Senior Research Fellow/Lecturer – James Cook University (JCU)
Advancing research on Queensland’s marine life during environmental change
Queensland is a megadiverse state, with enormous biodiversity both on land and in the oceans. I research how marine animals are responding to environmental change, including climate change. I focus on marine invertebrates (animals without backbones), which form critical lower levels in the ocean food web, and include commercially important or threatened species, like giant clams. The oceans are in balance with the atmosphere and take up over 90% of the heat and 30% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. In seawater, CO2 reacts to form an acid. My research shows this ocean acidification impairs shell formation in animals like oysters and giant clams, and impairs invertebrate behaviour through a ubiquitous nerve receptor found in all animals; consequently, this may alter marine food webs. I found some species can be more tolerant to warmer oceans and bleaching events, providing tourism opportunities on the Great Barrier Reef.
Researching in Queensland, I have published 61 refereed journal articles (mean impact factor=7.4) in prestigious journals including Nature, Nature Climate Change (x4), Science Advances, Global Change Biology (x8) and Proceedings of the Royal Society B (x4). My research has received over 3900 citations (h-index=31, i10-index=47 Google Scholar) and generated considerable international media interest in television (e.g. CNN, ABC news), radio (e.g. ABC radio) and print/online (e.g. The New York Times).
As a result of my research contributions, Queensland is the world leader in research on the effects of ocean acidification on animal behaviour, and the effects of climate change on giant clams. Climate change is the biggest threat of our time – the biggest threat to biodiversity, the global economy and human health. This is particularly true for Queensland, as our State is a global warming hotspot and warming at twice the average global rate. My research is helping to both predict the impacts of environmental change on marine ecosystems and inform the effective protection and management of marine resources to help safeguard a healthy and resilient ocean environment. My research determines how we can help marine invertebrates survive and adapt in a changing ocean and has broad implications for society because shellfish are critical for healthy oceans and are an essential food for millions of people worldwide.
For example, Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is a stronghold for giant clams – iconic marine megafauna that are threatened elsewhere throughout their Indo-Pacific distribution from over-exploitation. My research has both made discoveries and provided recommendations to help improve giant clam survival and growth through our changing climate conditions, including potential selective breeding programmes, management approaches and eco-tourism opportunities. My research indicates giant clams can benefit tourism in Queensland as they are more resilient to marine heatwaves than other reef animals such as corals, and can be placed to form snorkel and dive trails for tourists, like those at Magnetic Island.
I translate my research into outcomes through museum exhibitions, talks and information sessions, including across Queensland Museum campuses. Through our REDMAP (Range Extension Database and Mapping Project) work and museum exhibition (both physical and soon to be online), my work engages citizen scientists throughout Queensland, to help track where species are moving as temperatures rise. Species are moving south with warming waters and we are tracking estuarine crocodiles and sharks – this is especially important for Queenslanders as these species that have the potential to harm humans. Knowing where these animals are turning up, as well as predicting when they are likely to get to key population centres along our coast will help Queenslanders stay safe in our waters.
I find getting the public involved in science helps to build community engagement through an understanding of the challenges our marine life faces and increase awareness of the effects of climate change already happening in Queensland. Importantly, this knowledge empowers Queenslanders with choices and climate solutions so they can use their voices and choices to have a positive impact on the future of their State.
I am an ambassador and role model for women in STEM. My research group is mostly female. I role model a STEM career as a mother, to show women and girls how we can succeed. I mentor my team and beyond to empower women and girls them to pursue their passions. For example, I present targeted talks such as an invited keynote address about STEM Careers for the all-girl STEM Girl Power Queensland Government 2018 event. Since its establishment in 2020, I have been involved in the Women of the Reef group https://womenofthereef.org/ to connect women working on the Great Barrier Reef, and coral reefs all over the world, to form long-term relationships to benefit women. I have helped organise events and gain sponsorship for Women of the Reef to promote women through this network.
I mentor and coach girls within and outside my research group, this includes peer-coaching with my women leadership colleagues across Australia. I especially help them with productivity strategies, particularly for busy working mothers.
