Lin Schwarzkopf is Professor in the College of Science and Engineering at James Cook University, Townsville.
She is an ecologist with research expertise across terrestrial species. Frequently taking an applied approach, her work has included development of methods to manage cane toads and to encourage biodiversity management for graziers.
I’m an ecologist, focused particularly on the behavioural and evolutionary aspects of ecology. I’ve always been interested in animals, especially vertebrates. I grew up in Toronto, which is a long way from the ocean, but we used to go on holiday to the ocean and watching animals in there seemed like a marvellous and amazing thing to do, and I wanted to study marine biology. Now I work on vertebrates, mostly reptiles and amphibians, but I’ve also worked on birds and mammals.
Where I went to university the study of marine biology was about energy flows from plants to animals. We had to try to understand biology by looking at dead things in jars or at big buckets of stuff scooped up from boats and preserved. That wasn’t my thing, and I switched to working on turtle behaviour for my masters. I can best explain what I do now as working at the intersection of behaviour, evolution and straight-forward ecology.
Every time one of my graduate students gets to convocation, for me, it’s a really proud moment. It’s so much work, so difficult for them, and it requires so much dedication. I don’t think about it in terms of the particular scientific advance, although of course there are many; rather, I see it as another well-trained person who’s going to go out and will hopefully do more science, and well, it’s not very fashionable at the moment but the world needs ecologists.
It’s a really good feeling when you get a paper into a high-impact journal, or win grants from prestigious funding bodies. But for me, when it comes to great moments of pride, it’s always to do with other people and students. Now that I’m a professor I get the opportunity to mentor younger staff and it’s another source of pride knowing you can help them and make their lives a bit easier, because it’s so difficult getting ahead at universities these days.
Of course I’m happy when I make a discovery. One example was the research we did, together with some physicists and chemists, on self-cleaning mechanisms in geckos. Lizard skin is hydrophobic, which means that water beads up and rolls off it. Condensation forms on the lizards and the water droplets roll and bang into each other, forming bigger drops. The energy of the droplets coming together causes the droplets to ‘jump’, so the water fizzes off the lizards and helps removes dirt particles. So that was a cool discovery. I was also proud when we invented the trap for adult cane toads. I hope it works well and is a successful form of integrated pest control until somebody can come up with a really effective, long-term control to remove the toads.
Impact and Legacy
Generally, I am interested in interactions between animals and habitat, and that has lots of applications in the real world. For example, recently we did some work on the effect of grazing on vertebrate biodiversity. Almost all the work that’s been done on the effect of grazing on biodiversity compares ungrazed to grazed areas, and usually the conclusion is that grazing is bad for biodiversity. It is, compared to land uses designed for conservation, but graziers are becoming more and more interested in ways to conserve biodiversity on their land, and the biological community’s only recommendation is to tell graziers: ‘don’t graze, fence it off, don’t use it.’ That’s very unsatisfactory for a grazier.
What our research found was that the most economically sustainable grazing strategy was also the best for biodiversity within the particular uncleared system we studied. The only grazing strategy in the experiment that was economically unsustainable was also the one that was worst for biodiversity; the ones that were economically sustainable were good for biodiversity. So we found no trade-off. That means graziers can conserve biodiversity and make a reasonable income at the same time. Hopefully this message will get picked up as a general view about how things work. It is an important message and one that’s more palatable for graziers than being told not to graze. And it might be helpful for allowing biodiversity conservationists and graziers to work together more effectively.
Well-trained biologists will be an important part of the future, so I’m proud to have a legacy of well-trained biologists who are ready to save the world. I’ve also had the opportunity to study the biology of lots of species. It’s very diverse here in Australia; there are lots of things that are common in people’s backyards but their biology is completely unknown. I’ve had a chance to contribute lots to the understanding of biology of Australian amphibians and reptiles, learning about what they do all day, their behaviour, activities and predators. Hopefully that will be an important legacy.
Advice to Younger Women
You really need time to think. I feel like in the university system as it is now, especially in Australia, there is not enough time to think. There are so many different demands on your time. Most people need quiet time in which they can think really hard about things. Good biologists need to have a good background in science and how it works. They need to think hard about what they’re seeing in the wild or wherever they’re doing their work, and try to interpret what they’re seeing in the light of past research, not just because they want to make an advance, but just to think about how observations might fit together.
I think younger staff members can be really terrified of teaching. They’re afraid that it will take away time from their research and that they won’t be able to have high research impact if they teach. I really don’t agree with that. It’s often said there’s a negative correlation between time spent teaching and research impact, but if you look at real correlations between research output and teaching success, it’s often a positive one. Usually, people who are good teachers can attract funding because they’re able to explain their research to others.
Teaching is a wonderful opportunity to read widely about things that you’re not necessarily directly interested in. It’s a real opportunity to explain something complicated to other people, which helps you really understand it. Teaching is an important part of what we do because you have to make science interesting. You have to take people along and by taking people along maybe you can take the wider community along as well so they can have a feel for what we’re doing in STEM.
For younger women, make sure you really want to do it. It’s a very difficult career path for people to get into, with not many jobs and tough competition. You have to really enjoy it or it’s just not worth it. Discover what’s rewarding for you and try to stay with that.