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 how socio-ecological systems work, and how they can be managed more sustainably. Kate works in interdisciplinary teams, with collaborators from engineering, ecology, mathematics, business, social science and economics. She is particularly interested in how scientific knowledge can be synthesised and communicated to promote sustainability when dealing with complex systems and wicked problems. 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.

Research Interests

  • Environmental systems modelling and analysis
    Sustainability is a wicked problem, characterized by high uncertainty, divergent values and complex interactions within and between social, economic and ecological systems. Applying a systems approach and working in interdisciplinary teams, I apply a collection of modelling tools across a range of scales to address the question, how can natural resources be managed more sustainably? In practice, this means improving our ability to value, manage and restore environmental systems, ensuring that they can continue to provide the ecosystem services on which our societies depend. My research has three key themes: Water-energy-climate-nutrient nexus; Socio-ecological resilience; Education.

Research Impacts

Recent outputs include:

Water-energy-climate-nutrient nexus

Socio-ecological resilience

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

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. 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. Applicants require an honours or masters degree in ecology, engineering, spatial science, mathematics, geography or other related fields, excellent critical thinking and expertise in mathematical modelling.

  • A PhD project in social-ecological modelling is available as part of the ARC Linkage Project “Unlocking the secrets of mangrove conservation success”. Quantitative methods will be used to identify social-economic conditions that enable effective conservation in mangroves over multiple spatial scales. The candidate will work with Dr Megan Saunders, A/Prof Kate O’Brien, and Profs Catherine Lovelock, Kerrie Wilson and Peter Mumby, along with partner investigators at The Nature Conservancy and Healthy Land and Water. Applicants require an honours or masters degree in ecology, engineering, spatial science, mathematics, geography or other related fields.

  • This project will investigate the business case for more diverse career paths for academic staff in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Specifically, the project will explore how flexible work arrangements (including part-time work and career breaks) affect career opportunities, and under what conditions flexible work arrangements provide benefits to academic staff, research groups, faculties and universities. A range of methodologies are available to the candidate, including interview methods, surveys, data analysis, implicit bias assessment and mathematical/systems modelling. An honours undergraduate degree or masters in science, economics, engineering, social science, psychology or another suitable field is essential. Applicants must have excellent critical thinking skills, demonstrated expertise in quantitative research, and ability to analyse and synthesize information from across a range of disciplines. The successful applicant must obtain a UQ scholarship for domestic students, International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (IPRS) or equivalent, and will receive $ 5 000 per annum top-up scholarship. This scholarship will be awarded for 3.5 years.

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

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. 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. Applicants require an honours or masters degree in ecology, engineering, spatial science, mathematics, geography or other related fields, excellent critical thinking and expertise in mathematical modelling.

  • A PhD project in social-ecological modelling is available as part of the ARC Linkage Project “Unlocking the secrets of mangrove conservation success”. Quantitative methods will be used to identify social-economic conditions that enable effective conservation in mangroves over multiple spatial scales. The candidate will work with Dr Megan Saunders, A/Prof Kate O’Brien, and Profs Catherine Lovelock, Kerrie Wilson and Peter Mumby, along with partner investigators at The Nature Conservancy and Healthy Land and Water. Applicants require an honours or masters degree in ecology, engineering, spatial science, mathematics, geography or other related fields.

  • This project will investigate the business case for more diverse career paths for academic staff in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Specifically, the project will explore how flexible work arrangements (including part-time work and career breaks) affect career opportunities, and under what conditions flexible work arrangements provide benefits to academic staff, research groups, faculties and universities. A range of methodologies are available to the candidate, including interview methods, surveys, data analysis, implicit bias assessment and mathematical/systems modelling. An honours undergraduate degree or masters in science, economics, engineering, social science, psychology or another suitable field is essential. Applicants must have excellent critical thinking skills, demonstrated expertise in quantitative research, and ability to analyse and synthesize information from across a range of disciplines. The successful applicant must obtain a UQ scholarship for domestic students, International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (IPRS) or equivalent, and will receive $ 5 000 per annum top-up scholarship. This scholarship will be awarded for 3.5 years.