How to become a research ecologist?
Dr Joe Chipperfield is a postdoctoral Research Ecologist working in the Biogeography department at the University of Trier in Germany. The main focus of his research is the development and application of new techniques to ascertain the ranges of species and to try and predict what may happen to these ranges in the future.
WHY DO YOU HAVE A CONSERVATION JOB?
I’ve always been interested in science and the scientific method, but definitely I’ve always been interested in nature and conservation and trying to apply my skills to a conservation setting. I like being able to do something that helps biodiversity, but there’s also a pure scientist in me which enjoys answering questions.
WHAT’S IT LIKE BEING POST-DOCTORAL RESEARCH ECOLOGIST?
My job is to create and design mathematical and statistical models which describe where species are, where they might be going, and to assess the effect of different conservation strategies on species. The majority of my job is computer programing – I sometimes feel more like a computer scientist than an ecologist.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF THE JOB?
I do like it when I create a product which has an applied angle. It sounds very theoretical when I describe my job to people, but actually I’ve always got a focus on application. For example, one of my jobs has been to create optimal reserve networks and to assess how the current big European-wide networks – like Natura2000 – help conservation. And, more importantly, whether it’s good or if we can reconfigure it to make it work better. So despite a lot of my work being programming and theoretical, the outputs of this can drive policy and make changes happen on the ground.
WHAT’S THE WORST PART OF THE JOB?
Certainly on the research side there is a lot of daily slog. Much of my work is programming and much of programming is failure really. You try something and it doesn’t work, then you refine it to make it work. But that’s not unique to programming I know lots of people who work on more of the laboratory side say exactly the same about lab work.
So much of my job is managing failure, but this does make success all the more rewarding, but you have to have the sort of mindset that doesn’t break down easily with failure. You have to be flexible and look critically at where you went wrong and try again. This is what science is all about.
WHAT KEY STEPS IN YOUR CONSERVATION CAREER YOU HAVE TAKEN?
My PhD was critical in so many ways. If you go down an academic line, it’s your basic requirement.
It does also teach you a lot and is your first real opportunity to undertake proper research. Prior to tis you can have a flavour of it through projects at undergraduate level and within Masters Degrees but not really until PhD do your experience the full joy and horrors of managing your own research project. It’s also the first time you’re fully accountable for the failures if things go wrong. For me a PhD was the first real point where I could make an informed decision to stay in academia or move into industry.
Prior to my PhD I worked as a research Assistant for a few different projects. These were pretty invaluable. I would tend to advise anyone to try and do these as summer jobs or between undergraduate, Masters or PhD levels. It’s great experience and gives you a feel of what a proper research project feels like.
Sometimes you get paid, but most of the time you’re a volunteer helping our on someone’s research project. They let you experience real fieldwork, and the physical demands that real fieldwork asks for. For mine in French Polynesia I had to climb a mountain every day to collect butterfly samples. Until I did it I don’t think I properly understood what that meant.
You also realize how things really work. In a grant application you might have a perfect plan, which in the field never works that way. It makes you more flexibly minded, when you realize how others have to deal with problems. Whatever conservation career path you choose to follow, this lesson is a valuable one to learn.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE WISHING TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?
The key one I give to my undergraduates is don’t underestimate the value of the quantitative methods in ecology. These are the mathematical or statistical sides of ecology; things where you apply mathematical concepts to data analysis.
The reason that’s very important is that there are plenty of amateur naturalists who can identify things as good as you can, if not better. And whilst that’s an incredibly invaluable skill, and I certainly would not denigrate that in any way; that alone won’t convince someone to pay you. Only when you have these quantitative skills can you really turn it into a career.
Regardless what flavour of ecology you choose, these skills are important: if you’re going down a more theoretical line, then mathematics is very important. If you’re going down a more field-based line then you’ll still have to have good statistics skills. You can’t get away from needing quantitative knowledge.
I’d thoroughly recommend a mathematics A-level if you’re looking to do biology, ecology or an environmental sciences undergraduate degree. In every instance it’s very useful.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SONG?
Atlas by the Battles.