From rowing to my dream career: Upstream into research

Maddison Brown
PhD candidate
CBCS HDR Representative – Engagement

At the age of 17, my career path seemed clear as I proudly represented Australia in the green and gold. Excelling in rowing had set the course for what appeared to be a defined trajectory. I found my sense of purpose, pulling on oars!

The journey continued with an offer of a full scholarship as a student-athlete at the University of California, Berkeley. There I studied environmental science, running perpetually late for class, rocking up with wet hair and a granola bar hanging from my mouth, trying to stay awake during calculus. Balancing the demands of the gym and the boat, I found time to immerse myself in research. I delved into labs, exploring the realms of marine/aquatic biology, and even had the opportunity to conduct lab work for a PhD student. This experience offered me a taste of the freedom and independence that came with being a PhD student engaging in research on a topic of personal interest, one with broader world implications and impact.

Rowing for Australia – and back to Australia

During my time at UC Berkeley, while seated in the varsity boat, we achieved a remarkable double victory by winning both a National Championship and the team NCAA Championship. Two months later, that American college summer, I was back racing for Australia in the U23 World Championships in Poznan, Poland and the World Cup 2 in Lucerne, Switzerland.

However, as the pandemic unfolded, circumstances brought me back to Australia, prompting a re-evaluation of a career that had once felt so assured. The boredom of lockdowns became the canvas for contemplating not just the life of a full-time athlete but also pondering what lifestyle I genuinely desired.
Six months of training in makeshift home garages, staring at a rowing machine for hours a day during Melbourne lockdown, further fuelled a shift, causing me to question my once-unshakeable passion for the sport. I began to reconsider my goals and decided to part ways with rowing.

Within 48 hours of another interstate lockdown, I hastily packed up my bags, zooming up the highway to the Sunshine Coast. There, I embarked on a one-year Honours research project with Professor Nick Paul and the Seaweed Research Group at the University of the Sunshine Coast. My research focused on the Moreton Bay Rock Oyster Farm, evaluating the viability of seaweed and oyster co-culture. Among the difficulties, I revelled in the research process – from fieldwork and data collection, snorkelling, and conducting surveys, to maintaining aquaria, lab work processing samples, and the eventual desktop write-up and presentation.


Following the completion of my Honours I secured a short-term contract in Noosa working for The Nature Conservancy’s Noosa Oyster Reef Restoration Project, restoring lost oyster reefs to the river. Engaging in fieldwork within a tidal estuary, working on boats, and educating the public about these new reef installations became a fulfilling experience.

Now, I am pursuing a PhD program under the guidance of Professor Catherine Lovelock, along with Dr Valerie Hagger (UQ) and Dr Megan Saunders (CSIRO). My research focuses on coastal wetland restoration, with my initial chapter exploring blue carbon restoration opportunities for the Noosa Council.

I am assessing not only the carbon sequestration benefits but also the additional co-benefits of a blue carbon project, including biodiversity conservation (especially for threatened species), improvements in water quality, support for fisheries, coastal protection, and estimating the carbon abatement of a restoration project to aid Noosa in achieving net-zero emission targets.

As an HDR Representative of the CBCS Management Committee, I am privileged to be part of a vibrant community of exceptional scientists. Anticipating the exciting year ahead, I am enthusiastic about making connections and ensuring that HDR students feel connected to this wonderful community.

Photo credit: Australian Rowing Team.

Read more of these stories in Issue 17 of the CBCS Newsletter and follow us on X (Twitter) and LinkedIn.

Project members

Maddison Brown

PhD student
School of the Environment
Lovelock Mangrove and Blue Carbon Lab
HDR Representative – Engagement
Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science