The search for balance: Profile of Dr Angela Dean

After a few years at another university over the river, it’s great to be back at The University of Queensland with all the wonderful people here, including all of you at CBCS. I am a conservation social scientist, and my research explores social dimensions of diverse conservation problems, with a focus on how to better work with people to support their engagement in conservation. The science-y bits of what I do focus on how people’s experience (such as experiences in a place or emotional experiences) shapes engagement and opportunities for action.

It all started in a very different place ...

I always thought it would be great to work in an area related to wildlife and nature. However, as a kid in a country town, discussions about university education typically focused on vocational training. So I ended up doing a pharmacy degree.

I graduated and practised, but I was always curious about the social and behavioural aspects of this work. Why do people act in certain ways? Why does information not influence behaviour as much as we would hope? How do emotions and experiences shape people’s choices? So, I ended up doing a PhD in psychiatry and mental health.

I spent my PhD working in drug and alcohol clinics in Sydney and Brisbane, exploring the interplay between emotions and behaviours in people with serious addiction problems. I followed this with postdoctoral work based in child and adolescent mental health services, exploring how we manage children and families with complex mental health problems.

But something wasn't right

Always during this period, I was fascinated by how we can work with people and social systems to create change (spoiler alert: it’s not easy!).

But something wasn’t right. I was increasingly disconnected from what I was working on. I still thought it was interesting and important, but it didn’t connect with where my heart was. I asked my boss for a holiday – and he sent me to a life coach! And so began the career-changing journey. I volunteered for all sorts of things, helping researchers monitor everything from squirrel gliders to grass trees. But six weeks of coral monitoring in the Seychelles got me hooked. Now what was the next step – a new degree, or could I wiggle into a different type of job?

I eventually landed a job with CoralWatch, UQ’s citizen science program that monitors coral bleaching and promotes citizen engagement in reef conservation actions. And the transferable skill that enabled this to happen was writing, specifically, grant writing. The team and I would develop education materials and run events and workshops for community members or educators about reefs and how people can contribute to reef conservation. This role provided amazing experiences – but still something niggled. What happened when the people at our workshops went home? What type of impact were we having? It seems I was still a researcher after all …

... and back to research

After a few false starts, I returned to research, first as an environmental social scientist here at UQ with Kelly Fielding and the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities and then with the Centre for Environmental Decisions in School of Biological Sciences. Since that period, I have been able to build a research program focusing on how to work more effectively with communities to support conservation outcomes.

I work across a range of issues related to biodiversity conservation, from urban to agricultural settings, but reef conservation remains one of my favourite areas. The social aspects of my research also cover a range of areas, such as communication, stakeholder engagement, collaboration and conflict. Now that I am in a teaching and research position, my teaching also encompasses communication, stakeholder engagement and approaches to tackling social issues. I particularly love working with government partners and nongovernmental organisations to contribute to change. It’s exciting to have reached a stage where it feels everything is falling into place. And I continue to be surprised at how so many skills from my “old life” are useful and relevant across diverse settings, including ethics, survey design and grant writing.

The message?

Sometimes it’s easier to say than do, but I’ve come to realise just how important it is to align your work activities with what is really important to you. I call it “work–work balance”. There are always some parts of research that can be tedious, but to thrive, a core part of what we do needs to be aligned to the things we really care about. Sometimes it takes time (and friends, whiteboards and red wine) to figure this out. With all the tasks and deadlines piling up around us, we don’t always make the time – but I can promise that it’s worth it.


Image above: Discussing reef conservation activities on a CoralWatch stall. Photo: CoralWatch

Project members

Dr Angela Dean

School of the Environment/School of Agriculture and Food Sustainability
Deputy Director – Education
Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science