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PhD chat with Colleen Rodd on the Great Barrier Reef


Media and content team
22 April 2022

A passion for protecting and restoring the Great Barrier Reef is the driving force behind Colleen Rodd’s PhD project. She’s part of the research team led by Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison, who is fighting to protect the Reef one coral larvae at a time.

We chat to her about her PhD research on coral IVF, what it’s like being a full-time parent and researcher, and her hopes for the future of the Reef.

What is the title of your PhD and what’s it about?
‘The role of nutritional mode on settlement outcomes in coral larvae’. Basically, coral eggs are provisioned with a finite amount of energy to sustain them while they develop into larvae, search for a suitable habit to settle on, and then transform into a coral polyp. With funding from Southern Cross University and the Paul G Allen Family Foundation, I am exploring whether or not coral larvae are capable of using nutrients in the ocean water around them to supplement their own energy reserves. The idea is that if they can supplement their own energy stores, they may be more likely to survive their larval phase, more likely to transform into a coral, and more likely to grow into a healthy juvenile. At the moment most wild spawned coral larvae die so by increasing larval survival and coral settlement, we have the opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of coral reef restoration.

Tell me about your experience working on the Great Barrier Reef with Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison.
Fieldwork with Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison is incredible. We typically go out into the field with a large team and he takes great care in selecting team members. So, we all get along great. Coral spawning can be very intense! Late nights, a lot of anticipation, and a huge flurry of activity. Having a well-rounded, cohesive team makes all the hard work fun. We work hard, laugh a lot, and in the process do amazing, worthwhile research. And I love seeing the senior academics including Professor Harrison come alive with excitement at the sight of coral spawn. It shows me that the passion for our work likely won’t fade with time. Because, really at the end of the day, that passion for the reef is the driving force behind my work.

What led you to undertake your PhD research at Southern Cross University?
Simply put, the quality of research and opportunities for fieldwork at Southern Cross University. Professor Peter Harrison is at the top of his field. If you want to work on larval restoration, he’s the one you work with.

How have you found the experience so far? What are some of your highlights?
I’ve really enjoyed my experience both on campus, at home, and in the field. I know that COVID has caused everyone to shift how we work. But despite the necessary campus closures, extra travel challenges, and virtual workplace, the staff at Southern Cross have done a great job helping me settle in. I’ve been lucky to be part of a large team that shares a united ethos. There is no substitute for being surrounded by a community of like-minded researchers. A huge highlight for me has been the ability to create connections both within and beyond Southern Cross University. The virtual nature of work now has enabled me to create an online community with other postgrad researchers. We get to share our wins and seek advice from one another. I have found friendships in a group of colleagues that will extend well beyond our PhDs.  That, and all the amazing reefs I’ve gotten to visit over the past two years!

Tell me about conducting your work in the field with your two young boys. Are they showing an interest in becoming researchers?
Oh man, being a mum and a researcher is definitely a challenge. But one that I am happy to take on. This year was particularly challenging as border closures meant I was in the field longer than I expected. However, one of the great things about Professor Harrison and my co-supervisor Dr Steve Whalan is that they are parents themselves and understand the extra demands that places on our work. This year, I was lucky enough to have my children join me at the research station. I loved getting to share my work with my boys. And they loved getting to spend their days snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef and spotting stingrays, blacktip reef sharks, and sea turtles. They got to kayak around the sheltered bay in front of the research station looking for giant clams during the day and then eating dinner around a fire at night where we shared stories from our days. It was absolutely the best of both worlds - parent and researcher. The pride in their voices now when they tell people that I work on coral reefs fills me with my own sense of pride. I hope that I am modelling to my boys that women can be both strong and loving; both mothers and professionals.   

I’ve always been drawn to the ocean and in the early days of motherhood, I found comfort in the salt and sand. As my children became toddlers, we would go almost daily. They too love the beach. My oldest wants to follow in my footsteps and be an environmentalist that works with animals. Instilling in them a love and respect for our natural environment is very important to me. And the Lismore campus is a great place to connect to our natural environment. We love taking bike rides around the duck pond at sunset, visiting the resident koala outside my office, trying to spot the fish in the aquaponic system, and counting passionfruit in the community garden. And the staghorn ferns! We have a little game of trying to find the biggest one as the kids play along the creek that runs through campus

Where to next? What are your plans once you’ve finished your PhD?
My PhD has simply flown by! Every experiment I’ve done has led to more and more that I want to do. But that’s what I love about science, the more questions you answer, the more you have! And honestly, I feel like I am just getting started. Right now, my PhD research is lab-based; we are trying to nail down the biological mechanisms that can enhance settlement.  Once that work is done, I’d like to see the practical applications of this work. I’ve been successful in enhancing settlement in a highly controlled environment which is necessary when trying to determine cause and effect relationships. But I want to see if these methods translate to reef systems and ultimately if my nutritional protocols can improve the effectiveness of reef restoration efforts. I’ve had such helpful mentoring from my supervisors – Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison and Dr Steve Whalan. I can see the impact of great mentorship on the quality and experience of doing a PhD. As such, I’d like to continue that tradition by branching into teaching and mentoring research students myself. Hopefully, I will be lucky enough to do that here at Southern Cross!

What are your hopes for the future of the reef?
It is going to take a combined effort of reducing carbon emission and human intervention to help turn the tide on reef decline. But I am hopeful for the future of reefs. The work Professor Peter Harrison is doing really does seem to be making an impact. The challenge now seems to be scaling up and reducing human input to streamline our larval restoration efforts. Getting more people involved, not just researchers but communities and local governments as well, will help make people aware of how each and every one of us can make a difference for the future of coral reefs.

Any advice you’d like to share for how we can help to protect the reef and our natural environment?
Get out and get involved! Talk to your local government representative. Let them know that reducing climate change is important to your community. Put pressure on large corporations to reduce their environmental impact. Reduce your own consumption. Let your wallet speak louder than your words. Boycott companies that don’t take responsibility for their environmental impact. Take part in beach clean-ups, pick up rubbish wherever you find it, make easy swaps in your daily habits to reduce your carbon footprint.