The sounds of biodiversity and the power of provoking change

From bioacoustics research in Costa Rica to environmental activism, Giacomo is interested in biodiversity: how we can protect what we still have on Earth and what we can do to restore what we’ve lost.

Learn more about Giacomo Delgado, a PhD candidate with Crowther Lab, in this interview.

Giacomo, you started with the lab during your graduate studies. You also received the Willi Studer Prize for the Department of Environment Science. So, how has it been starting your PhD with Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich?

I feel really fortunate to be able to continue to be involved with this lab. I chose Tom as my mentor during my Masters studies because I admired the way that he, and the rest of the group, aimed for impact beyond academia. It’s been such an incredible experience to be personally part of shaping that impact and the way we engage beyond research. The PhD so far has been amazing. It’s perfectly tailored to my interests and it gives me the freedom to look into these really interesting topics and datasets in ways that haven’t previously been explored. All of this work is also made easier by the fact that we have a huge interdisciplinary lab full of really inspiring people, so there is always support or collaboration whenever you need it. Honestly, I can’t believe that it’s already been over a year!

What is the nature of your PhD?

In a broad sense I am interested in biodiversity: what it is, how we can protect what we have left and how we might start to restore some of what we’ve lost. While I come at these topics from an ecological angle, it’s hard not to draw in topics like social-science and economics once you start thinking of these “how” questions. So the challenge, but also the incredibly exciting part, of my PhD is figuring out ways to find synergies between ecological theory and the data from some of these other disciplines. Specifically, I am interested in looking at how we can use transformative policies to tackle the biodiversity crisis while directly involving and empowering local communities.

What are the realities of field work that you’re conducting? 

A big focus of my research has been in Costa Rica. We have this incredible partnership with the government to use new approaches to monitor the biodiversity outcomes of some of those innovative policy measures I mentioned earlier. Costa Rica is a really interesting case as a country that’s managed to balance good standards of living with high levels of ecological protection. We’re using a bioacoustics approach for this work, which has become a really exciting frontier in biodiversity monitoring methods in addition to just being a really charismatic type of data to work with! The most exciting part of this work is just the sheer scale of what we’re trying to achieve. This will be one of the world’s largest ground-truthed biodiversity monitoring efforts ever. We hope to be recording in around 600 sites from across the country, which will encompass a variety of ecoregions and land-uses. It would be impossible to successfully complete a project of this size alone, so I’m working with a huge network of people that all help make this research a reality. At the highest levels, our partners in different branches of government help us secure permissions, share data and design research questions that will help them in their own work. On the ground, we’ve hired a team of field-technicians, all of whom are budding Costa Rican ecologists studying at local Universities. I am really interested in finding ways that our research can have an impact for the communities we’re working in, so training and collaborating with these young professionals has been a really rewarding part of the project. 

As for myself, I am often working with park-rangers, the national park department’s boots-on-the-ground staff that do everything from monitor ecosystems to enforce laws that limit destructive practices. We usually identify a broad area or park that we want to include in the study and spend the day hiking deep into the forest to place recording devices that will capture absolutely all types of sound. Everything from capricious spider monkeys to the sounds of rain trickling down the leaves of tropical trees can help us understand the soundscapes of these ecosystems. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of walking, but it’s incredibly rewarding and I feel super fortunate to be able to see such incredible ecosystems up-close on a daily basis.

What are the goals of your research?

What I would really like to achieve via my research are shifts in both cultural and political engagement with the existential crises that we are facing in the 21st century. I think the best research has this sort of effect, in which it prompts changes in behavior and legislation to bring us closer to a society that we can all be proud of. Ultimately, I don’t think the crises that we face are a result of lack of information, in fact evidence shows much the opposite. There are forces that are quite aware of the problem but are purposely spreading misinformation and putting funding towards counter-effective initiatives. However, I do believe that every scientifically verified piece of support for things that work is one less wall that our political and cultural leaders can hide behind. Furthermore, scientific confirmation of knowledge that local communities and indigenous people may have already established can also be a powerful tool for legal recognition and attracting financing for those groups. These are exactly the types of things we hope to achieve through our engagement in Costa Rica. Ultimately, we need to find those leverage points between science, civil society and governance and do a better job of using them to provoke change.

Can your research be scaled up beyond the work that you’re doing in Costa Rica?

Absolutely! We’re hoping that the methodology that we’re using and the lessons that the Costa Rican policy landscape has to offer will have consequences far beyond this project. For bioacoustic monitoring, we’re really on the forefront of using this technology at these spatial scales and our failures/successes will be important for the use of these techniques elsewhere, especially in the tropics. The findings of our research can also have very important policy implications. If we find that helping people and nature together is in fact working in Costa Rica, this can be a really powerful catalyst for garnering support for similar programs throughout Latin-America and beyond.

