Lecturer in Wildlife Science at The University of Queensland
Saving threatened species from extinction
My research investigates how to save threatened species from extinction, with a focus on terrestrial animals, particularly birds. I bring together information on threatened species, their threats and evaluate different conservation actions. By examining the costs and benefits of different actions that address threats, we can be more effective at saving species. For example, my onground work with the Endangered Black-throated finch involves working with multiple stakeholders including landholders to conserve and restore their habitat.
I also focus on ways to ameliorate the impacts of two major threats: climate change, and land use change. Using scenarios of future climate, and models of how mobile species such as birds move according to local conditions, I make predictions about where habitat for species will be in the future. We can then find the best ways to conserve the key habitats, through solid policy, legislation and incentive frameworks.
The outputs from my research and science communication have contributed to onground conservation outcomes across Australia and throughout Queensland, and have informed planning and action for state and federal government, CSIRO, Natural Resource Management (NRM) groups, and non-government organisations (NGOs). Early in my postdoctoral work I modelled the impact of climate change, and location of climate refugia, for over 1,600 of Australia’s vertebrates; and shared the spatial data to organisations across Queensland. Working closely with the Queensland Government’s Landscape Resilience team, my climate change refugia analysis directly informed the acquisition of new protected areas for Queensland. From there I worked closely with four NRM groups in North Queensland to map the climate refugia within their jurisdictions, and understand the trade-offs for threatened species and carbon sequestration opportunities. These refugia maps formed the basis of each NRM’s climate change adaptation plans.
Subsequent research roles focussed directly on threatened species: I identified ecological refuges, and collated all threats to all of Australia’s threatened species. I worked with taxonomic experts to identify recovery actions to address every threat to every threatened species (1659 species in total). While this was a national project, I met frequently with Queensland Government to communicate the approach and the results for Queensland’s species, so these could inform Queensland’s threatened species recovery planning.
I also have deep involvement with a few threatened species in Queensland: I have been working on the conservation of the Endangered southern Black-throated Finch, now confined to Queensland, for over 11 years. I chair the Black-throated Finch Recovery Team, have supervised four research student projects on Black-throated finch ecology and conservation, led the drafting of the National Black-throated Finch Recovery Plan (in process for being adopted nationally and in Queensland), advocated for habitat protection, fundraised for Black-throated Finch conservation action and helped coordinate monitoring. My Black-throated Finch research and conservation has often felt like the most important work I do, with the greatest onground impact, yet has never been the core part of my job and has always been a voluntary (and very time consuming) role.
Just over a year ago I started a research and conservation program for the Endangered Condamine earless dragon, confined to the Darling Downs of southern Queensland. I have one Honours student and am in the process of procuring funding to build a research and conservation program for this imperilled species. It has been fantastic to meet the enthusiastic landholders who are stewards for this species and I am excited to see this project grow and provide real-world conservation outcomes.
I assist directly with community conservation programs, for example, on the steering committee for the “Birds of the Lockyer Uplands Conservation Action Plan”; by coordinating the southeast QLD contingent of the national Latham’s snipe monitoring, and working with NGOs such as Birdlife Townsville, Birds Queensland, Queensland Trust for Nature and Queensland Conservation Council. Through serving on the National Research and Conservation Committees for Birdlife Australia and the Invasive Species Council, I bring Queensland’s conservation issues to national attention.
I strive to be a good role model for women and girls in STEM because I’ve had the opportunity to learn from amazing women role models, who have inspired me to work in science. These amazing women have inspired me to emulate their qualities, so that I can inspire the next generation of women and girls.
