In Their Element Science Podcast: Environment

Call of the wild

Urban ecology // The changing role of zoos // Game-changing tech in ecology // Charismatic animals // Using killer robotic drones to protect coral // Studying science and ecology

Jacob Maher

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"When people say they don’t like science, it’s like saying they don’t like art. It’s just so versatile and I just think we are all scientists in a way.”Jacob Maher - Sustainability Officer

 

Jacob Maher - Sustainability Officer

Call of the wild: Jacob Maher

About our guest

Jacob Maher thinks you’re a scientist. In fact, he thinks we all are. 

He was sure his future was in zoology, but through his Bachelor of Science, he was introduced to ecology and was totally hooked by the wholistic viewpoint it offered. He was fascinated by the way it explains the interactions and connectedness of complex systems.

Now Jacob works in environmental sustainability where he has worked on studies that investigate how developmental impacts may affect human communities, as well as on native seed revegetation projects. 

Join us for his conversation with Sarah Davidson as he talks about sustainability in our urban environment, the different ways technology is changing the field of ecology and charismatic animals!

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  • Show notes

    Sarah:
    Welcome to In Their Element, a fascinating new podcast series, offering a revealing glimpse into the unfolding careers of passionate science grads from South Australia's number one uni for science, the University of Adelaide.

    Sarah:
    In this episode, we're chatting with ecology graduate, Jacob Maher. Jacob started off with a straight Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide, but entered into the BSc advanced program after his first year. He graduated with a double degree in ecology and zoology with first class honours in environmental science. Such an interesting mix. I can't wait to share with you how he put this into practice.

    Sarah:
    Jacob, welcome to the show.

    Jacob:
    Hi Sarah. Thanks for having me on.

    Sarah:
    Thank you so much for joining. So before we start, we ask every guest on the show a little icebreaker. What is the coolest scientific fact or discovery you know of that you think needs a little moment of appreciation?

    Jacob:
    Ooh, well, that's an interesting question. I suppose, as science is ever-changing, these new cool facts always come along. But one thing I've been particularly taken by recently was that in Mumbai, there has been some correlations shown that the presence of leopards in a large city park has reduced the instances of rabies in people living near the park. So there's this incredibly dense population of leopards living in this national park in the middle of Mumbai. There's 40 leopards, or something, in this park, and they've been reducing the numbers of stray dogs around this park, which has then reduced the instances of dog bites and then reduced the incidences of rabies in people living near the park. So, yeah, I just think that's pretty interesting.

    Sarah:
    Oh my gosh. That's a great fact to start with. That's exactly what we look for, is those instances of patterns out there that have a butterfly effect onto others, that affect our lives, that you would never necessarily attribute to science.

    Jacob:
    Exactly. These top-order predators are actually providing an ecosystem service that most people wouldn't even think would happen. So it's pretty interesting stuff.

    Sarah:
    I even find that links to the whole concept of all of us just want to get rid of spiders, because we hate them, but then realizing what would actually happen as a flow-on effect of doing that.

    Jacob:
    Yeah, exactly.

    Sarah:
    They keep things in check in nature. Someone has to think about that. That's what you guys actually do.

    Jacob:
    Yeah. It's interesting to see and that sort of stuff happening in the realm of urban ecology and stuff's quite interesting where, as our human-centric world expands, we come in contact with nature more often and yeah, it's pretty interesting stuff.

    Sarah:
    So I think that leads really nicely into the world of ecology and how you got enticed into that. What actually is the body of science that is ecology? Explain. I know it's the relationship between organisms and their environment, but you mentioned, then, urban ecology as a specific type. So to the layperson outside of science, like myself, what is the world of ecology and what does that actually mean?

    Jacob:
    Yah. So you're totally right. It's the study of the interactions between life in the environment and the environment itself, and that can be biotic or abiotic, so living or non-living. So it covers things from energy flow systems and the regulation of energy through the environment and how that affects other things, but also the interactions between species or species in the physical environment. It's quite broad, really. It covers a lot and it's actually one of the newer fields of science relatively, and it's pretty well-defined by its interdisciplinary approach. So yeah, it looks at everything from life processes, interactions, and the adaptations that animals and plants and fungi and viruses and everything else have with the environment and then the movement of materials and energy through that system. And then the successional development of the environment in relation to that.

    Sarah:
    That's so cool. I think I pretty much just realized that all of those puzzling questions out there, like the ones you just mentioned, that's actually called ecology. I just put it together, that that's what that is.

    Jacob:
    It's pretty all-consuming. It takes on so much and it interacts with the human world as well. So there are fields of human ecology, but the interaction between people and the environment is massive. And we have such a huge effect on the environment, so we're just as much a part of that system as anything else. So, yeah.

    Sarah:
    And does urban ecology mean bringing that out of just the fields and the natural environment and into cities, like, densely populated areas?

    Jacob:
    Yeah. So it's taking that and looking at it in the urban environment. So seeing how the environment that we create for ourselves and what things thrive in that environment as well and how we can thrive in that environment too, because we've only been living in these dense, populated places relatively recently in terms of history. So seeing how that all interacts is pretty interesting stuff

    Sarah:
    I read that you actually started off in zoology and genetics, but then swapped to ecology. So talk us through how, when you were younger, you originally became interested in science more broadly and then started to distinguish your interests between those fields and why the change.

    Jacob:
    Yeah, sure. I was always interested in animals, especially as a kid. I think that's a natural fascination that a lot of people hold. I just never really lost it, I guess. I just kept being interested in that sort of thing. And so when I got to university, I thought what might pair well with zoology would be genetics and it certainly does. But then I started having some introduction to ecology and the ideas of ecology, and I was very much attracted to a holistic viewpoint and seeing how everything interacts and these complex systems. That just completely drew me in. I liked how it combined so many disciplines into such an interesting field. So that's what led me down that path, was how interconnected things can be. And I think also a sense of wanting to do what I could and help the environment. And I saw ecology as being probably one way that I could best serve the planet, so to speak.

    Sarah:
    Yeah. Well, you did a really cool honours thesis, too, showing that application of the skill-set that you ended up with, by combining zoology with ecology on the changing conservation role of Australian zoos through time, and were awarded the top prize. So congratulations on that project.

    Jacob:
    Thank you.    

    Sarah:
    And I think that gives us a really good understanding of how, in practice, your skills become really relevant.

    Jacob:
    Yeah. So I suppose one aspect of ecology is conservation, so we look to protect and help species in the environment that may be at risk, whether it be due to human influence or something else. But there's always work to be done in that field. And one of those players in conservation are zoos. So zoos can be places where species conservation can be conducted on a scale of internally or externally. They can provide services externally by protecting wildlife habitat. They can have breeding programs, which they can do within the zoo, but they can also help in terms of education. Educating the public to the plight of these species. And they can also be a genetic bank for at-risk species. So my honours thesis was looking at how zoos have fulfilled that role or are moving into that role, of becoming these places of conservation.

    Jacob:
    Zoos were originally menageries, so basically just collections of animals that were kept by rich people for entertainment. And then they became more public places, again for entertainment. You would go to a zoo to see the lion and have a lovely day out. And obviously that's still what people do, but zoos are trying to move towards becoming these institutions of conservation and education. So basically I took the collection demographics of these zoos in Australia, and I looked at them through time to see what kinds of species they were holding and how that changed and to see if that was reflecting conservation ideals. So I wanted to see if they were holding more threatened species. I wanted to see if they were holding more native species, because if we hold native species in our zoos, we can achieve conservation more effectively because we're not as far removed from the environment where that species exists.

    Jacob:
    So it's much more effective to help the conservation of a species that's like the yellow-footed rock-wallaby that lives in the Flinders Ranges. We could breed them up here and then we could release them there without too much trouble. If we have the African white rhino, we could breed up a bunch here, but getting a bunch of rhinos to Africa is a pretty significant undertaking. I wanted to see how that reflected in the Australian zoos.

