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Published on July 4th, 2013 | by Emily Corbett

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Maths for ecosystems

Written by Katherine Johnson, science writer

Coral reef ecosystem models developed by recent graduate of the CSIRO-UTAS PhD Program in Quantitative Marine Science (QMS)* Dr Jessica Melbourne Thomas have been used in research and management in Mexico, the Philippines, the United States and Hawaii.

‘My PhD developed regional-scale ecosystem models for coral reefs in Mexico and the Philippines that could then be used as decision support tools in management,’ Jess says.

‘We were aiming to build a model framework that could be applied in different regions of the world. Flexibility and portability were key.

‘The use of computer modelling to inform ecosystem management really interested me.’

Immediately after finishing her PhD, Jess worked with staff from the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) based in Hobart, and the Tasmanian Partnership for Advanced Computing (TPAC) to create a web portal for the model called ‘Reefscenarios’. This portal allows users around the world to log in and access the model, and to run it on the University of Tasmania’s supercomputer.

‘Other groups wanted to use the model code and apply it to other regions in the world. It is now being integrated into a coral-reef management project in the Philippines, as well as in the United States through the Environmental Protection Authority, and in Hawaii,’ Jess says.

Now working at the Australian Antarctic Division, Jess is building ecological models that combine information about physical oceanography with food-web (biological) models to help understand and predict the effect of climate change on Southern Ocean ecosystems.

Screen shot 2013-12-03 at 10.12.26 AM‘These large-scale Southern Ocean ecosystem models have applications in fisheries and ecosystem management,’ she says.

On the subject of doing a PhD with a focus on quantitative marine science, Jess says that originally it was the research project that attracted her.

‘But when I learned more about the QMS* PhD program, I was attracted to the idea of doing coursework. It’s a different structure to other PhD programs in Australia.

‘It’s a nice balance between research and some exposure to coursework.

‘The links to CSIRO allowed me to establish great contacts with scientists with different areas of expertise. And it was the same for the coursework. The lectures were given by people often outside the usual sphere of university research.’

*The CSIRO-UTas PhD Program in Quantitative Marine Science (QMS) is offered through the University of Tasmania’s specialist Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research. For more information www.imas.utas.edu.au

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