PhD Project Title: Thermal properties of corals and implications for coral bleaching.
Supervisors : Associate Professor Peter Ralph (UTS), Emeritus Professor Tony Larkum (USyd) and Professor Michael Kuhl (UCopenhagen)
Isabel Jimenez is living proof that chance plays a large part in our lives. Born in Switzerland, this Physics Engineering graduate from Lausanne's respected Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, has spent the last three years surrounded by biologists and coral far from home. It has been a steep learning curve and one she admits she was a little under prepared for.
"After graduating in physics and working and travelling for two years I realised I wanted to get into Environmental Biology. I was actually searching for a biology bridging course when I stumbled across a Coral Research Forum on the internet, posted a message and got a response from Professor Tony Larkum from Sydney Uni. By chance he was going to be in Zurich and we arranged to meet up. He thought my physics background would be very useful in the work he was doing with coral bleaching and I was lucky enough to secure a scholarship to do a PhD at UTS Science with Peter Ralph," she said.
Jimenez believes the cross disciplinary approach of her project has a number of benefits not the least being how her physics training helped her synthesise the other disciplines involved.
"Physics certainly helped me think in different ways. It has given me a lateral way of thinking and asking questions. I think that when you mix the disciplines that's when you get the breakthroughs in research. And it goes both ways. I have learnt a lot from the biologists," she said.
Jimenez is in the final stages of writing up her thesis. Her research has highlighted the fact that water temperature alone is not a stress indicator in corals. Water flow and light are also important and some corals are systematically hotter than others. Her research has a number of implications for understanding the heat transfer mechanisms involved in coral bleaching and, therefore, how coral reefs can be protected from the impacts of climate change.
Jimenez is sanguine about the stress she put herself under by undertaking research in a foreign country in a discipline she had no training in.
"I am fluent in English but initially the physics was all in the French side of my brain. Also Lausanne is a University town, small compared to Sydney and you know everyone. I had to learn the ropes at UTS and I spent the first year of my PhD solving problems and just figuring out how to build equipment and do measurements. But that is all part of a doctorate and people here are supportive," she said.
Although Jimenez misses the architecture, cobbled streets and white Christmases of her native Switzerland she is not yet ready to say goodbye to Australia."I'd like to stay in Australia a little while longer. It is really fantastic to be able to walk along the beach and to see the dolphins and whales. I'm going to miss that when I'm back in Europe also I like the "Let's just do it" attitude here. In Europe it can be more rigid," she said.
And what of the future? Does she have a dream job in mind?
"Definitely something in conservation and sustainability. I don't see the point of doing anything else in this day and age," she said.