Resilience: it’s nothing to laugh at

In December 2014 on December 15, 2014 at 11:00 am


Sarah: One of the best things about science is the people you meet. My regular blogging pal Kirsti recently introduced me to Sonja Dominik, a top quality scientist, gold-medal winning gymnast and all round lovely person. To add another task to her already busy life, Sonja was keen to write a blog post for Science For Life.365 — and here it is! 

Sonja: It’s like the start of a joke: two agricultural quantitative geneticists* meet with other scientists and farmers from across the pig, cattle, sheep, oyster, barramundi and Atlantic salmon industries to conduct a workshop.

What on earth do they talk about? What could they possibly have in common?


Is this part of the joke? There are resilient oysters and pigs?

‘Resilience’ and ‘resilient’ are terms that pop up a lot these days. For example, ‘flat tires are a thing of the past with resilient technologies such as airless tires’, and ‘your child will need to develop resilience to survive the school playground’.

But resilience is also a key characteristic of persistent ecological and social systems.

So what is it? Here’s a good definition (taken from the workshop book Breeding Focus 2014 – Improving resilience, available at

 “Resilience is the ability of an organism to recover quickly from adverse events such as illness, change in environmental stressors or other, possibly unknown, antagonistic effects to the biological system. Characteristics of resilience rely on simple building blocks and dynamic processes which are highly flexible and able to modify the organism or system in order to bounce back from set-backs.”

But what does this mean in plain English? Let’s go back to the example of resilience in the playground: if your child learns ways to express and communicate frustration experienced in the playground, he or she will be equipped with tools to respond to and resolve many other difficult situations in life. Experiences at school then lead to a kind of ‘post-sandpit resilience’.

Getting back now to the scientists and farmers: during the workshop preparations we drew a lot on Andrew Zolli and Anne Healy’s book “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back”. It’s a great read for anyone who wants to dive into the complexities and importance of resilience to so many aspects in life.

So did the workshop participants share our enthusiasm for the topic? They certainly did. Dean Jerry from James Cook University talked about resilience to water temperature in barramundi and the issues and opportunities that climate change will bring – wow, fascinating stuff. We looked at how results from mathematical models can help breeders to improve records for disease resilience on farms. Sounds dry, but wasn’t at all – thanks to the great presentation skills of Andrea Doeschl-Wilson from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute in Scotland. We also re-ignited Australia – New Zealand rivalry, with help from Mark Young, Beef and Lamb NZ Genetics, who claim that their sheep are facing much tougher environments than Aussie equivalents.

But the highlight of the workshop was the depth of discussion brought about by the diverse audience members. They really moved scientists and farmers alike out of their comfort zone… No one asks curly questions like a practitioner!

Resilience is a highly-discussed concept for so many aspects of everyday life, and this workshop highlighted that this theme also rates very highly with farmers. They know too well about challenges to their business, including disease, climate change and consumer acceptance.

I hope that these discussions provided information and helped set up social and professional networks to help breed resilient livestock and aquaculture species.

Resilient agricultural communities are something we all need to support if we expect this sector to continue to meet the global demand for food.

*that’s our job title and no we don’t clone animals; no, we never set foot in a laboratory; yes, we are the nerdy computing number crunching types that design breeding programs for livestock.

[image thanks to Phil! Gold on flickr]

  1. […] enthusiastically joined Sonja Dominik for my inaugural handstand February in […]

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