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From PhD to Project Leader

Oct 20, 2014
Author: Goyder Institute


Deborah Furst commenced research for the Goyder Institute in 2010 as PhD student with the University of Adelaide, investigating the patterns and processes across the Chowilla Floodplain and adjacent River Murray during flood. Her research career in the water sector has continued to progress, including working on a project investigating biogeochemical cycling within the River Murray.

Deborah's excellent background and success in environmental water research lead her to becoming a Project Leader for the Goyder Institute in the Effective and efficient monitoring of environmental outcomes from watering River Murray floodplains and wetlands Project. As Project Leader, Deborah is will working closely with DEWNR to develop a monitoring framework to establish the direction for monitoring the Murray Darling over the five-year period of the joint Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) /state monitoring. This will inform the South Australian Government on how to meet reporting requirements with a minimum set of data and also how to effectively expand and contract monitoring programs as funding opportunities arise.

Below is Deborah’s report on her PhD research:

Patterns and processes across the Chowilla Floodplain and adjacent River Murray during flood: My research

In rivers with predictable flow regimes a significant proportion of energy within the main river channel is sources from the floodplain. In arid and semi-arid river systems (dryland rivers) such as the River Murray where the flow regime is highly variable and unpredictable, little is known about the role of the floodplain in whole system functioning.

During the 2010-11 River Murray floods I investigated some of these processes within the Chowilla Floodplain near Renmark and the adjacent River Murray channel. My research demonstrated that the Chowilla Floodplain was highly productive and hosted very abundant and diverse zooplankton communities. These communities provide a crucial link within the food web as they feed on the abundant organic material, phytoplankton and bacteria on the floodplain, while they themselves are preyed upon by higher tropic organisms such as fish.

Considerable quantities of nutrients, phytoplankton, zooplankton and other organics were exported from the floodplain, providing crucial energy inputs to the system. Overall, these findings demonstrate that despite the unpredictable nature in which flood pulses occur within dryland systems they exert a major driving force within the system. This highlights the importance of maintaining connectivity between river and floodplain habitats when managing these systems in the future.

What I gained from doing a PhD

Despite it being a challenging journey the experiences, skills and knowledge that I have gained during my PhD have made it equally as rewarding. The unstructured nature of a PhD taught me to think about and evaluate ideas, identify and solve problems, navigate a large and complex project independently. As a Goyder PhD scholarship holder I was also given opportunities to meet and discuss my research and career pathways with PhD qualified professionals, senior government and industry representatives as well as present my work conferences. These experiences help you to think about the broader implications of your research, become aware of the possibilities out there and to think in ways that you wouldn’t have otherwise.