My path to conservation science
Terry McGlynn recently wrote about the path that took him into a career in science, inspired by an older post by Meg Duffy. Terry felt that it could be useful for people to share their stories and I agree: all too often it seems like scientists present an image of having been driven since birth to work in research, and in their current field. Maybe for some of us that’s true, but I suspect that for most of us it’s not, and I found it slightly daunting to be wrongly thinking that most of my competitors at each stage had decades worth of advantage over me. Hopefully this is useful to someone: ecologists aren’t born, they’re made over time.
I was really into nature as a kid. My first word was ‘duck’ due to my love for the rubber duck toy that I carried everywhere, and the moment I learned to read I was obsessed with books about animals. People were baffled that at the age of around six years old I could spell ‘camouflage’. I was never one of those children who’s obsessive about a specific taxa, or collects insects or anything though, I just always had quite an ‘armchair’ interest in nature. I could identify common bird species and things, but like a lot of my generation I didn’t spend that much time playing outside unsupervised, so pretty much all of my learning about nature came from childrens wildlife books and keenly watching the entire output of the BBC’s natural history department. I remember at the age of about eight years old someone came to our house trying to distribute flyers for a shark-fin soup restaurant that was opening nearby, and I knew that they were a bad person who I had to tell to go away.
Through all of this time I never really considered working with animals as a career. When asked as a child ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I’d usually answer with fireman or astronaut. I just had no idea that my current lifestyle is something that people actually do. I came from a neighbourhood of factory, shop and office-workers, and being a smart child perhaps I could aim high and become a doctor or lawyer. These sorts of things were the only options that I ever really saw.
My love of wildlife and nature probably waned a bit during my first few years in school, and was pretty much stamped out by the time I was in my teens. Other kids didn’t want to talk about leopards and owls so much, but my friends liked computer games, guitars and punk-rock, and so these became my obsessions instead. I suspect most of my family had assumed that my fascination in nature had been a childish phase which I had now grown out of. I know I’d assumed it at the time.
During my teens I suffered quite a lot from depression, particularly when the end of school loomed and I realised that I had a long life up ahead of me and absolutely zero prospects that I liked. I assumed that I’d end up in some crappy office job for a company that I resented, and my entire life would be spent stuck there. There were no other options that I could see. I developed a really nihilistic attitude to my life, with a counsellor describing my views on a careers as ‘bleak, grey, soviet’. I regarded education merely as a pointless hurdle to keep me busy until I got into a crappy career, and so I stopped paying any attention in school. I went to college and found that I really enjoyed sociology, especially Marxism; it spoke of a view of society, jobs and education that mirrored my own. We were all cogs in a bigger machine that existed to keep the rich wealthy and the rest of us downtrodden. Education was just a meaningless distraction, to give us the illusion of having prospects in life. I failed my biology A-level outright, after uttering the now-immortal line ‘when the fuck in my life am I ever going to need to know about genetics?!’
My then-girlfriend convinced me to switch to an environmental science course, and I found that where learning about the inner-workings of the cell in my biology course had left me bored, I was fascinated by learning about how the planet as a whole worked, especially it’s ecological underpinnings. My interest in the natural world became reinvigorated after a long period of dormancy. Here was the series of rules on how the entire, fascinating natural world functioned! I still however had no ambition of a job in this field, as I had no idea that it was even possible. The idea of being a research scientist seemed as feasible as that of becoming a stadium musician, an astronaut, a rags-to-riches property mogul. It just never really crossed my mind.
I ended up going to Plymouth University to study environmental science. In my eyes education was still merely a distraction to keep me occupied for a few years before I got a crap job, but if it meant that I could party a load and learn some interesting stuff along the way, it seemed quite a good deal really. My attitude towards education was compounded by the fact that my father was terminally ill with a brain tumour during my early days at university. I spent a few days per week in Exeter helping to care for him, and a few days per week in Plymouth going to lectures in between drinking a serious amount of alcohol to cope with it all. Its safe to say that my grades were extremely erratic, going between getting 70%s in some pieces of coursework, to utterly failing in others. As a student, I was a mess. A mess with potential, but a mess nonetheless.
My father’s death at the age of 46 changed my attitude to life in a way that has stuck with me since. I realised that I was in my early 20s, but that this would only be for a very short time and that I needed to make the goddamn most of it. I would never again be as young and free as I was at that point, and I needed to do everything that I possibly could whilst I had the ability to do so. It occurred to me that seeing the world would be a fun place to start, and so I used my meagre savings and summer earnings to go on field courses and research trips to Malaysia, Peru and Mexico.
