Associate Professor Kate O'Brien

Associate Professor

School of Chemical Engineering
Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology
k.obrien@uq.edu.au
+61 7 336 53534

Overview

Associate Professor Kate O’Brien (BE Chemical Hons I, BSc, PhD) leads the chemical-environmental engineering program at the University of Queensland. She uses mathematical modelling and systems analysis to investigate sustainability in socio-ecological systems, working with colleagues from engineering, ecology, business, social science and economics. She is particularly interested in how scientific knowledge in complex systems is best synthesised and communicated to promote sustainability. Kate teaches her students to think critically using an approach of Ruthless Compassion, and she is passionate about finding creative solutions to work-family conflict. Her recent projects and collaborations include:

Water-energy-climate-nutrient nexus

Socio-ecological resilience

  • Seagrass ecosystem trajectory depends on the relative timescales of resistance, recovery and disturbance
  • Water residence time controls the feedback between seagrass, sediment and light: Implications for restoration
  • The fundamental role of ecological feedback mechanisms for the adaptive management of seagrass ecosystems–a review
  • Global analysis of seagrass restoration: the importance of large‐scale planting
  • Thresholds for morphological response to light reduction for four tropical seagrass species
  • Model fit versus biological relevance: Evaluating photosynthesis-temperature models for three tropical seagrass species
  • Prioritizing localized management actions for seagrass conservation and restoration using a species distribution model
  • Unravelling complexity in seagrass systems for management: Australia as a microcosm
  • How to break the cycle of low workforce diversity: A model for change
  • Seagrass growth and diversity: attributes of a resilient GBR
  • Competitive exclusion: an ecological model demonstrates how research metrics can drive women out of science
  • Life cycle assessment: Reusable and disposable nappies in Australia

Education

  • What really matters in engineering education, and why don’t we do more of it?
  • Applied dimensional problems in mathematics courses can improve mathematical problem-solving skills of engineering students
  • An ecological footprint for an early learning centre: : identifying opportunities for early childhood sustainability education through interdisciplinary research

CURRENT AND RECENT GRANTS

  • 2018-2020 Unlocking the secrets of mangrove conservation success (ARC Linkage) - Saunders; O'Brien; Lovelock; Wilson; Mumby; Mcleod; Maxwell
  • 2013-2018 Annual audit of GHG emissions associated with staff and student commuting to UQ St Lucia campus (UQ Properties and Facilities) - O’Brien, Lambert
  • 2015 Modelling Small Scale Ecological Processes in Estuarine Environments (NSW OEH (Office of Environment and Heritage)) - O’Brien, Adams, Ferguson
  • 2014-2016 Seagrass growth and diversity: attributes of a resilient GBR (Phase II) (Great Barrier Reef Foundation) - Collier, van Dijk, Adams, O’Brien, Waycott, McKenzie, Uthicke, Phinn, Roelfsema
  • 2013-2014 Seagrass connectivity, community composition and growth: attributes of a resilient Great Barrier Reef (Phase I) (Great Barrier Reef Foundation) - Collier, van Dijk, O’Brien, Waycott, McKenzie, Uthicke, Liddy, Phinn
  • 2013-2014 Assessment of carbon partitioning and storage in seagrass ecosystems using mathematical models validated across multiple latitudes and species (UWA-UQ Bilateral Research Collaboration Award (BRCA) Scheme) - O’Brien, Kendrick, Adams, Hovey, Hipsey, Bruce, Lowe
  • 2013-2015 Modelling resilience and critical thresholds in seagrass systems (EAIT strategic grant) - O’Brien
  • 2012 Seagrass as an ecological indicator: resolving challenges of scale and complexity (UQ Collaboration and Industry Engagement Fund) - O’Brien, Mumby, Callaghan, Roelfsema, Grinham
  • 2007-2010 Sources of phosphorus promoting cyanobacteria in subtropical reservoirs (ARC Linkage) Burford, O’Brien, Hamilton, Lemckert

PhD supervision:

