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$1.1 million in Australian Research Council funding for emerging researchers


Sharlene King
28 November 2011
Two emerging Southern Cross University researchers have caught the attention of the Australian Research Council.

Senator Kim Carr, the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, presented almost $1.1 million in funding to Dr Scott Johnston from Southern Cross GeoScience and Dr Joanne Oakes from the Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry at a ceremony in Canberra recently.

Dr Johnston received an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship worth $709,212 to explore the controls on arsenic behaviour in coastal floodplain groundwater. Dr Oakes was a recipient of an inaugural Discovery Early Career Research Award worth $375,000 for her investigation into carbon and nitrogen cycling in coastal systems.

Dr Johnston said more than 100 million people in south-east Asia relied on arsenic-contaminated groundwater for drinking and other domestic purposes, leading to what experts describe as one of the largest cases of mass poisoning in history.

“Arsenic is a highly toxic element found naturally in the environment. However its behaviour is poorly understood, particularly in iron-rich, coastal floodplains and lowlands with dynamic hydrology,” he said.

“The problem is particularly acute in the coastal floodplains and lowlands of Asia, such as on the Ganges and Mekong deltas.

“Research undertaken by Southern Cross GeoScience has shown that when these lowlands are inundated with seawater, the iron oxides dissolve causing associated arsenic to be released into the groundwater, surrounding soil and in some cases into waterways.”

According to the World Health Organisation, long term exposure to arsenic-rich drinking water can lead to skin problems; skin cancer and cancers of the bladder, kidney and lung; diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet; diabetes; high blood pressure; and reproductive disorders.

For the next four years Dr Johnston’s investigation will explore how arsenic behaves in complex natural environments and in the groundwater of coastal floodplains.

The 40-year-old Southern Cross University alumni was a recipient of the ARC’s Future Fellowships aimed at attracting and retaining the best and brightest mid-career researchers whose work is deemed of critical national importance.

Dr Johnston will travel to Switzerland and the United States to work with collaborators.

For Dr Joanne Oakes receiving the Discovery Early Career Research Award - a new ARC funding scheme for promising early-career researchers - means the 30-year-old will be able to pursue her study entitled, ‘Unravelling transformation pathways and fate of dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen in shallow coastal sediments’.

“This project will significantly advance our understanding of the cycling of dissolved organic carbon and dissolved organic nitrogen in shallow coastal sediments, which is potentially a major part of global carbon and nitrogen cycles,” said Dr Oakes, who will sample locally and at Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef.

She said rivers and estuaries were a major source of dissolved organic carbon and dissolved organic nitrogen to the oceans.

“These inputs are intercepted and modified by shallow coastal sediments. Processes occurring in shallow coastal sediments therefore determine the form and quantity of carbon and nitrogen in the ocean – and therefore are a potentially major, but overlooked, part of global carbon and nitrogen cycles.”
Photo: Dr Scott Johnston sampling in the field.