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Solving the Australian agriculture problems with maths & data

Image provided: Kate Helmstedt (Senior lecturer, QUT) and Ellie Hubbard (Alumni, QUT; Principal, operational risk & Assurance, Seqwater) saving Australian agriculture with maths

Water is vital to agriculture, and managing it properly requires a lot of maths. It is also important to manage agricultural irrigation for maintaining the food supply in the country.

Kate Helmstedt (Senior lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, QUT) and Ellie Hubbard (QUT alumnus and Principal, operational risk and assurance) are doing just that while they highlight the importance of maths and data skills.

H2O is vital to agriculture, and managing it properly requires a lot of maths


Kate Helmstedt mathematician
Image provided: Kate Helmstedt,
mathematician and senior lecturer at QUT

Question: what does agriculture have to do with the Great Barrier Reef? Quite a lot. Farming practices can have huge impacts on surrounding ecosystems.

In Queensland, the chemicals used on farms can enter the water system and make their way to the reef.

Kate Helmstedt is a mathematician and Fellow at Queensland University of Technology
(QUT), and is researching how different regulations might influence farmers’ decisions
and ultimately change their behaviour.

“The choices farmers make on their land – such as how much fertiliser to use and what they do with their rubbish – have an impact on water quality and speed up the decline of the Great Barrier Reef,” says Kate.

“Lots of policies and laws have been tried to get farmers to make better choices, but it’s hard to figure out how they’ll respond.

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“Kate works with a multidisciplinary team that includes social scientists, economists and behavioural scientists to model different policies on how farmers work their land.

“There are lots of things society gets from land. We need to feed people, we need places to live, we need recreation,” says Kate.

“We can use mathematics to trade off all those different objectives so we can balance
our needs with biodiversity conservation.”

Irrigating hope for a better future using maths and data


Ellie Hubbard principal, operational risk + assurance
Image provided: Ellie Hubbard, alumnus, QUT and principal, operational risk & assurance

Water management is a big issue in agriculture. Water authorities have a responsibility to ensure water is supplied not just to the taps in our homes, but also to farms for irrigation.
Ellie Hubbard is principal, operational risk and assurance at Seqwater in Queensland.

She helps the organisation make better business decisions through understanding uncertainties and their effect on strategic objectives.

Maths skills are fundamental to this and enable her to establish an aligned view on what matters most across the organisation, such as building a new dam or temporarily shutting down a plant.

Ellie studied maths and engineering at QUT and spent eight years working in design and construction before moving into risk management for asset operations.

“I wanted a bigger-picture role where I could shape decisions early on,” she says. “I think bulk water supply is going to be the next big challenge for our generation.”

Ellie’s maths skills from her study at QUT are critical to her work. “Modelling and statistics are the skills I’ve ended up using the most.”

This article has been sponsored by our partner QUT and is part of the Careers with STEM maths and data 2021 issue. Click here to learn more about the maths and data courses at QUT.

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