Researchers: studying ecological theory amidst the biodiversity crisis

I’ve been in a slump for the past month. I just started my MSc in an interdisciplinary program that does not have any ‘pure’ ecologists (as opposed to applied) and involves many social science components. This interdisciplinary program has many political ecologists and social scientists that work directly with environmental data and human communities, especially Indigenous communities. There are also many conservationists, which I now understand are more concerned with the social aspects of conservation rather than biological aspects. I was attracted to the program because I love the atmosphere and aggregation of environmentally conscious individuals doing important work, and I liked my supervisor’s lab group — note that my lab group does strictly ecology without a social component. But now I am having many doubts about my own interests and values.

Tomorrow many of us are going to a climate strike. Everybody here is so passionate and gung ho about stimulating conversation and action to counter climate change and environmental issues, and rightfully so, but I’ve never been in such a concentration of eco-conscious people. It is reassuring to see, but it is incredibly exhausting such that I think I am not cut out for this line of work. It hurts me to say this because I believe the biodiversity crisis among the biggest global issues, but it is so overwhelming to discuss let alone tackle the issue directly through my research. (I do my part to be sustainable in biking everywhere, reducing waste, supporting particular brands, etc., so I do not mean to say that climate change and global environmental issues are unworthy of my efforts.)

Prior to starting my MSc, I described several new species of mites from Brazil and studied hybridization between grass populations. I was in the Brazilian rainforest looking for bugs feeling, at the time, like my work was totally justified. In the lab, I would spend hours sorting out taxonomic information to identify things. It was so cool! But whenever I had to justify my research in a presentation or report, I struggled because I didn’t think that these projects addressed the issue of biodiversity loss. Hence why my MSc is in applied ecology.

But now that I’m doing applied ecology, I seem to lack the natural curiosity that led me into ecology in the first place. It feels like ‘here is a species in decline so let’s go study it and treat it like its the centre of the universe’. There is little opportunity for me to explore my own interests. However, my dilemma is that I still believe the type of work that I’m doing is extremely important. So my heart says go study bugs in the rainforest and ecological theory (community assembly!!) but my mind says study something more directly related to your values (ie. more directly related to species extinctions and climate change). I seem unhappy regardless of which camp I’m in. I wish I could go back in time and select an MSc project that better united ecological theory and biodiversity loss (ie. functional trait-based approaches to conservation). (But there are still a million benefits that my current project provides, and I enjoy my time so far!)

Do you value ‘pure’ ecological research amidst the biodiversity crisis? Does anybody have similar thoughts to share? I’d be interested in hearing.

tl;dr I feel like research in ‘pure ecology’ doesn’t address the biodiversity crisis directly enough, but I am not personally excited by research that directly addresses the biodiversity crisis. Do you have similar thoughts? Thanks for reading!

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