She has identified the genes that prevent palms from drying out as the climate changes. Mapped the kinship between plants across six continents. But it is in Sweden that 2019 Research Award winner Christine Bacon has found her new home.
“I love how Swedes appreciate nature. Just look at all the resources you put into plants here in Gothenburg – every street is lined with flowerbeds and flowerpots! It’s unique and proof of your priorities,” she says.
Every afternoon she has the same routine. Puts on her running shoes and runs for four and a half kilometres. Always exactly the same route. Whatever the weather. As the evening draws near, she first puts her daughter to bed. And then it’s time to sit down and work at the computer. Two hours of work, from 8 to 10 PM. Every evening.
“It doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But I like it and I work best to a fixed schedule,” says Christine Bacon.
She may have strict routines, but no one could accuse her of having a humdrum life. Her interest in plants began at an early age. US native Christine Bacon grew up in a rural area in New Hampshire. As a little girl, she helped in the family’s garden. When she became a teenager, her passion for plants really took off. She travelled to Brazil as part of a university course and saw a rainforest for the first time. It was a life-changing event that drove her to learn more and more about tropical forests.
She began reading scientific journal articles, exploring natural history collections and taking courses in biodiversity. It was during this time that another strong driver emerged in her life.
“I realised that I wanted to make a real difference. And I understood that I could do that by working at a university and becoming a mentor.”
Which is where she is now. Specialising in palms, she heads a research group at the University of Gothenburg. Recently, she was awarded by her own faculty for having vitalised its research into plant systematics. Among other things, she was praised for how she had used DNA sequences to map the macroevolutionary patterns of biodiversity.[KA1]
“I am proud of what I have done and see myself as a role model,” she says.
The Amazon rainforest has been a reference point throughout her career. She also lived in its vicinity when she lived in Colombia for over eight years. And now, since early autumn last year, the Amazon rainforest has become a matter of global concern. The news media have generated streams of pictures of its burnt trees, blackened earth deserts and people covered in soot. Added to this, there have been reports of the record-fast clearing of rainforest, unsustainable land use and the climate crisis – all exacerbating an already vulnerable situation for the Earth’s largest single source of biodiversity.
For a biologist who has devoted a large part of her career as a researcher to studying this tropical rainforest, this development has been exceptionally painful to watch.
“The last time I departed from Colombia, in July, I was filled with grief. Local leaders and activists are shot on site and entire villages of people are being forced from their homes. The indigenous population are losing access to their own forests,” she says solemnly.
From an ecological point of view, the exploitation of the Amazon rainforest has already gone too far. Christine Bacon tells us that many researchers believe that we have reached a turning point. It’s possible that there are already too few trees for the ecosystem to be able to maintain the rainforest’s water needs.
“In that case, within a hundred years, its natural irrigation will be gone. There will still be vegetation, but in a different form. Drier vegetation, and potentially even deserts, may eventually replace the rainforest.”
In her own research, Christine has shown how changes in climate in previous geological epochs have resulted in the Amazon rainforest shrinking. She has also shown what these changes will be like in the future when the rainforest shrinks outwards towards its current periphery.
“I want us to wake up. Climate change is real and already much more serious than we realise. We need to think through all the choices we make in a day – what we buy, what we eat, what kind of clothing we wear – and choose what is more sustainable. We must make sacrifices, not for the sake of the environment, but for our own sake,” she says.
On the personal plane, Christine Bacon is driven by a strong conviction that we need to stop deforestation, the loss of species and the unsustainable use of land in tropical rainforest areas.
“We depend on forests for our survival, but also for our well-being,” says Christine Bacon.
What can you do yourself, as a researcher?
“It’s very important for me to get our research done and publish my results. So that they can be used by decision-makers and government agencies to conserve and manage tropical forests better,” she says.
Christine Bacon's research
Christine Bacon is a Research Assistant in Biology at the University of Gothenburg and specialises in palm trees (Arecaceae). As part of her specialisation in tropical plants, she conducts research in phylogenomics and population genomics, which uses an organism’s genetic composition to understand its evolutionary kinships, for example. She also studies macroevolutionary patterns among species, in terms of both specific characteristics and biodiversity. She is affiliated with the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre (GGBC) and a member of the Antonelli Lab.
About Christine Bacon
Occupation: Research Assistant at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg,
Lives: In Masthugget, Gothenburg, with her daughter Mia, who is five years old.
Likes: Gardening, running, climbing and reading.
About her name: She shares her family name with Sir Francis Henry Bacon (her brother is also called Francis Bacon), the famous proponent of scientific method and one of the fathers of modern philosophy. Besides being a scientist, Sir Francis Bacon was also known as a prolific author and statesman, and was Lord Chancellor of England for a period of time.