Psychological toll of being a sustainability scientist

8 12 2014

depressed scientistLike many academics, I’m more or less convinced that I am somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. No, I haven’t been diagnosed and I doubt very much that my slight ‘autistic’ tendencies have altered my social capacity, despite my wife claiming that I have only two emotions – angry or happy. Nor have they engendered any sort of idiot savant mathematical capability.

But I’m reasonably comfortable with mathematics, I can do a single task for hours once it consumes my attention, and I’m excited about discovering how things work. And I love to code. Rather than academics having a higher innate likelihood of being ‘autistic’, I just think the job attracts such personalities.

In the past few years though, my psychological state is probably less dictated by the hard-wiring of my ‘autidemic’ mind and more and more influenced by the constant battery of negative information my brain receives.

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Give some flair to your scientific presentation

18 11 2014

Smoko3

As the desert spring came to the great Centre Red,
Scores of sandalled folk from tin birds descend-ed.
Alice Town had been invaded,
Bearded alike and unshorn-legged.
 
They sat and stared at words and the odd trend.
Billies boiled to get them through to day’s end
They swapped bush stories that made good sense,
Trying to understand Aussie environments.
 
One bloke‘s tales caught the punters’ attention,
So this bush poet deserves special mention.
To standard rules he would not kowtow,
So his special science verse I present to you now.

If none of that made any sense, then let me help you out. At the last Ecological Society of Australia meeting in Alice Springs, I witnessed a rather unique way to give a scientific presentation – via bush poetry. Dr. Dale Nimmo of Deakin University was particularly engaging, and he agreed to have his presentation poem reproduced here. Who said scientists were boring? Honourable mention too to Simon Watson for another audience-engaging, bush-poetry seminar (but I don’t have that to reproduce here). There also might be a slidecast of Dale’s presentation coming soon. For now, please enjoy the poetic delivery of science in text.

The Old Grey Box of Heathcote Town

Dale Nimmo

Down around old Heathcote town, just east of Bendigo,
A big old grey box tree casts an eye.
The sallee fills the understory bright as sunlights glow,
As the silvereyes and thornbills flitter by.
 
This landscape, bruised and battered from 200 years of change,
Holds the secrets of a time lost somehow.
One of Jaara land, where lowan dug and dingoes howled,
The latter two, here, just distant memories now.
 
The gold rush came like bushfire, ring barked trees fell like boughs
Of the red gums scattered on the old flood plains,
That made way for sheep and cattle, while, fighting a losing battle,
rufous bettongs were never seen again.
 
When a man of English gentry, Professor Bennett was his name,
Found the woodlands to his aristocratic tastes.
Many days he’d venture in, binoculars under his chin,
He never let a single bird call go to waste.
 
While at the old St Arnaud Inn, over a couple pints of gin,
Bennet and a bloke called Radford got to talking.
Stealing horses was his game, but he’d give it all away,
To join Bennett in woodlands, bird walking

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InvaCost – estimating the economic damage of invasive insects

7 11 2014

insectinvasionThis is a blosh (rehash of someone else’s blog post) of Franck Courchamp‘s posts on an exciting new initiative of which I am excited to be a part. Incidentally, Franck’s spending the week here in Adelaide.

Don’t forgot to vote for the project to receive 50 000 € public-communication grant!

Climate change will make winters milder and habitats climatically more suitable year-round for cold-blooded animals like insects, but there are many questions remaining regarding whether such insects will be able to invade other regions as the climate shifts. There are many nasty bugs out there.

For example, the Asian predatory wasp is an invasive hornet in Europe that butchers pollinating insects, especially bees, thereby affecting the production of many wild and cultivated plants. I hope that we all remember what Einstein said about pollinators:

If bees were to disappear, humans will disappear within a few years.

(we all should remember that because it’s one of the few things he said that most of us understood). The highly invasive red fire ant is feared for its impacts on biodiversity, agriculture and cattle breeding, and the thousands of anaphylactic shocks inflicted to people by painful stings every year (with hundreds of deaths). Between the USA and Australia, over US$10 billion is spent yearly on the control of this insect alone. Tiger mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that cause dengue fever, chikungunya virus and of about 30 other viruses. We could go on.

Most of these nasty creatures are now unable to colonise northern regions of Europe or America, or southern regions of Australia, for example, because they cannot survive cold temperatures. But how will this change? Where, when and which species will invade with rising temperatures? What will be the costs in terms of species loss? In terms of agricultural or forestry loss? In terms of diseases to cattle, domestic animals and humans? What will be the death toll if insects that are vectors of malaria can establish in new, highly populated areas?

