Beavering Away – Sophie Pavelle’s Science Communication Work with the Beaver Trust
Sophie Pavelle is an adventurous zoologist and science communicator currently working for the Beaver Trust. Here she talks about the growing niche of science communication, how she got to where she is and her advice for others.
What is the Beaver Trust?
The Beaver Trust is a small charity which has only been up and running for a year with five of us working there. It started as a start-up business and wanted to be different to other NGOs by being small, agile, a bit maverick and tackling specifically the issue of ecosystem restoration, using the beaver as a totem to drive that message.
What is your role with Beaver Trust?
I joined in April 2020 and lead the communication and campaign coordination. It’s intimidating being a new charity in a crowded space with so many environmental messages to relay so I make sure we put ourselves and our work out there.
We try to be creative and I feel lucky to have this creative licence and responsibility, especially as a young person, to suggest a project and run with it – being a new charity we don’t have much to lose through trial and error.
My role also involves liaising with organisations to align our messages. One of our huge missions is to champion and promote collaboration amongst NGOs. For example, we have been leading a collaboration of 39 organisations to start a conversation with the government about a National Beaver Strategy to get beavers back in England – they’ve been legalised on the River Otter, but we want them legalised nationally.
What protection do beavers have at the moment?
Right now, they have no legal protection – which we are fighting to change. Beavers have, however, been accepted onto the IUCN Red List, meaning they’re recognised as an endangered native mammal.
Getting beavers normalised in our rivers again can be challenging because they’re ‘ecosystem engineers’, meaning they shape the environment in certain ways which has amazing knock-on benefits for biodiversity, flooding and drought – but that also means they make themselves known very quickly.
In England, 77% of the land is agricultural and beavers spill into this farmland and public space which can cause disruption, for example impacting famer productivity. So our work includes hosting positive and productive conversations and listening to farmers, landowners and fishermen who are worried about being impacted by a beaver.
Video credit: Beaver Trust
How did you find this role?
I feel really lucky to have picked up work during the uncertainty of lockdown. I craved being part of a team and a bigger mission – I wasn’t ready to be my own boss full-time and I also needed more money.
Whilst job hunting on Conservation Careers I got approached by the Director of Beaver Trust, to be a Trustee with a voluntary advocacy role. But, I was honest with him and said, “That’s a real honour but I’m 25, still living at home and need money!” I’m already an ambassador for other charities and have this specific skillset so I couldn’t justify another role where I gave a lot of my time but wasn’t financially recognised.
It just so happened they were at a point where they could pay someone to work part-time. I couldn’t have planned getting this job and I’m a firm believer in things happening for a reason, so if you get lots of rejections, and I’ve had so much rejection and failure – it’s because something else is meant to happen.
Have you always wanted to do science communication?
Not at all! In school I was in the classic situation of not knowing what I wanted to do. I loved the outdoors and nature, but a career in conservation wasn’t advocated at my school.
Being a pilot has always been in the back of my mind since lots of my family are in the military. I thought about veterinary medicine but wasn’t confident in maths or chemistry, so I did Zoology as that’s a good entry degree for veterinary later on. I considered converting to environmental law but after some taster days I realised it was too corporate for me – I wanted to be outside!
Doing surgery work experience was the turning point – a clinician said they were more in need of science communicators and researchers. I did a “Public Engagement with Science” course which was amazing. I really enjoyed talking to people about science – I’d never thought of using my degree in this way.
I wanted to do a Masters and found the Science Communication Masters at the University of the West of England which intrigued me. You’re taught modules in radio, journalism, TV, podcasts, public speaking and social media. It’s very practical. I highly recommend it – we are so in need of people who can relay what’s going on with the planet in a way that is digestible for your average person.
What key steps have you taken in your career?
I have done so much work experience and volunteering. I can’t stress how important that is – it shows what isn’t right for you so you can shut the door and move on, which is more valuable than reaffirming something you love.
I’ve done internships at magazine houses and editorial for Countryfile, which gave me a foot in the door there. Through keeping in touch in a friendly, polite way I’ve had a few features professionally with them.
I did some work experience with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) doing surveys I didn’t really understand. But work experience gives you confidence in the workplace and you can see how people operate; it’s always much less intimidating than you think it’s are going to be.
I applied for BBC wildlife work experience and got rejected multiple times. I also worked at production companies doing research but nothing came as a result of that. However, it all helped build a portfolio – it’s always useful to increase your spread of experience and contacts because you never know when you might need to call upon them.
What are your career highlights?
I secured a book commission with Bloomsbury which I am really proud of, because (along with invaluable steering from Bloomsbury) I did all the work myself. I was approached by a different publisher last autumn regarding an article I wrote in The Metro about the State of Nature Report (2019) and they said my writing style was really different, had I ever thought about writing a book? I said, “uh no, that’s terrifying”!
I wrote a proposal which they didn’t want in the end but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t want to let the first person who said no stop me, because there were probably a million reasons why it wasn’t right for them.
I found Bloomsbury who were amazing with guidance as I had no idea what I was doing. I still have to pinch myself – it’s mad that I’ve been given permission to write this book! Weirdly the book got the green light and I got the Beaver Trust job on the same day!
I am also proud and excited that my Masters dissertation has recently been accepted into an academic journal. I am painfully repulsed at these sorts of conversations but I’m trying to be better at saying when I’m proud of myself.
What advice would you give to people wanting a career in science communication?
Even though I was lucky that I was kind of in the right place at the right time when things were starting to take off for the science communication industry, it has by no means been an easy road. It relies on perseverance, networking and learning on the go. It’s important to be as consistent a hard worker and nice person as you can across your different jobs because having a good reputation will aid you in the future.
Find your own voice and have the confidence to assert yourself, especially as a young woman. I still find this intimidating. I wish you didn’t have to promote yourself to relay a message, but people listen more if they have an idea of who you are. I’m naturally a shy person, I know I don’t come across like that on social media, but I try and see posting about myself as part of work.
And trust your passion. Because you wouldn’t be curious about this space if you weren’t passionate about making people love nature as much as you do. Write down what makes you tick and excited, what you want to see – and be that change.
There will be many obstacles that try to dispel your passion, but it’s so important to remember why you decided to go down this path. It takes time but it’s incredibly rewarding and such an exciting space to be in at the moment.