Queensland University of Technology
Let’s Not Lose the Colour: Preserving Our Coral Reefs For Future Generations

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SUMMARY

Climate change is killing our coral reefs at an alarming rate. As sea surface temperatures continue to rise, major bleaching events like those that happened in 2006, 2016, and 2017 are going to become a more common occurrence. Bleaching is the breakdown of the relationship between the coral organism and the microalgae that provides them with their colour and the majority of their food. However, climate change also alters the coral’s microbiome, whose role is less understood, but equally as essential for the coral’s survival. My research aims at characterising the microbiome of seven different species of coral found on the Great Barrier Reef and determining how the microbiome functions in sustaining coral health. Using this information, I hope to add on to the body of knowledge needed to preserve our coral reefs for the generations to come as we combat climate change.

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

The Great Barrier Reef is currently the largest coral reef system in the world, stretching 2,300 km down the coast of Queensland. As an economic, social, and iconic asset, the reef is worth at least $56 billion and employs ~33,000 Queenslanders in the sectors of tourism, fishing, recreation, and scientific research. Ecologically, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. It is important for the protection of Queensland’s northern coasts from storm damage and erosion, and is a mostly untapped resource for medicines, and renewable resources. The Great Barrier Reef is closely tied to the identity of Australia and Queensland, and its loss will also result in major cultural, religious, and spiritual consequences. 

Anthropogenically induced climate change and pollution is quickly killing the Great Barrier Reef. It is estimated that since 1995, half the coral on the Great Barrier Reef has been lost. With the ten hottest years since 1890 coinciding with this period and large climate change induced storms flooding the reefs with fresh and muddy water, mass bleaching and die off events are becoming more frequent. Although corals can recover from bleaching, sustained and repeated bleaching will result in coral death. Nutrient pollution, introduced by river runoff, also induces phase shifts, where macroalgae become the dominant life form. Phase shifts prevent new corals from reestablishing and growing into new reefs.

The fight against climate change is going to be a long one. Even if we are to take appropriate action today, it would take time for the effects of climate change to slow then reduce. During this time it will be important for us to preserve the sensitive coral reef ecosystem so that it can recover and survive into the future. 

By studying the microbiome of corals, I am hoping to identify already established symbiotic relationships that can be exploited for prolonged survival. These relationships could include microorganisms that help increase the coral’s resistance to bleaching, or prolong the coral’s survival after bleaching, allowing for the reestablishment of the relationship with the microalgae. Using this information, we can also improve other coral reef recovery efforts such as coral farming and restoration. I hope to preserve the colour of our coral reefs for Queenslander’s of the future.

In addition, as part of my research, I am attempting to develop a technique that will make it more efficient to analyse the microbiome of corals. In the field of microbiology, there is a problem called host genome contamination. In short, this problem often results in >90% of the information collected coming from the host, which is the coral in our research, instead of from the microorganisms. This causes huge financial and resource loss on data which is not targeted for analysis. The technique I am developing will remove the coral DNA prior to analysis, saving valuable resources. It is the hope that this technique can then be applied to other hosts, such as humans, to improve microbiome research.

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)

When I was a child and my mother had to work on weekends, I would ask to be dropped off at the science centre, where I would spend my day exploring all of the different exhibits and attending the shows. It was here that I met my first role models and first became interested in STEM.

Too often, women and girls are told that they have to decide what they want to do with their lives before they leave highschool. This choice is not just about whether or not they want to continue their education, but that if they do, how they must immediately choose what area of study they want to have define the next few years or even decades of their lives. However, the fields of STEM are so vast that without exploration, it is difficult to know, much less choose where to continue without first understanding the options. 

This is where I believe that I am a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM. In my Bachelors, I was encouraged to specialise in my degree of biology. Instead, I chose to receive a general biology degree and took classes in genetics, evolution, ecology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, statistics, and even the humanities. At the time, I was making the choice to explore my interests, and there was a part of me that worried about how my choice would affect my future. However, as I have progressed in my career, I have found that the early decision to diversify has only enhanced my later experiences by improving my ability to critically think and apply STEM’s interdisciplinary concepts. I want to be the role model for women and girls that do not want to specialise early, and have an interest in multiple disciplines.

I also believe that I am a good role model because I believe it is important to adapt to the working environment, and that I exemplify that trait. I have worked independently, as part of teams, and have led teams. I have communicated with leaders in their fields and with non-scientific audiences. 

It is my passion to communicate and educate on the STEM fields. I have presented myself publicly to many audiences as a woman who is in STEM. In my daily work, I strive to pass on the knowledge that I have gained. I want for women and girls to know that their role in STEM can be big or small, but that it matters. Returning to my opening statement. The role models that I had from the science centre were all male scientists. Although I became interested in STEM at the time, I did not actually think about pursuing a career in STEM until I was in high school. Maybe for other young girls, seeing this lack of representation would have been the end of their interest in STEM. I want to make sure that it is not.

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)

I began promoting and engaging in STEM activities when I was 16 years old. I volunteered at my local science centre (TELUS World of Science) as a general floor volunteer and as a spring and summer camp volunteer. In these roles, it was my job to engage with children at the different science exhibits and help them perform the science experiments we were leading them through. I would be responsible for answering questions and explaining concepts which were important for understanding the science behind the activities. I continued to volunteer at a science centre (Discovery Centre) during my undergraduate while also engaging with an organisation (Let’s Talk Science) that travelled to rural and underprivileged schools to teach hands-on and interactive science lessons. 

During the two years between my Bachelors and Masters degree, I worked as a science demonstrator (Mad Science) with audiences of children and their parents. At the end of one of my demonstrations, one of the parents approached me and told me that although she had seen demonstrations from my company before, I was the first female scientist she had seen and that she was glad that her daughter was able to see a woman working in the sciences. Also during this time, I worked as a personal tutor for grade 10 and 11 math, biology, chemistry, and English and volunteered as a grade 3 math tutor with my city’s public library.

While completing my Masters, I joined the non-profit organisation TeamUp Science. The goal of the organisation is to increase STEM engagement in rural, indigenous, and inner city populations. In my first year, I was the Director of Biology in the Interdisciplinary Science Competition committee, a committee that is in charge of organising the annual competition held in the university science labs for grade 11 and 12 students wishing to enter STEM fields. During my second year, I campaigned and was elected as the leader of the committee. While in the role, I focused on increasing the quality of the competition. One of my initiatives included making changes to the application process so that it would be more comfortable for non-binary competitors from outside the city to apply for competition housing. In my third year, I was elected onto the Board of Directors as the Chairman of the Board.

Also during my Masters, I volunteered with Let’s Talk Science’s annual event, School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Science is Magic. In 2016, I volunteered on the day of the event, while in 2017 and 2018, I became involved in the event’s organisation committee. As a general volunteer and as part of the committee, it was my role on the day of the event to interact and encourage children attending the event to take part in the science activities that had been set up. As a member of the organisation committee, it was my job to work with other organisations and individuals to develop the scientific program for the day’s event.

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