Jane Elith is one of the most influential environmental scientists in the world, though she rarely ventures into the field.
She develops and assesses species distribution models, which are used by governments, land and catchment managers and conservationists around the world—in short, for applying the lessons of ecology.
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.
Jane 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.
Jane is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Biosciences and a member of the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis.
For her contributions to environmental management worldwide Dr Jane Elith receives the 2015 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.
Jane Elith’s citation in full
It’s not surprising that Jane Elith ended up doing something practical towards managing the environment. With a chemical engineer for a father and a mother who was a practising psychologist, she was always interested in science and a good student at school. And Jane has always been passionate about the bush.
“I love getting out into the wilderness—hiking, canoeing, and camping. And now I use 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 Jane 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, Jane’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.”
Although she won ten awards for achievement during her undergraduate course and was the top student in her final year, Jane was not prepared to go straight into agricultural research. Eventually, after tutoring for a couple of years, she left science to raise a family. Twelve years later in the early 90s, when her three boys were all in school, she came back.
She was noticed by Prof Mark Burgman who was in the throes of establishing environmental science at the University of Melbourne. He offered her the opportunity to do a PhD in the emerging but demanding area of species distribution modelling, because he thought it would appeal to her analytical mind. How right he was. And, just for good measure, a substantial consultancy for Environment Australia on the distributions of rare plant species came up.
Jane never looked back. While she undertook the necessary field work, she also began educating herself about modelling, and developed skills and collaborations with other Australian researchers working in the area. Eventually, her thirst for knowledge took her to international workshops and meetings, where she began to approach the best people she could find for answers to her problems. “Doing your PhD late in life, you get used to the idea that you are going to continually be asking dumb questions, because you simply don’t have time for anything else.” Many, however, found her questions interesting and challenging and were willing to involve themselves in developing new, robust methods and approaches to species distribution modelling.
The modelling techniques with which Jane works were not developed specifically for environmental science or species distributions. They have come out of classical statistics and computer science (machine learning). So she soon found herself sitting at the centre of a network that included statisticians, computer scientists, experts in machine learning, and practical ecologists with problems to solve.
At present, for instance, Jane 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. “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.
Jane’s research is also relevant to reconciling conservation with development. Species distribution models can be used to determine what key areas to keep in order to maintain biodiversity, and are being applied to projects in the Tiwi Islands, the Hunter Valley and the fringes of Perth and Melbourne.
And then, of course, there is the looming issue of climate change. “People want to know what will happen to particular species. They want predictions of how and where habitats will shift. Part of my work is to get to know how well these models will work, because it’s possible to get things quite wrong. There is a whole arm of research in developing alternative methods for making these predictions.”
And clearly, Jane is just the sort of person for the job. “I don’t like to get things wrong. That’s why I team up with experts.”
|PhD (Quantitative Ecology), the University of Melbourne
|Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Honours), the University of Melbourne
|2015 – ongoing
|Principal Researcher, Quantitative and Applied Ecology Group, the University of Melbourne
|Recognition of Achievement for a Research Paper award, most highly cited paper in Methods in Ecology and Evolution for past five years, British Ecological Society
|Recognition of Achievement for a Research Paper award, most highly cited paper in Journal of Animal Ecology for past five years, British Ecological Society
|2014 – ongoing
|Research Fellow, Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis, the University of Melbourne
|2014 & 2015
|Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researcher, top one per cent internationally in the fields of environment and ecology
|2013 – ongoing
|Editorial board, Diversity and Distributions
|Thomson Reuters Citation Award for outstanding contribution to research in Biodiversity and Conservation
|Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research, Science, the University of Melbourne
|2013 – ongoing
|Scientific advisory committee, Vegetation Information and Mapping, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage
|2011 – 2015
|Editorial board, Biological Invasions
|2009 – ongoing
|Australian Research Council Future Fellow, The University of Melbourne
|2009 – ongoing
|Editorial board, Ecology
|2007 – 2010
|Editorial board, Ecography
|Paper nominated as a “Hot paper”, Essential Science Indicators, Thomson Reuters
|Daphne Elliott Bursary, Australian Federation of University Women
|Travel award, The University of Melbourne
Image: Jane Elith (Photo credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear)