Episode 1 – Interview with ecologist Professor Euan Ritchie
In this episode, we’re delighted to chat with Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation in Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology and the School of Life and Environmental Sciences in Melbourne, Australia.
Euan has published over 150 scientific articles related with biodiversity conservation, wildlife ecology and management, ecosystem management, and environmental policy. His work has a strong focus on predators and their ecological roles, invasive species, fire ecology, and the ecology, conservation and management of Australian mammals. He was part of a research team whose work on the dingo won the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research in 2013, in 2017 he was named as one of the Australian Chief Scientist’s ‘Science Superheroes’, and in 2021 he was awarded the Australian Ecology Research Award by the Ecological Society of Australia. He is the Chair of the Ecology Society of Australia’s Media Working Group and Deputy Convenor of Deakin University’s Science and Society Network. Euan’s work has taken him to remote rainforests in Papua New Guinea, ponds in North America, Romania’s bear-filled forests, and savannas, woodlands, forests and deserts across Australia, among many other wonderful environments.
An incredibly prolific researcher, Euan is also a passionate and extremely active science communicator, frequently interviewed on radio and having written over 60 articles for The Conversation, read more than 1.3 million times.
You can follow Euan and find out more about his work here:
Welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science communication teaching team. I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello everybody and welcome to our very first episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. I’m joined here by my wonderful co-host Dr Michael Wheeler. G’day Michael.
Hey Jen, I’m very excited for the first episode.
I know, me too and we have a very special guest joining us for our first episode. Our guest today is Professor Euan Ritchie, who is a Professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at Deakin University here in Melbourne, Australia. And I think we should just get straight into it, so welcome Euan, thank you for joining us. We would like to ask: was there a moment that you remember when you first decided that you wanted to be a scientist?
Oh, I don’t know about an exact moment, but I guess I could remember sort of a stage of my life. It was probably around 7 years of age I think, and I already had a pretty deep love of nature and that was because of spending a lot of time, you know camping, fishing, going to the beach and just observing nature and being in nature a lot. And initially, in fact I wanted to be a vet, probably like a lot of ecologists and conservation biologists. I then switched to doing what I’m doing now and that was in part because I guess I wanted to see more variety than maybe your average vet would be seeing and of course you know if you’re a zoo vet you might get to work on lots of different animals and so forth, but I realised that all likelihood if I was a, you know, a more inverted commas ‘standard vet’ that I wouldn’t. So I think, yeah, when I was really, really young, it started around seven years of age.
Sounds very familiar to me because I always thought I’d be a vet too and then in year nine I did work experience at a vet and I really quickly decided that I didn’t want to be a vet. No offense to vets, we have lots of vets, we depend on vets – you are essential and we’re very grateful for the services you provide. But yeah, I decided I didn’t want to be a vet.
Absolutely, vets are awesome. So yeah, I don’t want that to be misconstrued.
Yeah, I think I think it’s quite normal for people to have, you know, a couple of different future plans and try out a couple of different things before they settle on it. Did you have any kind of experiences that reinforced that as you progressed?
Yeah, I’m not so sure about reinforce, but a lot of encouragement I think is the key word there. So I had this I guess innate – you know – connection with nature and passion for nature and wildlife and so forth. And I think I was just lucky that one, I was in a family that like going camping a lot and two, that my parents actually encouraged that.
So you know, my mum as an example, took me into, you know stinky dirty frog bogs to catch tadpoles. And you know keep tadpoles at home and raise them to frogs and we used to pick up dead birds on the side of the road to look at you know what species it was and look at their feathers, and so forth. So not all parents are going to do that, and I guess I was lucky that I had parents that encourage that sort of passion in and I guess inquisitive nature when it comes to wildlife and nature.
And yeah, look as I got older again, I was lucky that I guess I had friends and I guess an extended network of people that likewise enjoyed spending time in nature. So I guess that just reinforced it and made me realise that yeah, it was a really enjoyable thing to do and that you could actually make a career out of it and someone would, you know, pay you to do this sort of work eventually you know, as an ecologist and as a zoologist, it’s just what I do now.
Yeah, and so did you, uh, you know, did your passion become more specific about a certain area in ecology?
