Enhancing conservation outcomes from mining

PROFILE: Dr Laura Sonter, CBCS Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management

I love asking questions – I always have – especially complicated ones that required my parents to answer, “Well, Laura, it depends”. As a kid, I also spent a lot of time in nature. I grew in Hervey Bay, Queensland, and spent weekends and school holidays in places like Fraser Island with my family. Given my love for the outdoors and an aptitude for asking questions, it’s no wonder I chose to study environmental science at The University of Queensland (UQ) and eventually returned to teach environmental management many years later. 

An introduction to applied, interdisciplinary research

My journey into research began after graduating when I started working as a research assistant at UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI). Although early in my career, this experience really shaped the type of research I do now.

Most of our research involved interdisciplinary teams. Similar to conservation problems, sustainability challenges faced by the mining sector are rarely solved using the tools and approaches of only one discipline. I worked on projects seeking to design landscape management plans that would enhance mine site rehabilitation outcomes for biodiversity and ecosystem services, and enjoyed working with engineers, economists and social scientists.

Our research was also highly applied. It became clear that the most impactful work was done in partnership with end users, and I quickly learnt how to communicate with different stakeholders and academic groups.

Working internationally (and falling in love with Brazil)

My PhD research examined mining and tropical deforestation and I was lucky enough to conduct my work in Brazil. Brazil made sense for the research I wanted to do – it’s mineral-rich and biodiverse. But I found the value of working internationally extended far beyond an opportunity do cool science. During my time in Brazil, I met an incredibly diverse group of people who not only introduced me to their country and culture, but helped me understand the complexities of managing their natural resources. Together we explored the true footprint of mining, including both positive and negative impacts on forest, and evaluated policies to enhance conservation outcomes.

Exploring mining and conservation issues at CBCS

After my PhD, I spent three years as a post-doc working on ecosystem services at the Gund Institute for Environment in Vermont in the US, before returning to UQ and CBCS in 2017. My current research at CBCS explores the links between mining and conservation, and I continue to work with colleagues in Brazil and the US. My hope is that our research will better integrate conservation science into decisions to extract minerals and ultimately improve outcomes for biodiversity in mining regions.

Project members

Laura Sonter

Dr Laura Sonter

Senior Lecturer
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Deputy Director – Education
Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science