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Under the Microscope: Dr Darren Southwell

12 December 2023

Darren Southwell is a Conservation Scientist who has just embarked on a trip to Uluru-Kata Tjuata National Park to monitor Australia’s native species. He spoke with ATN about his experience.

ATN Under the Microscope is our series of profiles detailing the incredible people working within ATN’s universities and making a difference in technology, science and innovation.

For our last Under the Microscope profile piece of 2023, ATN spoke with Dr Darren Southwell from The University of Newcastle. Dr Southwell is a Lecturer in Conservation Science, and recently embarked on a trip alongside Parks Australia and Indigenous Rangers to the Uluru-Kata Tjuata National Park, to monitor endangered and invasive species in one of Australia’s most famed locations.

Dr Darren Southwell, Lecturer in Conservation Science at The University of Newcastle

What drove you to work in Conservation Science?

My parents were a big influence on my career in Conservation Science. As a kid, they’d take me camping all around Australia most school holidays, which helped form my love of the outdoors and the natural world. Plus my dad is an ecologist, so I grew up watching him do field work in really interesting places.

Do you have a surprising or fun fact to share from your research?

It’s not a fun fact, but I’m always surprised by the fact that Australia has one of the worst rates of species extinctions in the world despite being a relatively wealthy country. We don’t have a very good track record at investing in on-ground conservation actions. Unless we improve, many more species will continue to go extinct in future.

You’ve recently collaborated with Parks Australia to monitor Australian species. What was involved in this project?

This project is working with Parks Australia and Indigenous Rangers to design a long-term biodiversity monitoring program in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Despite being so iconic, the park has received very little biodiversity monitoring over the last 20 years, meaning we have a limited understanding about how plants and animals are trending. We recently put out 120 camera traps and 30 sound recorders to collect baseline data on what threatened and invasive species occur in the park and where.  

What do you believe is most important about the work you do in the Conservation space?

On-ground conservation receives very little funding so a big part of my job is working with managers to determine how biodiversity monitoring and management can be most cost-effective. I do this by building statistical and mathematical models to predict how populations and ecosystems might change in the future with and without possible management interventions. The fundamental goal of this work is to prevent future extinctions.

“We don’t have a very good track record at investing in on-ground conservation actions. Unless we improve, many more species will continue to go extinct in future.”

Dr Darren Southwell on Australia’s rate of species extinction

How much time do you spend on a university campus? What is different about being in an institution compared to doing field work?

My job is primarily in front of a computer analysing other people’s data, although I venture out into the field to collect my own data for probably a month each year. Getting into the field is definitely the favourite part of my job as it usually takes me to great places with great people. It also happens to be where my best ideas come to mind.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing higher education in Australia? 

In the last few years, it has become more difficult to attract high-quality PhD students. Many potential students are instead choosing higher-paying jobs rather than continue with academia, partly due to the increased cost of living.

Do you have a hobby?

With two kids under 5, there’s not much time for a hobby at this stage of life, although I’ve recently moved to the University of Newcastle and try to run and mountain bike through the local bushland as much as possible. Other than that, I’ll take the kids down to explore the beach a couple of time a week.

Can you tell us of a book, film or TV show you recently read or watched that you would recommend and why? 

With two kids under 5, I rarely do any of these. The last TV show I watched was ‘Alone Australia,’ mainly because I love Tasmania and the idea of spending long periods of time in the bush.

What’s your dream holiday destination and why? 

I like wide open spaces and cold climates, so my dream holiday destination would be Tibet and Nepal. I travelled quite a bit before having kids but never made it to these two places.

If a student were considering studying Conservation Science, why would you say they should take the leap and dive into this area of study?

Even though Australia has a poor track record, there are many success stories where conservation actions have prevented threatened species from going extinct. So Conservation Science provides an opportunity to make a real difference to the world that future generations will appreciate.