Trailblazer in conservation biology

Jana Wäldchen of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry on the British biodiversity researcher and conservation biologist Georgina Mace

The British biologist Georgina Mary Mace (1953-2020) is considered a trailblazer in biodiversity and conservation. She spent more than three decades researching the causes and consequences of the loss of biodiversity. One focus of her work was on the effects of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems, with a particular focus on policy and conservation decision-making. In 1988, Georgina Mace was commissioned to redesign the (IUCN) International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Her approach was radical in many ways, as she was the first to develop scientific criteria based on population biology to standardize assessments. Today, the Red List is considered the most used and trusted source for assessing trends in global biodiversity. It has grown to include more than 120,000 species of animals, plants and fungi; about 32,000 are currently listed as endangered.  

Born in London, Mace initially studied zoology at the University of Liverpool before earning her PhD in the 1970s at the University of Sussex. After a postdoctoral period at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, she returned to the UK to work for the Zoological Society of London. From 2006 to 2012, she directed the Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College London, and then moved to University College London, where she was the founding director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Environmental Research (CBER) from 2012 to 2018. Georgina Mace died on September 19, 2020, at the age of 67.

Ms Wäldchen, what in particular fascinates you about Georgina Mace?

Her love for biodiversity and her belief in changing societal values towards preserving biodiversity and learning to live in harmony with nature. Mace conducted pioneering basic research in the field of biodiversity and used this knowledge for nature conservation. She advocated the idea that our well-being depends on the protection of biodiversity and that we cannot continue to accept its loss as somehow necessary for progress. Instead of simply pointing out the habitats and species that have already been lost, she repeatedly emphasized how important it is for nature and for our own humanity to work together and act now in order to protect the remaining biodiversity.

How important are Mace’s contributions to biodiversity, ecology, and conservation biology today?

Mace transformed the way we measure and quantify biodiversity and its rapid loss. Her research helped change conservation biology into a science. It provided the basis for systematically and analytically comparing and assessing patterns of biodiversity loss across species and ecosystems, beyond a few charismatic species. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List is now the most widely used source to assess trends in global biodiversity. Georgina Mace first developed scientific criteria for this to standardize assessments, based on the theory of population biology. This was the first time that thousands of species and their habitats were shown to be at dangerously high risk of extinction. Mace consistently emphasized the importance of biodiversity within species communities and their habitats, demonstrating the need to protect both common and rare species and their interactions.

In the Millennium Redoxsystem Assessment, published in 2001, Mace was coordinating lead author for the biodiversity section. The goal of this study was to quantify the rate of biodiversity loss and develop promising conservation measures, especially in light of the threat of climate change. However, the ongoing loss of biodiversity has not yet been halted.

In the final years of her career, she increasingly devoted herself to the question of what significance the diversity of life has for the well-being of humans. Mace argued that the economy must properly value biodiversity as a “natural capital” and biodiversity is the fundamental resource on which all our economic activities, health, and well-being depend. As a scientist, she played a key role in setting conservation policy in the UK and once again demonstrated the importance of scientific evidence in policy making.

Ms Wäldchen, why did you become a scientist?

I studied landscape management and nature conservation at the University of Applied Sciences in Eberswalde straight after completing my A levels. Compared with universities, universities of applied sciences in Germany take a more practice- and application-oriented towards studies and teaching. At the time, I liked the concept because I had always wanted to work in an application-oriented way. However, during my studies, I found myself enjoying scientific work increasingly more or mor. As I worked towards my diploma thesis, it became clear to me that I wanted to continue in academia. At the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Prof. Schulze (founding Director of the MPI-BGC) gave me the opportunity to pursue a doctoral thesis “despite” my FH degree, and I got my start in science. From the beginning, my motivation was mainly curiosity and the search for a new challenge. Today, I find a freedom in science to do what motivates me. Nevertheless, the application-oriented approach is still important to me.

The plant identification app, Flora Incognita, which you played a major role in developing, has now been downloaded over 1 million times and has been awarded the Thuringian Research Prize.

The app is now being adapted for schools, and there will also be a “game app”. Can you tell us more about that?

The Flora Incognita app is designed to make it easier to identify plant species. I think we have succeeded in developing a cross-generational determination tool. It can be used by a 70-year-old grandmother as well as her 10-year-old grandchild. However, my concern from the beginning was to better adapt the app to different user groups. This year, we have started with children. With the professional help of colleagues from the Didactics of Biology Department at the University of Munich, the plant profiles of the most common species are currently being adapted in a style suitable for children. Short videos about the plants will also be integrated. These profiles can then be activated via the settings in the app.

