From childhood curiosity to a highly credentialled career, a life in science seemed predestined for Southern Cross University’s Associate Professor Joanne Oakes.
“As a kid, I was always muddling about in streams, rivers and at the beach, collecting, identifying and studying the rocks, animals and plants I encountered,” she said. “It began a curiosity that continued to build and has stayed with me. I am fascinated by the diversity of the natural environment. Learning how the world works and what it teaches us gives my research real meaning.”
Associate Professor Oakes is acknowledged for her use of stable isotope techniques to investigate the ecology and biogeochemistry of coastal, terrestrial, and freshwater systems. Her findings are enhancing knowledge of how the processing and fate of carbon and nitrogen are impacted by conditions such as elevated nutrients, changes in faunal or microbial communities, increased temperature, and ocean acidification.
As Deputy Director of the Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry within the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Associate Professor Oakes brings more than 20 years of experience to her roles and research.
After completing a Bachelor of Science and PhD at Griffith University, she joined Southern Cross University in 2006 on a 12-month postdoctoral contract. This was followed by a three-year research project investigating carbon and nitrogen cycling in estuarine systems. Funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, it was the first of more than $2.2 million in grants secured during her career so far.
Her research is broadly based, extending from the arctic to the tropics, from bare coastal sediments to seagrass beds and mangrove forests, and from terrestrial to freshwater ecosystems.
“In some of our research, we used the same equipment and applied the same techniques across different climates to look for differences in coastal carbon and nitrogen processing,” said Associate Professor Oakes. “What we found was that the results were remarkably similar, suggesting that the microbial communities that process carbon and nitrogen adapt to their very different specific environments to function in much the same way.
“This scientific symmetry is both curious and informative. It tells us a lot about how systems work. And when we know how systems operate, it helps us to protect them.”
Abnormal events are equally illuminating. As floods wrought devastation in the Northern Rivers catchment in early 2022, Associate Professor Oakes watched as newly sprung river plumes – each one carrying tonnes of soil and other material – made their way out to sea.
“I could not help wondering where that material was settling and what the environmental effect would be, both in the moment and looking ahead,” she said. “It raises questions around the ongoing health and composition of the Richmond River Catchment, the impact on carbon and nitrogen processing, and the role of science and research in supporting environmental restoration and rejuvenation in our region.”
Associate Professor Oakes said Southern Cross University is well-placed to direct its research expertise towards such environmental challenges. The University’s proximity to coastal areas, freshwater and estuarine systems, agriculture and natural resources give access to a living laboratory.
“When I first came here, the University had just acquired a fantastic collection of new instruments and equipment for scientific research in my field. It immediately showed me the University’s commitment to environmental science, and I really wanted to be a part of it,” she said.
“That continues to be the case. Southern Cross University punches above its weight with world-class environmental research that has implications for the Northern Rivers and beyond.”