Jen Middleton, a CRCWSC PhD candidate, has won the prestigious AWA Student Water Prize for WA.
Her research is at the cutting edge of our current scientific understanding of aquatic function, linking macro-scale management of vegetation and water quality with micro-scale microbial processes.
Jen won the award for her work titled, Unravelling stream ecosystem functioning in urban landscapes to improve management of water quality and habitat, which she undertook as part of CRCWSC research project B2.23 (Protection and restoration of urban freshwater ecosystems: informing management and planning).
Through her work, Jen hopes to improve the management of freshwater and estuarine systems around Australia by combining ecological, biogeochemical and molecular microbial techniques.
Jen’s research focuses on several streams on the Swan Coastal Plain in south Western Australia that drain directly into remnant wetlands adjacent to the Canning and Swan Rivers and to the Swan River estuary. Through her PhD, she’s aiming to understand the availability, processing and function of carbon and nutrients in this coastal freshwater system, and the ways in which land use change (agriculture, industry and urban development) and climate impact these mechanisms.
To date, Jen has had four key findings:
- understanding the influence of catchment versus reach-scale attributes (e.g. intact riparian vegetation versus cleared stream margins) on the quantity and quality of organic matter (carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus) between periods of high and low flow
- understanding spatial controls on the potential of riparian soil microbial communities to uptake and remove nitrogen from freshwater ecosystems
- determining the effect of invasive riparian plants on ecosystem function across a gradient of stream disturbance (i.e. urban vs forested)
- optimising fluorescence in Situ Hybridization (CSLM) for decomposing leaf litter—the first known use of this technique on leaves.
By coupling biogeochemistry, 16S rRNA and ITS sequencing, and microscopy analysis (FISH-CSLM), Jen has advanced our understanding of the interactions between freshwater microbiomes, carbon and nutrients, which, practically, can help inform management decisions to protect urban waterways, such as living stream construction, restoration, and stormwater management.
‘Some of this research has already contributed to the development and communication of riparian management practices in Australia through a variety of publications and reports, which are being used by the water sector,’ Jen said.
Jen is currently finishing her PhD thesis in the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Western Australia and is working part time at a science graphics business she co-founded in 2018, Ooid Scientific.
The AWA Student Water Prize aims to encourage and reward students for excellence in water-related studies and research, and provides a forum for students to display their academic excellence, innovation and/or research findings to future employees, clients and the water industry. State prizes and a national prize are awarded each year.
As the WA winner, Jen’s now automatically in the running for the national Student Water Prize, which will be awarded at next year's Ozwater conference in Adelaide. We’ll keep you posted!