Finding your path | Trying out different experiences to discover your conservation niche

Anik Maxine Levac is a 28 year old conservation biologist from Canada. However, her experiences have taken her all around the world and she has not lived at home for the last 8 years.

She has a bachelors degree with honours in Ecology and right now she is working as a research coordinator for Crees Manu in Peru, teaching and training the next generation of conservation enthusiasts, dedicated to protecting the Amazon and its people.

When I asked Anik what initially sparked her interest in conservation she fell into deep thought.

‘’I don’t really know. It kind of just happened. From a child, I always loved cats and tigers. Those WWF commercials always made me cry. So I knew I loved animals and wildlife, but I had no clue about conservation and that you could study it as a career…

Anik on World Oceans Day.

“And so what happened was that a voluntourism group came into my biology class and proposed to spend the summer traveling into Africa and seeing the cheetahs,’’ Anik said as her eyes lit up with excitement. ‘’So I was like YES,’’ she said laughing.

Anik ended up taking on this voluntourism experience with her sister, which opened her eyes to the world of conservation and wildlife volunteering. Since then, she has kept climbing on the conservation careers ladder. She has done studies in birds, sea turtles, monkeys, jaguars, and worked in some of the most beautiful and biodiverse places in the world.

“So I started with volunteering in Africa for just two weeks. The following year I went to Costa Rica as a volunteer. I loved it so much I ended up staying as an intern and later as a field staff. That was all unpaid work, just to get experience,’’ Anik looks down at her notes not to miss any of the jobs that have led up to her current position as a research coordinator.

“They called me back several times, so whilst I was in Costa Rica they asked if I wanted to lead what is called the Central American trail, which is the backpackers’ trail. I said yes. From there, the same company called me back to start up a marine conservation project in Belize.

“From there I got an internship in Wisconsin. I worked there for 8 months doing whooping crane and sandhill crane monitoring and banding which was really cool. And from there I got another internship that I had been trying to get for 2 years in California doing passerine banding,’’ Anik takes a quick breath while I look at her, astonished by the accomplishments.

“After a career break in Australia, I went to the Philippines as a marine project scientist and then I found Crees. I think everything I’ve done has led up to this position I am in right now.’’

So how does a typical day as a Crees Research Coordinator look like, I ask.

“It is a lot of admin,’’ says Anik quickly. ‘’Most of my mornings, generally, will be answering the emails, fixing the schedule, making sure all the surveys have been recorded, backing up the data and checking its accuracy. Then the presentations, having tourists come in, during orientation week – introductory presentations, a lot of volunteer training.’’

Anik explains that even though people might think her job takes her out on the field a lot, it is not always the case.

“When possible I do go out on the field to do quality checks both on the staff and the trails to see what is really going on. When I do have time I look up new research projects we could do, review the protocols, and project proposals and make sure that what projects are being purposed align with Crees’ objectives, the time and equipment that we have. Most days will have a little bit of everything.’’

Anik Levack in the field. Credit: Triin Rennit.

As with every work field, there are some hardships and highlights that go along with the chosen occupation. ‘’Highlights first,’’ I say and ask Anik, what has been her most rewarding moment during her career.

“Can I say a marine thing, is that okay?’’ she asks laughing. ‘’So when I was in the Philippines, my job was similar to what I do here for Crees. So the month that I left I went with Arman – our project partner to this municipality where we were presenting results for two new MPA’s (marine protected areas) – did the presentation of results and had a meeting with 15 government officials which was very big for me. The week after I left I got a message from Arman saying that they confirmed to establishing these MPA’s.’’

Anik explains how in many conservation jobs it is difficult to feel the real effect of all the data work that one has done. “A lot of the times you don’t stay in a place long enough to actually see the outcome of your work.’’

We continue on the topic of hardships and the things people interested in conservation work should be aware of.

“It is very very competitive to start,’’ says Anik. “Everybody wants to work with cats, with sharks. Wants to work in the Amazon. Which is why a lot of people need to volunteer to get field experience or even pay to get field experience before you get anywhere near a paid job. So this is very difficult.’’

“The fact that you are financially strained, away from your family, friends, your CAT, from a flushing toilet, a hot shower. Being very mentally prepared for taking on an international remote low or no paid job is a challenge in itself.’’

However, from Anik’s tone of voice and the look in her eyes, it is clear to see how, despite the challenges, she is nonetheless in love with what she does. Her next goals include applying for a master’s degree and starting her own organization in the Caribbean or Southeast Asia.

As a research coordinator, Anik ends the interview with corresponding advice for anyone looking to work in conservation – to do one’s research before taking on any experience.

“I think what I’ve learned especially from being with a few specific organizations is to try not to go in blind. The volunteer experience is very different from the work experience. As a volunteer most of the time you will be paying so you are the client and therefore treated much differently and you might not see the negatives that are going on – whether they are in the area you are working in, the people you are working with or the organization – they might not reflect true. To mitigate that there are websites now, Facebook groups that have a good community of wildlife workers you can get in touch with and get first-hand information from.’’

I thank Anik for her time and as we separate, I feel more than ever that with the right mindset and effort, everything is possible.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Scientist