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 as an environmental engineer, I apply a collection of modelling tools across a range of scales to address the question, how can resources be utilized 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

Grants

View all Grants

Available Projects

  • Freshwater flow and nutrient inputs from catchments into the Gulf of Carpentaria effect estuarine productivity, with flow-on effects on fisheries species, and endangered species. Thus sustained water extraction has the potential to impact the estuaries, and associated ecosystems and economies. Water development is underway in some of these catchments, with plans for further development. In river systems worldwide, unsustainable water extraction has had major impacts on water quality and quantity.

    The purpose of this PhD is to assess how water development in surrounding catchments will affect the health of socio-ecological systems associated with the Gulf of Carpentaria. The project will have four key components: 1. Charactering the system through analysis and synthesis of existing data from the three river catchments and estuaries; 2. Development of a conceptual model for the estuary which includes key processes for health and productivity of socio-ecological systems, including interactions and feedbacks affecting resilience; 3. Engagement with a variety of stakeholder groups, using participatory modelling to collect knowledge from diverse sources; 4.Quantifying critical thresholds for health, productivity and resilience of key socio-ecological systems. Where current knowledge is insufficient to identify thresholds, a method to collect that information will be identified.

    The project will engage with a team of experts from Griffith University (Professor Michele Burford) and Queensland Government agencies

  • Resilience is the ability of a system to bounce back after disturbance such that core structures and functions are not lost. Resilience is often presumed to be desirable, but that’s not always the case: many entrenched problems are difficult to resolve because the current (unsatisfactory) state is resilient. The health of social and ecological systems is therefore dependent on both their current state and their future trajectory, i.e. their resilience.

    This project explores two intractable problems which exhibit “recalcitrant resilience”, i.e. where change is desired but the status quo is resilient. This approach is based on the recognition than many of the complex challenges facing the world are “wicked problems”, i.e. are complex, contested and subject to high uncertainty. Traditional technocratic solutions are insufficient to address such problems: finding a “solution” and implementing or communicating it is ineffective when key stakeholders have contested certitudes and conflicting world views.

    This project will use participatory modelling and engagement with stakeholders to examine how resilience in social systems inhibits progress in two social-environmental issues: catchment management in the Great Barrier Reef and ocean plastics pollution. Five aspects of resilience will be used to synthesize barriers to sustainable practices: Diversity; Resistance; Recovery; Adaptability and Responsiveness. These attributes of resilience synthesize current knowledge of socio-ecological resilience in a form in which they can be assessed in social systems which are “stuck”. Through analysing five key components of resilience, the project will characterize what makes each situation so “sticky”, and how change might become possible. From this regional issue, the insights will then be applied to a global environmental problem.

    The project will be co-supervised by Dr Angela Dean (UQ/QUT Environmental Social Scientist). Dr Paul Maxwell and Dr Tracy Schultz from Alluvium Consulting will act as external advisors on the project.

  • 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.

View all Available Projects

Publications

Book Chapter

  • Maxwell, Paul, Connolly, Rod, Roelfsema, Chris, Burfeind, Dana, Udy, James, O'Brien, Kate, Saunders, Megan, Barnes, Richard, Olds, Andrew, Hendersen, Chris and Gilby, Ben (2019). The seagrasses of Moreton Bay Quandamooka: Diversity, ecology and resilience. Moreton Bay Quandamooka and catchment: past, present and future. (pp. 279-298) edited by Ian R. Tibbetts, Peter C. Rothlisberg, David T. Neil, Tamara A. Homburg, David T. Brewer and Angela H. Arthington. Brisbane, QLD, Australia: Moreton Bay Foundation.

