Principal Research Officer (Ecosystem Health & Social Dimensions)

Honorary Fellow at the University of Leicester

sara.thornton@wwt.org.uk

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About me

I am a Finlandssvensk researcher who grew up in the Netherlands. From a young age I had a deep affinity with the outdoors, and growing up around wetlands and forests set me on the course of studying Ecological Sciences with Honours in Conservation and Ecological Management at the University of Edinburgh. During this time, I joined research teams in the UK, Peru and Indonesia and found a passion for tropical peat-swamp forests as an understudied wetland habitat. I worked as a research assistant, and later a volunteer coordinator with the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) in Sebangau peat-swamp forest (Indonesian Borneo). For my interdisciplinary PhD (with the University of Leicester and BNF) I returned to Sebangau to explore the ecology of peat-swamp fish and the importance of fish and fishing to surrounding peatland communities. My PhD research made practical recommendations for future management actions for peatland restoration and conservation projects, which are currently being implemented by BNF.

My postdoctoral research built on my PhD; further exploring peatland livelihoods and the challenges that peatland communities (both fish and human) are facing. I am particularly interested in interdisciplinary research approaches; how we can foster these, how they can support the inclusion of different forms of knowledge, and how they can provide opportunities (or challenges) for increasing research impact. My passion for wetlands also manifests in my dedication to science communication and outreach. I have integrated my research into A-level curriculum (and equivalent) appropriate materials, including one book published with the Geographical Association (see publications list below). I have also organised and held workshops and exhibitions for a variety of audiences, with a focus on communicating the local and global importance of wetlands.

Work

I am new to the team here at WWT (joining in January 2022), but as Principal Research Officer I intend to continue developing novel ideas and approaches to wetland research, with a determination to make a significant contribution to the conservation of wetlands globally. I approach wetland conservation in a holistic way: drawing on ecological and social science methods to understand how and why environmental change is happening and how it impacts human and nonhuman beings (in terms of livelihoods, wellbeing and health). I believe it is from this place of understanding motivations and on-the-ground experiences that we can find just and effective approaches to conservation.

I am part of WWT’s Ecosystem Health and Social Dimensions team and will be working on both international (e.g. Madagascar and Cambodia) and UK-based projects. In our team, we use a range of methods from the fields of social science, psychology and ecology to build evidence that informs and encourages wetland conservation. Priorities include capturing the social, cultural and wellbeing benefits of wetlands for people and communities, understanding and encouraging human behaviours that support wetland conservation, and examining drivers and potential solutions for issues that impact the health of wetland ecosystems. We also engage with a range of stakeholders to bridge research, policy and public platforms to maximise the impact of our research.

Skills

  • Fieldwork: I have extensive fieldwork experience in remote and demanding conditions, in both tropical and temperate regions
  • Social science data collection and analysis: including designing, conducting and analysing data from interviews, questionnaires, focus groups and various participatory approaches
  • Ecological data collection and analysis: Notably freshwater fish and water quality, with experience in field surveys of herpetofauna, invertebrates, small mammals and other taxa using a variety of methods
  • Interdisciplinary and cross-cultural work and communication
  • Science outreach and communication to academic and non-academic audiences (also of different ages)
  • Project management: including design, planning, implementation and budget management
  • Teaching and supervision: Supervision of undergraduate and postgraduate student projects and teaching (undergrad and postgrad levels)
  • Languages: English, Dutch, Bahasa Indonesia (and some rusty Spanish!)

Publications

Thornton, S.A., Setiana, E., Kris yoyo, Page, S.E., Harrison, M.E. & Upton, C. Towards Biocultural Approaches to Peatland Conservation: The Case for Fish and Livelihoods in Indonesia. Environmental Science & Policy, 114:341-351: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2020.08.018.

Thornton, S.A., Cook, S., Astiani, D., Hapsari, K.A., Varkkey, H., Cole, L.E.S., Dargie, G.C., Sjogersten, S., Zawawi, N.Z. & Page, S.E. ’Pushing the limits’: Experiences of Women in Tropical Peatland Research. Marine and Freshwater Research, Special Issue on Women in Freshwater Science, 71(2):170. Doi:10.1071/mf19132

Harrison, M.E., Bramansa Ottay, J., D’Arcy, L.J., Cheyne, S.M., Anderson, K., Thornton, S.A., Upton, C., Wich, S.A. & van Veen, F. Forest and Peatland Conservation in Indonesian Borneo: Challenges and Directions. People and Nature. Early version available: https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10060.

Thornton, S.A., Dudin, Page, S.E., Upton, C. & Harrison, M.E. Peatland fish of Sebangau, Borneo: diversity, monitoring and conservation. Mires and Peat, 22(04), 1-25. Doi: 10.19189/MaP.2017.OMB.313

Chapman, R.H. & Thornton, S.A. (Joint first authors) Top Spec Geography: The Carbon and Water Cycle. Top Spec Geography Series, Geographical Association, UK.

Lees C., Gibson C., Jaafar Z., Ng H.H., Tan H.H., Chua K.W.J., Thornton S.A. & Van Veen F.J.F. (Eds.) Assessing to Plan: Next steps towards conservation action for threatened freshwater fishes of the Sunda region. IUCN Conservation Planning Specialist Group, Apple Valley, MN, USA.

See my profile on ResearchGate for my full publication list.