    Jacob:
    And I also wanted to see how the collections change in regards to some life history traits. So just some things about animals. So it ended up being basically the body mass of animals because it's more cost effective to house smaller species, and smaller species also do better in captivity than larger species. So if you have a lion, this animal probably walks many, many kilometres a day for its food or has such a huge range, and that's pretty hard to replicate in a zoo. We have open plain zoos that we can do that sort of thing in, but it's much less effective than, say, housing a small frog, which could live in an enclosure quite happily, breed quite well, and you could keep it much more effectively than a large animal.

    Jacob:
    And then the other thing I looked at was charisma. So people may have heard this term called charismatic megafauna, what we would typically call something like a lion, a panda, these big mammals that we consider to be quite charismatic. People like them. There's a lot of public interest in them. So looking at whether or not zoos were leaning towards holding species that people like to see and seeing if they're holding them instead of holding species that actually might need conservation.

    Jacob:
    Obviously, these two things intersect quite a bit. A lot of these large megafauna are at risk, but there's significant investment into those species, and I wanted to see if zoos were also looking to hold threatened species that may not be considered charismatic. My opinion, we can't be playing favourites when it comes to conservation, but whether or not we realise it or not, we put certain species on pedestals, and we invest a significant amount of money into certain things and not others. So I just wanted to see how that changed in the zoos through time. Yeah.

    Sarah:
    I'm never going to look at a panda again without thinking about how charismatic his personality is.

    Jacob:
    Yeah, exactly. That sort of study is interesting as well, the psychology behind all that. So the reason we might be interested in certain species is because we identify with them more closely. We might be interested because we consider them actually quite dangerous or just different features that we look to in animals. And sometimes we see ourselves in them, so we want to help them out.

    Sarah:
    Well, I mean, watching the pandas, lying on their backs, just eating all day, I definitely identify with them.

    Jacob:
    Yeah. That's it.

    Sarah:
    So then when you got into the workforce, I was just looking at the list of different things that you've been able to do, and it does reflect how broad ecology actually is. So talk us through some of the things you were doing most recently, like I was reading about native seed collection and then working for the city. Firstly, you came back to the University for research, but then also worked for the City of Adelaide in sustainability. So what were some of the other professional applications of your work?

    Jacob:
    Probably my first, I call it my first real job, the first job I got with my degree, was actually some research at Adelaide University and that was in the South Seas Ecology lab. It was quite interesting. I was actually moving into an area of social science as well. So I was looking at the Spencer Gulf region. So that's the area, that body of water between the Yorke Peninsula and the Eyre Peninsula. And this is a pretty important economic region for the state of South Australia. And they wanted to see how developmental impacts may affect the communities around there. And when I talk about communities, I mean the human community, so using what I had learned in my honours, I was again looking at demographic analysis. So the traits of, or the features of, certain populations and how that differs and how that might affect how able they are to adapt to a new environment, whether or not that be an environmental change or an economic change or a social change. So that's what I was doing in that role.

    Jacob:
    And then after that, I actually ended up doing a bit of work for the Natural Resources Management Board. I did a bit of contract work for them, just helping putting out some educational stuff around biodiversity and sustainability in the urban environment into local libraries. So that was a fun little project I worked on. And then after that I moved into the native seed collections. So yeah, ecology work can vary a lot. You could be at your desk all day sitting on a computer. And that's what happened when I was working at the University of Adelaide for that research project. But then when I was working at this place for native seed collection, I was outside every day. We would go to certain sites, find and identify native local species and collect seed from them, which would then be processed and used in re-vegetation projects. So mine sites, wind farms. Just rehabilitating mainly in the arid areas.

    Sarah:
    I just can't believe how broad the amount of different projects you've already worked on has been. It's so fascinating. And it makes it really hard to imagine, actually, how you prepare for it, in a study sense. What was your actual degree like, and why did you choose the University of Adelaide for this specific degree?

    Sarah:
    I know it has such an amazing reputation in the sciences and the advanced program. The fact that that existed in itself would have been a drawcard as well. Tell us about what that involved, and then there are so many electives I saw. What did you choose and what was your pathway in the three years of your degree at the University of Adelaide?