If anything, it’s become broader. So I think what happens with a lot of ecologists is you start out loving a particular type of animals, so it might be frogs, or it might be butterflies or something else, and that, I think, actually, the more your career develops, you tend to broaden out.
And I think that is partly a realisation particularly, I guess for conservation scientists, including myself, that if you want to take care of the things you love, and hopefully you know, help use science to make better decisions and improve the outcomes for those species, ecosystems, and so forth. Then you really need to think about bigger picture things, including human behavior and policy and things like that.
So my interests have expanded. I was definitely probably in the early sort of stages of, you know my career very much a mammal nerd and I still am a mammal nerd. But yeah, my interests are far beyond that now in terms of you know the things that I work on and I definitely, I guess work at a larger scale. So rather than just focusing on single species, I like to look at lots of different species and how they interact and how they’re affected by things like fire, climate change, habitat modification and destruction, and so forth. So yeah, I’ve really broadened out a lot.
And so Euan, you know that this is a podcast about science communication and one of the reasons that we wanted to speak to you is because as a scientist who has a career, that is, you’ve got huge numbers of accolades as a scientist, you’re also someone who does a lot of science communication, and so we want to explore that a bit with you.
And I was wondering if you could think back, what do you reckon your first experience of being a science communicator was?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I was racking my brain about that just you know, moments before, and I reckon one of the first examples of science communication if you like was with some work in fact of a good friend of mine and colleague Peter Johnson, who’s actually at the University of Colorado in Boulder. But he and I became good friends in our third year at university, when he spent some time in James Cook University in Townsville, we became good friends after that.
And we ended up doing research on the issue of malformed amphibians in the United States and I remember vividly we did some really, I guess, pretty high impact research that and that ended up getting published in Science magazine.
But we also did some interviews with that work for a couple of newspapers and so forth, and I think that really gave me the first sort of taste, if you like of what science communication was about, but also the power of that so that that that research got picked up in all sorts of places and sort of went ‘big’, inverted commas so I think that was probably the first instance where I got a bit of an inkling about you know the power of science communication and also the importance of it.
And was it a bit scary the first time? Cause you guys were pretty young then, you know, being interviewed by presumably a whole lot of I don’t know what were they? Local radio stations, magazines. Did you feel a bit out of your depth suddenly trying to translate potentially quite complex work for different audiences? Or did it come easily?
No, it was definitely intimidating for a number of reasons. One, because we were really young, so I think I was about 21 at that time, so we’re fresh out of, you know, undergraduate basically, just finished our honors years and really didn’t know a lot about you know, communicating science. And in fact, really, science communication back then, it’s nothing like what it is now in terms of making it normal thing for even quite young scientists to do, that wasn’t the case back then.
Uhm, and probably like a lot of people, we had a fear of being misquoted, and bear in mind too that the landscape back then was very different. You know, social media wasn’t really a thing. It was very much radio, newspaper and television [were] your sort of main streams of communication and so you know, being misquoted and things like that was a pretty common occurrence and something that people were worried about.
The other thing that was really interesting was that our work was controversial, so there are some pretty big names in the amphibian world that we’re arguing that this issue is largely to do with pesticides and our work show that in fact that wasn’t true. It was to do with parasites and basically that humans had changed the environment in a way that is really beneficial for these particular parasites that infect grogs, and then cause these deformities in the frogs themselves.
And we showed that by using both sampling frogs in the field in the wild, in places where they actually were being affected, but also replicating those same problems in the lab under laboratory conditions and that was a big deal, because as I said, you know there was some really big name well-funded scientists who are really pushing this pesticide barrow.
And we were going in opposite direction, and there was three of us. So three young guys in their early 20s. You know you can imagine you could sort of perceive them as upstarts in a way, and so yeah, there were times where I certainly felt a bit uncomfortable about, you know, communicating it and not being misrepresented, so certainly wasn’t something that came easy.
But I think it was something that all three of us felt, you know, it was important thing to do and yeah, so I’ve got a lot more confidence these days, but I think that’s an important lesson, that it can feel really hard starting out as a scientist. And I think that’s also important wherever possible, that people that have more experience and have learned those lessons, good and bad, can support others to do so when they’re starting out.