Good role models for women and girls in STEM are those who go into a field of study they are passionate about, despite the barriers they have faced. Facing – and helping break – these barriers makes the path more available for the next woman, by changing work cultures and attitudes. Importantly, my most admired role models are those who implement the best, fairest and most compassionate approaches. Taking their lead, I strive to be unwaveringly committed to rigorous, robust science; and to hold my ground in the face of those who want to push ahead despite legitimate concerns. Importantly, the best role models are those who lift their junior female colleagues up around them. My superstar female role models have supported me, and shown me how to make a workplace safe for someone to air their concerns and get support where needed. They have shown me how to take every opportunity to promote the work of your junior colleagues, and bring these colleagues along with any success. They have demonstrated the power of being endlessly polite and respectful – even (and especially) when difficult conversations are involved. These are the qualities I strive to emulate in order to be a good role model.
I have always wanted to be a field biologist working in conservation of biodiversity, and have been inspired to do so by the women who have broken stereotypes of what women can do outside and in remote areas. I like to demonstrate to the next generation of women and girl scientists that you can be a competent field biologist – a sweaty, dust-covered field biologist who can carry heavy equipment, handle animals firmly but with delicacy and care, and be respected in the field. There are many times that I have had to face fears to do my work, such as climb to frightening heights, work in very remote places without creature comforts for months on end, travel to the other side of the world where I am unfamiliar with the language and culture, and be the only woman in a team. I have spent a year studying bats and birds in African savannas, surveyed for bats in parts of Papua New Guinea only accessible by foot, three months in the Peruvian Amazon and worked across Australian ecosystems from the desert to the rainforest. These experiences have been the most challenging, and most rewarding, of my career.
Importantly, my female role models have taught me how to fight for better environmental and biodiversity outcomes despite opposition from non-scientific sources, and to stick relentlessly to the science, even if it is unpalatable. This is the legacy that I hope to sustain.
I first learned to communicate science through a wildlife interpretations job I had while I was in high school, teaching school children about microbats, birds and other biodiversity in eastern Victoria where I lived. Watching the children become enthralled by the animals made me realise the power of facilitating a connection with nature – and amazing animals help with this.
I regularly speak to scientific and non-scientific audiences, having delivered invited keynote presentations to one international and three national scientific conferences (in addition to over 50 general conference talks). To get the messages out broadly, I have also presented my threatened species research to the engineers and planners at the “State of Australia’s Energy” national conference in Sydney; and to several environmental law symposia across Australia.
Through undergraduate teaching I seek to inspire the students to be passionate about science and protecting the environment. Its great to show the female undergraduates that women can become scientists and academics – a rarer phenomenon when I was doing my degree!
One of my favourite parts of my job is to supervise research students, and I’ve been very fortunate to have had many smart, amazing young women students researching a broad array of topics from birds, bats, threatened species, decision science and small mammals. I endeavour to create a supportive and inspiring environment for my students so that they can flourish. I manage an informal ‘women in science’ network around southeast Queensland, where anyone who identifies as a woman or non-binary is welcomed to semi-regular social events to share their experiences and receive support.
Working with community groups such as the Lockyer Uplands Catchment Incorporated, Birdlife Townsville and Birds Queensland for implementing bird conservation and climate change adaptation across landholder networks has been a great way to support community conservation action. Many of these groups are led by strong, committed women; and are achieving fantastic outcomes for the environment. Broad outreach is also important for conservation outcomes: my work has been featured in the Guardian, The Australian and ABC, and I have delivered countless radio interviews and several TV appearances highlighting the impact of continued habitat loss to Black-throated finch and other threatened species. This outreach resulted in the Black-throated finch winning the “Guardian Australia’s Bird of the Year” competition in 2019, greater engagement in decision making for impacts to Black-throated finch, and a sharp decline in proposals to clear their habitat. I also communicate to broad audiences through The Conversation, having reached over 518,000 readers.
My threatened species work has also led to many opportunities to provide advice at a higher level. I have spent a day advising the then-federal opposition leader Bill Shorten on threatened species conservation; have met with Queensland Environment Ministers, current and former Directors of Threatened Species at the Queensland Government, Greens Senators (state and federal), Australian Department of the Environment Deputy Secretary in Canberra and three Threatened Species Commissioners. I have appeared as an expert witness in the Queensland Parliament for three inquiry hearings into environmental legislation.