  • O'Brien, Katherine R., Adams, Matthew P., Ferguson, Angus J. P., Samper-Villarreal, Jimena, Maxwell, Paul S., Baird, Mark E. and Collier, Catherine (2018). Seagrass Resistance to Light Deprivation: Implications for Resilience. Seagrasses of Australia: Structure, Ecology and Conservation. (pp. 287-311) edited by Anthony W. D. Larkum, Gary A. Kendrick and Peter J. Ralph. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-71354-0_10

  • Connolly, Rod M., Jackson, Emma L., Macreadie, Peter I., Maxwell, Paul S. and O'Brien, Katherine R. (2018). Seagrass dynamics and resilience. Seagrasses of Australia: structure, ecology and conservation. (pp. 197-212) edited by Anthony W. D. Larkum, Gary A. Kendrick and Peter J. Ralph. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-71354-0_7

  • Ferguson, Angus J. P. , Scanes, Peter R. , Potts, Jaimie D. , Adams, Matthew P. and O'Brien, Katherine R. (2018). Seagrasses in the South-East Australian Region - Distribution, Metabolism, and Morphology in Response to Hydrodynamic, Substrate, and Water Quality Stressors. Seagrasses of Australia: Structure, Ecology and Conservation. (pp. 419-444) edited by Anthony W. D. Larkum, Gary A. Kendrick and Peter J. Ralph. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-71354-0_14

Journal Article

Conference Publication

Other Outputs

Grants (Administered at UQ)

PhD and MPhil Supervision

Current Supervision

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

  • Doctor Philosophy — Associate Advisor

Completed 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.

  • Freshwater flow and nutrient inputs from catchments into the Gulf of Carpentaria effect estuarine productivity, with flow-on effects on fisheries species, and endangered species. Thus sustained water extraction has the potential to impact the estuaries, and associated ecosystems and economies. Water development is underway in some of these catchments, with plans for further development. In river systems worldwide, unsustainable water extraction has had major impacts on water quality and quantity.

    The purpose of this PhD is to assess how water development in surrounding catchments will affect the health of socio-ecological systems associated with the Gulf of Carpentaria. The project will have four key components: 1. Charactering the system through analysis and synthesis of existing data from the three river catchments and estuaries; 2. Development of a conceptual model for the estuary which includes key processes for health and productivity of socio-ecological systems, including interactions and feedbacks affecting resilience; 3. Engagement with a variety of stakeholder groups, using participatory modelling to collect knowledge from diverse sources; 4.Quantifying critical thresholds for health, productivity and resilience of key socio-ecological systems. Where current knowledge is insufficient to identify thresholds, a method to collect that information will be identified.

    The project will engage with a team of experts from Griffith University (Professor Michele Burford) and Queensland Government agencies

  • Resilience is the ability of a system to bounce back after disturbance such that core structures and functions are not lost. Resilience is often presumed to be desirable, but that’s not always the case: many entrenched problems are difficult to resolve because the current (unsatisfactory) state is resilient. The health of social and ecological systems is therefore dependent on both their current state and their future trajectory, i.e. their resilience.

    This project explores two intractable problems which exhibit “recalcitrant resilience”, i.e. where change is desired but the status quo is resilient. This approach is based on the recognition than many of the complex challenges facing the world are “wicked problems”, i.e. are complex, contested and subject to high uncertainty. Traditional technocratic solutions are insufficient to address such problems: finding a “solution” and implementing or communicating it is ineffective when key stakeholders have contested certitudes and conflicting world views.

    This project will use participatory modelling and engagement with stakeholders to examine how resilience in social systems inhibits progress in two social-environmental issues: catchment management in the Great Barrier Reef and ocean plastics pollution. Five aspects of resilience will be used to synthesize barriers to sustainable practices: Diversity; Resistance; Recovery; Adaptability and Responsiveness. These attributes of resilience synthesize current knowledge of socio-ecological resilience in a form in which they can be assessed in social systems which are “stuck”. Through analysing five key components of resilience, the project will characterize what makes each situation so “sticky”, and how change might become possible. From this regional issue, the insights will then be applied to a global environmental problem.

    The project will be co-supervised by Dr Angela Dean (UQ/QUT Environmental Social Scientist). Dr Paul Maxwell and Dr Tracy Schultz from Alluvium Consulting will act as external advisors on the project.

  • 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.

  • This project will investigate the business case for more diverse career paths for professionals 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 in business (to employees and employers) and academic (to 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.