Think of climate change, and you may immediately think of melting ice caps or vanishing rainforests – but the high-impact research that Dr David Thomson leads on the issue at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) has a very different, and equally important, geographical focus.
Since joining UAEU’s Biology Department in 2014, Dr Thomson, an Associate Professor at the university, has built on the department's notable strengths in research and teaching by spearheading novel and high-profile interdisciplinary research that allows undergraduate and postgraduate students to analyze the impact of climate change on hot regions – an impact which does not always lead agendas, but which may be more severe than thought.
Having published his first work on climate change in the 1990s, as a PhD student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, he has since been involved in studies into related topics including climate variability, seasonality, phenology, changing rainfall patterns, and species decline. But since 2009, when he took up a faculty position at the University of Hong Kong, his research focus has primarily been on the vulnerability of the hotter parts of the world to climate change, and whether temperatures may already be too high for many of their species.
Less than one percent of global climate change research has been conducted in the world’s tropical zone – where, as of 2014, 40% of the Earth’s population live – with the emphasis tending to be on regions where temperatures are changing more rapidly, such as in the Northern Hemisphere. However, as Dr Thomson explains: “A small temperature increase in a region which is already too hot could be much more damaging than a large temperature increase in a region which is still too cold.”
His team at UAEU – whose Environmental Sciences Program was the UAE’s first postgraduate Masters program - has found that many species in cooler regions are actually better served by warmer conditions, through research that crystallized data from almost 50 studies on terrestrial birds. In hotter regions, however, they found many species have already reached the ‘optimal’ temperature level – where any increase immediately turns ‘perfect’ into ‘negative’.
In this field of research, Dr Thomson supervises a postgraduate student team, and has also involved 16 undergraduates in the last two years. Their work has featured at numerous conferences, and they have raised its profile and purpose among the UAE community through their outreach efforts.
“In essence, this is a research program,” says Dr Thomson, “but by engaging undergraduate and postgraduate research students, it is also an active experiential education program. The students are studying something real, then taking their work out into the public domain, where they can explain to the public and to decision-makers why it is important.”
The program’s impact, and its success in promoting undergraduate research, led to Dr Thomson being recognized at UAEU’s College of Science awards ceremony in 2017. It was the latest accolade in a career that has seen him run internationally-acclaimed research programs at prestigious institutions - including the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research – win plaudits for the quality of his courses, and see his work graded ‘excellent’ in peer review. He has been published in top journals such as Nature, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Ecology, Biological Reviews, and the Journal of Animal Ecology.
Dr Thomson takes this work beyond the laboratory, too. As a respected thought-leader and influencer on climate change, he participates in climate summits, contributes to media discussions, government working groups, and consultations, and is regularly invited to directly address leaders in the field of climate change.