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Profile (8)

Dr Kathryn Elmer, Univeristy of Glasgow…

Profile (8)

Dr Kathryn Elmer

Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow


Elmer graduated from the University of Toronto with a multidisciplinary BA (Hons) in Zoology, Philosophy and Environmental Studies. Her initial aim was to work in biodiversity conservation policy, but some excellent courses, hands-on biology volunteering and contributing to active conservation projects inspired her to change to scientific research. “This opened my eyes to the thrill of research,” says Elmer, “and I decided to become a biodiversity scientist.”

Next stop was Queen’s University in Canada, (2001–2006) where Elmer did her PhD, studying the genetic diversity of frogs and salamanders in the Amazon, with a focus on the relationship between genetic diversity and the landscape. She then worked as a post-doc with the Amphibian Tree of Life project and won a Fellowship at the University of Konstanz, studying rapid adaptation and speciation in fishes. She also managed the Genomics Center, which gave her the chance to work at the leading edge of new technologies in DNA sequencing and how they can be applied to biodiversity questions.

In 2012, Elmer took up her current position, heading a research group focusing on how different animal species adapt to their environment – including salmonid fishes, reptiles and amphibians.

Biodiversity and conservation

Elmer’s research asks fundamental ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about the origins of biodiversity, using ecological and genomic approaches. These have helped her to discover new species, as well as previously unknown drivers and timescales to diversification. “For the first time,” says Elmer, “we are discovering new species, new variants and new cryptic patterns of genetic variation.” This is important, she adds, “because if a species is not known, it’s hard to protect it.”

Another major focus for Elmer is understanding how organisms adapt to their ecological challenges, “particularly what seem to be similar, repeated strategies at the phenotype-level across populations and even species, which can, in fact, be from dissimilar genetic bases.”

The biggest threat?

Pollution, habitat loss and climate change are all a big worry, so Elmer says the biggest threat to biodiversity is clearly humans. The positive side is that “science may give us tools to mitigate some of these worst effects”. For example, one major issue is plastic waste, especially when it breaks down and enters the food chain. “This is something that could be really quickly fixed, without a detrimental impact on our quality of life, if science can develop safe alternatives to consumer plastics” she says.

Although she thinks that plastics pollution will become much more critical over the next 10 years, especially for aquatic organisms, Elmer chiefly worries that climate change will be the most critical challenge for biodiversity in decades to come.

Endangered species?

Saving one endangered species would only solve a very small part of the problem, says Elmer, because there are so many interlinked species and “such great depth of evolutionary history.” But if she could save one single species, polar bears would be top of the list – not just because she is Canadian, but because “in the process of saving the bears we would have to solve a monumental number of environmental issues for other species all around the globe.”

It is not just “species” that matters, says Elmer, but the whole web of life, including local ecosystems, the unseen genetic diversity within species, and their evolutionary potential – an idea championed by Elmer’s inspiration, E.O. Wilson, which is gradually gaining more traction “but is still far from sufficiently incorporated into policy.”


"Profile (8)". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-one)
Printed from on 06/07/20 10:55:57 AM

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