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Sustainability Videos & Lecture Series

Leah Gerber - On Biodiversity and Sustainability

Leah Gerber is the director of Arizona State University's Center for Biodiversity Outcomes; a professor of ecology, evolution and environmental science in the School of Life Sciences; and a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. Using both field and modeling approaches, she examines important questions at the intersection of conservation science and policy.


I'm Leah Gerber. I'm the director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute for Sustainability. I'm also a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute, as well as a professor in the School of Life Sciences at ASU.

Describe your area of expertise.
My area of expertise is biodiversity conservation and population biology. My research is largely motivated based on a commitment to make the science that I do as a biologist relevant in the world of decision making and policy.

I work on a range of scales, from local to international, in a number of contexts. Starting from local, I work with local land managers to decide on how to design protected areas while, for example, also planning for solar energy infrastructure.

On a national level, I work with a number of federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, to develop approaches to facilitating the efficient and effective use of resources. For example, I'm currently engaged in a project with the Fish and Wildlife Service to help the agency make decisions about listing and delisting of endangered species.

What is the real-world application of your work?
One of the projects I'm working on now in collaboration with an NGO in Mexico, Comunidad y Biodiversidad, is developing approaches to understand the impact of marine protected areas on human communities.

There's a great deal of literature demonstrating the biological impacts of these marine protected areas. But there has been little attention to how these protected areas impact human communities – how they could benefit human communities – if we set a reserve in one place where those people might go. And so we've been working along with my graduate students, engaging groups of fishermen and community members in gathering those data, which we can actually incorporate into the planning process.

I'm also working on a project that is aimed at developing metrics, or a decision tool for identifying sustainable seafood. And so that includes not only what's sustainable, but also what's healthy. What we've found from the social surveys is that the average consumer cares much more about health than sustainability. And so the idea is that if we can have the added benefit of sustainability when people are making choices based on health, then it's a win-win.

Describe the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes.
The motivation for this center is to bring together scholars from many disciplines to solve global biodiversity challenges and to make better use of our capacity in this field.

The structure for our new center is we have education programs. We also have research partnerships, where we're just starting to develop these networks of scholars across ASU with practitioners to co-develop solutions to biodiversity challenges.

What sustainability challenge concerns you most?
I would have to say the loss of biodiversity. Now, I've heard people say that oh, extinction's a natural thing. And we have natural extinction. But the rate of extinction is several orders of magnitude higher than historical times. Why that matters? Well, from a personal standpoint, I think the life of humanity is better with more diversity. And furthermore, there are untapped resources in that biodiversity. So it's not just preserving species for the sake of species, but also what they can do for humanity and functioning ecosystems.

Now the challenge is that I don't think it's pragmatic to say, we want to save all biodiversity. We're going to have to make some choices. So how do we make those choices? Our research aims to sort of disentangle the sensitivity and the emotion from this very difficult, pragmatic problem, which is, we want to save species from going extinct. But humans – there's not a place on earth that we haven't touched. So is it practical to save all species on Earth? And how can we most effectively make those decisions about which species to protect and how to allocate financial resources in an efficient way. I think that's a grand challenge in 21st century conservation.

Why ASU?
I've had the privilege of experiencing a transformation in the university landscape. When I was first hired as a conservation scientist, I had colleagues say, well, that's not a real discipline. It's value laden. Your goal is to protect biodiversity. Real scientists, they just want to discover. And my motivation has always been to bring science to the decision making process. And so I found that to be frustrating. And with Michael Crow's leadership, I've seen a major change in our landscape, largely stimulated by the GIOS community in bringing together scholars from many different disciplines to really rise to the challenge of meeting those global sustainability challenges.

Why do you study sustainability?
I study sustainability because I care about a healthy planet for the future of my children. And I enjoy spending time in nature. I also recognize that we need new solutions to old problems, which is where the excitement happens in the nexus between the biology – let's protect everything – and, how can we also meet human needs.