Push boundaries as you see fit: Meet Dr Lydia Cole

Brighton_picDr Lydia Cole is an ecologist who got distracted by peat.  Generally interested in how people and the environment mesh, or not as the case may (mostly) be, she has spent quite a bit of time exploring how people interact with different tropical and temperate ecosystems.  She carried out her PhD research in the tropical peat swamp forests that fringe the coast of Malaysia Borneo; looking at their long-term ecological change, resilience and contemporary management.  Since then, she has been helping to map important aspects of temperate and tropical peatlands for the people that are managing them, including getting to know peat intimately, in all sorts of weather conditions! Lydia will stand on one of our soapboxes in Reading, on the 9th of July

SS: Lydia, how did you get to your current position?

LC: Something along the lines of….the company I currently work for needed a peatland scientist, at minimal expense, as soon as possible; I needed to work on peat again, as soon as possible (it was calling me!); and my self-assigned mentor fortuitously had lunch with the company director.  This happening taught me that it’s always worth talking to people, so they are aware of your situation, your passion and aspirations, and also worth being prepared to try things.  I have high hopes to get back to tropical peatland research as soon as funding allows, but am very grateful for the experience and insights my foray into the business world has given me, which I’m sure will prove invaluable as I try to navigate conservation ecology again in the future.


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

LC: Probably tropical forests, or specifically the destruction of these wonderful ecosystems.  The conservation challenge was brought to my attention in my naive youth by some of the charities prominent at the time (e.g. Friends of the Earth), and as I grew up and learnt of the inspirational Jane Goodall, the plight of the Great Apes (especially the hairy orange people of the forest (the peaceful Pongo)) and the proliferation of oil palm plantations, I felt compelled to find the solution to this challenge as best I could.  And for me, that best way appears to be through independent scientific research at present.


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

LC: Aside from the ecological change in tropical forests that I am observing and measuring, and attempting to decipher the reasons underpinning that change, I find it fascinating to consider the anthropogenic elephant in the room.  “Conservation is about the management of human behaviour”, so understanding how people interact with different ecosystems and why, and how those ecosystems respond, is what interests me the most.


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

LC: The desire to get involved in communicating science, specifically the knowledge I’ve gained on environmental change and impact that I’m passionate about, to the masses.  It sounds like such a fun, interactive forum/stage from which to spread the word on peatlands and their conservation, and disseminate information on how Joe Bloggs and his family can get involved.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

LC: Boom! ….and excitement, with a bit of thrill, and intrigue, and masses of enthusiasm.  I’ll make sure I have my weetabix that morning…


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

LC: That the focus of people’s work shifts from publishing as many papers as possible, to producing and communicating as much useful knowledge as possible: information that helps us all to better understand how we can live with, not at the expense of our environment.


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

LC: Pursue your passion, push boundaries as you see fit and don’t be restricted by gender, culture or boxes in your gathering of useful knowledge.

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