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Rivers of recognition for freshwater researcher and CQUni alum

Published:02 February 2021

Dr Aleicia Holland during her field research.

It was a chance job offer to monitor aquatic macroinvertebrates which first launched Dr Aleicia Holland into freshwater research – and the award-winning ecologist has barely been out of rivers since.

Studying her Bachelor of Science at CQUniversity Rockhampton and six months pregnant with her first child, Dr Holland was offered her first research role in 2007, leading to Honours research then a PhD, and a lifelong passion for improving river health around the globe.

Now based in Albury-Wodonga at the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems at La Trobe University on the Murray-Darling, Dr Holland has just received two awards: the Australian Freshwater Sciences Society Early Career Excellence Award, and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Early Career Researcher Medal in recognition of her work.

The recognition comes 13 years after that first river role, and subsequent research across Australia and in Brazil.

“One of my lecturers, Dr Leo Duivenvoorden, was looking at the macroinvertebrates as indicators of stream health around Rockhampton, and offered me some casual research work so I pretty much fell into the freshwater field from there!” she said.

“Freshwater ecosystems are one of the hotspots for biodiversity globally, but only make up one per cent of the earth’s surface, and we’re losing the diversity at an alarming rate due to anthropogenic stressors such as climate change, urbanisation and contamination.

“My work is focused on growing protections and also awareness of how to improve water management.”

Dr Holland was pregnant with her second child during her Honours, then took on a PhD focused on how dissolved organic carbon affects the toxicity of low pH and acid mine drainage to freshwater organisms.

Information from her thesis informed the Queensland Government’s development of guidelines to protect naturally acidic streams.

“I started my PhD when my two kids were just two and nine months old, so it was a very hectic time – and very rewarding to see my work go towards management of such unique freshwater systems,” she said.

After graduating in 2014, Dr Holland headed to Brazil in 2015, after receiving a level A Science without borders postdoctoral fellowship placed in the top 25% assessed world-wide to look at toxicity of Nickel to fish within the different waters of the Amazon basin. Results from this study were published in the high ranking international journal Water research impact factor 9.13.

Dr Holland has contined to work in the Amazon basin and is currently part of a collaborative project funded by National Geographic looking at the microbiome of Amazon fish species.

“The skin microbiome of fish is the first line of defence against changes in water quality so understanding the community composition of fish microbiomes and how they respond to changes in water quality is essential to developing new biological indicators.”

Originally from Bundaberg, Dr Holland lived in Brazil for a year, and on her return received a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award from the Australian Research Council, with a $368,394 grant to expand her dissolved organic carbon research.

Her research continues to focus on carbon and metals in freshwater, and is going towards developing site-specific guidelines for metals to improve water management.

Dr Holland is currently a Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University’s Albury/Wodonga campus, and hopes to guide the next generation of ecologists.

“I currently have seven PhD students I’m supervising, and I really love being a mentor,” she said.

“I had excellent mentors at CQUniversity who provided me with work opportunities and skills required to be successful at research and I want to make that difference for my students too.”