In my leadership roles on committees such as the Australian Marine Sciences Association (AMSA) North Queensland (President, former Treasurer) and AMSA Scientific Committee, I ensure our processes are inclusive e.g. by considering career-interruptions such as carer responsibilities for awards. I often have to make a stand against male committee members, who don’t necessarily think about this when setting up processes and awards.
I’m involved with the Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) committee at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. This national committee works to foster best practice in these areas. I implement the learnings of JEDI at my museum role, where I have identified a need in this area.
I contribute to educational programmes and have featured in ‘Inspiring Careers’ 2019 about my career as a marine biologist aimed at motivating school students to study STEM, and I’ve produced multiple learning resources for schools, blogs and podcasts about science careers.
I asked my former supervisor Professor Philip Munday who says “Sue-Ann is an exceptional mentor to young research students as a primary and co-supervisor… She always keeps her student’s best interests and welfare at heart and her approachable style and coaching check-ins, have helped guide young students (mostly female) on their science journey, and inspired them to stay on track towards their goals. Sue-Ann is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in STEM, evidenced by her invitations as keynote speaker at STEM all girl events and inclusion practice in her leadership and committee positions… she is a role model for young female researchers.”
Although I have received national and international recognition for my research, I still identify with imposter syndrome, and am the first person in my family to go to university. I’ve had a winding career path and have significant primary carer responsibilities for young children (being pregnant and/or breastfeeding since 2017). My experience has made me a passionate ambassador for women in STEM and I campaign “tirelessly for diversity and inclusivity” (as another supervisor said).
I’ve given over 28 scientific presentations at national and international conferences, including invited national and international talks. I’ve been invited session chair, including for the leading conference in my field, and organised symposia that unite researchers working in my area. I serve on committees of learned organisations (President, Australian Marine Sciences Association NQ; former Councillor, Australian Coral Reef Society, ACRS) to promote science and deliver activities for the scientific community.
See ‘Role Model’ answer.
I am passionate about communicating STEM to non-scientific audiences to foster better public understanding of science; most of my STEM promotion and engagement activities are directed towards non-scientific audiences:
I regularly engage with all forms of media. My research and interviews (live and pre-recorded) have been featured in numerous mainstream international, national and local media outlets including television (CNN, ABC National News, 7 News, WIN News), radio ABC Radio National News, ABC Brisbane, ABC North Queensland, and articles in print/online (New York Times, New Scientist, AAAS Science News, ABC News, The Age, The Australian, SMH, Brisbane Times, Canberra Times, Townsville Bulletin, and CSIRO’s teen science magazine The Helix).
I present talks to the public including for National Science Week at Museum of Tropical Queensland (MTQ), ‘Meet the Curator’ sessions for World Science Festival at Queensland Museum Brisbane. I also meet with the public informally at events like the regional World Science Festival in Townsville, where I bring out behind-the-scenes objects from Queensland’s State Collection for a sneak-peek at some of the Collection treasures and to answer questions about museum displays. I design museum exhibitions about my research and State Collections, and help interpret these for the media, staff and public. I have engaged with the community though several other roles including public talks and interpretation at aquariums, zoos, research stations and film festivals.
I engage with policy makers including MPs in Canberra and the Houses of Parliament UK. Myself and two student ACRS Councillors presented the non-partisan policy plan ‘Science-Based Policy Plan for Australia’s Coral Reefs’ to Hon Bill Shorten (then Leader of the Opposition), as I had just witnessed the first coral bleaching unfolding on the northern Great Barrier Reef before Science Meets Parliament 2016, and Hon Shorten personally invited me to present policy so he could make the reef an election issue. This document was the catalyst that resulted in several other policy submissions on coral reefs. I also presented an invited seminar at an ocean acidification workshop for policy makers in Canberra.
Literally, the coolest science engagement activity that I’ve done was a SCUBA diving demonstration for the Royal Family at Rothera Research Station in Antarctica (at -1C). I also helped MPs with ice-core drilling and wrote a blog about researching marine animals in the coldest continent on Earth.
I have an active online presence including personal and work websites (e.g. https://sueannwatson.weebly.com), and social media platforms to promote my STEM field, research, publications, news, collaborations and job opportunities.