Kenya: Natural World Under Pressure

Allison Louthan is researching the impact of climate change on the interactions of different species. She began her research in Kenya in 2009, and focuses on a plant called “Hibiscus Meyeri," which is commonly consumed by herbivores of different sizes, ranging from tiny dik-dik antelopes to elephants. Her fascination for the natural world and her will to share her knowledge with non-scientists have been two fundamental elements during her career.

DiscovHER- In your opinion, what challenges are most pressing for the natural world today?

Allison Louthan - We are living in a very important time in history; climate change is a critical problem in the world, and addressing this challenge head-on with basic research is crucial. Doing so will help us both understand what is happening to the world (i.e., the effects of climate change), which is an important piece of basic knowledge, but also how best to deal with these problems, including how to manage what biodiversity we have left, slow or stop climate change, and develop effective techniques to integrate humans into the global ecosystem.

D/H - Being an ecologist, the climate change that you mentioned are at the heart of your work. Can you tell us more about it?

AL - My work directly addresses one of the most critical issues of how climate change is affecting the natural world, how species will shift their distributional limits with climate change. We have made great progress in predicting how species will move their ranges in response to changes in climate. However, we have a poor sense of how species’ distributional limits might be affected by interactions with other species. My work will show where and when other species, and interactions with those other species, are critical drivers of distributional limits, and where and when these interactions are less critical for predicting species’ range shifts. Thus, my work will allow us to improve our understanding of where species will move with climate change, and show us geographically where geographically we need to conserve communities of species in concert (which is difficult and expensive), and conversely, where we can focus on conserving individual species (which is less difficult).

D/H - Was it your love of nature that originated your interest in science?

AL - I originally became interested in science because it requires you to be inquisitive about the natural world, and also provides a way of answering your questions (or at least partly answering them). This ability to ask new questions throughout my career appeals to me. In particular, the challenge of harnessing that curiosity to help ask questions that can better inform conservation and management strategies motivates me.

D/H - Do you believe a career in science is more difficult for women than for their male counterparts?

AL - I’m happy to be a young woman at a time when science is shifting from male-dominated to a more equal representation of male and female. With this new development, however, articulating the differences between male and female roles in science, rather than ignoring them or simply integrating female scientists into a formerly male-dominated system is a challenging problem. For example, giving women and men time off to have and raise children (which often arises at a critical juncture in their careers), and discounting their expected publication rate appropriately, could help. However, I think women and men in sciences have done a wonderful job talking about these problems and issues, and confronting them in direct and productive ways.

For Women in Science

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