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PubhD Preview: An Interview with Simon Tarr

12 August 18 words: Gav Squires
illustrations: Raphael Achache

PubhD is back at The Vat & Fiddle on Wednesday - we sat down with one of the speakers, Simon Tarr, to learn about how he has been preparing

Without giving too much of your talk away, can you give us a quick description of your research?

My research is essentially about trying to understand (and predict) where organisms live (or could live) across the planet. Macroecology is the study of broad-scale patterns and processes which govern where species can survive. For example, how does climate limit the range of a given species? Do biotic interactions, such as predation or competition, further limit the places in which they can survive? Can a species even reach areas suitable for survival? The interaction of these different processes is really the core of my research. A greater understanding of how they play out across the globe will be vital as climate change continues to intensify and humans spread more invasive species out of their natural ranges.

How hard has it been to distil years of research into ten minutes?

Pretty tricky! I find the most difficult part is to keep jargon to a minimum. When you're immersed in any academic field, you tend to forget what words are common knowledge and which ones are pretty meaningless to someone outside of your field.

What's it been like preparing a "pub level" talk?

It's been fun - you get to think back to the broader concepts and big ideas, rather than getting bogged down in the details, which is often the case.

Are you looking forward to the questions from the general public?

Absolutely. Keen amateurs interested in your subject have a real knack of asking (tricky!) questions that you've rarely considered before. At a regular academic conference, for example, you're likely to be grilled on a particular method or why you chose to do xyz rather than abc....in short, boring technical questions. Questions from the general public, on the other hand, tend to be much bigger in scope and they remind you why you got into your particular research field in the first place. They're exciting and you get a chance to 'think big' again!

How important is it as a researcher to have the opportunity to get your work out there in front of non-academic people?

It's very important for all fields but particularly for ecology at the start of the 21st century. It's important because the natural world is changing at an outstanding rate. Human-led activity is destroying habitat, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, facilitating the spread of invasive species and at a pace which is, quite frankly, terrifying. Climate change, as just once example, isn't anything new- it's happened hundreds of times throughout earth's history. What's different how is the rate at which things are changing. In combination with other processes such as land use change, we're putting some serious pressure on natural systems. We need to understand what this means for ecosystems. It's important that the public are really, viscerally, aware of what our lifestyle means for the planet and I'd argue that it must be kept at the forefront of our collective consciousness so that policy can shape a better future for us and all other life on earth.

Have you ever had any arguments with microecologists about whether bigger or smaller is better?

I bet if microbiologists and macroecologists attended the same conferences there would be some heated arguments...!

The next PubhD takes place on the 15th of August at 7:30 at The Vat & Fiddle

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