We’ve proposed to study these and others from a list of 20 of the worst invasive insect species worldwide, and we got selected (i.e., financed!) by the Fondation BNP Paribas. In addition, the Fondation BNP Paribas has selected five scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50,000 € (that’s US$62,000) to the one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost. Read the rest of this entry »





It’s not all about cats

20 10 2014

Snake+OilIf you follow any of the environment news in Australia, you will most certainly have seen a lot about feral cats in the last few weeks. I’ve come across dozens of articles in the last week alone talking about the horrendous toll feral cats have had on Australian wildlife since European arrival. In principle, this is a good thing because finally Australians are groggily waking to the fact that our house moggies and their descendants have royally buggered our biodiversity. As a result, we have the highest mammal extinction rate of any country.

But I argue that the newfound enthusiasm for killing anything feline is being peddled mainly as a distraction from bigger environmental issues and to camouflage the complete incompetence of the current government and their all-out war on the environment.

Call me cynical, but when I read headlines like “Australia aims to end extinction of native wildlife by 2020” and Environment Minister Hunt’s recent speech that he has “… set a goal of ending the loss of mammal species by 2020“, I get more than just a little sick to the stomach.

What a preposterous load of shite. Moreover, what a blatant wool-pulling-over-the-eyes public stunt. Read the rest of this entry »





High-altitude ecology

28 08 2014
A constant hazard in the Tibetan Plateau - yakjam

A constant hazard in the Tibetan Plateau – yakjam

I’ve been out of the social-media loop for a few weeks, hence the abnormally long interval since my last post. As you might recall, I’ve been travelling overseas and most recently blogged from Monterey, California where I was attending a symposium on invasion genetics.

The next phase of my travels couldn’t have been more different.

The reason I couldn’t access the blog was because I was well behind the Great Firewall of China. I was, in fact, in the Tibetan region of Gansu and Sichuan Provinces in western China for most of the last 10 days. While I’ve travelled to China many times before, this was by far the most evocative, interesting and unique experience I’ve ever had in this country. Reflecting on the past 10 days while waiting in Hong Kong for my flight back to Australia, I am still reeling a little from what I saw.

Top bloke: Jiajia Liu of Fudan University

Top bloke: Jiajia Liu of Fudan University

What the hell was I doing at 3500-4000 m elevation on the Tibetan Plateau? Good question. I have been most fortunate to be included in a crack team of Chinese ecologists who have designed and implemented a most impressive set of experiments in plant community ecology. The team, led by Professor Shurong Zhou and Dr. Jiajia Lui of Fudan University, has been working relentlessly to put together some of the sexiest plant ecology experiments going in China.

Having now so far published two papers from the some of the experiments (see here and here), my Chinese colleagues thought it was high time I visited the famous site. Situated at 3500 m in the Tibetan region of Gansu Province in western China, the Lanzhou University research station Azi Shi Yan Zhan is about a 20-hectare area of meadow fenced off from the grazing of the ubiquitous domestic yaks herded by the local Tibetans. If that sounds pretty exotic, let me assure you that it is. Read the rest of this entry »





We generally ignore the big issues

11 08 2014

I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.

It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.

The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.

I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?

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Tropical forest resilience depends on past disturbance frequency

16 07 2014

I’ve recently come across an interesting study that perfectly marries palaeo-ecological data with modern conservation philosophy. It’s not often that such a prehistorical perspective dating at least to the Last Glacial Maximum has been used so effectively to inform future conservation outlooks. I’m particularly interested in this sort of approach considering my own palaeo dabblings of late.

Published in Nature Communications this May, Lydia Cole and colleagues’ paper Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance is a meta-analysis of 71 studies covering nearly 300 disturbance events in tropical forests over the last 20,000 years or so. Using fossil pollen records as an index of vegetation change, they demonstrated the (somewhat intuitive) main result that the time to recovery following a disturbance generally decreases as the past disturbance frequency increased.

This appears to be a vindication of the idea that a system’s adaptive strategies evolve as a product of the local disturbance regime. More importantly, they found that recovery was faster following ‘large infrequent events’, which are natural perturbations such as cyclones and major fires. While most past disturbances were caused by humans clearing forest, the fact that tropical forest systems were most resilient to ‘natural’ events means that if we can’t stop human disturbances, at least we can attempt to emulate natural processes to maximise the rebound potential. Much like many modern forestry operations try to emulate natural disturbances to limit their damage, we should at least manage our impacts by understanding so-called ‘natural’ regimes as much as possible. Read the rest of this entry »








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