In touch with… Adrian Werner

Professor Adrian Werner was named Australia’s leading hydrology/water researcher in The Australian recently, so FiT took the opportunity to investigate what this means on the ground – or below – and uncover tips for researchers aspiring to similar heights. (Read to the end for Adrian’s latest news hot off the press!)

What inspired you to pursue an academic career in water research and associated processes?

I came to appreciate the challenges of solving water research problems during my 16-year employment in the Queensland Government’s Water Departments. Compared to other disciplines within Civil Engineering, hydrology, and especially hydrogeology (the study of water below the ground), were the most intriguing to me. Solving hydrogeology problems is akin to solving a cold-case crime – drawing together scant facts and testing multiple plausible hypotheses about something that is very difficult to see and the consequence of historical events – both natural and human. And, a hydrogeologist must become familiar with specialised techniques that draw on other disciplines: mathematics, physics, geology, chemistry, meteorology, and in some cases, biology, law and social sciences.

The requirement to seek knowledge across a breadth of scientific fields is both appealing and rewarding.

What is your current research focused on?

My research in groundwater has most recently focused on coastal systems and other settings where water density variability is important, and where surface water-groundwater interactions are critical. I am also studying approaches to groundwater management, including mining and other development activities, which often create competition between environmental and human demands for water.

I have just completed an ARC Linkage project with the State Government to look at the groundwater in floodplains adjacent to the River Murray. We made some remarkable discoveries about freshwater next to the river in otherwise saline aquifers that defied the knowledge at the time on aquifer-river interactions. These new groundwater systems, which we call riparian freshwater lenses, are critical for the survival of near-river vegetation.

I’ve also been studying the extent of freshwater under the sea, and have made significant in-roads into our current knowledge of offshore freshwater. That research falls under the banner of my Australian Research Council Future Fellowship.

Another exciting area of research endeavour has been the study of freshwater on small islands, including Pacific nations where sea-level rise threatens their water supplies. Significant analysis into the freshwater supply of the Republic of Kiribati has been a leading light in the investigation of these delicate freshwater resources. We uncovered major revelations about Kiribati’s freshwater resources that have implications for groundwater management more generally. This work also falls within the scope of my Future Fellowship.

Can you share a challenge in your life and how you overcame it?

I was an independent teenager, leaving home and working to support myself through the last year and half of high school. Those years of working for subsistence were useful life lessons at an early age and were motivation to succeed in university studies.

After my first year of a Civil Engineering degree, I was awarded a Queensland Government scholarship, which allowed me to focus on my studies and gain valuable non-semester work experience. The support was key to attaining first-class honours. The 16-year association with the Queensland Government that followed included a Ph.D. scholarship in hydrogeology, and other opportunities to develop practical skills in many facets of water engineering.

Those early personal challenges were overcome by focussing on my education, and this has continued to shape my professional and academic life to the current day.

Your research links directly to practical outcomes, how engaged are you in communicating findings or recommendations to industry and government?

Opportunities to engage with industry and develop science and engineering solutions to real-world problems are the primary motivation for my academic activities – both in terms of teaching students the skills that are fundamental to practical problem solving, and in my research. My most treasured academic moments are those that led to positive outcomes for industry and government.

It is through regular interactions with industry professionals and the community more generally outside of the university sector, including colleagues from my previous life as a government water engineer, that help develop the direction of my research. I believe society would benefit from strengthening the links between university and industry/government.

Can you provide some specific examples of how your work is helping to shape industry practice?

I co-authored Australia’s Groundwater Modelling Guidelines (AGMG). The AGMG is the leading guidance for businesses and regulators in Australia and in many other countries, and for developing sound advice on groundwater impacts and sustainability.

Although the main outlet for my research is international journals, I dedicate a significant amount of time to providing direct advice to non-research organisations, through reviews of industry/government reports and as an expert witness. This has included ground-breaking cases and projects, including the Carmichael Mine case in the Queensland Land Court.

More generally, I provide hydrological input to significant national issues (e.g., as an advocate for the application of sound groundwater science in decision making.

Your recognition as Australia’s leading researcher in the hydrology/water resources space is a huge honour. Algorithms based on complex online data determine these selections, but is there any advice you can share on what it takes to be recognised as the best in your field?

My research achievements arise primarily out of the passion and dedication of the students, staff and colleagues with whom I collaborate and/or advise. I am very fortunate to share my research endeavours with a talented, cohesive team, with diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. This ‘leading researcher’ accolade reflects my senior role in the team and is in reality the sum of the team’s achievements; this honour belongs to them.

So, my advice to others is to invest strongly in those within your circle of influence.

I believe it’s a key responsibility of those in privileged positions to empower others and focus on team-building ahead of personal ambition. This includes attributing accomplishments to teams rather than to heads, deans or directors who sit atop talented collectives of researchers, to foster development of our junior researchers and engender commitment to common goals and organisational/team success.

You are clearly very busy with your field of work, can you share how you wind down on the weekends?

Like most academics, I have struggled to find work-life balance but I’ve been very fortunate to have an understanding family. My leisurely pursuits are dominated by gym visits and basketball games. This week, I’m playing in a team of fellow over-40’s hoopers at the Australian Masters Games (Adelaide).

Aside from this, I am an avid vegetable gardener, and enjoy the challenge of supplementing my vegetarian diet with home-grown produce.

**Stop press – Adrian’s basketball team won Gold at the Australian Masters Games over the weekend 12-13 October. His team, playing in the 40-45s age bracket, included retired NBL star Mark Davis. Congratulations!

The winning team, Professor Adrian Werner third from right (number 50)


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