Mongolia a giant ‘steppe’ for ecologist Emma

Smiling Science graduate Emma Dale, holding a red panda.
Since graduating from Griffith University, Emma Dale has been applying her science degree in Nepal and Mongolia, protecting wildlife including the endangered red panda,

Saturday, 11 February, is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

There are wolves and marmots on the Mongolian steppes. Wild horses and baby bears too. On the forested border with Russia, there are reindeer.

Wherever they are, Griffith University alumnus Emma Dale is there too.

It’s difficult to imagine an environmental contrast more striking than that between Australia’s Gold Coast, where Emma completed her science degree in 2014, and the East Asian sovereign state of Mongolia.

Yet as Emma speaks from her 10th floor apartment on the outskirts of the capital Ulaanbataar, where the outside temperature is minus 30C and the air is hazy with the pollution from coal fires, it is clear she feels completely at home.

Furthermore, when the time comes to trade the comforts of the apartment for the rigours of Hustai National Park and accommodation in a felt-covered tent known as a ger, Emma will be equally content there.

An ecologist and conservation support officer for the Steppe Forward Program, Emma has spent the past nine months working to preserve and protect the wildlife of Mongolia. She is also monitoring the impact of climate change and human influence.

Mongolia has the lowest population density on the planet, however the human footprint is both growing and visible in factors such as a burgeoning mining industry, deforestation and poaching.

For Emma, such challenges are part of a career challenge she is embracing in a truly enigmatic part of the world.

Not that relocating to Mongolia was quite the culture shock that some might have predicted.

Before joining Steppe Forward, Emma founded the Red Panda Trust, a non-profit charity based in Nepal and which continues to connect research to conservation for the red panda.

Emma led three research teams to Nepal and fell in love with the country, the people and this beautiful but endangered creature.

”I had always wanted to see red pandas in the wild, so the opportunity to work on projects concerning the red panda and other endangered Asian mammals has been so rewarding,” says Emma.

“These species have a key role in preserving the world’s biodiversity, so I feel as if my life and work have real meaning.

“Griffith played an important part in giving me the confidence to explore the world.”

Emma Dale and fellow researcher studying a beetle
Emma’s research has also included studying invertebrate species in Mongolia

After completing her Bachelor degree majoring in Ecology and Conservation Biology, in 2016 Emma undertook an Honours project assessing invertebrate communities in the French Pyrenees.

She received support from the Griffith Futures Scholarship program, which helps students who are excelling in their studies despite personal or financial hardship.

“I was effectively raised by my grandfather, Michael Dale. He lectured in the School of Environment at Griffith and was a big reason why I became an ecologist,” says Emma.

“When he passed away, I was 18 and alone. It was a rough personal time, but the support from the University was amazing.

“Being awarded the scholarship not only helped me with my thesis, it introduced me to different people, networking opportunities and more. It helped take me where I am today.”

Emma’s contract with Steppe Forward ends in May but she plans to renew it and extend her time in Mongolia.

“It really is an incredible country and the natural environment is so inspiring,” she says.

“For the moment, as a scientist and as a person, I feel as if I am in the place I am meant to be.”

Learn more about gender equity in STEMM via the Athena SWAN Charter initiative.