Dr Regan Early

Published on: 4 May 2016

Conservation Biology lecturer, Dr Regan Early, is raking part in this year's Soapbox Science event

You can follow Dr Early on Twitter.

Dr Regan Early, lecturer in Conservation Biology in the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, is taking part in the upcoming Soapbox Science event – to be held in Exeter’s Princesshay.

Dr Early’s research looks at the effects of human activity on wildlife around the world. In particular, what causes species to live where they do, and how environmental change will cause wildlife to move in search of new homes/habitat.

What is your current research about?

I want to know why some plants and animals can only live in a few locations where conditions are just right, whereas others can live anywhere and everywhere. There are several reasons why this is important.

First, climate change means that for many species, the places where they currently live are becoming intolerable – often too hot or too dry. One of the main ways wildlife will survive climate change is to move to new areas. To decide which species will be forced to move, and might need our help to do so; we need to know which species are really restricted to very specific types of climate.

Second, when humans accidentally or purposefully move plants and animals around the world, some of those species become invasive. Invasive species can take over ecosystems, driving out or eating native wildlife, and can damage human health. An example is common Ragweed, which causes severe hay fever.
Finally, studying why species live where they do is just fascinating. My research helps to understand patterns of biodiversity worldwide, for example why there are more species in the tropics, and fewer species on islands.

As a PhD student I spent my summers chasing butterflies across the moors, trying to figure out where were the best places to make nature reserves for them. I then decided computers were safer and headed off to the USA to make models of how frogs in California would cope with climate change. I later moved to Spain to make even bigger models of how wildlife across Europe would be affected by climate change. That's where I got bitten by the field bug again, and I now travel around the world to study why some plants can live everywhere, but others only live in just a few places.

I am firmly convinced that plants are just as fascinating as animals. The world just hasn't gotten to know them well enough yet.

Who or what has inspired you to do this research?

I’ve simply always wanted to find out the answers to things. As a child I’m sure I drove my parents to distraction asking how things worked. When I wasn’t satisfied with their answers, I had to try things out for myself.

I’ve always felt very responsible for conserving wildlife and wild places as well, and I love to explore. So doing a degree in biology, specialising in ecology, and then a PhD that involved running around the country chasing butterflies was all I could ever hope for. Although I loved my PhD research into the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, I was even more attracted by the ‘bigger picture’.

For me the really cool questions aren’t ‘why is this one species endangered by climate change?’. Instead I want to know which directions the thousands of birds, mammals, and plants in Europe will move as climate changes, or which countries around the world are most threatened by invasive species.

Have you encountered any challenges, as a female academic?

Certainly. I regularly encounter attitudes that make me wonder how much other people’s perception of me is affected by my gender.

Was that grant reviewer who raised concerns about my competency to do the work I proposed intrinsically biased against women whether he/she knew it or not? Did the speaker who talked down to me when I asked a question about his methods do so because he assumed that I wasn’t clever enough to understand his research? I’ll never know the answers to these questions, but the research shows that biased opinions of women’s scientific capabilities are widespread.

These biases add up to prevent women being taken as seriously as men. I have sat at a supposedly ‘round table’, pitched my idea, and heard it rejected only to be met with great enthusiasm when proposed by a male scientist shortly after. I know I’ll always have to fight that little bit harder to be taken seriously. It’s crucial to level the playing field in order to have the best scientists contributing to research and society.

The Soapbox Science event is an outreach platform for promoting women scientists; how do you think that more females can be encouraged to continue with STEM subjects?

As a girl I think I was inspired to be a scientist by exactly the same things that inspire boys: the promise of exploration, innovation, and finding something out for yourself. However, I was always aware that almost all scientists on TV and in books were men. So I was completely fascinated by any women I saw in science, real or fictional: Jane Goodall, Marie Slodowska Curie, Dana Scully (X-Files), Ellie Sattler (Jurassic Park).

Seeing people like you doing what you want to do makes it all seem possible. I hope that at Soapbox Science I can go some way towards showing adults and children alike that scientists are young women as well as old men with beards.

What is the best part of your job?

Talking about my research with my colleagues and with non-scientists.

I regularly encounter attitudes that make me wonder how much other people’s perception of me is affected by my gender

Dr Regan Early, lecturer in Conservation Biology, Centre for Ecology and Conservation

What attracted you about University of Exeter, how do you think it can support your research?

I’ve wanted to work at the Penryn campus of Exeter University since it opened and several of my PhD friends moved here with their supervisors. The academics here seemed to have a refreshingly can-do attitude.

If I’m honest, working here feels slightly like living in the Western frontierland. Because we’re a small and relatively new campus (11 years old) we’re constantly breaking new ground with our research, facilities, and teaching. If you have a good idea, everyone will do what they can to help you carry it out.

My colleagues take building a supportive research community as seriously as they take doing world class research. The students that choose degrees here really dedicated to the place and to their subjects. They’re not just great to teach, they’re great to work with. Several undergrad and MSc students help me with my research, collecting data, or developing their own projects. And of course we all get to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.


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