I recently gave an interview for a Master's student, about my experience of conservation. I thought the answers were worth sharing, and thank you to Elaina Waters for being such a good interviewer!
1. Did you always know you wanted to work with wildlife?
Yes! I can remember wanting to be a palaeontologist at the age of about four, but by eight, this had matured into wanting to work with actual living animals. So really, for about as long as I can remember, wildlife was what I wanted to do with my life.
2. What was it that steered you there, or what is it that piqued your interest?
Whilst neither of my parents have a huge interest in nature (I’ve cultivated that over the years, but really it doesn’t particularly pre-date me), I do remember having a lot of toy animals, or pictures of animals as a child. My mum remembers me always being more interested in animals than anything else, so whether it was a very early developmental thing, or just something intrinsic about my personality I don’t know, but I do know I never wanted to do anything else.
3. Can you tell me a bit about your background and education?
Despite my fairly middle-class family, I went to quite ‘rough’ government schools in England. I managed to do well at school, probably because education was highly valued at home and I was bright enough not to need to work particularly hard until A-level (exams taken at 18, which partially determine your university). That said, I did work very hard for my A-levels, and although I didn’t have much practical support from my parents, they both really understood why this was so important to me, and sort of left me to get on with it! Throughout school I did a mixture of arts and science subjects, although I think I am more inclined towards artistic subjects. I would happily have done a very different set of A-levels, but I chose the subjects that were needed for the degree programme I wanted to attend – I was fortunate to know exactly what and where I wanted to study, so I was able to reverse-engineer my studies and take the most appropriate courses.
I then went to Oxford for both my degree and my PhD. I was unusual in that I didn’t actually do a Master’s degree in between, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and with which research group, so it just seemed like a waste of time and money. And anyway, by that point I was very bored with being taught, and wanted to go out and do things!
4. You have a pretty bad-ass job currently, can you tell me a bit about it?
Thank you, I think so! Actually, since we met last summer, I’ve managed to develop of few more exciting projects: currently I am finishing up my PhD, working as a consultant for a REDD+ project in Kenya, and I’m about to become the head scientist for a huge protected area in Mozambique.
Really, I’m a cross-breed: I’m not really a pure zoologist any longer, but also not a proper social scientist, I sort of merge both disciplines. In Kenya, I’ve been hired to run a social impact assessment (SIA) for a carbon storage scheme in the Chyulu Hills, and I’d expect to do a lot of this kind of SIA work in the future. But in Niassa (the park in Mozambique), I’ll be doing a combination of the ‘pure’ conservation science activities e.g. radio collaring and camera trap grids, as well as some fun social science activities, such as community values and perception studies. All in all, it’s a pretty perfect combination for me, which lets me ‘do’ both animals and people, so I never get bored of either! I’d say my job is a mix of science (both social and actual science) and conservation work, with a pinch of a few other things like media engagement, fundraising, and writing thrown in. It’s pretty varied work – one day I could be writing funding applications, the next going out to track lions, and the day after talking to a classroom of children in America about wildlife. I honestly think I have just about the best job in the work.
5. You work closely with different communities in Africa, how do you make connections with these people and overcome cultural barriers?
I think that half the battle is time: you have to really spend enough time in a place to understand people’s concerns, their needs, the conflicts they experience. I think (hope) that these days I’m able to engage with communities reasonably quickly, because there are a lot of similarities between different places, but just that empathy and willingness to engage with their lives and needs is really important – and if you don’t mean it, they will know!
I guess the second key factor is language. If you can learn, it always makes a huge difference. So whilst I wouldn’t say that my Swahili is good, it is ‘working’, i.e. I can make myself understood and understand largely what people are saying to me, so I do manage to get things done. Obviously, I’m trying to improve it all the time, and again I think that really demonstrates willingness to meet people in the middle, which is important. You always have to go to communities, never expect them to come to you.
6. Have you worked on any other projects that helped you get where you are now?
So many! Every project I have worked on has helped me to get to here. I genuinely think that every single project, every single person I have worked with, whether good or not, has helped give me the perspective I now have. Actually, perhaps the bad projects, the bad colleagues, help you to learn far more than the good ones. I have a whole list of things I know I don’t want to do, or be like, or how things shouldn’t be run, so I can avoid those things more easily on my own projects. I’m sure I still make a lot of mistakes, but it does help guide me knowing what I’ve seen go wrong in other places.
