virtual STEM Academy: In 2022, I gave a talk to approximately 80 year 5 students from various primary schools from within the Cairns Region. The program was designed to challenge the students to think critically about the UN Sustainability Goals, specifically ‘14 – Life Below Water’. I taught the students about ocean warming and the impacts that this was having on corals. I then facilitated an open discussion where students were invited to share ideas about possibly strategies that may be implemented to address and solve this issue. This activity also gave me the opportunity to engage with students one on one and answer any questions they have on what it is like to work in marine science and provide encouragement to students that want to follow a similar path.
STEM PowerGirls: This is a student led initiative, supported by the Department of Education and Training, where young women aspiring to pursue a career in STEM are provided direct access to other women from a broad range of fields within STEM. As such, I was invited to speak to a group of young women about my experiences as a woman in STEM. I was also able to engage with the women one on one after the event and answer specific questions that they had about life as a female researcher.
Community outreach: I also regularly give educational talks to various community groups such as the specialist senior John Monash Science School, local and international school groups, and the Cairns local dive club. I have also participated and presented at Pint of Science and have been a guest speaker on ABC Far North Radio. In doing so, I am able to showcase women in science, and thereby assist in changing perceptions and breaking gender stereotypes.
Mentorship: I regularly mentor young girls and women, catering to the specific needs of the individual. Whether it be academically or personally, I am always available to support, challenge, and encourage them, thereby increasing their confidence, and love for science.