Bev Genockey, a Laidlaw Scholar at Trinity College Dublin, on using nature-based solutions to tackle environmental problems in urban areas, and humility in research & leadership.
By the year 2030, it is estimated that 60% of the world’s population will live in urban settlements. It is imperative that we act to increase our understanding of how best to tackle the environmental problems that pervade the urban landscape.
My research aims to determine the most abundant plant species in urban areas of Dublin to determine their suitability for use as nature-based solutions such as ‘Green Walls’. Nature-based solutions is a newly proposed concept for regreening cities through nature to simultaneously combat socio-environmental and climate-related problems. In cities and urban communities, these solutions can build up resilience to problems arising from climate change and increased risk of natural disaster.
Scientific literature that informs us why certain plant species are chosen for use in nature-based solutions has very little data to support its efficacy – this is an area of research that is of fundamental importance to our knowledge of ecosystem function in a globally warmer world. I believe that the spontaneous vegetation (weeds!) already thriving in cities might provide some answers.
The benefits of nature-based solutions are obvious, but their widespread implementation has been slow. The only way to ensure that the implementation of nature-based solutions persists appropriately is to increase our understanding of urban ecology through systematic and validated research. By analysing the most abundant plant species in urban locations and their functional traits, we increase our understanding of how we can best mitigate environmental problems and how our greater understanding of biodiversity at the local level can be effectively harnessed for the greater good of the ecosystem.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
I’ve always had an interest in ecology, but it wasn’t until I came to university that I had the opportunity to explore these concepts further. During my first year, I took a module on ecosystems and sustainability, and it was through this class that I developed a keen interest in urban ecology.
Around the same time, Trinity had just installed Dublin’s largest Green Wall on campus, and I found it really interesting to see the things I was learning about in class being put into practice. Over time, I began thinking more about Trinity’s Green Wall and nature-based solutions in general and began to question the reasoning behind why certain species were chosen for use.
Through my own investigations and conversations with leading academics (particularly my wonderful supervisor, Dr Marcus Collier!), I began to develop my research question further. I decided to focus on whether locally prevalent biodiversity, such as spontaneous vegetation, might be suitable for use as nature-based solutions.
From there, I planned to survey sites across Dublin City to determine the most abundant plant species present. Once these species were determined, they would then be further analysed in terms of the ecosystem services (benefits to humans and human-related activities) that they provide to infer how these can be suitably engineered to implement.
What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw scholarship experience so far?
My entire experience of the Laidlaw programme so far has been both incredibly rewarding and insightful, and it isn't easy to choose one moment in particular that stands out to me. The opportunity to conduct self-directed research in the midst of the pandemic is something that I am incredibly grateful to have been afforded.
Another highlight of my time so far was getting to present the findings of my research at the Irish Ecological Association conference this past January. Here, my Laidlaw research project offered the opportunity to engage with researchers and ecologists from across Ireland and the UK and gain insights into the innovative research they were conducting and gave me the chance to receive feedback, advice, and guidance from leading academics in my field.
Ecology is a field of research that regularly comprises multidisciplinary teams working together to solve intractable problems. Being able to interact with like-minded individuals at this conference was something I found to be particularly affirming, especially having spent the summer undertaking both my field and desk-based research alone.
What is the biggest challenge you came across in your research and leadership journeys so far, and what did you learn from it?
Carrying out field-based research alone during the pandemic proved incredibly difficult initially, and I found myself constantly revising my plans for my fieldwork to ensure that everything could be completed in time. This experience taught me the importance of time-management and organisational skills - at times, it felt as if my ambitious goals were entirely unachievable within my summer one research period.
Following some reflection on my research plans, I decided to reach out to others and ask for guidance on what they felt might be the best approach. As a result of these discussions, I came to realise that my project could, in fact, be completed in time. I just had to be flexible in my approach. One of the most important lessons I learned from this is that humility is an important characteristic in both research and leadership and that there is no shame in asking for help and support. Often, it is what speeds up the process!
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
For me, being a Laidlaw Scholar means being part of a network of like-minded individuals committed to the improvement of society and leading by example. It also means a commitment to effective communication, open scholarship and leading with integrity.
It means participating in active leadership, which recognises the value of acting outside of your comfort zone, which is certainly one of the greatest lessons I've learned from my leadership journey.
Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?
It is certainly difficult to choose just one leader who inspires me. My leadership experience through the Laidlaw programme has helped me recognise characteristics that I find admirable in many different individuals - politicians, public figures, researchers.
To highlight one of these individuals, I would say Trinity's incoming Provost - Professor Linda Doyle. She is a champion of interdisciplinary research, open scholarship and fostering a strong sense of community - for me, she encompasses all that it means to be a strong, impactful leader.
Describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
I would certainly like to see more widespread implementation of nature-based solutions in cities and greater efforts made towards sustainable urbanisation. I believe that this could be done through citizen-science incentives which aim to increase understanding of the existing plant species which are prevalent in the urban environment and which can be used for small-scale, bottom-up approaches to combating biodiversity loss in cities through green walls, community gardens and the co-management of urban landscapes.
📺 Currently binging: I don’t watch much TV these days but will never pass up an opportunity to recommend Orphan Black!
🎵 My quarantine anthem: Queen of Peace by Florence + The Machine!
📚 My top book recommendation: Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher – a must-read for anyone interested in sustainable development and the natural world!
🎧 Podcast obsession: The BBC Earth Podcast never fails to brighten my day!
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Getting to spend more time in nature!
Bev is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at Trinity College Dublin. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.
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