A passion for water pollution mitigation: Profile of Dr Amelia Wenger

I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to be a marine biologist. I always loved being around animals, and there were moments when I thought I might want to be a vet. However, after the day that I spent working at our dog’s vet when I was 12, where I spent most of the time cleaning up poop (the irony that this is what I work on now is not lost on me), I gave up on that dream.

Still, as a kid growing up in landlocked Washington, D.C., I didn’t really know what being a marine biologist actually entailed or even if it was a real career option. So, when it came time to go to university, I chose a university in New York City, and decided to study biology, which seemed like the “smart” choice.

From the landlocked to coastal

But my dream of marine biology hadn’t disappeared, and I was thrilled when I got the opportunity to be a research assistant for a coral reef scientist and helped with field work in Honduras. This was the first time I was exposed to the impacts of pollution on coastal and marine ecosystems. The coral disease we were monitoring had been linked to wastewater pollution and even though we were in a Marine Protected Area, there were signs of the disease everywhere. This realisation that our main management tool to protect ecosystems did nothing to stop pollution was fascinating to me, and, spoiler alert, I was hooked!

After graduating from university and travelling around for a few months, I went back to the US and applied to PhD programs all over the country. And I did not get into or hear back from a single one. So, a month before my 23rd birthday, I secured a working holiday visa for Australia and told my family I was off to a place called Townsville, which seemed to have an inordinate number of marine biologists for such a small place. The plan was to get some work experience, travel around, and head back to try my luck again at getting into PhD programs in the US.

Existential questions

I ended up doing my PhD at James Cook University (JCU), and when I approached my supervisor and told him that I wanted to understand the impacts of water pollution on coral reef fish, he shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I’m not sure there will be any effect, but go for it”. That was the ringing endorsement I needed to set off on my research! So off I went and, like all good applied scientists, at the end of all of my papers I wrote, “and this research will be really useful for management”. But then the existential dread kicked in. Was my research useful for management? Was anyone from “management” even reading my papers?? And then it really dawned on me that although I had spent four years understanding the impacts of water pollution on coral reef fifish and knew a lot about coral reefs, to reduce the impacts of water pollution, I actually needed to do a big pivot to understand how conservation and management decisions are made and what interventions can be implemented on land to reduce it.

And that’s what I’ve been doing in the 10 years since completing my PhD, first as a postdoctoral research fellow at JCU, working with environmental managers in Western Australia and Queensland on prioritising invasive species management on islands.

I learned a lot about conservation and management in that position but, most importantly, I learned that pollution was really my passion and I needed to find a job that allowed me to work on it full-time. When a two-year postdoc came up at UQ to work on a Linkage grant between UQ and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on trade-offs between logging activities and protecting coral reef fisheries, I knew that this was exactly the kind of work I wanted to do and luckily, I got the job!

Joint UQ-WCS role

While I was doing this work, an opportunity came up to do a short consultancy with WCS in addition to my full-time job. A wise academic cautioned me to turn down the position because it would be too much work, and I’m very glad that I completely ignored his advice. It was this consulting gig that ultimately led to a joint position between WCS and UQ in 2020. And in September this year, I officially launched my own water pollution program within WCS and now provide support to our marine programs around the world on how best to mitigate water pollution. This includes a new guidance document on how to develop integrated conservation and sanitation programs that we just released and a new grant to develop a global water pollution mapping tool.

Even though I am rarely in the water these days, I finally feel like my work really is useful for management, and I’m more fulfilled in my work than ever before.

From this vantage point, it’s easy to tell the story of my journey to make it sound seamless. I haven’t included the details on the nights and weekends I had to work when I took on too much, the tears, the self-doubt, the challenges of balancing my career and being a mother to a five- and two-year-old. Along the way, I’ve had to recalibrate to figure out exactly what kind of marine biologist I wanted to be. But I like to think that the twelve-year-old shovelling dog poop would be very pleased with where we ended up.


Image above: Hanging out after a strategy meeting with WCS Philippines. Credit: Emily Darling



Project members

Dr Amelia Wenger

Senior Research Fellow
School of the Environment
Associate Conservation Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society