Take 10 with... George Perry

Professor George Perry from the School of Environment gives us 10 minutes of his time to discuss his research into how humans change ecosystems.

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

My research addresses how humans have changed terrestrial ecosystems, past and present.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

I am interested in how humans change ecosystems (past, present and future). In turn, I am interested in how we can use this to improve our fundamental understanding of ecosystem dynamics and their management and restoration. For example, I have looked at how the introduction of fire by Māori and European transformed Aotearoa-NZ’s landscapes, how this may change under the climate crisis, and how we can mitigate these effects. As another example, I have used computer models to reconstruct seed dispersal by extinct vertebrates, including moa and dinosaurs. This research helps us to understand what sort of processes we lose when extinction occurs.

3. Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as a typical day! But most days the sorts of research activities I would do include some combination of meeting with students to discuss their research, some coding or analysis, editorial tasks and writing. I also spend time in the field, especially on Aotea Great Barrier Island and in the Nelson Lakes National Park.     

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

I enjoy the collaborations I have developed over time and, of course, working with talented research students. On a more personal level, I enjoy the challenges and questions that research throws up and developing new ways to deal with them. And, of course, field work!

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

A number of years ago I read an opinion piece that argued that ecology had not asked (or developed) any new questions for at least 50 years. This surprised me at the time, but I think is broadly true. We have developed new ways to ‘see’ things from the very small to the planetary but whether we are using these as well as we could isn’t clear to me. On the other hand, the fundamental questions remain unanswered and relevant (which in a way is perhaps surprising too): how many species are there? why are there so many species? what enables species to co-occur?

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Research is constantly throwing up challenges. Things don’t work as you’d expect. Flashes of ‘insight’ turn out not to be. But trying to resolve these challenges is how progress occurs. I think there is plenty of scope to look to other disciplines for inspiration whether conceptual or technical. In my experience, solutions often lie at the places where different ways of looking at the same question meet.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

My colleague David O’Sullivan (not at VUW) and I wrote a book about spatial simulation a few years ago in which we argued that there are only three broad types of spatial pattern and process, and that many disciplines had spent a lot of time and effort reinventing or discovering them. This realisation made us think about how and why ideas do and don’t percolate between disciplines. More technically it provided me with a raft of new ways to think about the types of models I build to understand the ecosystems of the past.

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

When I started my career, I was adamant I wanted to ‘fundamental’ rather than ‘applied’ research. Over time I have realised this is not a very useful distinction. So, I hope to do interesting research that provides information relevant to restoring and conserving our ecosystems in the face of the many challenges they face. I also hope that sometimes it will surprise people about the sheer complexity of the natural world.

9. If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I work closely with researchers in the School of Biological Sciences and also Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research. I have a number of active overseas collaborations. All of these benefit my research by offering different perspectives on the same broad questions.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Be kinder to yourself and acknowledge when you’re struggling to stay afloat (and comment on your code better!).