Meet the experts –Sam Capon

Tuesday, 6 December, 2022

Sam 1

                                                 Meet Sam Capon

1: How do you explain what you do for work at dinner parties?

That's a hard question, mainly because I don't get much time to go to dinner parties!

I guess, I always just say I'm an environmental scientist. Because if you say you're an ecologist, people must hear you and think you say you're an oncologist. And then you have to talk about cancer.

Then the conversation always turns to sustainability and recycling… but what drives me is that the world is a place for all life, not just humans.

2: Why do you love Natural Resource Management?  

I suppose I've always been concerned, even from a young age. I started an environment club when I was in, like, grade four, in the 80s. We made little badges with a whale on it and stuff. And so I've always been really keen- my interests are in the way that people relate to the environment. I think that's because that's really all that we can look after. 

I think content like David Attenborough related documentaries, are worrying to me because people are often absent from the story. I think the most important thing is how we relate to other species in the environment, our environment, and Natural Resource Management is integral to that. How we meet our basic needs and do it in a way that is sensitive, and I guess can be a good thing for the environment, not just taking, that we can give back as well.

3: Why did you choose to work in the environmental space?

All the way through school I wanted to be a doctor.

But at the end of grade 12, when I was thinking about what I was going to do, I read James Lovelock’s Gaia theory books, and there was a quote that says “What the world really needs now is planetary doctors”. I was like, oh, that sounds cool. Planetary doctor. Having been an academic for a long time and teaching lots of young people, I can recognised that career trajectories are a mix between just chance and direction.

4: What are you most passionate about?

I'm also studying philosophy of science and environmental ethics. I'm really passionate about the way that science gets used in decision making. So that good science is used in decision making, but not that science is the answer to everything, that science sits alongside other value systems and spiritual beliefs and is respectful of traditional ecological knowledge.

I think sometimes people expect too much of ecological science, like they think that it's got all the answers and will tell us what to do. I'm really passionate about good ecological science but in its right place, if that makes sense.

I think aesthetic values in the environment and just how the environment makes us feel, all those things are important to that ecology doesn't swallow all of that up.


In her element- beach walks at sunset  

5: To share your genius, what’s your one top tip for clients working on NRM projects?

Question all of your assumptions- you can’t assume everyone's on the same page when it comes to the value systems underpinning decisions or the all the knowledge that we have- get back to basics.

6: What achievement are you most proud of?

Surviving! (laughs)

In my most recent kind of work, it’s been playing a role in students' lives, from teaching them, inspiring them in their degrees to supervising them in their honours and in their PhDs, and then seeing them become researchers and practitioners. I’ve even been to a few weddings of my students in the last year as the academic mother of the bride.

7: What's the most interesting project you've ever worked on?

I was really lucky to lead a project for the Australian Government for the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment a few years ago, designing monitoring and evaluation framework for their Regional Land Partnerships program, which is kind of the most current iteration of Landcare. So for all the NRM bodies across the whole of Australia for Ramsar sites threatened ecological communities, world heritage areas and threatened species. So that was pretty cool.

Meeting lots of people and all different kinds of levels, different interests, and working out how their diverse projects and diverse ways of collecting data could be usefully used to report on outcomes for that federal funding and inform adaptive management. That was exciting.


                                                  Sam’s other favourite animal... her dog Monty 

8: Favourite plant or animal?

Oh, that's easy. My favourite plant is Tangled Lignum, its scientific name is Duma florulenta. It's a shrub that dominates lots of inland Australia and floodplains and swamps, to make lignum swamps.

If you see it when it's dry, it just looks like this big messy tangle of sticks. It could be huge, like three metres tall, it’s very wide and it looks completely dead. But as soon as you add water to it, just within a couple of days, it will turn green and grow leaves and start flowering and look super lush and soft.

It's so important because these really big shrubs when wet, make islands in the water and that's what lots of colonial nesting water birds like Straw-necked ibis use as their nests.

9: What do you love about science?

It brings people together and can be a common language around the world, and can help people look at a diverse phenomenon, and in turn share those perspectives in a way that might be different. 


                                                 Perfect spot for lunch! 

10: Your bug bear, pet hate or quirk and why? 

I guess I don't like people looking to science to tell us what to do. I think it helps and informs it, but it can't make decisions for us.

We can't replace God with science. Especially when it comes to the environment, I think people really need to take responsibility for making choices.

Not trying to get someone to tell you what to do. We have to make decisions and take responsibility for things that we've screwed up as well as the possibilities that we could create. I really hate the term wicked problems, because I feel like when you think of a problem, you think of something that needs a solution, right?

And it assumes that there's going to be one correct solution like a math problem.  I think that we should change the way we interact with the environment, we should approach it more creatively. An artist doesn't look at a blank canvas or a writer doesn't look at a blank page and go, “Oh, that's a problem to be solved”.

I feel like that's how we look at the environment- we say "It’s a wicked problem, we can't solve it” but we should be looking at it like a blank canvas, and say “Here are our paints and let's do the best we can and make something amazing”. 

11: What do you nerd out over?

I guess I like popular culture a lot. I also play lots of pub trivia. I like the intersection of music and film and ideas and novels and how that's changed since I was a kid in the 80s.

I’m now watching my kids with things, or revisiting music from the past.

I think it's amazing. I play a lot of music, and now my 15 year old daughter, she's starting to play lots of music. We're going to the Pixies together in December, which is kind of cute.


Family game night at Sam’s house