I am now in my fourth and final year of my PhD, which is titled Mathematical Ecology in a More-Than-Human World. This doctoral research has been an interdisciplinary journey of mathematics, ecological science, and the environmental social sciences (particularly geography and anthropology), guided by a passion for approaching ecological questions in a holistic manner. I have been supervised by Sam Cushman and Philip Maini, and it has been a deep privilege to undertake this work and to have encountered so many wonderful and big-hearted people along the way.
I began by exploring the use of advanced mathematical techniques for understanding complex patterns in biodiversity data sets gathered from camera traps in Borneo. This investigation drew upon ideas from the mathematical fields of topology and geometry to look at the spatial distribution of animal communities in relation to environmental conditions. I later shifted focus to studying animal movement paths, which involved analysing the mathematical underpinnings of concepts in ecological science like ‘landscape connectivity’ and ‘landscape resistance’. This led to developing a new individual-based model for mapping animal movement and landscape connectivity, called Pathwalker, which we then used to evaluate the performance of popular connectivity models.
Around this time – and thoroughly precipitated by reading David Abram’s landmark book The Spell of the Sensuous – my engagement with ecology expanded beyond mathematical modelling, opening to the rich insights and work from the environmental social sciences. This was guided by a growing realisation that the practical applicability of scientific models in ecology is often constrained by certain assumptions and ideologies – particularly in regards to the human dimensions of ecological processes – which are largely unexamined and unobserved in mainstream scientific modelling. Fundamentally, what became apparent is that how we understand ‘nature’, and the human place within it, will deeply determine how beneficial our models will be for our fellow humans and nonhumans alike. These reflections and conversations then grew into a collaboration with members of the Oxford School of Geography and the Environment. Drawing upon empirical and conceptual research in conservation science and environmental geography, we investigated the limitations of major connectivity models in their ability to attend to the complexities of animal movement, and we explored possible ways to move beyond these constraints and develop more relevant and context-dependent methods for mapping landscape connectivity.
The vast diversity of relationships with nature found in different cultures – and how their intertwining with colonial, political and economic histories and structures powerfully influence the ecological issues of the present day – have much to teach us about how to engage with environmental work in a manner which is both socially just and ecologically healing. Ecology is enriched by perspectives from every discipline: in a world increasingly shaped by human presence, questions of empowerment, financial security, cultural difference and human wellbeing are just as important as biodiversity and ecosystem dynamics in carrying out effective environmental work. Now that my PhD is drawing to a close, I am looking to continue my journey in ecology by working at the interdisciplinary intersection of both human and nonhuman wellbeing, synthesising research, policy and practice. And with love, I bow to my family, friends and teachers, and the more-than-human world, without whom this rich and beautiful journey would not have been possible.
Kumar, S.U., Maini, P.K., Chiaverini, L., Hearn, A.J., Macdonald, D.W., Kaszta, Ż. and Cushman, S.A., 2021. Smoothing and the environmental manifold. Ecological Informatics, p.101472.
Unnithan Kumar, S., Turnbull, J., Hartman Davies, O., Cushman, S., & Hodgetts, T. (2022). Minimal Ecologies. Digital Ecologies blog, 23 Februar.
Unnithan Kumar S, Kaszta Ż, Cushman SA. Pathwalker: A New Individual-Based Movement Model for Conservation Science and Connectivity Modelling. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information. 2022; 11(6):329.
Unnithan Kumar,S., Turnbull, J., Hartman Davies, O., Hodgetts, T., & Cushman, S.
Moving beyond landscape resistance: considerations for the future of connectivity modelling and conservation science. Landscape ecology, 2022
Unnithan Kumar,S., & Cushman, S.
Connectivity modelling in conservation science: a comparative evaluation.
Scientific Reports, 2022