Just as a quick aside, do you reckon part of the reason that story got taken up by so many different media outlets was because there were pretty interesting and somewhat shocking photos to go with it. You know photos of frogs with extra limbs and those sort of things.
Do you think the images played a big role in it, or is it just that people knew that these frogs existed and they wanted an explanation?
No, absolutely, it was both of those things. So you know, I think the record that we had for one frog was 12 extra legs, so imagine a frog with you know 12 extra legs hanging off its body. You know frogs with missing limbs, frogs with sort of triangular-shaped limbs. So you know really quite grotesque looking images, and you certainly felt sorry for the frogs, when you see sort of what they’re confronting with these parasites.
So that coupled with the fact that this issue was, you know, quite widespread across large areas of the US, and people were generally concerned about it of course, because as we know sort of frogs are often considered to be sentinels for environmental health, and if you’ve got all these frogs popping up with, you know, missing legs or extra legs, or deformed legs, people start getting really, really worried about what does this mean for the environment as a whole. So it’s probably not surprising therefore, with those two things that it took off.
Yeah, so did you kind of learn from you know, engaging with the media, I suppose, at that stage that this kind of led to some broader questions that you know people were interested in?
Yeah, absolutely, and I think that’s a really important lesson that I try and use in my own communication but also encouraging others, including students in my group, is that we often think that you know, we have our own research and it might not be at that big a story or it’s just you know, the story is too small. But if you can think about the bigger picture of what your story also speaks to, that’s an avenue for communicating, you know, both your own work, but and then having bigger discussions, and I think that is a really, really important thing to sort of, you know be aware of.
So yeah, it did allow us to talk about not just the fact that these frogs are deformed, but why are they deformed? And in this case it’s this process which is called eutrophication, which is just a really fancy way of saying that there’s too much nutrients in the water. And that leads to algal blooms in the water, and then you have an increased snail population, which leads to more parasites because the snails are a host for this trematode parasite and that leads to more infected amphibians.
So it really speaks to the fact that humans have created this issue through poor land management, which is now then of course cause this problem for frogs. So you can sort of talk about both issues at the same times, I think that’s, yeah, definitely, a really important thing to bear in mind with any communication that you can have concurrent discussions almost.
Yeah, and how would you say your kind of approach to science communication developed then from that, that initial experience?
Look, lots of practice and I think what’s interesting too is, I guess over my time communicating science the technology involvement in communicating science and the ways of communicating science have also evolved considerably.
So you know, social media of course, it’s just absolutely exploded in the last couple of decades, which just kind of spans that time that I’ve been doing, lots of science communication and so you know, online blogs and all these other forms of media, if you want to say, you know inverted commas, ‘non-traditional media’, they have all taken off and have given us unparalleled opportunities to communicate science that we just didn’t have before. You know, so particularly things like social media where you can put your message out at any day of the week and it can be picked up, you know, far flung places on the planet. You can have conversations with people in real time that you would never be able to meet. All those things, have basically become available to us as scientists to communicate our work.
So for me, it’s just really been, you know, bit by bit, getting opportunities to communicate science and then doing more of that. And I think again with science communication that, the more that you do of that, and the more you get a reputation with the media and so forth as being someone who’s willing to do that, and of course you know, is relatively comfortable and good at doing that, you get given more opportunities so it’s sort of this snowball effect. But yeah, it is quite amazing to see how, I guess the science communication landscape has changed over the last 20 years. It’s quite, it’s quite profound.
And when you think about impact, Euan and like of all the things that you do, obviously you’re writing papers for academic journals, you’re mentoring research students, you spend I know a lot of time on Twitter and have a lot of input there, you write a lot of conversation articles, you get interviewed on the radio a lot, you know, where do you feel the greatest impact lies?
You’re an individual who has a lot of knowledge, a lot of expert knowledge that other people want to know. Do you think that the best idea is to spread yourself across lots of platforms? Or are you thinking about different audiences with some of those different approaches? Yeah, I’m just interested in your thoughts on impact.