Independent of the Flora Incognita App, the identification service we have developed will increasingly be used in other areas. For example, colleagues at the University of Würzburg are working on a game app in which users search for plants that supply nectar to virtually created beehives. Plants are identified by our identification service. The app provides users with a playful way to learn more about the interactions between flowers and pollinators. This is perhaps a first step towards digitally collecting not only Pokemons but also plants in nature.

How did you come up with the idea of using the advantages of artificial intelligence for the conservation of biodiversity?

The idea was really a “camp-fire idea” with two colleagues from the Institute in 2011. I didn’t own a smartphone at the time, and there was no such identification app. I wondered whether it would be possible to simplify plant identification and thus make it more accessible to everyone. I started reading scientific studies and quickly realized that work had been done on this for many years – but only in the area of computer science. At that time, the results were not very promising. The scientists worked with only very small data sets and analysed images taken in artificial laboratory conditions with a monochrome background – far from being applicable in nature.

This, in turn, spurred me to improve the automatic determination and, above all, bring it into widespread use. With the TU Ilmenau and Prof. Mäder, I found a project partner who enthusiastically embraced the idea. The joint research proposal was positively reviewed, and we were able to start this interdisciplinary project in 2014.

 Can you imagine other similar projects?

Definitely. I would like to continue contributing to the development of methods and technologies that enable the efficient, rapid, and automated monitoring of biodiversity in different habitats and landscapes. Biodiversity monitoring is crucial in order to be able to detect species declines and/or extinctions in a timely manner, to define management measures, and even to quantify the effectiveness of management practices for biodiversity conservation. Digital solutions will play an increasingly important role in this area.

At the same time, biodiversity research, like other branches of biology and biogeosciences, has entered the world of "Big Data". With the help of huge amounts of data and increasing computing power, we will be able to make even better predictions about environmental changes and their effects on biodiversity in the future. I am happy that I can continue working precisely in this interface area in the coming years.

The proportion of women in scientific fields is only 30% worldwide. The numerical under-representation of women in science is thus still omnipresent today, especially in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

What factors do you think contribute to this discrepancy?  

I think it is important that interest and self-confidence are awakened at an early age. My 10th grade biology teacher did not only spark my interest in biology, he also gave me the confidence to delve into the field in highschool. I found the last two years of school in particular to be very formative for the rest of my life. I would like teachers to encourage girls to study more technical subjects at school. At the same time, I find programmes that give girls the opportunity to do a trial course in a technical subject or at a technical university very helpful. Our society can benefit only if women are also encouraged to pursue traditionally male-dominated studies. Whether it is the climate crisis, digitization, or the current coronavirus crisis – STEM professions have a promising future, and we increasingly need qualified personnel for them. Here, we can simply no longer do without qualified and motivated women. I feel that role models in the private environment and awakened interest in STEM subjects at school are crucial for girls to choose more technical professions.

Do we need a structural change in the science sector in order to increase the proportion of women?

I can only speak of my own experience: I have felt very comfortable in all my scientific environments. I have worked with colleagues with who I still enjoy very close friendships today. The institute gave me the opportunity to fund my own project and to lead a research group. I lead a really great group, and I get a lot of encouragement from colleagues within the institute, but also from outside. I think I have managed to balance family and career very well so far. 

However, I think we need different types of scientists. Networkers who develop and implement great ideas together in large groups, but also those who can work better in smaller groups. The latter sometimes seem to me to be somewhat overlooked in today's science system, which I find very unfortunate. And I think I speak for many dedicated female colleagues my age when I say that  we need long-term perspectives for different career goals in science.

Do you think mentoring programmes and/or women's networks are useful measures? Are there any offers to overcome hurdles for women in scientific development that are helpful in your own experience?

Mentoring at universities and in scientific research institutions such as the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft are useful in supporting young women in their scientific career paths.

What role models do you see for women in science?

My personal role models in science are people who love their work and with whom you can experience the pure enthusiasm for their field of research, scientists who contribute to solving current social challenges, and scientists who also see part of their work in communicating their findings to a broad public. Regardless of what career stage they are at.

What advice would you give to young women who are considering a career in science?

Remain as you are and follow your hearts!  Don’t let anyone tell you – and especially don’t tell yourself – that you can’t do it. Have self-confidence and stamina – and never lose your love for your profession.


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