Dr Rachel Standish (pronouns: she/her) is a plant community ecologist, specializing in restoration ecology in damaged ecosystems with Murdoch University, in Perth, Western Australia. As she explains:
“I work out how plant communities and ecosystems work so that we can intervene where human activity has degraded or destroyed these systems to put them back together”
Rachels work is motivated not just by the beauty and importance of our ecosystems, but also their value for humans. We talk about her research as well as her experiences teaching university students as they follow the path towards careers in ecological research and conservation.
Rachel did an undergraduate degree, worked with corals on the Great Barrier Reef before becoming completely enamored by plants and her PhD in New Zealand, which focused on the impacts of an invasive weed on lowland remnant native forests..
“I guess corals are kind of midway between plants and animals in some respects. Because they host symbiotic animals, but they behave like plants because they stay in the same spot!”
Following her PhD, Rachel returned to Western Australia and began working at Murdoch University, conducting plant research in this unique part of the world:
“In the wheat belt, we have these amazing little pockets of highly diverse woodland remnants that have been saved from agriculture. I was just blown away by the sorts of questions I could ask of these systems, you know, why were there so many species and how do they coexist?”
Although like many of us, Rachel’s initial focus in ecology was on animals, however a love of experiments in a biodiversity hotspot –the southwest of Western Australia has exceptional diversity and uniqueness of plants–quickly took her down a different track.
Rachel’s current research is at the community-level, specifically yate and York gum woodlands – looking at carbon offsets and the merits of diversity when planting trees for climate change mitigation.
“There’s scope to make sure these projects are biologically diverse. And, if we can do that, it’s a win-win for conservation of biodiversity and for carbon and climate change mitigation. So, I’m keen to do the science that’s needed to design those projects for success from the get-go!”
And for Rachel, that’s leading into another exciting new area: natural capital accounting. The idea that we count for the nature that we rely on in a numeric way. Rachel explains:
“It doesn’t downgrade the intrinsic value of nature, that is, and will always be very important, but we haven’t actually been super successful with approaches to biodiversity conservation so far… so I’m curious as to whether using this sort of accountancy framework will result in better outcomes”.
When you think about it, if the big companies that are relying on our ecosystems for the services they provide are forced into accounting for all these irreplaceable and unique services, then perhaps natural capital accounting offers an approach that’s better than traditional approaches.
LEARNING YOUR PLANT SPECIES
As you might have guessed, working as a plant ecologist involves a certain level of plant species recognition and identification. When asked how to go about learning, Rachel offered this advice:
- Sign up for volunteer opportunities on plant projects – keep an eye out for PhD students calling out for volunteers while you’re doing your undergraduate degree.
- Start small and treat learning your plant names as a long-term goal!
“If you’re training for a marathon, you’re never just rock up at the start line, right? You’re gonna learn some species, do some training along the way. I would look at it as a long-term project.”
And if you are living in Western Australia especially, Rachel explains there’s a career incentive to knuckle down and learn your plants!
“We’ve got a lot of consultancy companies where a bulk of their bread-and-butter work is doing flora surveys, sometimes in remote areas. So, if you do start learning your species, then it’s highly likely that those skills will be sought after by these consultancy companies”
For tackling your degree and beyond into the workplace, Rachel shared six of her top advice for landing a job and sustaining yourself in the industry longer term:
- Academia is not the only career pathway in wildlife science and conservation. That said, being at a university offers the opportunity to network outside of academia and critically, to build the skills you’ll need for your dream job
- Build and maintain healthy relationships – learning new skills and acquiring knowledge is hard work, your family and friends will help you through a degree and especially a PhD!
- While you’re at university – especially during your undergraduate – go to class! Interact with your peers.
- Science communication is incredibly valuable for showcasing your work and having impact as a scientist in the community
- Set-backs and lessons are part of everyone’s journey – we all experience failure
- Maintain a strict work-life balance for longevity in the field
“I’m a long-distance runner and I took that up in part to ensure I didn’t spend too much time at work. I’m a strong believer in switching my computer off at 5 PM and going home and doing something else, and I think it makes me more productive. So, for a student, I would say, be productive in the hours that you’re working – work when you work, play, when you play”
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Rachel? Tune into the podcast to listen to our conversation. You can follow her research project and science communication updates on her wordpress website. Rachel is also on Twitter @racheljstandish, Google Scholar, Research Gate and LinkedIn.
And if you have questions for Rachel, you can contact her via her email R.Standish@murdoch.edu.au
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