Ricardo Correia is a conservation scientists from Portugal, and one of the co-founders of the Conservation Culturomics Working Group. ConsCult aims to promote the use of new forms of digital data and methods to explore cultural dimensions of human-nature interactions.
SCB held a Q & A with Ricardo to learn more about his career, what inspired him and Uri Roll to start the ConsCult WG and how he uses new forms of digital data and methods to explore cultural dimensions of human-nature dimensions.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi! My name is Ricardo Correia, and I am a 34-year-old conservation scientist from Portugal. I have a BSc in Environmental Biology from the University of Lisbon in Portugal, an MSc in Conservation Biology from the same institution and a joint-PhD degree from the University of East Anglia in the UK and the University of Lisbon. After finishing my PhD in 2014, I moved to Brazil where I started a post-doc at the Federal University of Alagoas in partnership with the University of Oxford in the UK. I have since moved back to my home country, where I’ve been based at the University of Aveiro, but I will soon be moving out to start a new position the University of Helsinki in Finland.
What inspired you to study conservation biology? What was the path that led you here?
I was always interested in Nature, even at a young age. I was lucky to be born and raised in Vila Franca de Xira, a small riverside city on the outskirts of Lisbon that sits at the edge of the Tagus Estuary Nature Reserve, so there were always opportunities to go out and enjoy nature. I also remember being glued to the TV as a child watching nature documentaries. When the time came to choose a university degree, I knew I wanted to study Biology and to spend time outside (I didn’t want to be stuck inside a laboratory all the time) so I decided to specialize in Environmental Biology. However, as my studies progressed, I became increasingly fascinated with the complex ways through which humans interact with the natural world, and how these interactions are altering and endangering many natural systems. By the time I was starting my research career, I knew I wanted to focus on better understanding human-nature interactions in order to help preserve our natural world and that has been the focus of my research ever since.
You are one of the founders of the Conservation Culturomics Working Group. What inspired you and Uri Roll to start the group?
My interest in using digital data and methods to provide novel insights on human interactions with nature started while I was working in the joint project between Brazil and the UK. The project aimed to explore the multiple ways through which humans derive value (monetary and non-monetary) from Protected Areas. Because such data is expensive and time consuming to get through more traditional methods, we wondered whether it would be possible to obtain insights from other sources. Together with Richard Ladle, Ana Malhado and Paul Jepson, we started to explore how emerging digital data sources could be used to provide complementary insights into human-nature interactions. During this time, I was visiting the University of Oxford on a regular basis and that is where I met Uri Roll and others who were starting to explore similar ideas. In 2018, we decided to organize a symposium on the topic at the European Conference on Conservation Biology, and we invited a wider group of people exploring the use of digital data for conservation. The event was a success, particularly the interest it generated from the wider community of conservationists present at the conference. The group of us involved in the symposium met afterwards to discuss our view on this emerging research area and thought it was timely to establish a platform to stimulate further work and collaborations in this area. We all agreed that the Society for Conservation Biology would be the obvious home to establish such an effort and developed efforts to establish the Conservation Culturomics Working Group, which was approved with provisional status last year. I have to say that interest from the wider conservation community didn’t stop at ECCB, we’ve had a large number of people signing up to the group since then and we are hoping to apply for official status in the near future. As part of this effort, we will be planning and developing the future activities of the working group so now would be a fantastic time to join us.
How will you, in your new role at the University of Helsinki, use new forms of digital data and methods to explore cultural dimensions of human-nature interactions?
I will be working with Enrico Di Minin and his lab at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science on the use of digital data to explore conservation and sustainability topics. My work so far has mostly drawn from data generated from search engines whereas the work Enrico’s lab has developed focuses mostly on the use of social media data. We aim to combine data from multiple sources to minimize some of the shortfalls of drawing upon individual datasets and hopefully generate novel and more robust insights into some of these questions. Initially, I will be focusing on understanding how interest and engagement with a broad range of conservation topics varies between countries at a global scale. However, going forward, we also want to explore cultural dimensions of specific conservation topics, such as illegal wildlife trade, using digital data.
Can you tell us a bit about an exciting project you are currently working on?
Much of my work today focuses on the use of digital data and methods for conservation purposes. This is an emerging and exciting area of research so there is a lot going on. In terms of my own work, I am particularly excited about the study I have been developing that aims to look at how interest in different conservation topics varies between countries. This has been challenging due to language complexity and confounding factors, but the results so far have been fascinating! I don’t want to spoil too much, but I can say for example that some of the countries showing most interest in conservation topics are surprising. If our preliminary analyses are correct, this information can be very helpful to show policymakers that their constituents care about preserving the natural world and that there is public support for conservation.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
There are many remarkable things about working as a researcher. I really enjoy taking part in activities that are helping to raise a new generation of conservationists and you often get to meet new and interesting people doing exciting work. However, if I had to choose a single aspect to highlight about my job as a conservation scientist, it is the fact that I can continuously keep my curiosity alive by exploring new questions while contributing towards the preservation of our natural world. I am always interested in exploring new ideas and you never know what fascinating things you will discover tomorrow!
Is there a scientist, mentor, or inspirational figure that helped you get to where you are now?
I have been inspired by many people over the years and they have all helped me get where I am today, so it is difficult for me to single out someone specifically. I really enjoy collaborative work – I think it is a defining feature of modern science – and have learned a lot from all the teachers, researchers and colleagues with whom I have interacted over the years and they have all contributed to my personal and professional development in one way or another. Fortunately, I’ve maintained close collaborations with many of these colleagues until today, so I continue to be inspired and learn from them on a regular basis!
Do you have any advice for future conservation biologists?
There is much work to be done towards avoiding further species extinctions and preserving our natural world, so I believe the conservation movement needs everyone interested in making a difference. However, working in conservation as a scientist or practitioner can be challenging and we are not always rewarded with the successes we hope and work for, so I think it is important to keep an optimistic view and find ways to keep motivated. The factors that keep people motivated vary greatly from person to person, but I find three things help. Firstly, give it your best and always aim to improve. When things don’t work according to plan, I think it is important to know that you did your best and that you’ll aim to do even better next time. Secondly, find what you really enjoy doing and go for it. Conservation work is increasingly multidisciplinary, and you can make a difference independently of whether you prefer working with nature, people or computers, but you are more likely to make an impact if you are passionate about what you do. And finally, find the people and the environment where you enjoy working. Feeling comfortable and having a group of friends and colleagues with whom to share to the good times, and especially the bad ones, can go a long way to help you continue motivated and passionate about your work. My advice in summary is work hard, make friends and have fun