Being the change

Renata Ferrari Legorreta, March 2018

Meet Renata Ferrari Legorreta, Ph.D., a marine ecologist and ecosystem modeler at the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences. Renata’s research seeks to understand the dynamics of marine habitats and species to produce data that can be used for the management and conservation of marine ecosystems. Renata joined the Conservation Leadership Programme alumni network through her 2008 WCS Research Fellowship Program award. In this interview, Renata sheds light on her conservation journey and her motivation for never losing hope.

How did you first become interested in conservation?

I have been interested in conservation for as long as I can remember. My first home as a child was in a forest in central Mexico; I grew up loving nature. It was easy to see at an early age that there are better and worse ways of using nature - you can smell a flower and leave it in the ground for others to enjoy, or you can cut it and take it home. I remember devouring the National Geographic magazines my grandad gifted to me at age six. I have a letter I wrote to the editor when I was seven years old, in English (not my mother tongue!), saying how much I enjoyed their articles and that I wanted to grow up to be a conservation biologist or a wilderness photographer.

One of my favorite proverbs explains why I decided to dedicate my career to conservation. Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” I’ve always wanted people to respect nature more. Pursuing a career in conservation is the best way I can think of to change the way we see and respect nature.

Did you have a role model or someone who inspired you?

Many! Starting with my parents and teachers, and later my colleagues and professors at university. Professor Peter Mumby, my PhD supervisor, taught me many things, but one of the most important lessons was the importance of high quality research. Associate Professor Will Figueira, my postdoc supervisor at the University of Sydney, was an excellent role model. Among many other things, he was, and still is, an excellent inspiration for tackling difficult problems of great significance and always having a positive and collaborative approach towards research and conservation, no matter how hard it may seem.

How was being a CLP / RFP grantee helpful in furthering your career?

I received a WCS Research Fellowship Program (RFP) award in 2008 to cover part of my PhD fieldwork expenses. To date, this is still one of the longest continuous coral reef field projects and datasets on coral-algal dynamics (15 months). While the RFP contributed financially to a successful PhD, my conservation career in the long term has benefitted tremendously by being an alumna of the Conservation leadership Programme (CLP). Funding from CLP helped me attend conferences and network with many other conservationists around the world. Through the CLP network, I have shared my expertise with others by mentoring CLP applicants and teaching workshops organized by other CLP alumni. CLP has also supported my career by disseminating the important findings of my research and connecting me with other coral reef conservationists who face similar challenges to those I face.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Everything! Fieldwork is always very rewarding (yes, even when it is cold and rainy), but so is disentangling patterns in data after hundreds of hours of data analysis, sharing what I’ve learnt with peers and students, and being contacted by total strangers outside my field who are interested in my research.

What achievement are you most proud of?

My PhD. It was my first body of work that had a significant impact on the conservation of coral reefs in the Caribbean. I am also proud of my Postdoc as it significantly advanced marine research and conservation by making 3D mapping of underwater ecosystems available to experts and non-experts with a small budget. This means we are now, for the first time, capable of measuring coral growth and contraction without damaging corals in any way.

What are the biggest challenges that you face in your work?

Pessimism. A lot of people, including conservation scientists, are slowly losing hope for coral reefs because they currently face huge challenges related to global climate change. I believe the biggest challenge for marine conservation is to teach people that they can make a difference in their everyday choices to influence some of the biggest threats to marine ecosystems including overfishing and global warming. These are global problems but the solutions are local. We need to join forces to minimize greenhouse gases, stop using fossil fuels, and consume only sustainably sourced food.

Amongst conservation biologists, especially early-career researchers, there is also a lot of uncertainty and pessimism regarding their career paths and employment prospects. Many PhD students do not realize that a PhD does not guarantee you a job. A significant number of recent graduates are taking more than a year to find jobs and some are abandoning the field. Similarly, there is not enough investment for conservation programs around the world which also contributes to pessimism in the field. Securing and sharing funding for conservation is one of the biggest challenges I have faced in my work, yet I have never given up.

What advice do you have for the next generation of conservationists?

Optimism is very important. Don’t stop because someone says it is impossible. Instead, think hard about the main hurdles you will need to overcome and how you will achieve your goals. If the challenge is too big, team up with someone and conquer that mountain together. Always be more inclusive than exclusive and never, never give up. Even when you think your work may not make a real difference, remember that there is nothing worse than standing by when you could be doing something to make things better. As Gandhi said, “you may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.”