  • Saphira Rekker, PhD in progress: A planetary limits approach to measuring corporate environmental sustainability
  • Juljiana Bors, PhD in progress: District Scale Assessment and Management of Residential Water and Energy Interactions
  • Amanda Neilen, PhD in progress: Sources, transformations and fate of catchment-derived dissolved organic matter
  • Alice Twomey, PhD in progress: Quantifying ecosystem services associated with seagrass coastal protection
  • Matthew Prentice, PhD in progress: The role of phosphorus in promoting cyanobacteria blooms in subtropical reservoirs
  • Man Xiao, PhD 2018: Investigating the effects of physical factors on competition between Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii and Microcystis aeruginosa
  • Emily Saeck, PhD 2012, Nutrient dynamics of coastal phytoplankton: the role of episodic flow events and chronic sewage discharges
  • Michael Kehoe, PhD 2010, Modelling of physical and physiological processes controlling primary production and growth in cyanobacteria
  • Dana Burfeind, PhD 2009, Caulerpa taxifolia growth dynamics in invasive and native populations

Research:

Environmental systems modelling and analysis

Sustainable management of ecosystems is a critical issue facing humanity. Unprecedented changes to ecosystems over the past half century have simultaneously improved the quality of life for billions of people, and undermined the ability of ecosystems to provide the services on which human survival and development depend, such as provision of food, fresh water, fibre and energy. The result has been the costly degradation of many ecosystems. I work in interdisciplinary teams, applying a collection of modelling tools across a range of scales to address the question, how can we manage our natural resources more sustainably? There are three core themes in my research:

Modelling drivers for environmental change in aquatic ecosystems

Our society depends on the health of our aquatic ecosystems in many ways: as sources of freshwater and food, venue of valuable economic, social and leisure activities, flood mitigation and climate moderation. However the health of our aquatic ecosystems is under threat from land-use modification, urbanisation, coastal development and climate change. My team applies a range of modelling and analysis methods to assess how external threats affect aquatic ecosystem health, and what can be done to mitigate or avoid ecosystem damage. Specific projects include value and vulnerability of seagrass habitat, and impact of eutrophication on water supplies. Student internship and PhD projects available.

Challenges and opportunities in workforce diversity

Tackling the wicked problems of global change and sustainable development will mean using our human capital in new ways. Diversity in teams can increase the range of perspectives available, enhancing creativity and problem solving. However there are many barriers to increasing diversity within institutions and disciplines. The purpose of this project is to investigate the causes and potential solutions to low workforce diversity in science and engineering, using a combination of mathematical model and data collection. The results will be applied more broadly, to identify barriers and solutions to creating diverse teams in different fields worldwide. Student internship and PhD projects available.

Applied projects tackling climate change

The challenge of environmental change can be characterised as the “tragedy of the commons”: whereby we benefit individually and immediately from actions which lead to long-term consequences shared across a wider population and over time. Many studies have quantified footprint of individuals, organisations and nations in various forms, and concluded that globally we are living beyond our means. However individuals lack quantitative information needed to make informed decisions and personal trade-offs which lead to genuinely sustainable consumption. This project aims to develop tools which will enable individuals to make informed choices about how they can consume a sustainable share of the world's resources, and so directly address the tragedy of the commons. Student internship and PhD projects available.

Teaching and Learning:

2011- present BE/ME chemical-environmental program leader

2012 - present Developed and co-ordinated Introduction to environmental systems engineering CHEE2501

2006-present Lecturer and course coordinator in Heat and mass transfer CHEE3002

2003-2008 Lecturer in Engineering analysis of environmental systems in Introduction to Professional Engineering ENGG1000

Teaching awards: Nominated for UQ Excellence in Teaching Award 2010-2012, Awarded EAIT Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award 2009, Awarded School of Engineering Excellence in Teaching Award 2008, received more than 30 Dean’s Commendations for effective teaching 2006 to present.