7. What skills do you think are essential to do the work you do?
You have to like people. People are difficult, and working with them under stressful circumstances can be doubly so, so genuinely liking people and wanting to understand their perspective is essential. I think self-reliance is also really important. My gut reaction to issues is usually to figure out how to fix them on my own, and that independence and problem solving is key to being able to work in remote situations.
It can be hard to juggle the academia with practicalities, and all the other things you need to do to be successful (e.g. maintain relationships with funders, have a media profile etc.). For example, if you are working with communities out in the bush, it is very easy to forget why academia is important at all. So you have to be able to juggle those priorities, and not let yourself become overwhelmed with whatever you are currently doing, to the point where you forget about all the other things. So yeah, I think time management, prioritisation, and planning are really important – and often seriously underrated skills.
8. I know maybe Canada is a bit further from Africa than the UK is, but how did you get your foot in the door to be able to work on projects in Africa?
I was actually really fortunate, and I was able to work as a research assistant on a variety of projects in the gap year I took before university. I was able to pay for my own air fare out to South Africa, and the projects where I was working were generally happy to cover living costs. I really recommend this approach to anyone who wants to work in Africa – I think time on the ground, in the bush is one of the biggest leg-ups you can give yourself, so taking the time to work for free (or nearly free) when you can – probably before university – has meant I have so much more experience and practical knowledge than many of my peers. In terms of practically accessing these opportunities, do your research. Find graduate students and contact them directly. We always need a hand, and if you email a lot of them – and you do have to do the work, and find the suitable people and their contact details – lots of people would be happy to have the help, particularly if you are able to cover your own costs. So I think gathering experience that way really helped in the first place. It meant that when I later wanted to work in the same region, I have the skills and experience to convince people – supervisors, funders etc. – that I know what I am doing.
9. Once you are done with your PhD, what do you plan to do?
Carry on the work in Niassa! This is basically my dream project: I’m going to get to do really meaningful work in an area where very few scientists are working. And I really believe that this is an opportunity to get some good science done, and do some really tangible conservation work. It might be nice to do a bit of consulting on the side, but the core project – hopefully for many years – is likely to be Niassa. If you are interested, I’m going to try to periodically update my website on progress with the projects.
10. We met on a winelands tour in Cape Town which you were on to celebrate your birthday, which is a pretty epic way to spend a birthday. What is your most memorable field work experience?
Ooh, so many to choose from. A few years ago, I had to drive my car down from Kenya to Botswana for some fieldwork. That was the first time I had done a really big overland trip, and there were (naturally) quite a lot of interesting experiences along the way. But one of the most memorable, and sort of meaningful for me, was driving into the South Luangwa. Almost exactly ten years previously, I had been on my first trip to Africa, which was a safari with my family to the South Luangwa. On that trip, obviously, we were tourists, we were looked after etc. And we had a great time – and at that point I really knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. So to go back, ten years on, driving into this area on really rugged bush roads, fording a river, pitching camp, all in my own car, by myself… it really felt like I had achieved what I’d set out to do. The sense of accomplishment and the feeling of finally, truly knowing what I was doing was just huge.
11. Do you ever get home sick being away from home for so long, or has Africa become where you consider home now?
I’m really more at home in “Africa”, although I hate to say it like that, because it’s such a big continent and really I specialise in East and southern Africa – I’ve only been to West and North Africa once each. At the moment, I’m in the UK (under lockdown), and it’s a nightmare. I don’t really feel like I live here, and most of my possessions, including my car, are in Mozambique. It’s pretty weird being in the UK for an unknown amount of time and I just feel it really isn’t my home any longer. I do miss people, but I try to visit friends in Europe whenever I am there, and if they aren’t good at online communications I’m realistic in knowing that I am unlikely to be able to maintain a meaningful friendship with them in the long term anyway. It’s hard, knowing that there are people that you will inevitably end up drifting away from, or friendships that you have to ‘let go’ of, but it’s part of the sacrifice you make if you want to work somewhere interesting.
12. What advice would you give to someone that was hoping to do fieldwork in Africa, or any foreign country?
Go there. Go and get stuck in. The same as my above advice on working as a research assistant, I really think that the most important thing that you can do is get hands-on experience. But of course, this isn’t everything – I’d say experience really needs to be paired with education, so really think about staying in school. For me, without both my practical experience and my academic background, I wouldn’t have been able to access really any of the opportunities that have got me to where I currently am.
In terms of really small, tangible things that you can do, here are a few things that come to mind:
1. Learn to drive – stick shift, I think Americans call it? You need to be able to drive a car to be useful in the bush, and you don’t want something small like not having a driver’s licence to stop you from doing the things you want to do! It’s also really important just in terms of being able to keep yourself and others safe in an emergency.
