woman scientist on small vessel holding model of sea turtle

Celebrating a Fulbright Scholarship Recipient

Share this:

08 March 2022

Emily Lester will swap the temperate waters of Western Australia with the tropical waters of Hawaii. Marine scientist and ocean enthusiast, Emily has been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Future Scholarship to develop a novel approach for rapid assessment of ecosystem health. Dr Lester is just one of many successful women at AIMS to celebrate this International Women’s Day.   

Diving in from a young age and enjoying magical places like Ningaloo Reef, Emily always knew she would be destined for a career below the water. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean. Scuba diving and free diving sparked my curiosity and gave me a strong sense of stewardship for our oceans,” said Emily. 

“Over time I have seen these beautiful places placed under pressure.” 

She has witnessed reef-wide coral bleaching events, seen whale sharks with scars from boat propellers, and observed marine heatwaves reduce animal populations within ecosystems.  

“Seeing these pressures on our marine ecosystems, both here in WA and around the world, drives me to produce high calibre science to inform decision makers, with the aim to change the current trajectory of our oceans,” she said.  

Dr Lester’s early career research focussed on completing an AIMS-supervised PhD at the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute to determine how the presence of reef sharks altered important fish behaviours and the subsequent effect to the ecosystem.  

women scientists on small vessel holding a model of a shark
Dr Emily Lester (right) in the field holding a model of a shark during her PhD.

“Reef sharks can alter behaviours of fish, such as the time spent foraging and where in the water column they spend their time,” said Emily. “Interactions are also influenced by other fish, demonstrating the complex relationships between marine animals and their behaviours in the environment.”  

Emily’s current work at AIMS as a Postdoctoral Fellow, is to research changes in fish populations and their structure throughout the Indian Ocean and in particular at the Chagos Archipelago (a group of coral atolls in the British Indian Ocean Territory). 

“Fish play important roles to the health of coral reefs,” said Dr Lester. “Understanding how fish populations are changing can help us forecast potential pressures if those roles are reduced.”  

Swapping reef predators for the vegetarians of reef ecosystems, Emily will travel to Hawaii, as a 2022 recipient of the Fulbright Future Scholarship, funded by The Kinghorn Foundation. 

The premier research and study exchange scholarship program between Australia and the United States, enables Emily to work with Dr Liz Madin, a global expert on coral reef conservation ecology based at the University of Hawai’i.  

The scholarship supports Emily to expand upon her PhD research and to gain a greater understanding of the forces that structure coral reef ecosystems and, in turn, identify tools that can be used to quantify these forces and aid coral reef conservation.  

Woman receiving scholarship award with Fulbright representatives
Dr Emily Lester (centre) with US Consulate General David Gainer (right) and Fulbright Board Chair Larry Lopez (left). Image: courtesy of the Australian Fulbright Alumni Association.

“The Fulbright Scholarship is a fantastic opportunity to exchange views with world leaders in the field of coral reef conservation and produce lasting collaborations,” she said.  

“Through studying the grazing patterns of herbivorous fish, I will be developing an innovative monitoring tool to improve rapid assessment of ecosystem health for reef managers.” 

Emily joins previous recipients of the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, Taryn Foster (2019) and Stacy Jupiter (2002) - two AIMS – affiliated researchers.  

AIMS supports an internal Equity, Diversity and Gender (EDGE) Working Group, which was awarded Athena Swan Bronze status in 2020 for its commitments to improving gender equity, diversity and inclusion. 

“Working at AIMS has provided me the opportunity to work with, and be mentored by, women who are leaders in the field of marine science,” said Emily. “I am constantly inspired by my colleagues and the cutting-edge work they are doing.”

“I am passionate about women in science and believe that visible role models are essential for inspiring the next generation of scientists.” 

The Fulbright Program celebrated 75-years last year and has had more than 400,000 talented and accomplished students, scholars, teachers, artists and professionals of all backgrounds participate in the Program since its inception.