Jane Elith named Life Scientist of the Year

22 October 2015

Dr Jane Elith has been awarded the 2015 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, one of the six awards in the annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.

Dr Elith is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University’s School of Biosciences and a member of the Centre of Excellence for Bioscecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA).

The award recognises her contributions to environmental management worldwide including the development and assessment of methods for tracking and predicting invasive species that attack Australian crops and natural environments.

These species distribution models have been used by governments, land and catchment managers and conservationists around the world to help map the spread of cane toads, and compare the implications of development options in the Tiwi Islands for threatened plants and animals that have largely disappeared from the mainland.

Dr Elith says the field is is a niche that fits her well.

“I’ve ended up in an area which links my interest in nature and my liking for data and models,” she added.

“The Atlas of Living Australia database has 50 million species records. But we know that there are issues with that data. It wasn’t collected for modelling. Most of the records are close to roads and towns, for instance, or clustered in the favourite national parks of field biologists. The models need to deal with those sorts of biases.”

Dr Elith collaborates with the world’s foremost statisticians, computer scientists and ecologists to puzzle out how to extract useful information from data and combine and relate it to measurements and estimates of characteristics of the environment.

She then passes on what she has learned to environmental managers and decision makers in the form of guides and tools to using different techniques of modelling species distribution, and the suitability and drawbacks of each one.

Dr Elith explains she uses statistical models to describe the patterns of species we see, where and how frequently they occur in the environments they encounter.

Her guides are some of the most highly referenced environmental publications in the world. In nearly two-thirds of papers that cite her work, at least one of the scientists is from a government land management agency or private environmental consulting company.

Recognized as one of the most influential environmental scientists in the world, in the field of environment and ecology she is the 11th most cited author worldwide over the past 10 years, and is the only Australian woman on the highly cited list, according to the information company Thomson Reuters.