Our planet’s biodiversity is in crisis. Professor Don Driscoll is helping find solutions to counteract the significant pressures humans place on this earth.
Preserving the planet
Think back to your childhood interests and imagine for a moment if you were able to turn them into a successful career that contributes to solving some of the world’s largest issues – what would your life look like now?
Director for the Centre of the Integrative Ecology (CIE) at Deakin University took a teenage passion and transformed it into a successful research career, supporting the protection of our planet.
His love of bushwalking and support from high school biology teachers led him to a research field he describes as “a big field with plenty of room to explore important issues, for decades as it turns out.”
Still to this day, Professor Driscoll loves to spend his time on multi-day bushwalks exploring and he’s passionate about increasing awareness of science communication and helping people understand the flow-on impacts of their own actions for biodiversity.
Expanding the ecological field
Ecology – a branch of biology that works to understand how species interact with each other and their environment – is a research field that supports the work towards environmental solutions to counteract the devastating impact humans have on biodiversity.
"Ecological research is essential for understanding how nature is affected by human impacts,” said Professor Driscoll. “I combine ecology with the expanded scope and norms of Conservation Biology to guide my research. It's analogous to medical science, where saving lives is regarded as a central tenet. In conservation biology, conserving biodiversity is the central value.
“The planet’s biodiversity is in crisis because of the massive and increasing human pressures placed on the natural world,” Professor Driscoll says. “So, research in ecology and conservation biology is critically important, but also incredibly challenging.”
To help expand the boundaries of the field and comprehend the impact human pressures have, Professor Driscoll supports HDR students to take on their own research projects.
In fact, one of his favourite aspects of his position within the University is helping PhD students “bring passion and determination” to their research.
The field has so many opportunities for collaboration, and Professor Driscoll is grateful to get to support PhD students push the boundaries with their research and achieve amazing things.
Exploring for solutions
Using conservation biology as a central theme, Professor Driscoll’s research focuses on how species use whole landscapes, particularly the role of dispersal.
Using a range of approaches to capture data, including manipulative experiments, natural experiments and the application of population genetic techniques, Professor Driscoll aims to place a strong emphasis on testing ecological theory using applied conservation problems.
“My research helps to solve conservation problems to improve how biodiversity is managed,” he says. “It also works to raise awareness about environmental issues that are not currently receiving adequate policy or management attention and offers solutions.”
Encouraging opportunities for collaboration
Alongside Professor Driscoll’s passion for supporting early career research, he emphasises the multitude of opportunities for collaboration with industry and government.
Through strong partnerships, Professor Driscoll says we can:
- develop and apply new technology for monitoring wildlife
- conserve threatened species
- manage invasive species impacts
- understand fire ecology
- conserve endangered species.
“It will take all our ingenuity and a sustained and strategic effort to minimise threats to biodiversity,” Professor Driscoll says.
About the CIE
We sat down with Don to find out more about the Centre for Integrative Ecology (CIE).
What is the Centre for Integrative Ecology?
At the CIE, we want to know how living things react to change, in both the short and long term.
We aim to eliminate traditional borders between conventional fields of ecological research by promoting an integrative, multi-faceted, interdisciplinary research approach.
The need for integrated ecological knowledge is now seared into the minds of mainstream society, after a smoke-choked summer in 2019-20 in which billions of native Australian animals perished, and in the midst of the global covid pandemic, a predictable result of appalling environmental management and exploitation.
Links between climate change, bushfire threat and biodiversity loss are apparent and demand new knowledge to understand the consequences and how human societies can mount effective responses, ranging from locating priority animal populations for management through to long-term sustainability of ecosystems and human communities.
Extensive land clearing and wildlife exploitation at a time of near-peak human numbers and human mobility have delivered the predictable global zoonotic pandemic.
Now more than ever, the expertise Deakin has built in the CIE is needed to provide critical research leading to solutions and understanding, which in turn, will continue to build Deakin's reputation as a leader in this time of crisis.
Australian Universities in the post-COVID world will have to considerably extend their international reputation by regaining trust and demonstrating value.
A key pathway to achieving this is though research excellence of global significance and real-world impact on pressing societal issues such as climate change, the biodiversity crisis and environmental sustainability.
A strong research and impact profile combined with community engagement and public outreach is what brings new students to Deakin to work with us at the CIE.
The Centre for Integrative Ecology is here to help the university achieve its goals as it continues to tackle the world's grand challenges in environmental sustainability.
What do you think distinguishes the CIE from its competitors?
In addition to being home to some of the best researchers in the world, the CIE works across our areas of expertise to bring multiple perspectives together that bring a unique strength to solving big problems.
Our researchers collaborate across marine and terrestrial biomes, with disciplines spanning ecology, evolution, animal behaviour, ecophysiology, wildlife diseases, conservation, sustainability and more.
What are your priorities for the Centre?
The CIE's primary purpose is to enable a sustainable future.
We have therefore organised the Centre’s research in three priority themes.
- Understanding nature
- Sustaining nature
- Sharing one planet
Higher Degree by Research
How can prospective students engage with the CIE?
The CIE has a vibrant community of PhD scholars with over 50 candidates.
Prospective PhD scholars with a passion for working in the areas covered by our three themes can visit the Centre’s website to find potential supervisors in the area that interests them most and email them directly.
How do Higher Degree by Research students contribute to the work the CIE is doing?
PhD scholars are valued as important research colleagues within the CIE, working with the CIE academics towards our three core goals.
Our completing PhDs emerge with high-level training in research, project management, writing funding applications, communicating with a broad range of stakeholders, and more.
With this diverse set of transferrable skills, our researchers are set to take on a full range of jobs, including in university or government research, policy, environmental management and conservation NGOs.
The future of the CIE
What do you think will be some of the most exciting or ground-breaking uses of the Centre’s research in 10 to 20 years’ time?
I hope the Centre’s research will lead to:
- Improved local, national and international conservation and sustainability policies.
- Breakthroughs in understanding nature that support effective conservation strategies, including improved understanding of wildlife movement and animal behaviour, effects of disturbance such as fire and landscape transformation, and interactions among species including those with invasive pests and disease
- New knowledge about our fascinating biodiversity, including improved understanding of the effects of temperature and other environmental changes.
- Novel applications of restoration in marine, estuarine and freshwater ecosystems to manage carbon emissions as well as improve biodiversity outcomes.