Q&A with an ecologist: Professor Joern Fischer

Ecologists are an interesting bunch, and with that in mind I’d like to start a regular series of posts that reveal a little more about some of them. In the coming months you’ll hear from a variety of people, please note the list is certainly not intended to be exhaustive nor random in any way, but rather the one thing in common is that they are people who for whatever reason inspire me. Be it a personal connection, perhaps we’ve shared a beer or three and good conversation at a conference, or maybe I’ve admired their work from afar, they may be a mentor and close friend, or perhaps they’re just downright entertaining! There are many reasons.

So without further ado here is the first cab off the rank in Q&A with an ecologist, Professor Joern Fischer from Leuphana University, Lueneburg, Germany.

More about Joern and his team’s terrific research can be found at Ideas 4 Sustainability.

1. What got you in to ecology?
Quite simply, I like animals … and knowing that we’re losing species faster than at most other times in the history of our planet made me want to engage with this issue, and see if there is anything I can do about it.

2. Why are you still in ecology?
For the exact same reasons as above! However, I started to branch out quite a lot. If you are interested in conservation, you need to look beyond reserves. If you look beyond reserves, you can’t get around people. So, a lot of my interests today are about the interactions between people and nature. Without understanding social issues, conservation won’t work.

3. What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?
Well, hmmmm let’s just say I ended up in Australia by serendipity. Wasn’t exactly planned like that, but turned out well in the end!

4. What’s your favourite organism and ecosystem?
I’m not sure I have a favourite — I like systems more than specific organisms. My current study system in Central Romania is certainly fascinating, both socially and ecologically. And we see all kinds of rare species quite regularly, from (signs of) bears to yellow-bellied toads to a huge variety of butterflies.

5. What result has surprised you most in ecology?
Probably that carnivores can persist in densely populated areas — people and carnivores can co-exist quite peacefully, even if they inhabit the same area.

6. What do you see as the next ‘big thing’ in ecology?
We have to do better in making our work useful to the real world. I think we need landscape-level work, which links with both stakeholders and other disciplines; and preferably is integrated across landscapes in the end. Such work is now being promoted by the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS).

7. What advice would you give to someone starting out in an ecology-based career?
Make sure you stay grounded in real-world systems. Too much modelling, too soon in your career, probably means you’re going to end up talking nonsense …

8. If you had 10 minutes with a decision maker what key message would you give them?
GDP is a meaningless indicator of social well-being, and other alternatives should be used immediately.

9. What’s your favourite field food?
Ciorbe de legume… Romanian vegetable soup!

10. What’s the best popular book you’ve read?
The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm (bit on the intellectual side, but hey ….)

11. What’s the most important scientific paper you’ve read?
Probably Dreborg 1996, The Essence of Backcasting DOI

12. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Say “no” whenever you can or you’ll be overcommitted even faster.

13. What’s your most interesting/funny field story?
Hmmmm don’t know …. being zapped by an electric fence, nearly bitten by a snake, growled at by a bear? Those were three of the less elegant moments of my field life.

14. If you weren’t an ecologist what would you be doing?
Probably psychology, and quite possibly environmental psychology.

15. Who will win this year’s AFL grand final?
What’s AFL? 🙂