Research Interests

  • Environmental systems modelling and analysis
    Sustainable management of ecosystems is a critical issue facing humanity. Unprecedented changes to ecosystems over the past half century have simultaneously improved the quality of life for billions of people, and undermined the ability of ecosystems to provide the services on which human survival and development depend, such as provision of food, fresh water, fibre and energy. The result has been the costly degradation of many ecosystems. I work in interdisciplinary teams, applying a collection of modelling tools across a range of scales to address the question, how can we manage our natural resources more sustainably? There are three core themes in my research: 1. Modelling drivers for environmental change in aquatic ecosystems; 2. Challenges and opportunities in workforce diversity; 3. Applied projects tackling climate change

Qualifications

  • Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Western Australia
  • BSc, The University of Queensland
  • BE, The University of Queensland

Publications

View all Publications

Supervision

View all Supervision

Available Projects

  • Seagrass is one of the key habitats of the Great Barrier Reef, providing essential ecosystem services in the form of fish nurseries, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and habitat for iconic species including turtles and dugongs. Globally, seagrass habitat is under threat from anthropogenic impacts ranging from local (e.g. dredging and nutrient enrichment) to global scales (e.g. climate change).

    One of the major challenges to modelling seagrass condition has been the challenge of assessing the combined impacts of chronic and acute stresses. The dynamic nature of seagrass habitat means that seagrass health depends on both the “typical” environmental conditions, and the ability to recover from stochastic disturbance, particularly flood plumes and cyclone damage. These two processes need to be modelled in quite different ways.

    The purpose of this project is to develop indicators for seagrass light stress, and apply these indicators to assess how to best conserve important seagrass habitat within the Great Barrier Reef. The project will involve application (and possible modification) and of the CSIRO eReefs model, a hydrodynamic-biogeochemical model which has been developed for the Great Barrier Reef. The key objectives are to:

    · Develop seagrass light stress indicator which includes the effects of temperature (and possibly pH): Recent field and lab measurements of seagrass response to light deprivation and ocean warming will be used to define temperature-dependent indicators of light stress. The output will be a mathematical model and code which evaluates seagrass light stress status, accounting for both chronic and acute light deprivation. Light stress will be calculated from monitoring data and/or eReefs output and validated against seagrass surveys.

    · Apply the seagrass light stress indicator to evaluate seagrass resilience under a range of scenarios, including climate change, coastal development, catchment modification and management scenarios.

    · Use the outcomes from the first two objectives to provide insight into how to best protect and restore seagrass on the GBR.

  • The purpose of the project is determine if large datasets from many lakes can provide insight into the effects of nutrient load change on monomictic and polymictic lakes. This will involve data analysis, using a combination of statistical methods, process understanding and mathematical modelling. The result will be models and indicators which provide insight into the mechanisms affecting lake processes after changes in nutrient loads, accounting for other effects such as climate change.

    The project will be based in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland, and will involve travel to the University of Waikato. Travel to other sites and a field work component may also be required.

    Competitive scholarships are available for local and international students.

    Applicants should have an honours or masters degree in engineering or science, and an interest in using quantitative techniques to address environmental problems. A good background in mathematics is necessary.

View all Available Projects

Publications

Book

Book Chapter

Journal Article

Conference Publication

  • Adams, M. P., Ferguson, A. J. P., Collier, C. J., Baird, M. E., Gruber, R. K. and O'Brien, K. R. (2015). Assessment of light history indicators for predicting seagrass biomass. In: T. Weber, M. J. McPhee and R. S. Anderssen, MODSIM2015, 21st International Congress on Modelling and Simulation. Modelling and Simulation Society of Australia and New Zealand. International Congress on Modelling and Simulation, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia, (1303-1309). 29 November - 4 December 2015.

  • McCredden, Julie E., O'Brien, Katherine R. and Roberts, Tony P. (2013). Applied dimensional problems in mathematics courses: how small-scale partnerships across disciplines can improve mathematical problem-solving skills of engineering students. In: Charles Lemckert, Graham Jenkins and Susan Lang-Lemckert, Proceedings of the 24th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education: AAEE2013 Proceedings. AAEE 2013: 24th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia, (1-24). 8-11 December, 2013.

  • Saunders, Megan I., Baldock, Tom, Brown, Christopher J., Callaghan, David P., Golshani, Aliastair, Hamylton, Sarah, Leon, Javier, Lovelock, Catherine E., Lyons, Mitchell B., O'Brien, Katherine R., Mumby, Peter J., Phinn, Stuart R. and Roelfsema, Christiaan M. (2013). Direct and indirect impacts of predicted sea level rise on seagrass. In: Program and Abstract Handbook: AMSA2013 Golden Jubilee Conference. AMSA 2013: Australian Marine Science Golden Jubilee Conference, Gold Coast, Australia, (198-198). 7-11 July 2013.

