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All about James True – a new Post-doc at SWIMS (pdf)

by James True

The sea has always been special to me. I grew up in the wide brown lands of inland Australia; in towns where wheat, sheep and cattle were the basis and the focus of almost everyone’s existence. The world changed for me when I learnt about SCUBA diving at the famous surfing beach of Cronulla. My brief glimpses of the sea as a child had not prepared me for the sudden fascination I discovered for the underwater world. Slowly the idea dawned on me that there must be a way to combine my fascination with the sea and some sort of career. At age 24, I hitched 2000 km up the east coast of Australia to North Queensland, where James Cook University was happily juxtaposed among vast mango orchards, a thriving fishery and the Great Barrier Reef.

Now I was in my element! I threw myself into tropical marine science and university life with a passion – working nights as a kitchen hand to pay my fees and volunteering for any researcher who needed a diver. Despite having no background in biology at school (apart from that which comes naturally with agriculture), I managed quite well; I achieved a First Class honours in marine science with a secondary major in computer science and a minor in biometrics. In the typically laid back way of North Queensland, I felt no hurry to get into post-graduate study straight after my degree – I logged nearly 200 diving hours per year up and down the Great Barrier Reef (mostly volunteering for research projects), had a small catering business, and kept my IT skills alive by managing the collection databases for the Museum of Tropical Queensland. While there, I learned from old-school museum people and curated animals from almost every group found in the tropics. During the ‘quiet’ months I was a dory fisherman in the (then) just-started artisanal live coral trout fishery, catching beautiful fat coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus) with hook and line for live export to Hong Kong. Eventually, however, I was confronted with the harsh reality that I would either have to undertake some post-graduate study, or get a real job.

As a fisherman, I was encouraged by many to undertake a fisheries-based degree. More fascinating, however, was what lies beneath – the corals that form the structures where the fish live. James Cook University has been a centre of coral research for more than twenty years, and I was, by this stage, regularly working or volunteering for some of the most prominent coral reef scientists on the planet. I had become involved with AUSCORE – the Australian Coral Records working group – comprising geologists and climatologists and the very occasional biologist working to reconstruct environmental histories based on coral skeletons. An opportunity to work at the nexus between the living animal and the permanent record of its struggle through life was exactly what I was looking for. As an added bonus, the heavy underwater drilling rigs used to extract the long cores preferred in paleoclimatology research required me to undertake some serious industrial diving training.

My first major experiment coincided with the largest mass-bleaching event ever recorded. This later provided me with many valuable insights, but at that stage merely delayed any possible physiological experimentation for 18 months – until the confounding effect had dissipated. My project changed to a more descriptive study examining spatial patterns in coral growth. I still had my extensive commercial diver training to fall back on, so I was often called on by the department head to chaperone new graduate students through their first few field trips. My industrial diving training led me to be invited on many amazing field trips, often as far afield as the Hermit Isles, off the north coast of New Guinea (a place so remote it was last visited by Jacques Cousteau). I was also involved in a survey of North Queensland ports targeting invasive species brought in ships’ ballast waters. This survey often involved diving under the piers of tropical ports, chipping off fouling organisms from pylons in pitch-blackness while imagining that the large crocodile one just saw sunning itself on the mud bank nearby might come for a closer look.

During the same period, the Museum of Tropical Queensland received a substantial facelift, investing heavily in new display and collection technology – and, coincidentally, someone to drive it all. I spent the next three years as a computer systems administrator for the museum, doing my PhD research part-time, and spending my weekends and holidays doing lab experiments or traveling to laboratories in different parts of the country to analyze my samples.

After I handed in my thesis, I spent a year in that peculiar limbo that PhD candidates occupy – waiting for the examiners’ reports, writing addenda and elucidations to the thesis and helping my wife with her PhD fieldwork in the Gulf of Thailand. Subsequently, I spent more time in Thailand, becoming involved in several post-tsunami surveys and in some of the increasingly progressive ecological research being undertaken by Thai academics.

My position at SWIMS is my first time in China. I am excited by the possibilities to do science here – the reefs of the South China Sea are subject to unique stresses and offer unique opportunities to study the resilience of corals and coral communities. My previous work has mostly been about how corals respond to stress and the telltale signs that stress events leave in coral skeletons. I hope to continue that work and expand into investigating the behaviour of corals in sub-optimal environments. There are many potential collaborations here as well with researchers who are doing fine work teasing apart different components of the ecological web.

Nature is too complex for the broad ecological questions being addressed in this millennium to be undertaken by a researcher working alone. A willingness to collaborate and a broad experience base are, I believe, two of the most important characteristics of successful ecological researchers. Theoretical knowledge is fundamental to learning, but the more exposure one has to a diverse range of research, the easier it is to understand those ecological webs. The ability to think laterally is seldom apparent in researchers who never leave their comfort zone. In my experience, the more exposure a student has to real research during their degree, the easier it is for them to become a good researcher in the future. My advice to anyone who wants more out of university than just a pass degree and a job at McDonalds? Get out there, get qualified and volunteer!



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