Derwent Estuary Program Catchment Scientist and Eco Detection early adopter Dr Bernadette Proemse was among a group of female water and environmental professionals who are now Fellows of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust.
“It’s a big privilege to be a Peter Cullen Fellow. I’ve been on an exciting and encouraging journey. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined to be part of this leadership program, and I feel honoured to have graduated to become a Peter Cullen Fellow now.”
So said Dr Bernadette Proemse, Catchment Scientist at the not-for-profit organisation, the Derwent Estuary Program. The Program is a regional partnership of local councils, industries, researchers, and the Tasmanian State Government. The Derwent Estuary Program monitors and reports on the environmental health of the Derwent, a river and estuary with a catchment covering one-sixth of Tasmania’s land mass and providing 60 per cent of the drinking water to approximately 40 per cent of Tasmania’s population.
Who is Dr Proemse?
Her current work focuses on nutrient cycling in freshwater systems using revolutionary real-time analyser technology. Proemse is interested in hydrology, catchment science, and anything related to stable isotopes. Her research encompasses the development of novel analytical and isotopic tools and their application in environmental biogeochemistry, including pollution tracing.
“My career has been very diverse. I’ve dived into different areas over the last 15 years,” she said. “They tend to swing back and forth between water quality and air quality-related research. My background in isotope geochemistry has allowed me to investigate various environments and samples, from ancient ice to modern sediment cores.”
In November last year, she joined a group of 13 professionals working in water and environment organisations from all over Australia. Together, they aim to change current environmental systems and processes to improve Australia’s environmental outcomes for future generations. All these professional women were made Fellows of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust.
How does Proemse fit in with Eco Detection?
Proemse has been working with Melbourne-based company Eco Detection to monitor water quality in real-time. Seven water quality monitoring systems are now operating in the River Derwent Catchment, including at a TasWater sewage treatment plant, and are closing the gap between data and insight.
“We are pleased to see our Eco Detection nutrient monitoring units installed,” she said. “We have recently seen some early warning signs in the upper estuary hinting at nutrient increase, and we are keen to investigate the sources of these nutrients in the River Derwent catchment.”
This world-first automated electrophoresis-based solution is designed to increase efficiency in infrastructure, remote operations, wastewater processing, food production and environmental monitoring. From Proemse’s perspective, the volume of data provides immense opportunities.
“We are halfway through a three-year project funded by our stakeholders and The Ian Potter Foundation,” she said. “It’s fascinating because of the novel technology we are using. I love using analytical equipment like mass spectrometers, ion chromatography, and capillary electrophoresis systems.”
Proemse enjoys seeing how the equipment can be utilised in real-world environments by taking these complex instruments into the field.
“This technology has been developed by the University of Tasmania, taken to the mainland for engineering and commercialisation, and then returned to Tasmania for the first catchment trial,” she said. “My challenge is to take the thousands of data points and unravel what is happening in our rivers and streams. My other task is to fine-tune and improve the equipment while it is on site.”
How can companies best use this technology?
Eco Detection’s systems are proving valuable insights to customers in environmental monitoring. The real-time data generated by the platform gives a window into the dynamic nature of river systems. Proemse believes that many organisations could take advantage of this technology.
“Eco Detection is providing fantastic support to our project so we can get the data we need in near real-time, analyse it, and get it out to our stakeholders,” she said. “That way, they can make fast and informed decisions. With the data being streamed to the cloud, we can access the data from anywhere. It’s reducing the data gap from weeks to hours. We are getting high-quality data to share with stakeholders and industry partners.”
How Proemse managed the Eco Detection technology
Automated sampling and laboratory-grade measurements are also being used to supplement or replace existing sampling practices in wastewater treatment plants. The need for weekly or daily water sample testing is expensive while needing more granular detail. Eco Detection’s integrated system automates water testing, analysis and reporting to provide real-time laboratory-grade data. It enables proactive decision-making to meet sustainability and compliance standards and improve efficiency.
“While the validation phase of the project is still underway, we are already getting trickles of good news. The support of The Ian Potter Foundation has been vital in helping us get the analysers and test them in various environments. We are testing them at different nutrient concentrations from very high to very low,” said Proemse.
She explained that taking monthly control data ensures that the analysers work correctly. This is the first big field trial of the technology. Proemse’s research is trying to cover different scenarios and challenges while ensuring high-quality data.
“We are working with the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to show that this technology can be used for compliance monitoring,” she said. “We are also collaborating closely with TasWater to help understand the variability of nutrient levels in their sewage plants. By having remote access to the analysers, we can adjust them to account for extreme weather events, the use of consumables in the devices, or any number of other issues that we might have to deal with.”
Opportunities for women in water
When it comes to opportunities for women in the water industry, the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust is at the forefront of bridging science, people, and the environment. Of note is its Women in Water Leadership Program. The Program offers a bespoke approach to women’s water and environmental management leadership.
When Proemse was elected with 12 other women as a Fellow of the Trust in November 2022, she joined a strong and growing national network of inspiring, inspired, engaged, and committed leaders across Australia working together for a healthier planet.
“It’s extremely empowering,” she said. “It’s been encouraging to step up as a leader and to have the confidence to make the tough calls. That’s what is required to look after the environment. Listening to Tanya Plibersek, I feel I fit into her ambitions of providing better data. That’s where my project fits in. The Peter Cullen Trust aims to bring forward leaders that can communicate difficult decisions for society and have the right evidence to substantiate those decisions as well as helping people understand the need for changing behaviours.”