Vacation Research Students Tackle Important Question about Coral Reef Recovery

Two QUT students dip their toes into the world of research by taking a deep dive into the world of coral reefs.

The result of their collaboration sheds new light into coral reef regrowth following an ecological disturbance, such as a tropical cyclone or coral bleaching event. Their research, just published in Mathematical Biosciences, provides a new way of modelling that regrowth by exploring the trade-off between model complexity and data availability.

The publication is the culmination of what started as a project in QUT’s Vacation Research Experience Scheme (VRES) in the summer of 2021-22.

(L-R) Mat Simpson, Emma Studerus, Shannon Walker, Scott McCue

QUT Mathematics Professor Matthew Simpson is the co-leader of the Models and Algorithms Research Program for the QUT Centre for Data Science. He had the idea for this VRES project. With help from his colleagues, he recruited two undergraduate QUT students. Shannon Walker was studying mathematical modelling and Emma Studerus was studying Data Science.

“These two students had never met each other, and probably would’ve never met each other if it wasn’t for this VRES project,” says Mat.

But Mat felt their skills would complement each other because the project required modelling and data science skills. In addition, both Shannon and Emma shared a love for problems stemming from ecology and biology.

“Up until that point, I had done environmental science subjects and maths subjects and there really was no crossover between them. This was a chance to really apply both to one project,” says Shannon.

“It was a project about coral reefs, and it had mathematics and data science in it. I was very interested in this opportunity,” says Emma.

One of the big questions reef researchers want to answer is how quickly coral reefs recover from a disturbance. If it takes too long, another disturbance will make it even harder for a reef to recover.

One of the best ways to explore this question is to model reefs using data that’s freely available to researchers. Previous research that Mat was involved in only used data that focused on the dominant coral in a reef. Other data was discarded and not included in the modelling.

“The thing that was obvious to me after looking at that project was that we were just scratching the surface,” says Mat.

“We needed to explore whether we could still model the reef by including this other data and, if so, would it change the story that our original models told us.”

Mat says one of the big issues in the mathematical modelling is reproducibility. So, he got Emma and Shannon to explore these questions by having them use different computer coding languages to implement the mathematical modelling.

“The mathematics behind the coding was the same, but we were doing things in two different codes and could see each other’s results. If we got different results, we knew something wasn’t working,” says Emma.

“We came in quite often and would just spend a few hours coding together. I am definitely glad I had someone to work with rather than doing this project on my own,” says Shannon.

“In the end, Shannon and Emma showed that we could model reef regrowth with this extra data. Initially, we thought it would be too hard to keep the data in. Also, by incorporating that other data, it didn’t radically change the story about what our previous research told us,” says Mat.

For Emma and Shannon, the VRES program was such a valuable experience by providing them a glimpse of what it’s like to be a researcher.

“If research is something you’re on the fence about, the VRES program is a great way to introduce yourself to it. It’s not overwhelming and you get so much help from your supervisors,” says Shannon.

“While it was challenging at times, it was still very enjoyable. I had such a great team. I learnt so much from Shannon and Mat,” says Emma. “Another advantage of VRES is that it gives you tangible experience which you can use as an example in interviews for finding a job. I was able to ask Mat to be a reference for my current job as a Data Analyst.”

Shannon also used the experience to further pursue studies at QUT as she begins a Master of Philosophy degree, with a research project at the interface of mathematical modelling and data science.

Mat is a big proponent of the VRES program, saying it allows students to ‘try before they buy’ when it comes to exploring the world of research. It also allows him to find students like Emma and Shannon and explore interesting problems like the one in this project.

“You can do more together than separately. Data alone tells you something. The model alone tells you something. When you bring them together, you get more than the sum of the parts. You get insight that you normally wouldn’t get,” says Mat.

“This keeps true to QUT’s real world mantra. Emma and Shannon were from different disciplines and at different points in their degree. But they just worked together so well.”

The other co-authors in this project are QUT Mathematics Professor Scott McCue and Dr Oliver Maclaren from the University of Auckland.

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