Interview with Kate Quigley

Molecular ecologist on moving around, moving genes around, how she juggles four concurrent positions and the importance of thinking before you act

August 31, 2023
Source: Victor Huertas, James Cook University

Kate Quigley is principal research scientist with the philanthropic Minderoo Foundation, senior research fellow at James Cook University, adjunct researcher at The University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute and a National Geographic “explorer”. She recently commenced a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award project mapping coral reefs’ genetic potential to adapt to warming oceans.

Where and when were you born?
Northern Spain in the 1980s. I moved to Cuba as a small child and then to Sicily before moving back to Spain when I was about six. I left at 18 to go to university in the US and then I went to Peru with the Peace Corps before coming to Australia 11 years ago. I feel like I’ve done OK with my continents.

How has it shaped who you are?
My mum’s a science teacher. She would test her lesson plans on my brother and me. She was into wildlife conservation and scuba diving, so we got our open water licences when we were young. Diving, and seeing this whole other universe, was a really impactful mixture with all the science that we were exposed to. My dad was a history professor specialising in Western civilisation, specifically the Catholic church. He was subcontracted to teach at different locations for Nato personnel. I was recently in a workshop talking about the work I do around assisted gene flow, which is essentially moving things around the seascape to enhance their survival. A colleague familiar with my background said: “Hey, that sounds like your story!”

You were studying pre-medicine before you switched to marine biology. Has one helped the other?
I would describe myself as a molecular ecologist, asking questions about the marine environment from a molecular perspective. I spend a lot of time reading medical papers and thinking about how we can apply medical technologies to questions about corals. I guess now I get to dabble in both fields.

How can assisted gene flow protect coral reefs?
Say we know that a population of a species at a particular location is going to be impacted by warming in 10 to 20 years, because we’re watching temperatures increase over time. It may be that we can move a population naturally found at a warmer location to this at-risk cooler location, potentially moving those heat-tolerant genes with them and making them more able to survive in the future. That’s what I’ve been testing with selective breeding and assisted gene flow. This feasibility testing is all within single species, within their native range. We’re facilitating that movement of genes to happen faster – not adding anything that isn’t there naturally, or taking anything away. This is important because the risk profile changes when you move organisms outside their native range.

When scientists move terrestrial organisms from one place to another, the results can be disastrous. Are you mindful of the potential downsides?
It’s easy to talk about learning from history, but you have to keep reminding people and double-checking the evidence. How much do you need to know to make a good conservation decision and avoid a bad decision? With the current state of degradation, people may be more willing to take action. That’s when you need to be most cautious and think about things objectively, because when you make decisions from a panicked place, that often doesn’t turn out well. But also, what is the unintended consequence of not doing something – the counterfactual? In places with 1 per cent coral cover, not doing something is not an option for people whose livelihoods depend on reefs. We’re not at that point in Australia. We still have the opportunity to curb emissions, bring down warming and conserve as much reef habitat as possible. It’s good that we’re looking at feasibility now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to act.

What about the ethical downsides?
My National Geographic project involves talking to First Nations people about these kinds of conservation dilemmas. Assisted gene flow, by definition, means moving things from one location to another. How does that change people’s spiritual connections with the sea country? Is there a feeling of loss, or gain? Is it culturally appropriate? If conservation proposals turn out to be feasible, we need to understand how to incorporate people from the very beginning and be respectful of cultural beliefs before any conservation action is undertaken.

Is it difficult juggling four concurrent appointments?
Yes. I am constantly filling out my paperwork incorrectly.

Is diverse employment helpful for a scientist?
It’s important to get different perspectives. After my PhD, I worked for the Australian Institute of Marine Science for about six years before Minderoo called. I am also now back at a university. I’ve seen how academia handles science; how government handles science. Now I’m learning about how a philanthropic organisation handles science. It’s all very different and there are things to learn from each of them.

Are universities under threat?
Universities are places to think broadly and disagree in a collegiate way – to ask questions of processes and ideas, and push back at times. We really need to protect that kind of place in society; a place of freedom of ideas and free speech. But when there’s constant restructuring, funding cuts and Covid, it’s easy to allow the erosion of things that are almost intangible. We can’t sit on our hands and hope that it’s all going to be maintained the way it should be. You can’t assume that it’s a done deal; you have to continually work towards maintaining the principles it was set out for.

What do you like most about academia?
The freedom to pursue ideas, observe the data and build up evidence to a conclusion. I don’t see many other institutions or structures that allow that culture of free thinking and speech.

What do you like least about academia?
The temporary culture. I think this is a symptom of the times; not necessarily some emergent property of academia. But right now, it seems, there are a lot of transitory appointments. It’s really hard to think long term and build research programmes when contracts are for one or two years, or you don’t have support for technical staff. It seems such a shame to train people up and then let them go. I’d especially like to see longer-term support for early career researchers.

If you were universities minister for a day, what would you do?
I’d commission a real hard look at all the benefits that universities provide to society, and reinvigorate support for their role.


2004-08 BSc in biology, University of Texas at Austin
2008-11 Peace Corps, Peru
2011-13 Master’s in marine biology, James Cook University
2013-17 PhD in marine biology, James Cook University
2017-20 Postdoctoral fellow, Australian Institute of Marine Science
2017-present Senior research fellow, James Cook University
2020-22 Research scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science
2022-23 Senior research scientist, Minderoo Foundation
2022-present Adjunct research fellow, The University of Western Australia
2023-present Principal research scientist, Minderoo Foundation and ARC Decra fellow, James Cook University


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