Natasha Coutts is a doctoral candidate with the School of Human Sciences at The University of Western Australia (UWA), a postgraduate fellow with UWA’s Africa Research & Engagement Centre, and a research affiliate of the Center of Excellence in Biology and Natural Resource Management at the University of Rwanda. Her research takes a multidisciplinary approach to understanding how habitat fragmentation can affect the gut microbiome of eastern chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) throughout Rwanda by drawing on methods and knowledge from fields such as socioecology, conservation biology, microbiology, population genetics, and bioinformatics. Her project includes two habituated and one semi-habituated chimpanzee communities: one in an undisturbed, continuous habitat and two in small, degraded forest fragments. These field sites represent all locations in Rwanda where chimpanzees currently remain, thereby providing a country-wide perspective on the processes under investigation.
From 2018 – 2019 Natasha was in the field collecting dietary and social data in conjunction with faecal samples and habitat surveys to allow her to identify not only the composition of the chimpanzee’s gut microbial communities, but also the potential mechanisms by which habitat fragmentation can act upon it. With more and more evidence linking the gut microbiome to health, this research is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding how changes in habitat can influence the long-term health and viability of endangered chimp populations. Ultimately she hopes her work will make a meaningful contribution to the conservation of chimpanzees by informing management decisions that promote preserving intact habitats and reconnecting isolated fragments.
Natasha holds a Bachelor of Biological Science (Advanced) from La Trobe University and a Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours in Anatomy & Human Biology from UWA.
In addition to her PhD research, Natasha is also the Africa Programs & Conservation Campaigns Manager with the Jane Goodall Institute Australia. In this role she oversees the administration and implementation of the projects JGIA supports including The Girls Empowerment Project in Uganda, Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, and Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in Republic of Congo.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we sat down with Natasha and asked her some important questions…
Why do we need more women in science?
Science is advanced through new ideas and novel approaches to answering questions, and the only way to achieve this is through diversity. Gendered social and cultural constructs mean women often interact with the world around them differently than men do. This variation in lived experiences provides women with unique perspectives. Women also make up half of the people on the planet, so it’s important their interests are equally represented. The broader and more representative the range of voices and insights at the table, the better positioned we’ll be to tackle big global challenges like climate change, declining biodiversity, food insecurity, and poverty.
What inspires you?
Everyday I’m inspired by people who have a vision for a more just, equitable, and ecologically-healthy world, and work tirelessly to realise that vision, regardless of their circumstances and the personal cost. The kids who protest and lobby leaders to take action on climate change. The indigenous communities who push back against exploitative land grabbing by governments and huge corporations. The marginalised people who work to dismantle institutionalised and systematic oppression. This is what inspires me; the people who, despite seeming powerless, choose to show up in the world in a way that represents their values, demonstrates their tremendous courage, and displays their hope for a better future.
What drives you?
I’m driven by an innate curiosity of and passion for nature. The natural world is beautiful and fascinating and brings me absolute joy when I’m out in it, but it’s also essential to the persistence of human life on this planet. It’s this combination of wonder and desire to understand it, and a sense of duty to use my knowledge to protect it that motivates me.
To learn more or support our Girls Empowerment Program this International Women’s Day click here