Yeah, look, it’s a combination of all of those things and I assess impacts differently as well. So there’s impact for me personally, as a researcher, you know, so promoting my work actually leads to my work being more visible, it can get cited more, more people will see it. If it’s obviously of an applied and conservation nature then hopefully that’s gonna, you know help influence you know, decision makers and maybe even policymakers and so forth.
But beyond that you know, my work hopefully has impact on individuals and how they see the world and how they understand the world and, and a really great example of that, is you know, an artist and book writer Sarah Allen who writes children’s books and she’s got one coming out recently called Jumping Joeys, which is, uh mammals or marsupials?
And what really makes me happy is that she told me that several years ago now I was actually speaking to Phillip Adams on ABC Late Night Live, which is a radio station that’s been running for a long time, and she heard me talking about biodiversity extinction in Australia and what an issue it was.
And at the time she was writing another book, very much not about biodiversity of wildlife. And in hearing that interview, she told me that she changed the course of her writing to then start writing books about Australia’s native wildlife. So she then wrote a book about bird beaks, and about basically about Australian birds. And as I said, she’s now about to release one on marsupials and to me, that was really amazing to me, that one interview could change the course of you know, what an author and an artist is doing and then by doing that, that means that she is then communicating with a whole bunch of children as well as their, of course, their parents and carers about you know, these amazing animals and the fact that you know, we need to take care of them.
So to me that’s amazing impact that that I’ll always really treasure, so there’s a range of ways I think to measure impact. And I’ve forgotten the second part of what your question was now.
Oh no, just you know when you’re, when you’re thinking about putting something out on Twitter or you’re writing for the conversation or talking to on the radio, are you thinking about different audiences? Or I mean, I think that’s a beautiful example and I know what sort of books I’d rather my kids were reading when they were little, books about Australian animals, rather than books about unicorns or whatever else there is.
But just yeah, you know, as someone who has a very busy and well-respected research career, you do manage to fit in a lot of this kind of what people would consider to be outreach or engagement work. And so I’m just interested in how you justify the time you put into that.
Yeah, no, you’re right, I do use the range of platforms and I do speak to different people. So you know, it’s well known that Facebook or Twitter have a very different demographics and numbers of people they reach and the conversation likewise.
So I do target my articles to particular audiences, but I think the other point with that is that, the beauty again, I think of the media landscape now is that you can create content, as an example, you know I might write a conversation article about a particular topic to do with, you know, wildlife issue or conservation issue. But then I can share that across other platforms like Facebook or Twitter. And really amplify the impact of that article into different audiences as well.
And again, if you think about going back 25 years ago, you know, an article might appear in a newspaper and that might have been as far as it went, right? It was in it was in a newspaper came out that day and it’s very very, very quickly disappeared again, because there wasn’t social media to pick it up and then run with it and share it in other places so.
But, you know, in terms of different, I guess conversations that I have with people. I do have individual level conversations with people on social media about science, and I think that’s really important, because if you’re just putting out sort of generic broadcast messages, you know, that’s fine, some of your messages will get picked up.
But I think, if you’re actually in a, in a sense, I’m speaking as a conservation scientist, trying to influence people’s thinking and maybe you know, about how we might approach issues and maybe even do things differently, I think you need to talk to individuals, and I do do that. Uhm, you know? On social media to really get into the nitty gritty of the complexity of issues.
So you know, whether you’re talking about feral horses and the damage they do in the Australian Alpine region, and the fact that they need to be therefore taken out of the park. But you know what’s the most humane way to do that? Because people are upset about, you know, feral horses being controlled or other see, you know, similarly contentious issues.
I do try and actually have conversations with people, and I guess smaller communities and in terms of the time component, it is a lot of time and it’s and it’s and it takes energy. But the way that I see it is that we live in this world where there’s never been more information available, and, and if you look at journal articles as an example, in my field of ecology and conservation, in some cases those articles are increasing exponentially.
So if you’re going to just do your piece of research and then leave it in a journal, or maybe just you know, send out a press release or something really really basic and then basically walk away and say that’s it, my job’s done and think that your work is going to be seen. That’s fairly optimistic, I would say.
Yeah, so to spend, you know, a few days or even you know what might end up being the equivalent of a few weeks over, you know, the course of a few months or a year or so promoting your work, to me, seems like very worthwhile time invested.
