Remembering Georgina Mace

by Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli

We were deeply saddened to hear that Georgina Mace passed away at the weekend. Georgina has a firm place on any list of influential women in science, and will be remembered as one of the great titans of conservation. There is no doubt that she has changed the world through her work: she was best known for defining the criteria for assessing species threat levels, through the IUCN Red List. Official recognition of her impact includes Fellow of the Royal Society (2002), Officer (OBE, 1998), Commander (CBE, 2007) and Dame (DEB, 2016) of the British Empire, Cosmos Prize (2007), Ernst Haekel Prize (2011), Heineken Prize (2016), Medals from the British Ecological Society (2018), and the Linneann Society (2016), BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award (2018) and more. Georgina was modest about her achievements; but her science legacy speaks for itself: she was a a leader and innovator for biodiversity science, and a formidable champion of early career scientists. A loss to us all.

But here at Soapbox Science, we are not seeking to champion her remarkable professional achievements – the medals, titles, awards, or even how she has changed the face of conservation with her acuity, intelligence, foresight and diplomacy. Georgina has a very special place in the hearts of female ecologists like ourselves, because, as a mother and grandmother, she modelled for us how family life can be compatible with (an extraordinary) life scientific.

We set up Soapbox Science in 2011 as a way to help female scientists punch through the gender barriers that both the media and academic culture propagates. Our idea was simple: round up some of our amazing female scientist friends, give them an upturned wooden crate to stand on, set them up on a busy city street, and let them do what they do best: enthuse about the brilliant science they do! All we needed was a bunch of women who would agree to do it….

We set about cajoling our favourite friends and colleagues into being one of our speakers. One of our dreams for Soapbox Science was to break the image of the impenetrable, super-human ‘ivory towers’ scientist and make them personable and relatable for the public – that’s what young scientists need to see: they need to know that scientists are also real people, with families, feelings, a sense of humour and empathy. Who better than thrice-appointed member of the Order of the British Empire, a rare female Fellow of the Royal Society, and probably the bravest and most impactful pioneer in conservation science of our era – Georgina Mace.

On paper, Georgina would sound suitably intimidating to any member of the public or indeed any young scientist. But luckily, we’d had the enormous privilege of getting to know her on a personal level, as Director of the institute where we worked. We knew that the real Dame Prof Georgina Mace was of course brilliant, but she was also personable, generous, kind, funny and witty; above all we’d witnessed (and experienced) time after time how she cared about the next generation of scientists – shaping who they are and giving them a foot-up whenever she could.

Georgina was a natural choice for a public platform like a Soapbox Science: she’d changed the way scientists, politicians and policymakers thought about, measured and tackled biodiversity issues; she had a tome of keynote lectures under her belt; she had first-hand experience in putting the science facts right for some of the most influential and powerful people in the world – countless world leaders, politicians, international diplomats and royalty! Anyone who had the privilege of witnessing her chair a meeting will attest to her acuity, wit, quick intellect and integrity. With CV credentials like that, we were confident that she would simply breeze onto the Soapbox, enthral everyone, and then step back into her day job of changing the world. She did exactly that, with her characteristic brilliance; she touched the hearts and minds of 1000s of members of the public on the streets of London, and thousands more across the world via the media coverage she and our other speakers attracted.

Georgina was a speaker at our first event in 2011, and she has continued to support Soapbox in its (now) 10-year venture, helping promote its growth across the globe by casually putting in a good word for us, recommending to her colleagues that they take part, and also in nominating us for numerous prizes, many of which we were awarded. Georgina was an integral part of Soapbox Science’s success – a quietly proactive (and superbly effective) champion, as she was for so many young scientists.

It was only many years later we learned that she’d confessed to friends and colleagues that Soapbox Science was the most terrifying experience of her life! This sums her up: Georgina invented the ‘can do’ attitude before it was fashionable: she just got on with things no matter how difficult, challenging, daunting or impossible the task may be. She calmly changed the world with her science; she surreptitiously provided us with an example of how you can have a family (three children) and a fulfilling and successful career; she quietly got on with supporting the careers of countless young scientists.

Georgina, we will miss you. Thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone, for Soapbox Science, and the next generations of women in science.

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