Jane Elith

My studies taught me the pleasure of working together with people – something I still value highly now

It would be quite an understatement to say that 2015 was a good year for Associate Professor Jane Elith.

The quantitative ecologist made news in October as the recipient of the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, one of six awards given in the annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. The following month, she was awarded the Fenner Medal by the Australian Academy of Science, joining the namesake of both prestigious honours as a leader in the field of biological sciences in Australia. Finally, the year was capped-off with her inclusion on Reuters’ list of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds, highlighting her place among the most highly cited scientists in the world.

The Australian Academy of Science lauded Jane as having “rapidly become one of the world’s most influential researchers in applied ecology”. She, however, describes her academic journey rather simply and humbly, as “a gradual discovery that science and I worked together well”.

Jane says doing the Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Honours) at the University of Melbourne in the 1970s developed not only her scientific skills and interests but also a love of research and teamwork.

“It taught me the pleasure of working together with people – something I still value highly now,” she says.

In 2003, Jane completed a PhD in the School of Botany under the supervision of Professor Mark Burgman. More recently, she was funded as an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, and served as a principal researcher in the Quantitative and Applied Ecology Group (QAECO) in the School of BioSciences. The group’s research focuses on environmental decision making, ecosystem management and conservation biology, feeding into the broader emerging field of computational biology. She is also a research fellow in the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA).

“These are outstanding groups of scientists doing excellent work, and provide many opportunities for valuable collaborations,” she says.

Collaboration goes to the essence of Jane’s research. She works with field ecologists – she rarely goes into the field herself – and other quantitative modellers, computer scientists and statisticians at the University and around the world to develop new methods to model species distributions and biodiversity. Over the past decade she has become one of the world’s leading experts in the growing field of quantitative ecology.

Having just been appointed to an ongoing position in the School of BioSciences, Jane is looking forward to balancing her research with teaching. This year students will get a taste of her expertise when she teaches into a new online masters subject in species distribution modelling.

Jane says she is encouraged by the University’s appointment of several ecological modellers over the past year, and the Faculty of Science’s commitment to further building its already world-class computational biology facilities.

With all this activity and the prospect of new and exciting collaborations, Jane is left to wonder what advances are around the corner. Regardless, she is confident that 2015 will not be the peak of her career.

“I am inclined to think that my greatest achievement is yet to come!”