Leah Gerber

Associate Professor, Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Science, School of Life Sciences; Senior Scientist, School of Sustainability

Arizona State University


Recently, my 6 year old daughter asked me, “mama, why does the ocean make you happy?” She’s certainly right – it does. But it’s not easy to name all of the reasons. Some of the most inspirational experiences of my life have occurred underwater – scuba diving among sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, feeling the vibration of the humpback whale song as I float in the tropical Pacific.  This inspiration has motivated me to focus my scientific work on finding ways to protect the diversity of life in the ocean.  To do that, however, we have to move beyond inspiration and passion.  Those emotions are starting points but we have many important decisions to make about how we use the ocean, and we need reliable decision-making tools to be sure we’re making the best choices for people and the planet.  For example, what species should we choose to protect? Many populations, like Eastern North Pacific gray whales, have recovered from overexploitation and are no longer endangered, while other less charismatic species are on the brink of extinction. Saving species costs money, and we can’t afford to protect them all. 

In fisheries biology, for example, many stock managers want simple, certain answers about fish abundance, but population biologists study complexity and uncertainty. When biologists and decision makers understand each other better, however, it becomes clear that uncertainty is a natural part of many biological systems, and is not the same as knowing nothing—and that it can be built into our decision-making algorithms.  I develop mathematical approaches to use the best available scientific information to make rational, efficient conservation decisions about endangered species recovery, ecosystem management, and reserve design. For example, my students and I recently helped to develop a monitoring and management plan for a network of protected areas in the Gulf of California, and continue to work with stakeholders to get this plan into action.  Using good science and mathematical decision tools, we can conserve the living oceans for future generations.  And that’s a thought that makes me happiest of all.