School of Chemical Engineering

Associate Professor Kate O'Brien

Associate Professor
Office: 74-332:1
Phone: +61 7 3365 3534

Associate Professor Kate O’Brien (BE Chemical Hons I, BSc, PhD) leads the chemical-environmental engineering program at the University of Queensland. She uses mathematical modelling and systems analysis to investigate sustainability in socio-ecological systems, working with colleagues from engineering, ecology, business, social science and economics. She is particularly interested in how scientific knowledge in complex systems is best synthesized and communicated to promote sustainability. Kate teaches her students to think critically using an approach of Ruthless Compassion, and she is passionate about finding creative solutions to work-family conflict.

Her recent projects and collaborations include:

Water-energy-climate-nutrient nexus

Socio-ecological resilience


  • What really matters in engineering education, and why don’t we do more of it?
  • Applied dimensional problems in mathematics courses can improve mathematical problem-solving skills of engineering students
  • An ecological footprint for an early learning centre: : identifying opportunities for early childhood sustainability education through interdisciplinary research




Project title

Granting Agency

Chief Investigators


Unlocking the secrets of mangrove conservation success

ARC Linkage

Saunders, O'Brien, Lovelock, Wilson, Mumby, Mcleod, Maxwell

2013 - 2018

Annual audit of GHG emissions associated with staff and student commuting to UQ St Lucia campus

UQ Properties and Facilities

O’Brien, Lambert


Modelling Small Scale Ecological Processes in Estuarine  Environments

NSW OEH (Office of Environment and Heritage)

O’Brien, Adams, Ferguson


Impacts of local, regional and global environmental change on coastal ecosystem health using the eReefs coupled hydrodynamic-biogeochemical model.


O’Brien, Baird, Adams


Seagrass growth and diversity: attributes of a resilient GBR (Phase II)


Great Barrier Reef Foundation

Collier, van Dijk, Adams, O’Brien, Waycott, McKenzie, Uthicke, Phinn, Roelfsema


Seagrass connectivity, community composition and growth: attributes of a resilient Great Barrier Reef (Phase I)

Great Barrier Reef Foundation

Collier, van Dijk, O’Brien, Waycott, McKenzie, Uthicke, Liddy, Phinn


Assessment of carbon partitioning and storage in seagrass ecosystems using mathematical models validated across multiple latitudes and species

UWA-UQ Bilateral Research Collaboration Award (BRCA) Scheme

O’Brien, Kendrick, Adams, Hovey, Hipsey, Bruce, Lowe


Modelling resilience and critical thresholds in seagrass systems

EAIT strategic grant



Seagrass as an ecological indicator: resolving challenges of scale and complexity

UQ Collaboration and Industry Engagement Fund

O’Brien, Mumby, Callaghan, Roelfsema, Grinham


Sources of phosphorus promoting cyanobacteria in subtropical reservoirs

ARC linkage

Burford, O’Brien, Hamilton, Lemckert


PhD supervision:

