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A path to becoming a conservation scientist

An interview with Zuzana Burivalova, a part of our on-going Interviews with Young Scientists series.

The path to finding a career often involves twists and turns. Serendipity is important — one rarely anticipates what small events, chance occurrences, and seeds of inspiration will spur decisions that lead to pursuing one job or another.

For Zuzana Burivalova, a PhD candidate based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), the road to becoming a tropical forest ecologist began as a child in a small Czech Republic village with a foldout children’s book about rainforests. Despite aptitude tests suggesting she pursue a career in a field other than research, Burivalova studied and excelled at biology at Oxford University. After a series of jobs in several countries, Burivalova joined the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which led her to work in Madagascar at a time when the island’s rainforests were being pillaged for rosewood and other valuable hardwoods. That experience prompted her to pursue a career as a conservation scientist.

Selective logging in Masoala National Park. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova

Now, after months of fieldwork under conditions that are challenging at the best of times — let alone in the midst of an illegal logging frenzy in a remote part of Madagascar — and publication of a high-profile paper in Current Biology on the effects of selective logging on biodiversity, Burivalova is wrapping up her PhD at ETH Zurich and embarking on the next stage of her career.

To learn more about her path to becoming a tropical forest ecologist, Mongabay caught up with Burivalova at the annual meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), which was held this year in Cairns, Australia.

Burivalova in the rainforest. Photo courtesy of Zuzana Burivalova

AN INTERVIEW WITH ZUZANA BURIVALOVA What is your current area of focus in terms of research?

Zuzana Burivalova: I am interested in what happens to tropical forests when they are exploited and degraded in various ways, for example by selective logging. We know a lot about what happens to biodiversity when a forest is completely cleared – most of the animal and plant species do not survive. But we know less about what happens when we only change the forest to some degree, such as by taking a few large trees out. There are two main reasons why I am interested in this: first, I think that if we can understand better what exactly happens to biodiversity in such ‘disturbed’ forests, we might be able to reduce the damage by better management. The other reason is that it is genuinely interesting to learn about how different animals respond to various types of disturbance, such as logging, or cyclones, and to what extent they are able to adapt to the new environment. The rainforests of Madagascar are quite distant from the Czech Republic. What led you down the path of becoming a tropical ecologist?

Zuzana Burivalova. Photo courtesy of Zuzana Burivalova

Zuzana Burivalova: As far as I can remember, forests and trees always fascinated me. My parents’ house in the Czech Republic, where I grew up, is in a small village surrounded by forest, so I spent a lot of my free time after school in the forest. Temperate forests were already interesting enough for me and all I could imagine about tropical forests was that they would be even more exciting. We had a fold out jungle book with a lot of different trees and animals, which I could apparently look at for hours. Paradoxically, it didn’t occur to me for years that there might actually be a job that would involve working in tropical forests or helping with their conservation.

Steaked tenrec, a species endemic to Madagascar, in Masoala. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova What did you study in school? And what has been your path to pursuing your PhD?

Zuzana Burivalova: I studied biology as an undergraduate at Oxford. We had several great field courses in Europe and also a lecture course on tropical forests and conservation. This was definitely the most interesting subject for me, but I assumed that it’s not possible for a normal person to do research on tropical forests. If it were, surely everyone would be doing that! So instead, I decided it’s more realistic to try working on alpine plants. I really enjoyed my undergraduate research project, for which I did some fieldwork in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains. It gave me a very good introduction to fieldwork: it rained every single day and at one point, our campsite in the mountains was visited by thieves. We ate blueberries for the rest of the fieldwork.

After my degree I worked for a year at different labs in Canada, on invasive plants in Ontario and temperate rainforests on Vancouver Island. Then, just before I started my Masters in environmental science in Geneva, I got a great opportunity to work for the United Nations Disasters and Conflicts Branch, which is part of the Environment Program. This was the first time I worked on the issue of illegal rosewood logging in Madagascar. The first time I actually went to Madagascar was one year later, for my Masters dissertation fieldwork. When I returned from the four months of fieldwork in Andrafiamena, Madagascar, I was sure that I wanted to do a PhD in tropical forest ecology and conservation. What is it that you like about doing research?

Zuzana Burivalova: I like the fact that my work is quite different every day and I can switch between statistics, reading, GIS, or writing any time I want. Also, even though a lot of scientists would probably say that you can never be ‘done’ with research, I like the fact that I can set myself my own goals, and then work towards them. Doing a PhD is in some sense a great luxury because there is time, opportunity, and necessity to learn many new things, which I enjoy a lot. But ultimately, I just really like being in a tropical forest and looking at plants and animals!

Sampling leaf litter ants with mini-Winkler extractors at the base of the mountain Ambohitsitondroina, Masoala peninsula, Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Zuzana Burivalova

Burivalova with a drone. Photo courtesy of Zuzana Burivalova What was it like doing field research in Madagascar? What were the biggest challenges and rewards?

Zuzana Burivalova: The first time I went to Madagascar, for my Masters research, I think it took me quite a while to adjust. I was frustrated that didn’t have a book of the local Malagasy dialect and I found it difficult to learn just by listening. Fortunately, the lady I employed as a cook helped me write down all the new words every day. I was also overwhelmed by a complete lack of privacy at the beginning. I was staying in my tent close to a small village that kindly hosted me in the Andrafiamena region. During the first few weeks, at least a few children and adults would watch me at all times, and I mean this literally. Eventually, we became good friends, and I got used to the lifestyle. The biggest physical challenge was to maintain my equipment, my plant samples, and myself in a manageable condition for the 4 months. I spent a lot of my evenings patching up my clothes and tent. One of the biggest rewards from this research was to find out that some of the plants I had collected were new species.

