A career in academia: Researching the impacts of climate change and habitat loss with Professor Jane Hill

Professor Jane Hill, OBE (Order of the British Empire), is a Professor of Ecology at the University of York in England. She is President and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, a trustee of the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership and, formerly, a trustee of the British Ecological Society.

Her research primarily covers the impacts of climate change and habitat loss on species. In 2011, Jane received a Marsh/ZSL Award for Conservation Biology.

What was your path to becoming a conservation academic?

At school, Jane was always interested in biology, and she knew she wanted to specialise in sciences from a young age – all her A levels (advanced level qualifications that can lead to university) were sciences!

While completing her undergraduate degree in Biology, at the University of Manchester, Jane discovered a particular passion for research.

“I was trying to think about what I’d like to do as a career, because at that stage I wasn’t really sure. I did a Masters and a teaching qualification, thinking that I might want to go into teaching biology in secondary schools.”

Jane realised she enjoyed the research more than the teaching, so explored opportunities to carry out a PhD. In 1991, she completed her PhD at Bangor University in North Wales, studying the impacts of climate change on moths. She continued working as a researcher and secured a post as a lecturer at the University of York in 2001, becoming a professor in 2010.

“If you do succeed in getting an academic position, you’re fortunate in that, as for most academics, you don’t leave unless you choose to move. It can be a job that sees you through your career.”

How did you become a trustee of the British Ecological Society and the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership?

With these kinds of organisations, Jane explains, you are either invited to be a trustee or you put yourself forward. Although she has experienced both routes in her career, Jane applied to be a trustee of the British Ecological Society, which she considers the most relevant society for her research interests, and she has been a member of the society since she was a PhD student.

“Some societies are quite proactive in pointing out the benefits to members and ways to support them. They offer voluntary roles, which give you the opportunity to contribute to the society.”

Jane is also a trustee of the South East Asian Rainforest Research Partnership. She has spent many years working in Southeast Asia, thinking about the consequences of logging and land use change to tropical rainforests. She has met many of the people within the organisation and many who benefit from their work, and so was invited to be a trustee.

“I think the element of being a trustee is a really interesting one because it allows you the opportunity to have input and to guide an organisation.”

What made you pick Southeast Asia?

When a group of Jane’s friends suggested they travel to Southeast Asia to conduct fieldwork for their PhDs, Jane jumped at the opportunity. She could only conduct fieldwork in the summer, and her supervisor – perhaps realising that she would go anyway – agreed to it.

After she completed her PhD, Jane happened to bump into somebody who had just come back from doing research at a site in Sabah in North Borneo. Her contact told her about a field station, funded by the Royal Society in London, and about a funding opportunity that Jane could apply for to visit the field station and see whether it was the sort of place where she could her research.

“Just based on that chance encounter, I applied and then found myself going back. It is really a great place to do research.”

Jane returned to the Borneo field station almost every year until the COVID-19 pandemic, and admits: “I’d love to have gone to another area of tropical rainforest – I’ve done some work in West Africa, but I focussed mainly on Southeast Asia because of the collaborations and friendships I built up. Besides, it’s a real privilege to be able to study there.”

What has some of your research covered?

Jane’s research is primarily focussed on insects, in both the tropical rainforest of Borneo and temperate UK ecosystems. Since completing her PhD in 1991, she has investigated the distribution, migration, survival and metapopulation dynamics of numerous butterfly and moth species, including Marbled White Butterflies, Small Skipper Butterflies and Speckled Wood Butterflies.

Jane’s work in Southeast Asia has also covered rainforest sustainability, particularly relating to production of the ubiquitous palm oil, and the impacts of forest fragmentation on carbon stores and biodiversity. She has tested the impacts of re-wetting peatlands and retaining small rainforest fragments for protecting biodiversity.

An oil palm plantation in Southeast Asia. The research in Jane’s group is examining how to cultivate palm oil in a more environmentally sustainable way by protecting patches of forest on plantations that support high carbon stocks and populations of threatened and endangered animals.

You received the ZSL Marsh Award for conservation biology and an OBE. How did that come about?

