Each month Griffith Library finds out more about a remarkable Griffith researcher. This month we spoke with Dr Ali Chauvenet of the Centre for Mental Health and the Centre for Planetary Health and Food Security. We asked her about her latest projects and her advice for aspiring researchers.
What path led you to your research?
I am a conservation scientist by training and data analysist at heart, and I am passionate about protecting nature for biodiversity and people. But this is not what I had in mind when I started out at uni! I grew up in France, with no knowledge or exposure to conservation, and math was my worst subject. I decided to do a Bachelor of Science in environmental science because it was the closest option I could find to learning about nature. As an undergraduate, however, I discovered a passion for ecology, then conservation science and, through pure luck, a gift for computer programming.
During my PhD and since then, I have used my quantitative skills to solve applied conservation problems. This includes planning wildlife translocation under climate change, identifying the optimal management strategy for species and habitats, and measuring the benefits of conservation actions such as national parks and reserves for wildlife and people.
Can you tell us a bit about the projects you are currently working on?
I am currently working on measuring the mental wellbeing benefits of nature-based experiences for people, for example visiting national parks, forests and reserves.
In Australia, almost 20% of the land is under some kind of protection and we are planning to add another 10% by 2030 as a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity. This is a large investment into conservation that could also yield benefits for people through improved wellbeing. My research, for example, has showed Australian parks are worth more than $100 billion in free mental health services.
I am interested to understand what parts of the experience, such as wildlife, sights, sounds and so forth contributes to wellbeing. I am also interested in why some people do not visit nature for recreation or their health, and if we could change their mind.
What sparked your passion for this topic?
I have spent many years wondering how much biodiversity benefits we gain from spending money on conservation actions. This is called return on investment. This is an important consideration since conservation funding is so limited.
This led me to the question of whether conservation spending that may not achieve much benefit in terms of biodiversity, still provides benefits to the people who are able to spend more time in nature. I have concluded we need to look at both benefits together. I also believe we should recognise how much conservation funding is subsiding the health sector.
What advice would you give to researchers just starting out?
The advice can be quite field specific but, in my opinion, it’s important to find the right balance between passion and strategy. Even as a student I realised that I was more method driven than topic driven, in the sense that I love modelling and data analysis and I am happy to work on many questions or systems.
The key for me has been to have a common thread throughout my career around solving conservation problems. My interests have meant that my track record of publications is quite diverse, which can sometimes be a disadvantage compared to someone who has worked on the same topic for 10+ years. I have prioritised being challenged and keeping things fresh, but my advice is to not lose track of long-term goals and keep checking in with mentors for advice.
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