Our friend and colleague Ben Collen, who died this weekend aged just 40, is remembered for his devotion to science and the many contributions he made to ZSL and the wider scientific community. But more than that, he is remembered for his ready smile, warm sense of humour, and bright and enthusiastic nature.
His research into the impact of a changing environment on the planet’s wildlife was central to the science that underpins our understanding of the world and the life it sustains. Having earned his PhD at the Institute of Zoology and Imperial College London from 2002 to 2005, he joined ZSL in 2005 as a Post Doctoral Research Associate.
He went on to head up our Indicators and Assessments Unit, during which time he developed the conceptual and analytical basis for the Living Planet Index, the comprehensive data set that informs the WWF Living Planet Report. The report is now a staple of the environmental calendar, widely accepted as a trusted barometer of the state of life on our planet.
He also advanced our understanding of the extinction risk of many species and helped develop the Sampled approach to the Red List Index, a critical tool for understanding the extinction risk of lesser known taxonomic groups.
Ben’s contribution to science is in no doubt. His impactful and wide-ranging publications in some of the world’s most influential journals are a testament to his passion, great talent, and dedication to conservation science.
While working at ZSL he also met his wife, Alanna, a fellow scientist, with whom he later had a daughter, Ottilie.
In 2013 Ben moved on to become a lecturer, then reader in biodiversity, at UCL’s Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, but his connection to ZSL remained. He was a caring and supportive supervisor of many PhD and masters students who valued his leadership, knowledge and support.
In 2015 he won the prestigious ZSL Marsh Award for Conservation Biology, which acknowledged his new approaches to designing and using biodiversity indicators. By then his innovative approaches had been applied and operationalised with numerous worldwide collaborators. In presenting the award, ZSL Secretary Geoff Boxshall, said: “What is truly exceptional is the impact of Ben’s work. He continually produces technically and conceptually excellent research with profound use for policy and society.” His appointments were many and varied, including an honorary research fellow for UNEP, and a member of multiple IUCN Red List committees.
But it is the kindness and sincerity that he brought to his relationships with his friends, colleagues, students, and peers that remains with all of us. He also brought a great deal of fun and adventure to all that he did, making a mark on all those who crossed his path.
Ben had a gift for science, and a gift for friendship, and testament to this is the outpouring of love and support on the fundraising page set up by his family to raise money towards bone cancer research.
Some of his colleagues have shared their thoughts and memories of Ben, paying tribute to a friend and colleague who will be sorely missed.
David Curnick: “Ben was a science-y big brother to me. I sought his advice on all sorts of work matters: how to get through my PhD; how to raise the much-needed funds for our crazy joint research plans; and what next step was the best to take for my career. But, to be honest, most of our discussions, and the ones I will remember most fondly, revolved around such lighthearted topics as: where in London sold the best pie; the latest developments in our respective house renovations; how our young daughters were growing up; or how we were both wasted in academia and should have been professional sportsmen (me football, him hockey). To me, that was Ben’s greatest attribute, his ability to be a friend first, and a colleague/supervisor second. I looked up to him in so many respects and I couldn’t have asked for a better role model. He was an incredible scientist, father and friend and I will miss him dearly.”
Gwen Maggs: "I didn't know Ben very well but he was an internal examiner for my PhD viva. He is one of the kindest people I have met in the conservation and academic world making my viva, the most stressful day of my life, one of the best days of my life. With just a smile and kind reassuring words he put me at ease which enabled me to defend my thesis and prove myself as a scientist. I'm sure this won't be the only example of Ben making a huge impact to people's lives just through his kindness without even realising. I feel privileged to have met him.”
Ellie Dyer: “Ben was my line manager when I started at IOZ 10 years ago as an intern in the Indicators & Assessments unit. When my initial position ended after 6 months, he was the one who put me forward for a longer contract as a research technician. Two years later he agreed to be PhD supervisor for both me and my future husband David (Curnick) at the same time – if he had reservations about this set-up then he hid them well. Neither David nor I could have gotten through our PhDs without the support from Ben, both scientifically but also personally. On more than one occasion I was a crying mess in his office, threatening to walk away from science for ever.
“He always persuaded me not to, and during this time David and I became good friends with him and his soon-to-be-wife Alanna. They were one step ahead of us, and we often went to them for advice firstly on house renovations, then kitten husbandry, then wedding planning and finally babies, with their beautiful daughter Ottilie being born 5 months before our daughter Rose.
"Ben always had time for everyone, and he conducted himself with a friendly smile and a twinkle in his eye. He was eminently approachable, and I know that lots of staff and students would go to him for help and advice when their own supervisor or boss was a scarier prospect!
"He managed to produce an astonishing amount of work without ever seeming rushed, and he always had time for fun and banter.
“This was epitomised in one message from him - During a round of chemo last September, I told him I would send him a pun a day to try and make him feel better. Naturally I thought I was hilarious with my choice of humour, but after 15 or so days with me sending a pun each day but receiving no reply, I started to worry that maybe he was really suffering the chemo side effects and unable to respond. Then I got a message back: ‘If I promise to get better will you promise to stop?’
"Everyone who knew him shall miss him enormously, there will forever be a Ben-shaped hole in our lives, and I shall always think of him whenever I eat a pie, wear a hat to the Christmas party or make a bad joke. The difference he made in his 40 years is astonishing, and it’s a terrible shame that we shall never know the heights he would have reached. The world of conservation shall not be the same without him, the brightest of lights has gone out.”
Gaby Peniche: “I met Ben in 2008 just after I had finished my MSc and was learning everything there is to learn about the very basics of population genetics on ants. For this reason I was based in the Nuffield building and I used to cycle in every morning to arrive at 8am. Ben used to arrive at the same time and the shower would be taken by the fastest cyclist…! Very proudly often Ben would let me know he had beaten me to it. When I think of Ben, these are the moments that come to mind. He used to enjoy being good at what he did. Great human and brilliant scientist. Farewell Ben.
Sarah Durant: “It was a joy to be able to show Ben the Serengeti, including a family of seven cheetahs which went to sleep under our car. In his life, which was cruelly cut far too short, Ben packed a lot in. Ben was also an athlete, and during this trip I will always remember him telling me, after he had seen me running as fast as I could from a buffalo, that he had been convinced that I had been running too slowly to escape. He would have been able to run a lot faster, of course, but I was the one foolish enough to walk into a buffalo – not him.”
Nathalie Pettorelli: “The above photograph was taken on a trip to Tanzania to carry out a camera trap survey in Maswa game reserve in 2008. The trip lasted a week and was full of fun moments I remember. One that stands out was when we were camping in the reserve, and Ben's tent ended up being attacked by fire ants in the middle of the night. No one heard anything, he just told us the story the next morning over coffee - telling us how he ended up totally naked trying to kill every single one of them. During that trip, he also saw a serval - he was adamant the sighting was a cheetah, and Sarah still fondly refers to this as the first ever sighting of a pygmy cheetah. Ben was a fantastic mentor to students and early career staff - he cared deeply about setting a good example and supporting people as they try to set up a career in conservation. In 2016, we organised the first conservation career day at ZSL together with the British Ecological Society - Ben said yes to helping on that day right away, and his session had some fantastic feedback. He was diagnosed days before the 2017 event, which he planned to help with too - but had to pull out at the last minute, apologising even though there was nothing to apologise for.”