I mean, yeah, people will happily spend you know, two or three hours on email or having a coffee with friends or whatever it might be. And that’s fine, those things are worthwhile doing, but if then you would not to spend, you know, some amount of time promoting your work to me just seems really odd.
It just seems like you’re not getting the full value of your work, both for yourself as an individual, but all the people that have worked with as well of course and that that’s people in your research group, that’s communities that you might have visited and worked on their land or their properties. You know, it’s about sharing.
Yeah, and Euan, I wanted to ask you about science communication tips, but I actually might make it specific to social media. Because I guess a lot of scientists are on social media, but they engage with it in different ways?
So just curious to hear your kind of tips, you know, for people out there who might have kind of maybe just set up a Twitter or whoever or have been on Twitter just to use that as an example. What tips would you have for them to try and, kind of, you know, make that a productive engagement?
Yeah, well, I guess the first most important thing about social media is you need to know what your constraints are. So I’ve got a really privileged existence, you know, that I work at a university. And universities for the large part, maintain academic freedom, much more so than if you were, say, working for the government, or in many cases private industry so I can share content and speak about things that many people can’t, and so, I think that’s important to bear in mind, and I think it’s also important to bear in mind that maybe, I can share more opinions from a position of having, you know, 25 plus years now experience of being an ecologist and conservation scientist. And so you know, there’s a bit of, I guess, credibility that comes with that because you’ve put in the hard yards over a long time.
So you can, I guess, voice your opinion. So I certainly wouldn’t weigh into sharing information about a topic that I knew nothing about. So I think you need to be really careful about what information you share, and particularly if you’re going to provide opinion about it.
I do engage with policy because there’s a real clear connection between the environment, conservation and politics. That’s just a fact, but again, you know, I have the freedom to do that, so I recognize that others don’t.
And I think, I guess another really important thing for people to bear in mind is that, you need to show a diversity to you, so even though I do talk about in some cases some really serious issues, including environmental politics, I also do show pictures of my dog and pictures of, you know, fluffy animals and more lighthearted stuff. And I guess what I hope that people get from that when they see me on social media is just say ok, yeah, Euan is, he’s pretty serious scientist and he can in some cases be talking about pretty serious, in some cases confronting environmental issues.
But there’s a wider side there as well. And so I would hope from that, that they get a sense of the person that I am. And I think that’s really important in social media that as much as possible you should be portraying the person that you are, without, of course, necessarily sharing lots of really personal information. So I’m not going to share information about my kids as an example.
But you know, sharing something with people because we connect with individuals, right? We don’t connect with what’s your science paper, or you know those sort of details, you need to form a connection with people.
So if you show their human side, you know as a scientist ’cause scientists are humans too. I think people are more likely to gravitate towards you, and therefore you can have those conversations.
So Euan, and there’s some excellent tips there, and speaking about the sort of person that you are, we have a slightly left field question for you, and that is, what would you tell your undergraduate self if you had the opportunity about how to have a rewarding career in science?
This is going to sound really, really cliche, but just follow your passions. I think it’s as simple and as hard as that because you know, many people have passions, and some of those passions are not, not always easy to pursue so.
Funnily enough, the other day on social media I had, I’ll call the person an Internet troll. Basically, I was talking about a contentious environmental issue and the person flat out said to me, do you call yourself a scientist?
And I replied to that person, said yes I do, because I’ve spent 26 years after high school, getting educated, including of course you know, honors degrees and undergraduate degrees and PhD and so on and so forth, as well as doing research. So it’s not like you know, it’s an easy thing to do. It’s taken a lot of hard work, but I honestly think if you’re passionate about something then you need to pursue that.
And in fact I think I heard, it might be Tim Winton once said. When people would come to Tim Winton and say I think I want to be a writer and I’m paraphrasing here, but I think he said something along the lines of: you know you’re a writer, if when you wake up in the morning, that’s all you think of doing, and that’s all you want to do, then you know you’re a writer, right?
And that’s kind of how I feel about being a conservation scientist. You know, there’s times that I hate it because you know, you’re confronting, really, you know, quite horrible things like extinction and you know all these things that are happening to the world.
