Jane Elith - Life Scientist of the Year!

October 15 / 169

Dr Jane Elith, Life Scientist of the Year
Dr Jane Elith, Life Scientist of the Year

Methods for tracking and predicting invasive species that attack Australian crops and natural environments are among the achievements of University of Melbourne bio-scientist Jane Elith, who was today named by the Prime Minister as Life Scientist of the Year.

Dr Elith is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University’s School of Biosciences and a member of the Centre of Excellence for Bioscecurity Risk Analysis.

For her contributions to environmental management worldwide Dr Elith received the 2015 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, one of the six awards in the annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.

She is one of the most influential environmental scientists in the world, though she rarely ventures into the field.

Dr Elith develops and assesses species distribution models for applying the lessons of ecology, which are used by governments, land and catchment managers and conservationists around the world.

In Australia, for example, her models can help farmers restore damaged soils, map the spread of cane toads, and compare the implications of development options in the Tiwi Islands for threatened plants and animals that have largely disappeared from the mainland.

Dr Elith is an early career researcher, yet in the field of environment and ecology, she is the 11th most cited author worldwide over the past 10 years, and is the only Australian woman on the highly cited list, according to the information company Thomson Reuters.

Dr Elith explains she uses statistical models to describe the patterns of species we see, where and how frequently they occur in the environments they encounter. 

“It’s a niche that fits me well. I’ve ended up in an area which links my interest in nature and my liking for data and models.”

But the task she has taken on is not as simple or straightforward as it seems. 

“The Atlas of Living Australia database has 50 million species records. But we know that there are issues with that data. It wasn’t collected for modelling. Most of the records are close to roads and towns, for instance, or clustered in the favourite national parks of field biologists. The models need to deal with those sorts of biases.”

So Dr Elith collaborates with the world’s foremost statisticians, computer scientists and ecologists to puzzle out how to extract useful information from such messy data and combine and relate it to measurements and estimates of characteristics of the environment. She then passes on what she has learned to environmental managers and decision makers in the form of guides and tools to using different techniques of modelling species distribution, and the suitability and drawbacks of each one.

Her guides are some of the most highly referenced environmental publications in the world. It’s practical stuff. In nearly two-thirds of papers that cite her work, at least one of the scientists is from a government land management agency or private environmental consulting company.

Despite such success, Dr Elith’s career in science certainly has not been conventional. When she went to university in the early 70s, she originally wanted to do forestry, but was told it was inappropriate for a woman. There were no facilities for women in the field, her advisers said, and entrenched attitudes amongst foresters were likely to be an impenetrable barrier to a woman getting a job.

She decided to do agricultural science instead. 

“It was a good, broad, general four-year degree which included areas such as biochemistry, microbiology, economics, soil science, plant genetics, and it kept my options open for the future.”

At present Dr Elith is working on a project for the Department of Agriculture on how best to give advice to government on predicting where invasive species, that could be bad for health or crops, might go in Australia. 

“We’re asking: with the sorts of information we have at hand, how can we do a reasonable job of determining where pests will occur?” 

She and her group are working with statisticians to suggest protocols for answering this question and testing them. In the past, she and her students have worked on modelling cane toads, European wasps, and guava rust.

Story by Niall Byrne.

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