Dr. Alice Hughes is a scientist working in Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, located in the southeast China. Although her model organisms are bats (a.k.a. call her bat woman!), she likes to study and understand the dynamics of various different forms of biodiversity. According to her, we all live and breathe biodiversity and are responsible to protect it, respectively. She spoke to us during a birdwatching trip in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, while observing the birds and invertebrates at the same time. If you would like to hear more about her daily life in China, thoughts on doing and living science, and research projects, welcome to the journey of this amazing bat woman!
Bilgenur Baloglu- Hi Alice, you are based in China right now, what are you doing there?
Alice Hughes – I work in Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I am an Assistant Professor there, doing research on biodiversity and basically things like the effect of environmental change on species distributions and diversity.
Where did you get your degree?
My undergraduate and my PhD were both from the University of Bristol, but my field work was based in Thailand. After my PhD, I moved out to Thailand for a while and continued my research as a Postdoctoral scholar.
You are pretty adopted to Southeast Asia then?
Yes, well I have also worked in Australia for a while, but most of my research has been in Southeast Asia.
Today, we are in Sungei Buloh, which is a nature reserve and a birdwatching center. How did your interest in birds start?
My grandfather was a birder, though I never met him. My mother used to take us birding in a family cottage on the Norfolk coast in the UK. So we go as a family, sit in the hides and it would normally be raining. We would look for the various wading birds and occasionally the raptors. It has always been a nice escape and something I did when I was very little. But wherever you go in the world, there are birds. If you go into a forest, and you are just looking for, say an orangutan, you normally talk to people and they see nothing, but if you look at the birds, you see everything. Even though I do bat research now, it does not mean that I am not interested in other forms of biodiversity. Birds are very visible and fascinating animals.
What are you doing in Singapore right now?
I have come mainly for the climate change conference, which is starting tomorrow. I work with some of the people based here, and some other collaborators are also coming in. It is a good opportunity for me to plan the next bit of collaborative research.
How is your life in China? What are your current projects about?
Well, until now I worked in China, Thailand, Australia and the UK. Everything has its pluses and minuses. I like my research environment and my colleagues, and it is really stimulating from that perspective. Plus, I live in a beautiful botanical garden in a tropical area. If I want to do some tropical ecology research, I can walk for twenty minutes and I am in a rainforest. This week, we have got the Program for Field Studies (PFS) school, which is one of the courses that we run. It is a bit like the equivalent of the OTS that runs in South, Central and North America. This program runs for 6 weeks, and at the moment I have got five students there doing bat work, and I help them to catch bats out in the forest and learn how to be bat biologists. It does not mean it is easy from other perspectives, learning Mandarin for instance. And I keep accidentally speaking Thai, which is not very helpful. Being vegetarian, food is not that great.
What kind of food do you have there? Can you give us more details?
Actually, it is little bit of an issue. We went to a special dinner after seminar the other week and they were serving deep fried oleander flowers. I knew that it is a poisonous flower. They use a lot of plants which are high in alkaloids, which actually should not be eaten by humans. It is eaten by the local people there. We are in a Xishongbanna prefacture area in China. The people who are in charge of the prefacture have to be either Hanni or Dai people. Because in the area, about 50% of the people are Han Chinese, and 20% Hanni, 15% Dai, and then there is 12% other minorities like the Yi people. Proportions may not be that accurate but the massive part of the people are Hanni, and they eat a lot of local leaves and so do we. There is also a lot of meat cooked with chilli, which makes things a bit tricky for vegetarians. So whenever someone is coming into the country, we give them a list of things to bring with them. When one of my friends came for a conference, he/she brought me a lot of cheese. It is funny but you get over with the challenges. Well, the research is well worth it!
What is the proportion of the fieldwork in your research?
I have only been there for about two and a half months, so I am still sorting out everything. But once we get started, we should have a fair bit of field work, whereas recently it has been mainly in the lab and visiting a few sites, either with the coursework or to plan for the field work in the future.
Can you give specific examples on the research projects that you are conducting?
My main research would be on two things, one of them would be looking at the biodiversity of karsts in Southeast Asia. In Southeast China, they make up about 800,000 square kilometers. They have really high endemism meaning that a lot of species there are not found anywhere else. But they have almost no protection. When you deforest the base of the karst, you change the climate zone in the karst, and that means it is not suitable for the species anymore. Moreover, Southeast Asia has the highest rate of mining in the tropics, so it is a really threatened ecosystem. High biodiversity, poor ability to disperse and almost no protection. So if we can map out how the diversity spreads, then we can make sure that one of the greatest biodiversity and endemicity source also have the best protection. The other thing I am doing is trying to establish a network between people working around Southeast Asia and possibly outside (who is) looking how species distributions change on altitudinal gradients, at different latitudes. So we can try to infer the effects of climate change on distributions and use out to calibrate things like model distributions. So these are my main projects.
Sounds like fun!
It is indeed, and it keeps me quite busy. I do a lot of collaborative work and also train people on GIS (a.n. Abbrv. of Geographic Information System).
Do you have any suggestions for students planning to do biodiversity-related work in their post-graduate studies?
I think that being a scientist is more than just a job. You do not go home at 5 pm each day and turn on the TV. It is a lifestyle. Because you live and breathe biodiversity. See, we have a half day or day off and we have gone to a national park, we just saw a kingfisher flying into the tree. Because it is what we do, part of who we are and everything we do is related to it. So you have to be passionate about it. Because it really is a commitment. A lot of scientists have to live overseas. For instance, our group today has people from all over the world (a.n. We were a group of people from India, USA, Ecuador, Turkey and the UK). You have got to make a choice and just go for it. Because if it matters to you to trying to protect the biodiversity, which I personally feel a duty for and I do not know what other people feel, you have got to do what you feel is the right thing.
True story. Thank you for talking in this interview for Bilim.org.
Thank you, it was very nice talking to you.