James Cook University
The future of life underwater: Climate change and tough sharks through the lens of today's scientists

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category


Worldwide, climate change is warming, acidifying, and deoxygenating marine ecosystems. Along with the increase in frequency and severity of heatwaves, the risk of biodiversity loss is immense. Incessant warming has already caused six mass coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) since 1998. Yet, we do not fully understand how reef fishes, including sharks – some of the most vulnerable vertebrates on Earth, will cope. One of the species my team investigates is the epaulette shark – a small, shallow-water, tropical species endemic to the GBR, easily examined on the reef, but also amenable to captivity and laboratory experiments. Due to the epaulette shark’s charismatic nature, our research also serves an entry point for education, climate change action, and conservation. There has never been a more important time for diverse faces, voices, and perspectives in marine science so findings can be accessible and lead to evidence-based decisions regarding climate change.

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

In Australia, we are already experiencing local effects of climate change, including increases in bushfires, floods, drought, and more frequent and severe heatwaves. In Queensland, marine heatwaves have led to six mass coral bleaching events since 1998, resulting in stress and mortality on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Yet, the effects of warming – as well as the other main climate change stressors, acidification and deoxygenation – and the capacity for marine life to adapt is not well understood.

My team and I utilise an innovative combination of field- and laboratory-based experimentation harnessing geographic gradients, such as along the natural thermal gradients of the 2300km length of the GBR, and local extreme environments as analogues for future change. We investigate extreme performers, those notoriously robust to challenging environmental conditions, as well as species and life stages that are particularly vulnerable. This represents the first goal of my research program, which is to unravel the traits needed for reef fishes to endure extreme events (e.g., heatwaves) over the short-term and adapt to climate change (e.g., warming, acidification, deoxygenation) over the long-term. We use an array of species spanning newborn reef sharks, small adult sharks and rays, through to coral reef fish eggs, embryos, larvae, and adults. We integrate conventional and cutting-edge physiological, biochemical, and molecular techniques to determine the traits that are most affected by or those that are central to maintaining performance under climate change stressors and track those traits across development, generations, species, and habitats.

As one key example, since 2012, my team and I have been working with a small, shallow-water shark species, the epaulette shark, which is endemic to the GBR, easily examined in its natural habitat, and amenable to laboratory experiments. Because this species is a ‘product of its environment’ and therefore robust to climate change stressors, we can also use our findings as an entry-point for understanding other egg-laying, small, tropical sharks in the face of climate change. Moreover, because of its charismatic nature, we can also use this species to catalyse climate change education, action, and conservation, which leads to the second main goal of my research program. My team and I aim to communicate the new knowledge we are producing from our studies on how climate change stressors affect performance traits reef fishes and sharks to inspire conversations and action on climate change. Through this communication goal, we also aim to highlight the importance of diverse faces, voices, and perspectives in the science that we do so that findings can be as accessible and useful as possible and lead to evidence-based decisions regarding these urgent issues that Australia and the rest of the world are facing.

No developed country has more to lose from climate change than Australia or more to gain from climate change action. Particularly in Queensland, and on the GBR, the coral reef fishes and sharks represent a great flagship for public engagement in the climate change crisis and an umbrella for the conservation of marine biodiversity in a rapidly changing future.