2. Do some first aid courses, if you want to be anywhere remote.
3. Learn an unusual skill – for me, it’s the social science stuff. But there are loads of other academic skills that really help get you into places. GIS, for example, is hot stuff and really useful, but anything analytical could be a big help.
4. Coding is key – don’t be scared of maths, stats, and coding. All of them are really important in terms of being useful.
5. You have to put in the time. Whether that is volunteering locally, doing local research, or getting out to wherever, it really is a case of putting in the hours. Everything you can do will help, even if it doesn’t seem like it – or indeed, seem very exciting – at the time. Find out what opportunities you can access locally, maybe volunteering at your local Nature Reserve – whatever it is, just get stuck in. People will really respect that commitment, which shows your dedication to the subject.
You need to be able to demonstrate to a project or supervisor, that this is really truly where your ‘passions’ lie, so anything you can do that will show, rather than tell, them that is really valuable.
13. What challenges have you had in the course of your field work and how did you overcome them?
Fieldwork is all about challenges. They all start to blur into one… But seriously, there are certain challenges that repeat themselves. I’d say they come in three main flavours: shortage of funds; broken equipment; and staff/personal dynamics. Funds are always going to be an issue, there’s no two ways around that. You just have to keep applying, keep applying, and know that eventually something will come through. For broken equipment, the thing that really causes me problems are issues with my car. I really rely on that vehicle, so when things go wrong it 1) causes me to worry, 2) has cost implications, and 3) impacts my ability to do the actual work. There’s not very much you can do to prevent it, either. So you just learn to accept breakdowns are part of life, and know that there is always a way you can work around the problems they create. The last one, and probably the most important, are staff and relationships with people. I hire a lot of local people to work with, and honestly the more time you can spend determining who you want to take on, the better. Sometimes for social reasons, you have to take members of staff who wouldn’t naturally be your first choice, but if you can be kind and patient with staff, they almost always come right in the end. Colleagues, on the other hand… I haven’t yet figured out what to do with colleagues you don’t get on well with!
14. What accomplishments have you had so far that you are most proud of?
I guess I’m pleased with how practically skilled I’m getting. I know a reasonable amount about my car, I know a decent amount of Swahili. Really, it’s the day-to-day life stuff, the things you only get by living somewhere, that make me feel like I am growing. The academia is an environment I’ve grown up with, really, and it isn’t so difficult, but learning to be part of a society where you didn’t grow up? That takes time and patience, and getting to the point where you feel embedded properly is really satisfying for me.
15. How do you answer the awkward interview question “what would you say is your worst quality”?
This is always an awkward question. People say ‘perfectionist’ as one of those not-really-a-flaw flaws, but for me it really is. I can switch off if I feel like I can’t do something properly, or obsess over small things to get them exactly how I think they should be. Fieldwork gives you a dose of reality for that! But with academia and writing papers, being a perfectionist can really be a flaw.
Another really unhelpful quality is that I respond best to pressure. In the absence of pressure, I often lose a lot of drive and struggle to get things done (I’m very good at procrastinating!). I think this is a consequence of being forged in a very high-pressure academic environment, but it can mean that I fall apart slightly when there isn’t any time pressure to get things done. At the moment, for example, I’m really struggling to do anything because there is really no time constraint, so I seem to be letting simple tasks slide even when I could easily just get them finished! It drives my mother mad…
16. Field work can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. How do you cope with this in the field?
Personally, I don’t find it that exhausting. That’s not true — it can be, but I think it really depends on your team. If you get a good team or good colleagues, fieldwork can be the best way to live your life. But if you are working with people you don’t like, it can be exhausting. So as far as possible, I try to be really selective in who I work with. For example, I try not to work on sites where I haven’t got to know the members of staff first. Staying in touch with friends and family is important; a bit like this COVID lockdown, that sense of contact, even if you can’t actually see people, is helpful for sanity. And for me maybe the most important thing is always knowing why I am there. With the Niassa project, I can see how my work can have real impact, that is a huge motivator for doing good work. It also helps that it is a stunningly beautiful place, with excellent people! But whatever your reason is for being somewhere, whether it is to gain X skill, or learn about Y animal, centralising that reason and reflecting back on it when times get tough can be really important for picking yourself up and carrying on.
17. If you could go back and start school all over again, would you choose the same thing?
Absolutely, without a single shadow of a doubt.