"I want to advance conservation of nature by visual storytelling about wildlife”

Gabriele Retez, passionate about ecology and videography, studies at the University of Helsinki to become a conservation scientist. By merging research with visual storytelling, he aims to reach a wider audience. Through his stories about the conflict between wildlife and humans, he wants to show there is a way to coexist.

As a child, Gabriele Retez discovered an underwater camera at his house. This camera was put into good use, as he grew up by the sea in a family of divers. Retez was fascinated by the photos of sea animals and the underwater world and soon got his own camera. The passion for photography and filmmaking had begun.

Interest in academia and the environment runs in the family, too, as both of his uncles and aunt studied biology.

“My aunt is a professor of molecular biology back in Italy where I’m originally from. When I was around 10 years old, she was doing research on jellyfishes while we were on a boat trip. That was my first encounter with science.”

Retez believes that his childhood experiences led him to pursue a career in environmental sciences. Closeness to nature was an optimal starting point.

“Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, I learned to appreciate the environment from a young age.”

As a teenager, Retez moved to Romania to play rugby. The mountainous landscape and rich wildlife rekindled his fascination for nature, and he decided to look into studying natural sciences in the capital Bucharest.

“I was contemplating between biology, biochemistry and ecology. The last one sparked my interest as I had not heard of ecology before.”

Retez discovered that ecology as a field studies the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment.

“I wanted to study interactions rather than individuals, and chose ecology.”

Mixing visual know-how with research

Already at the start of his bachelor’s studies, Retez thought photography could be a useful medium in the field of ecology. He began to deepen his knowledge of the visual arts and established Biofiery, a website for his wildlife photography and tales of conservation.

“Photography and videography are important skills for conservationists, as they are ways to transmit information to people outside the science community”.

Retez is interested in producing cinematic videos. Rather than making documentaries, he wishes to innovate ways to share stories to a wider audience about wildlife and the kind of research work that usually is conducted behind the scenes.

“I am planning to explore the idea of transforming a research paper into a video with my master’s thesis.”

Transitioning from conflicts to co-existence

Retez wants to specialise in large carnivores. In Romania, he took part in the LIFE Lynx project aiming to rescue the Dinaric-SE Alpine lynx population from extinction and preserving it in the long term. The LIFE programme is the EU’s funding instrument for the environment and climate action.

At the beginning of 2020, Retez was in South Africa participating in voluntary work concerning white rhinoceroses. They are threatened by poaching due to the high illegal demand for rhino horn.

“We should try to transition from conflicts between humans and wildlife to co-existence. This is an issue I intend to research, with a focus on large carnivores, when continuing with doctoral studies.”

“I am thriving in the academic environment”

In autumn 2020, Retez began studying in the Master's Programme in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Helsinki. He is excited about his studies and values especially the multidisciplinary approach and practical methods. He also shares his insights and experiences about the programme as a student ambassador.

 “I take courses from other faculties than the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences as well, such as the Faculty of Science. It is an amazing opportunity, for instance, to learn more about statistics and geographical information systems.”

The lack of hierarchy at the University of Helsinki has been a positive surprise, and Retez appreciates the way in which teachers treat students also as colleagues in the field. Through the connections of the teaching staff, students get to network and form friendships with experts from all over the world.

As an active student, Retez contacted the leader of the Global Change and Conservation lab of the University of Helsinki for an internship. The research group focuses on interdisciplinary approaches for applied conservation. Retez now works with the group concentrating on large carnivores of northern regions.

“People in their early twenties are like sponges that absorb information from around them. It is ideal to be surrounded by the academic environment. I already have plans to continue my studies in the Doctoral Programme in Wildlife Biology.”

“I feel comfortable at the University of Helsinki. The skills learned here will benefit me for the rest of my life.”
 

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