    Jacob:
    Yeah, so I think I was attracted to studying at Adelaide because of the range of subjects they offered in biological sciences was very good. That was something I was very attracted to. And I think part of the reason I was attracted to Adelaide was partly for its history, the work that had been done at the university is extensive and just the location as well. I thought it would be such an interesting place to go. The middle of the city, it brings so many people from so many different backgrounds to one place and I've just met a lot of really interesting people while I was studying there. So I think that's part of the reason why it's such an interesting place to study. I think that the work that's being done at Adelaide is really interesting in terms of ecology with some pretty interesting approaches and new technologies that are being utilized.

    Sarah:
    Oh, that's so cool. And I think one of the other things that has been mentioned a lot of times is how much practical experience you can get. As you mentioned, there's of course a lot of work necessarily that involves sitting down and being in labs, but you guys have access to the South Australian Museum and State Herbarium. There's so many... I mean, there's a co-located Environmental Institute. There's so many places you can go and get your hands dirty, literally.

    Jacob:
    Yeah, exactly. And for my entire duration, while I was at the University of Adelaide, I was volunteering at the Museum. So to have that resource literally on the back doorstep, or the front doorstep, of the University is fantastic. And I actually got a job there, which I still do casually, which is an information officer.

    Sarah:
    That's so cool.

    Jacob:
    Yeah. So there's this public interaction spot in the Adelaide Museum. It's called the Discovery Centre, and people can bring things in to have identified. People bring things in to donate, and people just come in to ask questions. And it's a pretty cool little room up there. We've got some microscopes and there's a beehive, which you can look into and everything. The kids love it and there's some live animals and stuff, but it's just a really good way to actually have some interaction with the Museum if you're ever interested in going there and asking some questions.

    Sarah:
    Yeah. Well, next time I'm in Adelaide, I'll pop by and have a visit. What about, you mentioned just before a couple of the tech and applications of new technology in ecology that have been changing the way that things happen. So satellite imagery, spatial simulation modelling, all those things. I looked at that and didn't know what any of them meant. So do you want to tell us a bit more about the way that tech is changing the industry as well?

    Jacob:
    Yeah, sure. So as you said, one of the big areas that's used is with satellite technology and things like GIS, which is geographic information systems, that utilizes satellite and aerial photography, as well as thermal imaging to get a picture of the environment from an aerial perspective. So you can basically, with a lower amount of effort, cover a bigger area, so to speak. So in ecology, often a way for looking at the environment and looking at populations is you could go out there and physically draw out these transects. So basically a line and you would go along and you could record each species at that point. It's a very labour-intensive way of looking at large scale environments. So using things like GIS, we can look at huge areas of the land and environment and the sea, and we can map that out and we can look at these environments on a big scale without having to put in the huge amount of effort that it would take to spatially present that... 

    Sarah:
    Gosh, that would be game-changing.

    Jacob:
    ... if we were going out there walking around. Yeah, it's a bit of a game-changer. So there's that sort of stuff. And then other technologies definitely come into plays. The use of drones as well. The use of drones, it keeps surprising me what they do with it. I mean, I've seen things where they'll send drones over rainforest habitat to identify places where orangutans might be able to have habitats so they could identify how good a habitat it is for a certain species or something.

    Jacob:
    On the other hand, they've got things like drones. A couple of years ago, they had this robotic drone on the Great Barrier Reef that would go around and kill these invasive starfish called crown-of-thorns. So basically this robot would swim around and inject these starfish, which feed on coral polyps. It would inject them with a toxin to kill them. And yeah, just to help the coral rebuild.

    Jacob:
    I think the other big area, which is worth mentioning, would be genetics. So genetics can be used very effectively in ecology as well. So yeah, I went down that route of zoology and ecology, but I had several people in my cohort who went down the ecology and genetics route, and they've gone into some pretty interesting stuff where you use genetics to look at the micro or macro environment. And even things like bio-tagging, where you can take samples from a body of water and identify multiple species that are living in there just from trace genetic material in that water. And so you could, rather than going and finding everything that's living in that lake or in that pond or whatever, you could take a sample and do genetic analysis to see what's actually living in there. And we can do that as well on our own microbiome level as well. So yeah, the scale of it is pretty interesting, so you could see what sort of ecosystems are living within you as well. And that's when it starts to get into the health side of things as well.