  • Saphira Rekker, PhD in progress: A planetary limits approach to measuring corporate environmental sustainability
  • Juljiana Bors, PhD in progress: District Scale Assessment and Management of Residential Water and Energy Interactions
  • Amanda Neilen, PhD in progress: Sources, transformations and fate of catchment-derived dissolved organic matter
  • Alice Twomey, PhD in progress: Quantifying ecosystem services associated with seagrass coastal protection
  • Matthew Prentice, PhD in progress: The role of phosphorus in promoting cyanobacteria blooms in subtropical reservoirs
  • Man Xiao, PhD 2018: Investigating the effects of physical factors on competition between Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii and Microcystis aeruginosa
  • Emily Saeck, PhD 2012, Nutrient dynamics of coastal phytoplankton: the role of episodic flow events and chronic sewage discharges
  • Michael Kehoe, PhD 2010, Modelling of physical and physiological processes controlling primary production and growth in cyanobacteria
  • Dana Burfeind, PhD 2009, Caulerpa taxifolia growth dynamics in invasive and native populations
Key Publications: 
  • Collier, C, Langlois, L, Ow, Y, Johansson, C, Giammusso, M, Adams, M, O'Brien, K and Uthicke, S (2018) Losing a winner: thermal stress and local pressures outweigh the positive effects of ocean acidification for tropical seagrasses. New Phytologist, 219 3: 1005-1017. doi:10.1111/nph.15234
  • Adams, M, Ghisalberti, M, Lowe, R, Callaghan, D, Baird, M, Infantes, E and O'Brien, K. (2018) Water residence time controls the feedback between seagrass, sediment and light: implications for restoration. Advances in Water Resources, 117 14-26. doi:10.1016/j.advwatres.2018.04.004
  • Rekker, S, O’Brien, K, Humphrey, J and Pascale, A. (2018) Comparing extraction rates of fossil fuel producers against global climate goals. Nature Climate Change, 8 6: 489-492. doi:10.1038/s41558-018-0158-1
  • O'Brien, K, Waycott, M, Maxwell, P, Kendrick, G, Udy, J, Ferguson, A, Kilminster, K, Scanes, P, McKenzie, L, McMahon, K, Adams, M, Samper-Villarreal, J, Collier, C, Lyons, M, Mumby, P, Radke, L, Christianen, M and Dennison, W (2017) Seagrass ecosystem trajectory depends on the relative timescales of resistance, recovery and disturbance. Marine Pollution Bulletin, . doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.09.006
  • Collier,C, Ow, Y, Langlois, L, Uthicke, S, Johansson, C, O'Brien, K.R., Hrebien, V and Adams, M. (2017) Optimum temperatures for net primary productivity of three tropical seagrass species. Frontiers in Plant Science, 8 . doi:10.3389/fpls.2017.01446
  • Maxwell, P, Eklof, J, van Katwijk, M, O'Brien, K. R., de la Torre-Castro, M, Bostrom, C, Bouma, T, Krause-Jensen, D, Unsworth, R, van Tussenbroek, B and van der Heide, T (2017) The fundamental role of ecological feedback mechanisms for the adaptive management of seagrass ecosystems - a review. Biological Reviews, 92 3: 1521-1538. doi:10.1111/brv.12294
  • Adams, M, Collier, C, Uthicke, S, Ow, Y, Langlois, L and O'Brien, K. R. (2017) Model fit versus biological relevance: evaluating photosynthesis-temperature models for three tropical seagrass species. Scientific Reports, 7 1-12. doi:10.1038/srep39930
  • O'Brien, K. R., Weber, Tony R., Leigh, Catherine and Burford, Michele A. (2016) Sediment and nutrient budgets are inherently dynamic: evidence from a long-term study of two subtropical reservoirs. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 20 12: 4881-4894. doi:10.5194/hess-20-4881-2016
  • van Katwijk MM, Thorhaug A, Marbà N, Orth RJ, Duarte CM, Kendrick GA, Althuizen IHJ, Balestri E, Bernard G, Cambridge ML, Cunha A, Durance C, Giesen W, Han Q, Hosokawa S, Kiswara W, Komatsu T, Lardicci C, Lee KS, Meinesz A, Nakaoka M, O'Brien KR, Paling EI, Pickerell C, Ransijn AMA, JJ V. 2016. Global review of seagrass restoration and the importance of large-scale planting. Journal of Applied Ecology 53.
  • Collier C, Adams M, Langlois L, Waycott M, O'Brien K, Maxwell P, McKenzie L. 2016. Thresholds for morphological response to light reduction for four tropical seagrass species. Ecological Indicators 67: 358-366
  • Burford M, Valdez D, Curwen G, Faggotter S, Ward D, O’Brien KR. 2016. Inundation of saline supratidal mudflats provides an important source of carbon and nutrients in an aquatic system. Marine Ecology Progress Series 545: 21-33.
  • Adams, M. P., M. I. Saunders, P. S. Maxwell, D. Tuazon, C. M. Roelfsema, D. P. Callaghan, J. Leon, A. R. Grinham, and K. R. O'Brien. 2015. Prioritizing localized management actions for seagrass conservation and restoration using a species distribution model. Aquatic Conservation: marine and freshwater ecosystems.
  • Saunders, M.I., Leon, J.P., Phinn, S.R., Callaghan, D.P.,O’Brien, K.R., Roelfsema, C.M., Lovelock, C. E., Lyons, M.B. and Mumby, P. J. (2013) Coastal retreat and improved water quality mitigate losses of seagrass from sea level rise. Global Change Biology, in press
  • Kilminster, K., K. McMahon, M. Waycott, G. A. Kendrick, P. Scanes, L. McKenzie, K. R. O'Brien, M. Lyons, A. Ferguson, and P. Maxwell. 2015. Unravelling complexity in seagrass systems for management: Australia as a microcosm. Science of The Total Environment.
  • Vonk, J. A., M. J. Christianen, J. Stapel, and K. R. O’Brien. 2015. What lies beneath: Why knowledge of belowground biomass dynamics is crucial to effective seagrass management. Ecological Indicators 57:259-267.
  • Saeck , E.A., O’Brien, K.R., Weber, T.R and Burford M.A. 2013. Changes to chronic nitrogen loading from sewage discharges modify standing stocks of coastal phytoplankton.  Marine Pollution Bulletin, in press.
  • Adams, M. P., R. K. Hovey, M. R. Hipsey, L. C. Bruce, M. Ghisalberti, R. J. Lowe, R. K. Gruber, L. Ruiz-Montoya, P. S. Maxwell, D. P. Callaghan, G. A. Kendrick, and K. R. O'Brien. 2016. Feedback between sediment and light for seagrass: Where is it important? Limnology and Oceanography
  • Burford, M.A., Green, S.A., Cook, A.J., Johnson, S.A., Kerr, J.G., O’Brien, K.R. 2012. Sources and fate of nutrients in a subtropical reservoir. Aquatic Sciences, 74 1: 179-190.

Challenges and opportunities in workforce diversity

  • O’Brien, K. R., M. Scheffer, E. H. van Nes, and R. van der Lee (2015), How to Break the Cycle of Low Workforce Diversity: A Model for Change, PloS one, 10(7).
  • O'Brien, K.R., Hapgood, K.P. 2012 The academic jungle: Ecosystem modelling reveals why women are driven out of research. Oikos, 121 7: 999-1004.
  • O'Brien, K., Hapgood, K. 2011 Part-time balance. Nature, 479 : 257-258.

Applied projects tackling climate change

  • Lam K, Lant P, O'Brien K, Kenway S. 2016. Comparison of water-energy trajectories of two major regions experiencing water shortage. Journal of Environmental Management 181: 403-412.
  • O’Brien, K.R., J. Menache, L.M. O’Moore 2009 Impact of fly ash content and fly ash transportation distance on embodied greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption in concrete. Int. J. Life Cycle Assessment, 14: 621-629.