For his PhD, Giacomo Delgado is conducting extensive fieldwork for an ecoacoustics survey all across Costa Rica.

Studying at ETH Zurich is hard, what advice do you have for new students who are just starting their studies?

 I’m going to be a bit obnoxious here and actually flip this question on its head. I think in general we are too focused on how individuals can optimize themselves for what is a really grueling work and educational culture that we’ve created. Instead, I’m more interested in focusing on how we can design these systems to make them more friendly for people. While I’ve had a fair amount of success in my studies only part of that is thanks to my own good practices and study habits and a lot of it has to do with things like my social circumstances, my economic background and even the way I look. I think we need to rethink our relationship with work and productivity in our society as a whole and what better place to start than in Universities.

For example, I would love to see a shortened work week in line with what the data tells us is better for people (and planet!). I’m very interested in making space within curriculums for thinking and debating in ways that don’t necessarily produce anything measurable or may not seem directly related to our field of study. I believe in the benefits of placing more emphasis on the human connections within the university and the surrounding community to encourage mentoring, collaboration and connection. In short, I would love to see us challenge perspectives and try risky and daring new things. Actually, I guess that would be my advice to new students. Don’t limit your imagination of what’s possible. Engage critically with absolutely everything around you and remember we can do very little on our own but virtually anything in community.

What do you see as a challenge in connecting science with policy work?

So this is a complicated question to answer. First I think we have to dispel this myth that policy is designed and based on science and data. Historically, this is just not borne out and in fact there is a long history of legislation based on ignored evidence or pseudo-science. The best way to understand what laws get passed is by looking at power: who has it and what are they willing to use it for. This can almost completely explain why we live in societies that are so misaligned with what the majority of people seem to want or need. I think science has an important role to play in informing policy, but without the political, economic and social power to make those policies a reality, science alone is simply not enough. Climate change is the perfect example. We’ve known about the problem for decades (one could even argue we’ve known about the warming effects of carbon dioxide for centuries) and for the most part we know what we have to do to solve it, the solutions already exist. Additionally, the majority of people around the world support aggressive action to tackle the problem and yet our governments are at best doing nothing and at worst actively moving in the wrong direction. I think academia and progressive politics suffers from this delusion that with enough evidence and a convincing message that we’ll win the “war of ideas”. I believe that what we need to be doing is building political coalitions with real bargaining power and thinking seriously about the strategies that get us there. I think, as a community, we scientists need to do a better job of remembering that we’re not just producers of evidence but active political subjects who can take part in shaping history and society around us.

What are the goals of your activism?

Simply put, I want to expand people’s imagination of what’s possible. Most people, as aware as they might be of the faults of our current system, simply can’t imagine any other way of organizing society. Some scholars have called this phenomenon “capitalist realism”. I encounter this sort of thing all the time and I think often people don’t even realize they’re doing it. The most common response I receive when I explain the transformations that I think are needed, is something along the lines of “well all of that sounds great in theory, but it would simply never happen”. The tricky thing about transformative change is that it never seems possible until all of a sudden it does. For example, no one a thousand years ago could have ever imagined there would be an end to the divine right of kings, yet an absolute monarchy would seem unthinkable to most of us today. I think activism is incredibly useful insofar as it’s a physical act that reminds us that history is not set in stone and that we can take an active part in determining how it turns out. I believe that the power of activism lies just as much in making ordinary people feel like change is possible (and indeed on the way) as it is about pressuring governments and businesses to change their practices.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

It sounds a bit hippy-dippy but I just want to leave the world a better place than it was when I arrived. I think because I am constantly critiquing all of the negative aspects of society, people think that I’m some sort of pessimist that hates the world and wants to shame the people who are part of making it the way it is. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality all of these criticisms come from a radical love for the world around me, even in the state that it’s currently in. The world is a beautiful place and I see kernels of good everywhere I look. I firmly believe that people are inherently good and we are on the cusp of creating an incredibly bright future for all of us, humans and non-humans alike. I am fortunate enough to have abilities and a skillset that I think can be helpful as we construct this better world. If I can be useful to that effort in any way, visible or invisible, I’ll consider that as a success. I think the defining question for me at this stage of my life is precisely how can I be most effective in contributing to that struggle. I don’t think I have an answer to that yet but I feel incredibly lucky to work where I do and everyday I get a bit closer to answering that question.