Q&A with an ecologist

Q&A with an ecologist: Associate Professor Ian Lunt

Next up in our Q&A with an ecologist series is Associate Professor Ian Lunt from Charles Sturt University.

Ian Lunt
Ian Lunt

I’m a big fan of the way Ian goes about things. When you read his work and his wonderful blog  you’ll quickly realise he’s Australia’s ecological version of Sherlock Holmes. Instead of solving crimes, he pieces together information from a variety of sources to solve ecological mysteries, such as why habitats are structured in certain ways and appear the way they do, and what factors could be responsible? His research findings have significance for how we perceive and manage habitats today, but also for how we interpret ecological histories.

Most recently Ian has been terrific in promoting the importance of science communication and community engagement through his blog. He’s certainly one who inspired me to start this site and has encouraged me along the way, so thanks, and over to Ian…

1. What got you in to ecology?

I always loved animals and the bush. We used to go on family holidays to places like Little Desert and Wyperfeld National Park when I was a kid, and I’d wander off looking for birds and lizards. Later on I got more and more interested in plants and ecosystems. At uni, I was lucky to have a fantastic lecturer, David Ashton, who was the guru of wet forest ecology in Australia, and a tremendously inspiring person.

2. Why are you still in ecology?

I’ve been very lucky in my career, and moved from vegetation surveys and policy work in government departments into academia after I did my PhD. It’s a fantastic job — there’s always something new to read and learn, great places to visit, and wonderful people to work with. I love working with new students and colleagues, as everyone is always so enthusiastic about each new project.

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

Failing first year zoology at uni — it was sooooo boring. After that disaster I concentrated more and more on plant ecology and was hooked for life.

4. What’s your favourite organism and ecosystem?

I’ve always loved working in small fragmented remnants. Each patch is different and it’s always a fun challenge to try to work out how all of the fragmented pieces fit together. Which differences are natural, which were caused by past and current management, which were caused by the process of fragmentation itself? Weirdly, I’ve always found big intact ecosystems much less exciting, even though they are often more scenic.

Favourite organism? I’ve still got a soft-spot for what John Morgan calls the ‘inch flora’, all the tiny species of native annual plants that make up the super-diverse grassy woodlands of western Victoria. They’re so small, cute and awesome.

5. What result has surprised you most in ecology?

I love the fact that you can rarely predict what the results will be in a survey or experiment. If you could it would all be so boring and predictable. Early on I got in the habit of writing down what I thought the results would be for each new study, and then hid them away. I’d then look at them again after it was all over, and was always astonished at how naive they seemed. The world is never as simple or straight-forward as we think.

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

Same as the ‘last big thing’ – great research on good questions, whatever they may be. The diversity of topics and approaches is a key attraction of ecology, so all contributions are important. Always beware of one-dimensional people who tell you there’s one big important question. By coincidence that question always happens to be the topic they work on.

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

Always remember why you chose this career initially – you love nature, you want to save species and ecosystems, you love working with local communities, whatever. As time goes on it’s easy to get waylaid, buried in busywork, and lose sight of why you started off down the path. Whenever things get tough, at work or in life in general, sit on a rock, walk along a beach or climb a big tree, and remember why you love nature – it’s awesome. Then go directly to question 12.

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

Think long term and remember why you too started in your career. We can all make a big difference if we focus on the hard, long term decisions, not the minutiae of the moment. It’s possible that things may end up bad, but they’ll be much worse if we don’t work together on them.

9. What’s your favourite field food?

Rice. Where would we be without it?

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

Oooh, long term memory lets me down again. At the moment I’m really into listening to podcasts while I take the dog for a long walk every night. Everyone should listen to Radiolab, This American Life, and everything on the Radiotopia podcast site, they are all fantastic story tellers.

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

There are too many fantastic papers to pick one as being ‘most important’. But the paper that really made things click for me when I was young was in a really tiny journal from the USA and was called, ‘Just a few oddball species: restoration and the rediscovery of the tallgrass savanna’ by Steve Packard. I wrote a blog post about it, 25 years after I read it, and through a miracle of social networking, received a reply from Steve Packard (who I’ve still never met) within 24 hours, which was pretty mind-blowing. I called the blog ‘Steve Packard was my Steve Jobs’, which pretty well sums up the importance of the paper for me. 🙂

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

Never give up. Ever.

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

That would probably be the time I drove to a field site just west of Melbourne for a short day trip, and then thought it was way too nice a day to dig soil samples, so kept driving until I ended up at Sturt National Park in far western NSW a week later. If the car radiator didn’t leak I probably would have gone further. I came back a couple of weeks later. It was a wonderful trip.

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

I have no idea. I’m sure it would be fun though.

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

There’s only one choice: the Dons. Our drugs are way better than yours.