Who Dr Dana M. Bergstrom, Australian Antarctic Division and University of Wollongong
What For decades, Dr Dana M. Bergstrom has championed evidence-based science in biodiversity, biosecurity and the impacts of climate change. Skilled at science translation and distilling complexity, she has led the exploration of ecosystem collapse from Australia’s tropics to Antarctica, delivering innovative options for modern conservation.
Winner of the 2021 Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science
Was a career in Antarctic science always on your mind, or did you think you would pursue something else when you were younger?
I was one of those weird kids who knew that I wanted to be a scientist by year 5 and an ecologist by year 12. In year 5, my classmates laughed at me, but I ignored them. My high school teachers thought I would follow my big sister, Danelle Bergstrom, into art. They had only seen my more flamboyant male peers dominate in maths or physics, and not tracked my passion for biology.
Professional art pursuits, however, supported me through my Bachelor of Science and Master of Science at university, and are skills I call on to assist me in communicating science. I wrote the script for a professional musical, now called Antarctica, Beneath the Storm, and assisted with the puppet making. The story is about a female penguin biologist who travels to Antarctica for the first time and comes face to face with the reality of climate change.
Much of your work is focused on the impact of humans in Antarctica. Can you tell us a bit about the true extent of these impacts?
The most impact from humans in Antarctica is through climate change — nowhere on Earth is immune from current climate change. Antarctica is both sensitive to climate change and is also the elephant in the room with regard to scale of impacts it will have on the rest of the planet, especially in terms of sea level rise and potential impacts to the ocean conveyor belt. At a regional level, we are seeing both long term and short-term changes to ecosystems, with various impacts such as long-term drying and short-term heatwaves, and even rain. We are tracking signs of ecosystem collapse and all penguin species are facing an uncertain future.
Antarctica is both sensitive to climate change and is also the elephant in the room with regard to scale of impacts it will have on the rest of the planet...
Other impacts are from local activities. Although the disturbance footprint from human across the continent is small (collectively, the equivalent of 22 Melbourne Cricket Grounds), most activity is on the tiny ice-free areas on the coast and creates conflict with the local biota. But some stations, like New Zealand's Scott Base is now being rebuilt with a smaller footprint.
You’ve identified awareness, anticipation and action as being crucial to conserving the natural world. Can you unpack these principles for us?
The 3A's is a simple yet powerful way to plan environmental management no matter what level you are at, be it a government department, non-governmental organisation or local Landcare group.
Awareness of what is important to you — what needs protecting?
Anticipation of what is coming down the line — what are the long term and short-term pressures that your environment is experiencing?
What action can be put in place to stop or reduce the impact of pressures? If actions avoid impacts, great — prepare for future change. But if there has been impact, there are four actions to choose from:
- Recover — leave alone, such as after a storm
- Restore — aid natural recovery
- Renovate — change some elements in the ecosystem to suit the new conditions, or
- Adapt — change major ecosystem elements ore create novel ecosystems to suit the new conditions.
No action provides risk and loss to so many elements.
What are the most challenging aspects of your work?
The most challenging aspect is having knowledge of what is coming down the line with regard to climate change, ecosystem collapse, loss of species, build-up of plastics, impact of non-native species and so forth. The world is not moving fast enough to prevent further damage to our food and water systems, and to the natural world. However, there is a short window of time to take steps towards a less ghastly future. But seriously, it is time to press the panic button!
.... there is a short window of time to take steps towards a less ghastly future. But seriously, it is time to press the panic button!
What advice might you have for young female researchers trying to carve their own path?
Alas, it is still tough, and precariousness of science jobs makes it even harder. But I think some aspects are getting better. The number of wonderful female Eureka Prizes finalists demonstrates this! There will still be times when you are dumped upon, not listened to in a meeting, your ideas taken by others, your work not recognised. But travel through this as authentically as you can. Be an ally to all. Support diversity and recognise others' contributions. At the end of the day, you get to sleep soundly. And in the morning, leap up, knowing your path is one of curiosity and learning and that is so rewarding.
There will still be times when you are dumped upon, not listened to in a meeting, your ideas taken by others, your work not recognised.
What are you working on right now?
So many things! Antarctic biodiversity conservation, the impact of climate change, some long-term Antarctic science planning. And always telling exciting science stories.
The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research & innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.