But I honestly can’t imagine doing anything differently and I just feel so passionate about wildlife and hoping to, I guess, improve, you know, how we care for the environment? That’s what I wanted, you know, commit my working life to.
And I think, the combination of your advice and Tim Winton’s advice also makes a really important extra point that it’s not just about having a romantic vision of something that you think you might like to do in the world.
You’ve actually got to enjoy the day to day of it. You know, you can’t be a writer if you don’t enjoy writing. You can’t be a researcher if you don’t enjoy the act of research. And I think that’s a really good thing for all students to bear in mind. You’ve gotta actually like the task itself.
Absolutely, yeah, there’s a lot of drudgery involved, but there’s obviously some really fantastic rewards as well.
OK, Euan you’re nearly off the hook.
We’re nearly out of time, but it is time for our speed round now.
So we’re looking for short answers.
Your first question is: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Well, what I am now essentially, so originally a vet, but I changed course and wanted to be an ecologist and a conservation scientist. And here I am.
So no memories from a younger time than seven that you know you wanted to be a fireman or something.
No, I wasn’t, I wasn’t one of those boys, who wanted to be the policeman or the firefighter or anything like that, no.
Yeah, but the funny one that I’ve heard is ‘I want to be a fire truck when I grow up’.
Which is much better than a fireman, right?
Yeah, actually I will say there’s probably a time in my maybe early teens or even slightly before that I did really want to be a like a, you know famous basketball player, and I still wish that I was. But you know, I knew that I wasn’t tall enough so that was never gonna happen.
And no paleontology, I thought you maybe wanted to be a paleontologist.
I loved fossils and still do, but no, I didn’t want to make that my career.
Alright, you’ve passed question one.
Alright, question two Euan.
What’s your proudest moment as a scientist?
What’s my proudest moment as a scientist? Ah, there’s been many, you know, winning an Eureka Award with colleagues was a pretty proud moment, you know, and maybe, I guess reaching the level of professor is a pretty proud moment as well. Just not, not necessarily because of the title, but because of, I guess, the amount of work that it takes to get to that level.
But in all honesty, the proudest moment for me, is, is moments. It’s, it’s seeing students that I’ve been lucky enough to work with in my group do amazing research, publish fantastic papers and go on to have really amazing careers of their own.
So nothing brings me more joy than yeah, so students that I’ve worked with just doing incredible work that it goes on to have, you know, really important benefits for wildlife. So that’s absolutely my proudest moment because that’s gonna last much more than me, so yeah.
OK, slightly more superficial now. Twitter or Instagram and why?
Well, Twitter because I’m on it and Instagram because I’m not on it.
And Instagram I imagine I would absolutely adore because I love photography, but I would lose my life in it. I’ve already lost my life, partly in Facebook and Twitter, so I don’t need another platform.
So Euan, I’m supposed to ask you now what’s your favorite science related movie or book as the next rapid fire. But if you want to go, you know outside of science as well, we’d be happy to hear, you know, anything.
Well, I don’t know if we’re stretching the sort of the bounds to call it science related, but it’s hard to go past Star Wars for me, so, you know, that’s I guess, sci-fi.
But yeah, Star Wars is hard to go past for me and I am a child of the 70s, so it’s probably not surprising that I have a deep love of Star Wars.
All right. And, lucky last. If you could give one piece of advice, one tip to a scientist who wants to be a better science communicator. What’s your number one SciComm tip?
‘Be you’ would be my tip. So don’t try and be somebody else but be you.
What a lovely piece of advice to end our first episode on.
Thank you so much, Professor Euan Richie from Deakin University for joining us today.
Michael, I can’t wait to do more of these episodes.
We’ve got so many people I want to ask some questions of, how about you?
Absolutely, and you just want the conversation to continue.
That was fantastic. Thank you so much Euan.
Euan (00:31:22 )
That was a lot of fun. Thank you both.
Thanks for listening. You can find more of Euan on Twitter @EuanRitchie1 and on his website euanritchie.org. Euan is also on Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube and you can find all those links in our show notes.
We are also on social media. You can reach out to us on Insta and Twitter @LetsTalkScicomm and Let’s Talk SciComm Podcast on Facebook and we would love to hear from you.