In academia, you face a lot of constructive criticism of your work and frequently deal with rejection, Jane explains.

“Your papers are often rejected or heavily criticised; your grant applications don’t get funded. So it’s lovely to get some recognition!”

There can be little recognition greater than an Order of the British Empire (OBE), which Jane received for Conservation Ecology, and ZSL’s Marsh Award for Conservation Biology, which she received in 2011 for her research on the value of rainforest fragments for supporting biodiversity.

“I can only assume that I got nominated for those two awards by my colleagues, which was lovely.”

What is a typical day in the life of a conservation academic?

Academics commonly spend about 40% of their time teaching, 40% of their time on research and 20% on citizenship and administration activities. However, Jane’s contract with the University of York is slightly different, so she spends more time on citizenship and administration, and less time teaching and conducting research.

“As a senior academic, I find research hugely inspiring but have many other demands on how I spend my day.”

What are the key skills for an academic?

Museum specimens of speckled wood butterflies. Much of Jane’s research has focused on the speckled wood butterfly Pararge aegeria, which is expanding its range in Britain due to climate change. Her team exploring the factors that affect its rate of spread. They have also made use of museum specimens to understand historical patterns of change and genetic changes.

Jane considers teamwork, collaboration and the building of networks to be the backbone of skills for a researcher. She believes that, in order to tackle the challenges facing biodiversity, people with complementary skills must collaborate.

She also cites flexibility as being important for academics, as she often jumps between tasks in a day, from preparing teaching material and delivering lectures to talking with her research groups and supporting students.

“As an academic, you have to be pretty flexible. It’s both a pleasure and a challenge that my day is very variable.”

Critical and creative approaches to research are also key, as academics must consider what research they undertake in order to tackle problems or ‘blue-sky’ questions, as well as applying for funding, conducting the research itself and then writing and publishing papers.

“It’s sometimes a little bit chaotic, jumping from one thing to another during the day, but I actually enjoy that.”

What are some of your career highlights?

“I find it really enjoyable to see students succeed, and I take no responsibility for it! But it’s really nice to see students come in their first week at university, and then shake their hand at graduation.”

With regards to her research, Jane is always pleased by particularly amazing findings. However, she feels that her body of work as a whole, and the collaborations that are part of it, are the greatest highlight. She is especially proud of her work on butterflies, though, and the way that her findings have resonated with the British public.

What is the toughest part of your job?

“There’s not enough time in the day! I think that’s probably my fault for saying ‘yes’ to too many things. Mostly I just feel really lucky that I work with great people.”

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps and become a researcher?

“Don’t be intimidated or worried if you don’t have a long-term plan.”

Even though Jane’s career appears quite linear, she had no plan and admits that her career could have gone in several different directions. It comes back to the flexibility that she considers an important skill for researchers.

In research, you can always make choices about what you would like to do and whether or not you want to accept a position.

According to Jane, being an academic often involves moving around frequently, particularly as a postdoctoral researcher on short term contracts, as researchers can be employed by a large number of different universities. So it’s always a good idea to think about where you would like to go next. “Think about what you’d like to do next after you’ve started on that post.”

On the other hand, there is always the possibility of remaining in the same position at the same organisation for years to come, like Jane has done.

“There can’t be that many careers where you know exactly what you’re going to be doing for the next 20 or 30 years! I certainly didn’t.”

What are your hopes for the future?

A self-professed optimist, Jane has a fairly positive view of the future of conservation. There is far more conservation action these days than during her childhood, she recalls. Considerable progress has been made in making companies, organisations and the general public aware of the challenges facing biodiversity.

Although Jane knows as well as anyone that there is a lot more work to be done, she is keen to acknowledge that: “The human race is quite good at solving problems.”

Want to know more?

Find out more about Jane and her amazing research at the University of York.

Or discover more about the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership, the British Ecological Society and the Royal Entomological Society.


Author Profile | Jasmine Santilhano

Jasmine Santilhano is an Ecology student at the University of York, UK, and a volunteer Conservation Careers Blogger. She plans to work in wildlife conservation after she graduates.

Interviews, Senior Level, Scientist