Our Acting Director: on a mission to cure 'nature deficit disorder'

02 August 2013

andrew-lowe

Professor Andrew Lowe.

Meet the South Australian Museum’s new Acting Director, Professor Andy Lowe:  a talented biologist with a particular enthusiasm for top-quality science, working in tropical jungles and helping cure society of ‘nature deficit disorder’.

Professor Lowe has taken up the post for six months while the Museum conducts an international search for a new Director, following the departure of Professor Suzanne Miller in June.

Having worked in more than 60 countries and built a solid reputation for solving global problems, Professor Lowe is a welcome addition to the Museum’s team of scientists, collection managers, Honorary researchers, floor staff and volunteers.

“I feel very honoured to be given this opportunity as Acting Director of the South Australian Museum, given the strength of the institution,” he says.

“The name of the South Australian Museum is really valuable because it’s well-regarded nationally and internationally.  But good institutions only become good institutions if they have good people. The good name of the institute is built on the strength of its staff and associations.”

Professor Lowe has an international reputation for his work in areas of evolutionary biology, climate change and plant genetics. He is particularly interested in conducting research to solve real-world problems in places such as Africa, Central America and Australia.

Professor Lowe is also passionate about communicating science and enjoys presenting knowledge in a range of ways, including at international science meetings, talks to local community groups and through his Biodiversity Revolution blog.

While his term may be short at the South Australian Museum, he wants to use his experience to build the profile and appreciation of our scientists, support our programs, boost public engagement with Museum activities and increase people’s awareness of biodiversity and respect for the environment.

Professor Lowe began his scientific journey with a degree in Applied Biology from the University of Bath, followed by a PhD from St Andrew’s, the oldest university in Scotland.

“I then volunteered to be part of a scientific survey group in eastern Africa – where there’s a string of coastal forests that contain a high proportion of endemic species,” he says.

The lure of Africa offered adventure and thrills for the group of twenty-somethings.

“We had no medical officer and no real idea what we were doing. We caught bats, birds, trapped a range of mammals, invertebrates, and collected leaves, seeds and fruits of plants. We were trained in the art of biological survey and identification by Tanzanian scientists from the University of Dar Es Salaam, who helped us organise the expeditions. They also fed back the knowledge gained from surveys through the university, NGOs and an international network of collection institutes including Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum in London. It was a great experience.”

Professor Lowe also worked in Ethiopia and Kenya.

“It’s just so wild, and the red earth is just so striking, as it is in many parts of Australia. The places we visited were completely isolated and had anything happened it would have taken days to get help. I just like the idea of real adventure – we now live in such a sanitised world. Our lives are boring because it’s so easy. I like that sense of exploration and its strong link to finding out about the rich biodiversity on our planet.”

As societies have become industrialised, many communities have lost connection with nature – a trend Professor Lowe calls ‘nature deficit disorder’.

 “In China, approximately 25% of plant species have a medicinal or food use. There is a much stronger relationship between people, plants and animals. We’ve lost some of that connection in industrialised society and our ‘nature deficit disorder’ means we’ve lost our respect for the species we share the earth with. There are 10 million species on earth and only one million are named. We really need to regain that respect and sense of wonder of nature so that we can build up our knowledge of biodiversity and science.”

Australian mammal extinction is a particular problem, he says, and researchers at the Museum are working towards halting this through studies of biodiversity and promotion of conservation.

I’m particularly impressed by the success of Museum scientists at securing grants to undertake their important work,” he says. “Other staff members use their research to tell stories in exciting ways through galleries and programs. Donors help us finance the activities we undertake and offer, and allow us to secure the benefits of our activities for future generations.”