students on AIMS beach celebrating

New $22M AIMS@JCU partnership to broaden research insights and capabilities

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14 December 2021

The long-term AIMS and James Cook University (JCU) partnership has been strengthened by a new 10-year, $22 million agreement that will further cement Townsville as a centre of excellence for marine science research.

Close collaborators since their respective establishments around 50 years ago, the AIMS-JCU partnership was formalised in 2004. Since then, the AIMS@JCU program has supported more than 120 PhD graduates and many other students through work integrated learning and internships.

The new agreement, effective from January 2022, broadens the scope of the partnership by bringing together a critical mass of tropical scientists from diverse disciplines with improved access to each other’s infrastructure. Together, AIMS and JCU will create new insights and research capabilities to address emerging challenges. It will:

Providing support ‘above and beyond’


Students and supervisors celebrate at the 2019 AIMS@JCU Seminar Day

AIMS@JCU Research Director Libby Evans-Illidge said it was exciting to see the program broaden its focus to include data science, engineering and technology development and social sciences.

She said that in part, the program’s success could be attributed to the ‘above and beyond’ support AIMS provided the young researchers.

“Doctoral studies are stressful enough – but the recent challenges of COVID-19 have seen our students face a whole new suit of challenges,” she said.

“International students in particular lost their incomes and faced travel restrictions that prevented them from returning home, often having to deal with family bereavements from afar.

“Under the new agreement we will also work with JCU to increase the number of Indigenous young people who embark on a career in marine science, by addressing barriers and promoting success.”

An extraordinary opportunity

AIMS@JCU PhD student Mikaela Nordborg is leading an Australian-first research program investigating what would happen to young corals during an oil spill under ultra-violet light common to tropical coral reefs.

AIMS@JCU student Mikaela Nordborg.

With a Bachelor of Science in Marine Ecology from the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, Mikaela was completing her Master’s thesis when she first came to Australia on an exchange to the University of New South Wales in 2012.

She returned to Australia for a working holiday in 2013. During a public tour of the AIMS Townsville headquarters, she was introduced to AIMS Principal Research Scientist Andrew Negri which led to volunteering opportunities and her MSc thesis project.

Dr Negri also encouraged her to apply to the AIMS@JCU and became her primary advisor when she started her PhD in 2017. 

“AIMS@JCU was a wonderful opportunity for me,” she said.

“At the time I wasn’t a permanent resident and the scholarship allowed me to do my PhD in Australia.

“Pretty much all of the research I have done at AIMS wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else. The facilities are extraordinary, as is the technical expertise and support from the engineering workshop and Seasim staff.”

In addition, she received support and encouragement to develop her science communications skills, attending conferences and presenting and publishing her work as open access. She also received personal support to overcome the challenges of COVID-19 and is due to complete her thesis at the end of the year.

“The main impact of my research will hopefully be an improvement in tropical oil spill risk assessment,” she said.

“I am providing the high-quality data needed for modelling the toxicity of different oils, which can be used by mangers and regulators – as well as industry when doing environmental impact assessment.”

A pipeline of global marine science leaders

Ms Evans-Illidge said it was important to show the students the skills learnt during their PhDs could be applied more broadly in diverse careers. 

“This year, our seminar keynote talk is by Dr Neal Cantin,” she said. 

“He obtained his PhD in the very first AIMS@JCU student cohort, worked for a time overseas and  was then recruited back to AIMS. He’s now a senior scientist, supervising AIMS@JCU students. 

“Many AIMS@JCU students end up as global marine science leaders, and AIMS is full of them!”

Longstanding partnership to address national priorities

James Cook University Provost Professor Chris Cocklin said both organisations and the Townsville community continued to benefit immensely from the longstanding partnership.

“AIMS and JCU produce world-leading research in marine science and we are excited to embark on a new era,” he said.

“Investment in areas such as new disciplines, joint postdoctoral fellowships, science associated-training and employment pathways will only enhance this partnership.

“The incorporation of data science, engineering and technology development and social sciences into this agreement allows AIMS@JCU to add further depth as it strives to fulfill its vision of collectively addressing national and international priorities with leading edge science outcomes.”

For more information: AIMS@JCU website