These trips had a pretty huge effect on me as I utterly fell in love with tropical rainforests. There was something about the diversity, the vibrance, and hell: even the outright hostility of the places that really resonated with me. Here was a primal landscape where it seemed that every element was extreme, and it was full of the most phenomenal wildlife. Whilst researching the feeding ecology of three sympatric caiman species in the headwaters of the Amazon I decided that I’d like to spend the rest of my life working in rainforest, or working to protect it. On a later fieldcourse I started talking to some younger lecturers and found that they weren’t actually that different from me after all, they were simply older and more experienced. It actually seemed quite a cool job, and genuinely attainable. For the first time a career plan came to mind: I was going to become a tropical biologist. It was ambitious, but seemed something I could achieve. My plan fell into place in front of my eyes: after I finished my undergraduate degree I would do a masters degree, then a PhD, and then work as a researcher in the tropics. Simple…
My attitude to my undergraduate studies changed dramatically, as I became strongly driven to make it in a career that I already knew was very competitive. My dissertation became a real point of passion for me, as I found it extremely rewarding being able to truly immerse myself in a scientific question for the first time. It became clear to me that I’d like to spend the rest of my days working in research. During this time I was introduced to the subject of conservation genetics. Where learning about the underlying structure of DNA in college had previously left me cold, I was fascinated by the potential value of genetic research in conservation. I spent a summer on fieldwork collecting bees for research into the effects of habitat fragmentation on their genetic diversity and intestinal parasite load, and it turns out it was really interesting. Perhaps I could need to know about genetics after all…
I decided that I would like to increase my knowledge of molecular biology, as its use in ecological research was exploding and it seemed likely to be a very interesting area to work in during my early career. I did an MRes (research masters degree) at Bangor University, spending a year using DNA barcoding to look at a potential intracellular endosymbiotic bacteria in an obscure order of plankton. It was quite a reversal from tropical fieldwork studying caiman! It was a very stressful year, but I relished spending an entire year in research, able to really sink my teeth into a large unanswered question. This was definitely what I wanted with my life. With a colossal amount of support from my partner I managed to get consistently high grades and leave with a distinction, quite a turnaround from my undergraduate days.
Towards the end of my masters degree I began applying for PhDs. When my masters degree then finished my partner and I were so financially broke that we had to move in with my mother and sign on for unemployment benefits. I applied for many PhDs, and also began applying for jobs with ecological consultancies: jobs that I didn’t actually want, but felt were better than nothing. I began working at my old job, stacking shelves in a motorway service station. For month after month I applied for ecological positions that I felt I was perfectly suited for and yet got no reply. The job market for ecology graduates in the UK is very poor right now and after watching many friends fail to get a position and have to give up, it seemed it was now my turn. A tragically high proportion of people with conservation or ecology degrees simply cannot get careers in their subject areas. After 5 years of scientific study on numerous continents, with increasingly building momentum, it felt like it had all been in vain. I was no better off than I would have been if I’d never been to university at all. My plans of a career in tropical research began to seem utterly impossible after all. It’s safe to say that this was a pretty bleak time.
Thankfully, this period came to an end when I was hired as a research assistant for Bristol University. I helped out on some research into the ecology of bat colonies roosting in the UKs churches. I spent a summer radio-tracking bats and observing the behaviour of a colony, including caring for pups who had fallen from their roost.
During this period I was in contact with Queen Mary University, and was invited to an interview for a PhD position with them. I got it and the rest is, as they say, history. I now study the feeding ecology of bats in the rainforests of Borneo through use of DNA barcoding. This puts together my previous work in tropical dietary ecology (from my undergraduate dissertation), DNA barcoding (from my masters thesis) and bat capture and handling (from my work for Bristol University). Though I had no previous intentions to get into this precise subject area, it’s hard to imagine a project that I would have been better suited for or enjoy more. I’m definitely far from having ‘made it’ in conservation, but guess I’m currently on track for a career in it anyway. Hopefully it may have been useful for some to see how I got here.
So what conclusions would I draw from this slightly self-indulgent essay then?
- On a philosophical level, I think we scientists have far less control over our futures and fates than we sometimes like to believe. Our current situations are the result of previous decisions, yes, but usually not in the way we think. Throughout my time at university or prior to going to university, I never expected to be quite where I am now. Every decision I have made in my academic career has led to this moment, but it has never taken me precisely where I expected to be. We choose the paths that we walk down, but we never really know where they will lead.
- Students are a work in progress, not the finished product. Most students aren’t certain of what they’re doing with their life, and certainly have more things going on in their lives than just their degrees. I think we academics tend to view our days in education through rose-tinted glasses and in this light expect students to be mini-academics, with their minds 100% focussed on their studies. In fact they’re far more imperfect than this, and that’s fine. Even if a student is a bit frustrating, give them a chance. If academics hadn’t been patient with me when I was a chaotic pupil, I likely wouldn’t be where I am today.
- It feels to me that the UK higher education system is starting to try to dissuade all but the most dedicated prospective students from applying. Although our recent increases in tuition fees don’t seem to have decreased the number of applicants to higher education, I expect that they will make a lot of young people think much harder about if going to university is for them. It could be argued that in some areas this could be a good thing as in areas such as ecology and conservation we’re pumping out far more graduates than we have jobs to give them. But this makes me wary, as I suspect it will stop a lot of people ever discovering a career that they’d be great at. Admittedly I have no idea of how to compromise between these two issues, but I definitely think we need to encourage into higher education those young people who feel that they might be interested in conservation and ecology. We can’t merely rely on those young people who have their entire lives planned out in front of them, as they’re the exception and not the rule.
- Most people don’t realise that a life in science and research is even an option, especially amongst demographics where it is rare for people to go into higher education. Although science is a fairly niche option, we need to communicate it harder to the public that this *is* an option. And as Terry said: “my extended family totally didn’t — and still doesn’t — understand what grad school and academia are about. They just don’t get what my job is. It’s a lot harder to choose a challenging path when your family doesn’t have your back.”
- In the past I have heard academics talk dismissively about undergraduate projects as being ‘just an undergrad project’. Whilst many of these projects don’t exactly produce groundbreaking science, they’re a fantastic opportunity for students to really dig their teeth into the scientific process for the first time. Enthusiasm for these projects should be really encouraged, as these are where a passion for science can really be sparked.