  • O'Brien, K. R., Grinham, A., Roelfsema, C. M., Saunders, M. I. and Dennison, W. C. (2011). Viability criteria for the presence of the seagrass Zostera muelleri in Moreton Bay, based on benthic light dose. In: Chan, F, Marinova, D and Anderssen, RS, MODSIM 2011: International Congress on Modelling and Simulation proceedings. Modelling and Simulation Society of Australia and New Zealand (MODSIM 2011), Perth, Australia, (4127-4133). 12 - 16 December 2011.

  • O'Moore, Lisa M. and O'Brien, Kate R. (2009). Impact of supplementary cementitious material content and transportation distance on greenhouse gas emissions embodied in concrete. In: I.Gilbert, Concrete Institute of Australia 24th conference 2009. 24th Biennial Conference of Concrete Institute of Australia (Concrete 09), Sydney , Australia, (1-9). 17-19 September 2009.

  • O'Brien, K. R., Olive, R., Hus, Y.C., Bell, R., Morris, L. and Kendall, N. (2009). Life Cycle Assessment: Reusable and disposable nappies in Australia. In: Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society Conference 2009. 6th Australian Conference on Life Cycle Assessment, Melbourne, (1-14). 17-19 February.

  • Hearps, P., O'Brien, K. and O'Chee, W. (2008). The role of public transport in reducing Brisbane's greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption. In: Enviro 08 - Australasia's Environmental & Sustainability Conference and Exhibition, Melbourne, Australia, (). 5-7 May 2008.

PhD and MPhil Supervision

Current Supervision

  • Doctor Philosophy — Principal Advisor

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

Possible Research Projects

Note for students: The possible research projects listed on this page may not be comprehensive or up to date. Always feel free to contact the staff for more information, and also with your own research ideas.

  • Seagrass is one of the key habitats of the Great Barrier Reef, providing essential ecosystem services in the form of fish nurseries, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and habitat for iconic species including turtles and dugongs. Globally, seagrass habitat is under threat from anthropogenic impacts ranging from local (e.g. dredging and nutrient enrichment) to global scales (e.g. climate change).

    One of the major challenges to modelling seagrass condition has been the challenge of assessing the combined impacts of chronic and acute stresses. The dynamic nature of seagrass habitat means that seagrass health depends on both the “typical” environmental conditions, and the ability to recover from stochastic disturbance, particularly flood plumes and cyclone damage. These two processes need to be modelled in quite different ways.

    The purpose of this project is to develop indicators for seagrass light stress, and apply these indicators to assess how to best conserve important seagrass habitat within the Great Barrier Reef. The project will involve application (and possible modification) and of the CSIRO eReefs model, a hydrodynamic-biogeochemical model which has been developed for the Great Barrier Reef. The key objectives are to:

    · Develop seagrass light stress indicator which includes the effects of temperature (and possibly pH): Recent field and lab measurements of seagrass response to light deprivation and ocean warming will be used to define temperature-dependent indicators of light stress. The output will be a mathematical model and code which evaluates seagrass light stress status, accounting for both chronic and acute light deprivation. Light stress will be calculated from monitoring data and/or eReefs output and validated against seagrass surveys.

    · Apply the seagrass light stress indicator to evaluate seagrass resilience under a range of scenarios, including climate change, coastal development, catchment modification and management scenarios.

    · Use the outcomes from the first two objectives to provide insight into how to best protect and restore seagrass on the GBR.

  • The purpose of the project is determine if large datasets from many lakes can provide insight into the effects of nutrient load change on monomictic and polymictic lakes. This will involve data analysis, using a combination of statistical methods, process understanding and mathematical modelling. The result will be models and indicators which provide insight into the mechanisms affecting lake processes after changes in nutrient loads, accounting for other effects such as climate change.

    The project will be based in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland, and will involve travel to the University of Waikato. Travel to other sites and a field work component may also be required.

    Competitive scholarships are available for local and international students.

    Applicants should have an honours or masters degree in engineering or science, and an interest in using quantitative techniques to address environmental problems. A good background in mathematics is necessary.