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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

20 January 2021

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Under the sea, a different universe

The Great Barrier Reef needs to adapt to climate change. Marine science PhD student Eoghan Aston recreates corals in 3D to find out which stress-resilient corals are best suited as refuges for smaller reef fish.

Growing up in the middle of the United Kingdom, Eoghan Aston ever really thought much about the sea. That was, until the family went for a holiday in the Maldives when he was 14 years old. That was when he did his first scuba dive, together with his brother.

“I still remember very clearly an almost overwhelming sense of emotion,” Eoghan says. “I felt like as my head went under the water, I was instantly transported to an entirely different universe, and the craving for that feeling never really stopped.”

Australia, the Great Barrier Reef and – cockatoos

In 2018, Eoghan moved to Australia because he wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef. “I knew that was where my research needed to be based if I wanted fulfilment out of the next stage of my career.” Leaving the United Kingdom, however, was a big step for him. “I was a little apprehensive at the thought of moving 10,000 miles away from my family. But that feeling lasted no more than a couple of weeks —  as disappointed as my mum might be to hear that!”

It was not only the Great Barrier Reef that amazed Eoghan in Australia, it was also the exotic bird life that people usually don’t get to see in Europe. “I couldn't get over seeing birds that I'd only ever known as rare pets or zoo residents, like wild cockatoos. And they were flying around in their hundreds. I still laugh when I see them.”

Eoghan Aston
Coral Structure
Eoghan Aston (left), coral research setup (right)

Studying coral growth with 3D software

For his PhD at JCU, Eoghan studies coral growth. “What I'm interested in is developing our understanding of how corals provide usable habitat space for fish, and how it varies over time and between different types of coral.”

For example, Eoghan is looking to find out which species of coral are the most efficient providers of fish habitat on the reef, and which ones can provide that habitat the fastest from a small size. Eoghan uses cutting-edge technology for this, a technique that is called ‘photogrammetry’.

“Photogrammetry involves building 3D models of corals using a series  of several hundred photographs per colony,” he says. “After the models are built, I analyse them for their structural traits.”

The software he uses to build the models was originally used in the film and videogame industries. It is now also used in other areas, such as by architects, palaeontologists and marine science.

The innovation in science and constant evolution of methods to do a better job of improving our collective knowledge of how natural systems work is what really excites me. So, to be a part of it makes me feel very lucky.

JCU PhD Candidate Eoghan Aston

Better research with grant support

In 2020, Eoghan received an $8,000 grant from JCU’s Hunter Research Project Support Grant for his research focusing on the Great Barrier Reef. Eoghan has already planned how he is going to spend the money.

Dive trips are expensive, and most of the money will go to visit coral colonies more often. “This helps me to resurvey my corals as they grow, at regular intervals,” he says.

More data from the field also helps to improve Eoghan’s research results. “The Hunter Award will help the data that comes out of my research to be of an extremely high quality, as I have the funds to be able to return and resurvey at regular intervals. Each time I resurvey the same corals, I will be making a new 3D reconstruction of it, and recording details of the resident fish community, if present.”

Part of the funds will also go into software development. “It will allow us to develop a semi-automated procedure to overlay reconstructions of corals from different time-steps.” This in turn  will improve the accuracy of his coral growth models.

Tips for getting a grant

Of course, there is no ‘secret recipe’ to getting a grant, but Eoghan has some helpful tips for students who are interested in applying for grants. “Attend workshops, listen to your supervisors, get as much information as you can from anyone who knows more than you,” he says.

"You must go out of your way to acquire knowledge on the subject. It’s a skill set that can't be transferred from anywhere else. Over time, you learn to frame your research for research applications in the best possible way. I'm very much at the start of that process but I'm always trying to improve.”

Tips for getting into science

If you are at the beginning of your journey and thinking about getting into science, Eoghan has some advice. “If you decide to go to university, do it because you have a genuine passion and take it seriously from day one,” he says.

“Aside from that, networking early on is the right idea. It's the one thing I wish I'd had the confidence to do earlier as it opens up opportunities to gain some experience above and beyond the bounds of your course.“

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