Get rid off the “pomp”: Meet Clare Duncan

ClareClare Duncan (@whereisklara) is currently a PhD student based between the Institute of Zoology (Zoological Society of London) and University College London. Her research focuses on the services that mangrove forests provide to humans in the face of climate change: carbon storage and coastal protection from tropical storms and typhoons. Her work involves using field- and satellite remote sensing-based techniques to understand how mangrove diversity influences, how and where best to rehabilitate, and the impacts of combined human and climate change pressures on the resilience of, the climate change mitigation and adaptation capacity of mangroves. Clare will be speaking on “Mangroves: the roots of the sea and shield of the land” at the Soapbox Science London event on 28th May 2016.


SS: Clare, how did you get into your current position?

CD: How I got to my current position was really about long periods of perseverance, hard work and passion for ecology, the environment and conservation. After finishing my undergraduate degree in Environmental Biology at the University of Nottingham, I spent two years (very close to the breadline!) undertaking campaign-based internships, as well as internship and research assistant roles in the Institute of Zoology. The work I undertook in these roles, which involved extinction risk assessment, satellite remote sensing for biodiversity monitoring and predicting the impacts of climate change on animal populations, made me fully realise the importance of science and an evidence-based approach to applied conservation, and cemented my desire to undertake a career in ecological research. As a result, I then undertook my master’s degree in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at Imperial College, London, with my thesis focusing on understanding the drivers of carnivore space-use patterns globally. But some of my main research interests have always lay in whole-ecosystem and community ecology, and specifically in ecosystem-level impacts of human activities and the benefits of biodiversity and ecosystems to humans. In 2013, I was fortunate enough to be granted funding from UCL and ZSL for my current PhD research on the drivers and management of, and threats to mangrove forest ecosystem services in the face of climate change.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

CD: That’s a difficult question, as it was really a combination of many experiences and people – but mainly a love of nature. From a very young age, I have been lucky enough to be exposed to widespread biodiversity and people’s interactions with it: from summer trips to my grandma’s house near extensive coastal dune systems in Aberdeenshire (now largely converted into a certain American politician’s golf course), to periods living in some of the biodiversity hotspots of tropical Southeast Asia with my parents. But despite being a bit obsessed with nature (at four years old, I carried a book of animal pictures with me everywhere and cried for almost a full three days when I dropped it in the bath and ruined it), actually when I first left school I wanted to become an artist, and even undertook a foundation degree in Fine Art. Towards the end of this course, I increasingly realised that the main themes of my work were heavily environmentally-focused – clearly, I hadn’t shaken off a lifetime of concern about the state of the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity. I have also always been surrounded by several (female) family members with scientific careers – my mum was a secondary school science teacher, and my grandma a clinical psychologist in a time when it was quite unusual for a woman to be in such a role. I was always fascinated by the measured and question-led approaches involved with these career areas, and, in the case of my grandma, the importance of good science to human well-being. I guess eventually these two spheres of inspiration collided, and I realised that pursuing a career in ecology and conservation research would be the perfect way to combine a near-insufferable inquisitiveness and fascination with science, while being able to study the natural world. Lucky the inclusion of an ecology module had driven me to take Biology at A-Level!


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?

CD: I would say that simply the most fascinating part of my research is the mangroves themselves; they are not just breathtakingly strange and beautiful intertidal forests, but have also been largely neglected by ecological research in comparison to terrestrial and other marine ecosystems, and are of vital importance to coastal communities in many parts of the world. Being able to go in to work every day and develop and test questions about how these captivating systems function and provide services to adjacent people is immensely satisfying. But equally as exciting to me is the potential benefits mangrove research can bring to vulnerable communities: understanding how the structure of a mangrove influences its ability to provide important services such as coastal protection can help to inform how we manage and restore mangroves to reduce storm and typhoon impacts in highly vulnerable tropical countries. And all of this comes along with the opportunity to use some really exciting research tools – a lot of my work involves combining mangrove field data with satellite-derived information on mangrove structure and distribution. Developing methods to use diverse satellite imagery to understand mangrove forest properties is a dynamic and truly fascinating process – and can produce some really beautiful images! So basically, turns out I can’t pick one most fascinating aspect – I just love it all!


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

CD: The energy! I have actually been lucky enough to be involved with Soapbox Science London events as a volunteer for the last few years, and have seen first-hand what an amazing experience these events are for both the public and the scientists. Communication and outreach is an extremely important part of science, for many reasons, and I think anyone would be hard-pushed to find an environment as interactive and exciting as Soapbox. The idea of seeing an unsuspecting member of the public – especially a young kid – as excited about mangrove forests as I have seen them enthralled about social learning, antibiotics and dung beetles in recent years would be simply amazing!


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day?

CD: Exhilaration.


SS: If you could change one thing about scientific culture right now, what would it be?

CD: For want of a better word, I would say the “pomp” of it. For sure, scientific culture has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, but among many, particularly older, academics there still can remain a very elitist culture. In my opinion, this can cause a lot of unnecessary competition among academics, which can be very off-putting for (particularly female) post-graduate students and early career researchers.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

CD: As a female PhD student myself, I would simply say to absolutely do it! Despite the remaining obstacles, undertaking a PhD and academic career also comes along with a lot of creative freedom, which is hard to rival in other careers, and is enormously rewarding in all sorts of ways. And, of course, the more female representation within the academic community, the better for all of us!

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