Top science jobs: Rainforest crusader

Image: Gustavo Calderon

For William Laurance, no two days are ever the same. One might involve supervising a PhD project in Asia, the next he could be deep in the North Queensland rainforest, collecting evidence of combat between tree-climbing liana and the trees they grow on.

Working across numerous projects on several continents is something Laurance says is a way of attacking many problems affecting rainforests. “My research is not oriented toward any particular species, it’s problem driven; crisis driven.”

Threats such as expanding highways, logging and hunting are areas that Laurance and his team aim to investigate. “It’s unified by a real sense of urgency. If tropical forests or their biodiversity are threatened, we’re interested in it.”

After spending several years in the forests of Panama, Laurance made the move to Queensland to work across a range of conservation projects in Australia and the Pacific. He says Australia is a particularly interesting place to work in conservation, in part because of its “considerable” logging history, but also the culture of restoration management that has evolved in the region.

Despite the deforestation that still continues today, says Laurance, “Australia has really stepped out and protected its rainforests”. He believes the lessons learned in Queensland could be applied regionally. “What I’ve been really interested in doing is building new bridges to developing countries in the Asia Pacific region.”

Laurance’s reputation has grown to encompass numerous travel dates for everything from speaking appointments to fieldwork. “It involves a huge amount of travel. Some of the most pleasant and most difficult parts of my job are on the road.”

In between, he finds the time to supervise doctoral students, write research papers and help engage the wider public in the state of the world’s rainforests by giving up to 130 interviews a year on topics such as illegal timber imports, carbon trading and deforestation.

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