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Farewell and thank you, Georgina

It’s unusual to find both genius and humility in a scientist. It’s even more unusual for a legendary leader in a field to selflessly help others leave their own mark on the same field. Georgina Mace, a longtime PLOS Biology advisor who transformed the way we measure biodiversity, was that rare breed. And her passing earlier this year will leave all who benefited from her brilliance and generosity, including the earth’s 8.7 million or so species, all the poorer.

Georgina reshaped the study of biodiversity and ecosystems, most notably by replacing largely subjective approaches with rigorous analytical methods. She was instrumental in building two cornerstones of ecology and conservation in the face of plummeting biodiversity: the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

“Georgina Mace revolutionised how we measure ongoing rapid biodiversity loss, and how we predict and prevent its consequences for people and the planet,” noted a tribute from the news center at UCL, where Georgina directed the Centre of Biodiversity and Environment Research. 

It’s hard to overstate the profound influence Georgina had on both science and academia. But her colleagues’ outpouring of grief and gratitude on Twitter, and the sites of her many affiliations, reveals the depth and breadth of that influence.

“Our lives were all the richer for time spent with ‘Georgina’ as she was known — no surname was ever necessary because she was unique,” wrote Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at Birdlife International, on Twitter. “She leaves an extraordinary legacy and will be greatly missed.”

We at PLOS Biology feel the same way. We owe a debt of gratitude to Georgina, who served as an academic editor from the journal’s early days until last year. 

Catriona MacCallum, a founding PLOS Biology editor who now directs open science at Hindawi, recruited Georgina to the editorial board. Beyond Georgina’s deep understanding of the science behind the papers, she loved discussing other people’s work, MacCallum said. “She enjoyed the tussle of debate about the big theories in the field. And even though she would sometimes have a particular view, she was always incredibly open to being challenged, and to allowing ideas to get out there and be discussed.”

One outgrowth of Georgina’s wish to foster debate was a collection we published in the run-up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in 2012 on the limits to growth. The collection emerged as Georgina and MacCallum handled an essay from Joseph Burger, Jim Brown and colleagues, who argued that ecological principles govern sustainability yet are routinely overlooked in sustainability science. During the editorial process, MacCallum explained, it became clear that there might still be creative solutions to “overcome resource limitation and continue to grow.”

Georgina set up the debate in an editorial with characteristic optimism. She noted that we could face irreversible loss of biodiversity if resource managers fail to account for the condition of natural resources. But, she added, it’s possible to avert disastrous scenarios if sustainability science incorporates the environmental sciences, including macroecology, and green economies do not assume growth can occur without embedding ecological principles into their plans. In an accompanying podcast, I asked Georgina to talk about how we could still be arguing about limits to growth when humans have so profoundly altered the planet that scientists have called for formal recognition of a new age, the Anthropocene. She very patiently, and clearly, explained the complexities of the debates and new approaches that recognize that sustainable development must be limited by the natural environment.

That patience and willingness to clarify complexity extended to her role as academic editor. “She was always willing to explain something if you didn’t understand it,” MacCallum said. Georgina genuinely enjoyed helping scientists take their papers to the next level, she said. “And she was enormously supportive of early career researchers, and of women.”

MacCallum experienced that support firsthand as a young biologist puzzling over her future. “She was so kind, talking to this unknown Ph.D. student,” she said. “She was just hugely, hugely important to the field and yet never let you feel as though you were not important enough to have a conversation.”

Georgina handled so many papers at PLOS Biology it’s impossible to list them all. A few standouts for me include “Bringing the Tiger Back from the Brink,” in which the world’s leading tiger experts warned that unless governments put boots on the ground to protect the big cats’ reproductive hotspots from poachers, we could face a world without wild tigers.  And, of course, she deftly guided the paper that estimated the number of earth’s species, a seemingly futile task dogged by controversy, through a thicket of longstanding challenges, from the plethora of synonyms for the same species to working out how to predict species numbers across taxa when so few have been described. Georgina appreciated the effort as an important step to understanding the range of ecological and evolutionary processes captured in the biological riches she dedicated her life to conserving.

True to form, Georgina helped manage a complicated problem with a paper in the spring, even though she had already stepped down as an academic advisor.

“She was one of my all-time life heroes,” MacCallum said. “She was a brilliant academic yet had a family and a life outside academia.”

Georgina’s passing left a huge void that will be hard to fill. But she seemed to have known what her colleagues would need to continue to “bend the curve” to restore biodiversity, as she argued in her last paper. And there’s no doubt that the legacy of this conservation giant will live on in the work, and hearts, of every life she touched.

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