Transporting field material across the Onive river in eastern Masoala. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova

During my PhD trips to Masoala, also in Madagascar, I was already prepared for the transition between Swiss efficacy and Malagasy laid-back way of life. But then again, in Masoala, just about everything is a logistical challenge. A lot of the times, simple things are not possible, like finding signal for a GPS, crossing a flooded river, or finding a village where people have enough food to sell some to hungry scientists. The low point was when I was hiking to some ‘permanent’ plots set up by scientists about 10 years ago, because I wanted to take some measures on how the forest is regenerating after logging and cyclones. When I finally got there after many days of walking, it turned out that the plots had been burnt just a few weeks previously, and became a rice field.

The biggest reward in Masoala was probably talking to the local people about conservation. I was trying to use the conservation drones to monitor changes in the forest canopy caused by rosewood logging and cyclones, and I was quite worried how the people who live in the villages around Masoala would accept this. I was very happy to see that the village elders always agreed to having the conservation drone fly over their forest and a lot of the time this provoked a genuine interest in why we are so worried about the logging issue, cyclones, and fires, which all contribute to forest degradation. But the best part of fieldwork in Masoala was that some of my plots were close enough to the sea, and salt water is the best way to get rid of all the leeches from a whole day in the forest!

The frontier of Masoala National Park: deforestation for slash-and-burn agriculture, damage to remaining forests by cyclone and logging. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova

(Left) Burivalova in an illegal forest clearing where a trap has been set to catch lemurs. (Right) Expedition to the center of Masoala National Park. Photos courtesy of Zuzana Burivalova

Stump of a recently cut rosewood tree in Masoala National Park. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova Your paper in Current Biology garnered a lot of attention last month. What are the key take-aways from that study?

Zuzana Burivalova: The main finding of our study was something very intuitive: the more intensively we log a forest, that is, the more timber we extract per hectare, the more species of amphibians, mammals, and invertebrates we are losing. I think that many ecologists had suspected this, but there had not been a quantitative study that would show the exact relationship. Often, logged forests in the tropics have been lumped into one category of forest use, whereas logging can have, as we have shown, very different impacts on biodiversity, depending on the intensity of logging. The impacts range from local increases in biodiversity at very low intensities to serious declines at high extraction intensities.

Selective logging in Andrafiamena, northern Madagascar. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova

Trees other than rosewood and ebony are selectively cut on Masoala peninsula for local use in construction (Ambanizana valley). Photo by Zuzana Burivalova Are you going to continue to pursue that line of research?

Zuzana Burivalova: This study was only a small part of what I think we need to know about selective logging. We need to know better why some species respond positively and others negatively, and that is something I am working on now. But in the future, I also want to focus on what happens to logged forests at broader spatial scales. It might be the case that biodiversity decreases only by a few percent at a local scale, but the forest could become more homogeneous at a broader scale. This will probably become even more important as logged and secondary forests, rather than primary forests will increasingly surround logged forests.

Logged over area that has been subsequently burnt for agriculture, Ambanizana valley, Masoala peninsula. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova You’re wrapping up your PhD later this year. What’s next for you?

Zuzana Burivalova: I hope to do more research on biodiversity conservation in tropical forests! I would also like to have more contact with tropical timber logging and certification companies, to get a better idea how my research can be applied in practice.

I am interested not only in forest degradation, but also in what makes reforestation successful, and why it often doesn’t work

Ophiocolea ratovosonii, a new species from northern Madagascar. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova

Sampling of plant diversity in the seasonally deciduous, limestone forests of Andrafiamena, Madagascar. Photo by Zuzana Burivalova

Burivalova photographing the inside of a strangler fig. Photo courtesy of Zuzana Burivalova Do you have any tips for students who are considering a career in science?

Zuzana Burivalova: The best way to find out if you should do research is to try it, and try other things too. I recently saw an old career orientation test that I took when I was 16. According to the results, I should have become a sports therapist or a midwife, and I had the lowest number of points for the science and research section. I don’t think that the test was necessarily wrong, but I think more than anything it showed what I thought I would enjoy, according to my preconceived ideas of various jobs. For example, I used to have a very clear idea about what is necessary to be a scientist (and why I surely couldn’t be one). I thought that each scientist has to have, from the very first day that they want to ‘do science’, a clear, ground-breaking idea that they want to research. I thought that knowing the best, most exciting research question that one can be 100% passionate about is an innate ability that one either has or hasn’t. Now I think that asking a good question is more of an acquired skill, and the more ideas and questions I try out, the more new ideas come. I never tried becoming a midwife, but in the years before I started doing a PhD, I had about 15 jobs in 5 different countries. A lot of those were not at all related to research and they were just part time jobs to get by, but they were useful in the sense that they showed me what I enjoy and what I am good at. So I think it’s important to keep in mind that there is not one big black-and-white decision to be made between a career in science or elsewhere. For me it is a series of smaller decisions and opportunities that I take up, which shape what I do.

Zuzana Burivalova.
Zuzana Burivalova. Photo courtesy of Zuzana Burivalova

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