Q&A with an ecologist

Q&A with an ecologist: Professor Lesley Hughes

Next up in Q&A with an ecologist is Professor Lesley Hughes.

Lesley is best known for her work examining the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems and is a member of the Climate Council.

Did you know Lesley has a strong affinity with wombats? I didn’t, read on!

Professor Lesley Hughes, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, NSW
Professor Lesley Hughes, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, NSW

1. What got you in to ecology?

I started out as an animal lover and keen natural historian. I just wanted to watch animals behaving. Somehow this morphed into community ecology once I got to university.

2. Why are you still in ecology?

The unbearable thought that climate change is going to wipe out so many species on the planet, and the hope that I can do something to save them.

3. What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?

Saying yes when asked to be a Climate Commissioner. It took a huge amount of time but was also great fun. The Commission is now dead, long live the Climate Council!

4. What’s your favourite organism and ecosystem?

Wombats. I don’t study them but I used to have a pet one, they are extremely intelligent and have fantastic personalities. I also really like weevils because they’ve got such cute faces. I love rainforests (but just to look at, too uncomfortable to actually work in them), but will always have the softest spot for dry sclerophyll woodlands.

5. What result has surprised you most in ecology?

How quickly and sensitively many plants and animals have responded to fairly modest global warming thus far.

6. What do you see as the next ‘big thing’ in ecology?

I really hope that ecologists gets serious about climate change; not just as a ‘hook’ to try and get funded or published, but because it threatens our very existence.

7. What advice would you give to someone starting out in an ecology-based career?

Follow your passion (well I would say that, wouldn’t I?), but be prepared to take some chances and follow intriguing opportunities (see my ‘best mistake’, above).

8. If you had 10 minutes with a decision maker what key message would you give them?

See my answer to the next ‘big thing’, above.

9. What’s your favourite field food?

Can’t beat a really good sandwich and a thermos of strong espressso.

10. What’s the best popular book you’ve read?

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck (added bonus, one of the main characters is a biologist)

11. What’s the most important scientific paper you’ve read?

Peters RL and Darling JDS (1985) The Greenhouse Effect and Nature Reserves. Bioscience 35:707–717 LINK

This paper, written nearly 30 years ago, set out the implications of climate change for conservation. If policy makers had taken sufficient notice of this paper back then we would be in much better shape now.

12. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Maybe climate change would be a good topic for a postdoc” — Mark Westoby, 1990

13. What’s your most interesting/funny field story?

My PhD fieldwork involved following ants around the bush; I used to attract them by putting out lines of tuna. Let’s just say that goannas really like tuna.

14. If you weren’t an ecologist what would you be doing?

Epidemiology always interested me, but I’m not good enough at stats. The economics of developing countries also always intrigued me. But sometimes I think that life would have simpler if I’d been a hairdresser.

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

I live in Sydney, am completely uninterested in sport, and don’t care. Sorry!