    Sarah:
    Gosh, ecologists who used to have to troll through lakes and rivers must think, "Wow, what a waste of time."

    Jacob:
    Yeah. So I think the great thing of technology in ecology is that we're trying to be less invasive with our techniques. So part of what we want to do is protect the environment. So these new technologies are allowing us to be completely non-invasive and we can look at these things from afar. Obviously, there's still merit in being able to go out there and measure everything exactly, and collect things like that. But yeah, a lot we can do from an outside view.

    Sarah:
    I was going to ask next, what else you could have done with your degree and what some of your peers had done. But I think you've just explained that and how many different things that they could have gone on to do.

    Jacob:
    Yeah. It's super-broad. Just with every different type of ecosystem, there's a different type of ecologist for that. And some people are definitely looking into that space of ecosystems and the effect on human health and yeah, there's all sorts of interesting interactions. So yeah, like I said, it's very interdisciplinary, so it pops up everywhere.

    Sarah:
    What would you say of that incredibly broad field is your ultimate ecology dream? If you had all the money and all the people resources and tech resources and everything in the world, what's a problem or a discovery that you would ultimately love to be part of your career?

    Jacob:
    Yeah. Oh, that's a tough one. I think one thing I've always wanted to contribute to, or wanted to help with, is working on ways to help with the amphibian extinction crisis. So amphibians globally are one of the most at-risk animal groups and there's this disease called chytridiomycosis, which is a fungal infection that affects amphibians. So basically this fungus gets into their skin and amphibians like frogs, they use their skin a lot to breathe and to take up water. It's a very permeable membrane for them. And so when this fungus gets in there, it basically breaks that down and they can't function well and they die. So amphibians globally are facing this threat, amongst other things. And I've always wanted to work towards helping resolve some issues in that field in some respects. So, yeah.

    Sarah:
    Wow. I think that's such a cool reminder that scientists, when you do make a discovery in your work or when you do solve a problem like that, it's such a tangibly obvious global-scale result. That's so cool to view the project, the actual product of your work, so visibly in the environment around you.

    Sarah:
    And what would you say, just to finish up, to people who don't think science is for them? Because I think we all have this real misconception of how narrow or how lab-based scientists are. But really, I think you're the perfect example of the fact that it can be the complete opposite if you want it to be.

    Jacob:
    Yeah. Oh totally. It's just so broad. To me, when people say they don't like science, it's like saying you don't like art. It's just so versatile, and I just think we all are scientists anyway, generally. So whether you like it or not, you benefit from science and the world benefits from science and you're a scientist yourself. So yeah, I'd take a second look at it. And it's not all lab coats and lab experiments and things like that, even though that's cool as well, but yeah, it's certainly a very, very broad field and there's something for everyone in it.

    Sarah:
    You're not the first person who said that everyone is a scientist.

    Jacob:
    No, and I won't be the last.

    Sarah:
    I wouldn't have believed you at the start of this podcast, but now I'm increasingly convinced that I'm a scientist. I could totally do that.

    Jacob:
    It's just the questions you ask yourself every day as well. I think science can help with so many things. So yeah, we use it. Science is just the observation of the world and how we can fit into it and our interpretation of it. So whether you like it or not, you're doing it every day.

    Sarah:
    Well, thank you so much for that wonderful perspective, Jacob, and for sharing your time and wisdom.

    Jacob:
    Oh, you're very welcome. Thank you.

    Sarah:
    Thanks for listening to In Their Element. It's been an absolute pleasure bringing it to you. If you enjoyed what you heard, be sure to subscribe to the series and we'll send you an alert the moment our next episode drops. And more importantly, if the career path you've heard about here appeals to you, jump on the Uni of Adelaide website today to learn all about the science degrees that can get you there.

    Sarah:
    Until next time, bye bye.