Five minutes with seagrass scientist and Tall Poppy winner
Issued: 30 Oct 2018

Meet James Cook University’s Dr Alana Grech, this year’s Queensland Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year, a lover of science, seagrass, maps and more.

Meet James Cook University’s Dr Alana Grech, this year’s Queensland Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year, a lover of science, seagrass, maps and more.

Dr Alana Grech

Dr Alana Grech

What have you been doing since you won the 2018 Queensland Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year?

Winning the Queensland Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year was an incredible experience. I enjoyed meeting the other Young Tall Poppy award winners, Professor Jenny Martin and other members of the Australian Institute of Policy and Science at the ceremony. I am now back at work in Townsville after a short break in Brisbane.

Recently, I hosted a colleague from the Universite catholique de Louvain who is helping us to model water movement in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait. Dr Jonathan Lambrechts and I have been working together for over ten years, since we were both PhD students, and it’s great that we can continue our collaboration as senior researchers.

Tell us about your research and why you love maps

I have always enjoyed maps and geography. Geography allows us to combine our knowledge of place and people to generate a multilayered understanding of a complex world, and maps can model and illustrate this complexity. Reading maps is something we learn from a young age and are excellent tools when communicating science to different audiences.

A large focus of my current research is using computer models of water movement to measure how seagrass meadows are connected to each other in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait. Connectivity is important because it effects the capacity of seagrass meadows to recover from natural and human impacts. These computer models have enabled me to discover that seagrass meadows are strongly connected to each other in the central Great Barrier Reef, between the Whitsundays and Hinchinbrook Island.

Seagrasses are potentially much more connected than previously thought, making them resilient to threats such as cyclones and coastal development. We are expanding this research throughout the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait to improve our understanding of seagrass connectivity and resilience under different threat and management scenarios.

Why is it important to protect our reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most complex natural systems. It encompasses an immense variety of tropical species and habitats, including coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves. It is a beautiful place — you must come visit!

Interestingly, we no longer need to persuade people that it’s important to protect the Great Barrier Reef — they’re already convinced. 2018 Young Tall Poppy Science award winner, Dr Georgina Gurney, and her colleagues at CSIRO have found that Australians have strong emotional bonds to the Great Barrier Reef — strong enough to motivate them to action. Georgina believes that this sense of attachment can lead to greater environmental stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef and the advancement of sustainable management practices.

Dr Grech conducting a briefing to the media about the Great Barrier Reef

What’s your favourite marine organism?

This is a hard question, there are so many to choose from! My two year old son’s favourite toy (this week) is a giant squid, so I’ll pick Architeuthis.

My favourite terrestrial organism is much easier to choose. I’ve always had a soft spot for the southern hairy-nosed wombat. It is the faunal emblem of the State where I was born, South Australia, and the species I first studied as an Honours student at the University of Adelaide. I often think that in my retirement I will go back to studying the southern hairy-nosed wombat — their habitat also happens to be conveniently located near some of the best wine regions in Australia.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I pursued a career in STEM because I enjoy problem solving, the process of discovery and learning new things — but what keeps me in STEM is the people. My work involves a large number of collaborators from different disciplines and I appreciate their unique perspectives. Teaching (and learning from) students is also a very rewarding part of my role at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates diverse teams are important for creativity and innovation in STEM, and it’s something I certainly strive for when building collaborative networks.

What’s next for Dr Grech?

In the next few months I am working with colleagues at James Cook University on aerial surveys to measure the distribution and abundance of dugongs from the top of Cape York to Hinchinbrook Island. My role is to conduct the spatial analysis — but I might get in the plane to help spot some dugongs too.

Dr Grech on a dugong aerial survey of the Gulf of Carpentaria

Beyond the normal academic business of conducting research, writing grants and manuscripts and supervising students, I hope to use my role of Queensland Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year to advocate for greater diversity in STEM. Systemic problems in the university sector (and more broadly) continue to disadvantage many people. The time for action is now.

Read Minister Enoch’s media release: Seagrass scientist is Queensland’s 2018 Tall Poppy