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)
The phrase, “If you can see it, you can become it.” has been integral to me, since I started my career in late 2011. I did not see successful female marine biologists on television or in magazines when I was growing up. As a kid, it was hard for me to envision the career that I have now, but it has made me realise the importance of having someone to look up to, aspire to, and even ask for guidance. That is why being a role model is an extremely important part of my life and underscored in numerous aspects of my career, including how I teach at the undergraduate level, mentor my post-graduate students, interact with and engage with my colleagues and my community, and my media presence.
Firstly, teaching about topics that I am passionate and enthusiastic about engages students and improves the overall learning process. Whether in the classroom, laboratory, or field, I believe it is important to teach students how to learn, not just what to learn and to remember we are all still learning, regardless of where we are in our careers. I consider different learning styles, integrate problem-based learning and small group work, use multi-media and interactive learning settings including social media, and draw on my own research findings and that of my colleagues for fresh material. Secondly, in advising post-graduate students, I aim to provide structure and intellectual guidance while encouraging my students to develop their own ideas and explore their passions. It is a sought-after balance, but I believe that it is still possible to be highly productive and efficient while being nurturing, accessible, and influential. This represents one of the best parts of my career, seeing them learn, discover, grow, and achieve their goals. Thirdly, the way I interact with my colleagues and community emphasises that I value collaboration, interdisciplinary approaches to scientific and conservation problems, and accessibility in the way I communicate science and conservation to broad and diverse audiences. Fourthly, communication is key to being a strong and influential role model, and this is further highlighted with my media presence. It is critical for my local and global community and the next generation of scientists, conservationists, and policy makers to be inspired and motivated by how I convey scientific findings, conservation, and climate change issues.

Indeed, there has never been a more important time to be a marine scientist and for innovative approaches, faces, and voices. Now, more than ever, the future of coral reef fishes, sharks, and the ecosystems they support – especially in the face of climate change – depend on a diverse, passionate, and engaged interdisciplinary scientific community, collaborations between local and international governments, business owners, civil society groups, Traditional Owners, and other stakeholders, evidence-based decision making, and the most innovative management and conservation strategies. However, in order to achieve that, we need strong, intelligent, driven role models, diverse faces and voices that will motivate our communities for change today and inspire the leaders of tomorrow. 

ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

Despite nearly equal representation at undergraduate levels, the percentage of women in STEM declines dramatically after post-doctoral positions. Many reasons are thought to underpin this sharp decline, including discrimination, differential resource allocations, and innate communication differences and mentoring styles. I am a current and founding member of the Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) committee at James Cook University and on the Women in Ocean Science Advisory Board. I wrote three chapters and weas Editorial Advisor for “Success Strategies from Women in STEM: A Portable Mentor” (2nd edition). I have given workshops on the research and networking that went into those chapters, am a Society for Experimental Biology liaison for women in science, coordinate several university-wide events, and was an invited panelist for the 2021 screening of “Picture a Scientist”. Some of what I bring to these networks comes from the research I did for the aforementioned chapters and various workshops, including the Women in Research Leadership course (University of Queensland) and Dr. Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. These networks not only provide sense of community, resources, and support, but also a framework for creating or changing policy. 

Our efforts for diversity and equity in STEM must start much earlier, however. The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship brought me visibility and a face and voice to young girls looking for role models. As a part of this program, I am involved with the Girls in Science Forum, a platform that has been ongoing for >20 years that provides schoolgirls worldwide an opportunity to liaise with and be inspired by female scientists. Primary school is a critical juncture in girls’ education where they may need the most encouragement. It is my ongoing commitment to use my knowledge and impact to lend support to schoolteachers breaking down gender stereotypes and fostering girls’ long-term interest in STEM. 

For decades, women and other minorities have advocated for equal opportunities in STEM, but only recently LGBTQIA+ researchers are in a place to do the same. The strong foundations currently being built will foster the support and networking crucial to improving the experiences of LGBTQIA+ in STEM. As an LGBTQIA+ scientist, I openly talk about what it means to be LGBTQIA+ in STEM so that biases can be discussed and not ignored. I have an open-door policy and offer a “safe zone” for LGBTQIA+ scientists and allies and stay up-to-date with resources I can contribute to and share. I also have a strong online presence and network where I communicate issues regarding diversity and equity in STEM, which catalyzes opportunities for openness and inclusion.

It is important to me – as female LGBTQIA+ scientist – to be a strong role model, especially for the budding young scientists, spanning the 6th-grader to the post-graduate moments from defending their PhD. I also use online resources to highlight my team’s and colleagues’ science success stories, achievements, lend advice, and as a catalyst to implement/change policy. Recruiting, supporting, and retaining diversity in STEM leads to happier scientists and better science.