Adventures in ornithology – an interview with Professor Juliet Vickery
Professor Juliet Vickery is Chief Executive Officer of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), President of the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU), Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and Honorary Professor at the University of East Anglia. Juliet generously made time to share her career story with me and to reflect on BTO’s recent Youth in Nature Summit with her advice for young conservationists.
What first inspired you to work in conservation and what continues to inspire you?
“For me, it’s a really simple answer: a love of nature got me into conservation, and that’s what keeps me motivated and inspired. I grew up near Dartmoor National Park, and my parents enjoyed exploring the countryside. I think we all have an innate connection with nature that just needs an opportunity like that to develop.
“…when given a chance, nature can recover…”
“Sometimes on a day-to-day basis working in conservation is quite tough and not always constantly exciting and rewarding, but I remember that my end goal is to create a better future for nature. The fact that, when given a chance, nature can recover keeps me motivated, and the amazing people I meet who share a passion and huge determination to make a difference continue to inspire me.”
What are your current roles and work responsibilities?
“There are three core parts of my role as CEO of BTO: strategic direction, flying the flag, and looking after our staff. It can be exhausting keeping up with and switching between all these different streams of work, but the variety in each day is something I really enjoy. Learning new things daily keeps me energised!
“Setting strategic direction involves finding out what the outside world needs from us, reflecting on the organisation’s strengths, and then working out where BTO can have the biggest impact.
“I really love sharing the work of BTO”
“I really love sharing the work of BTO with others through my teaching roles at universities, meeting with external organisations, speaking at conferences and being an active part of the wider scientific community. I’ve found having roles outside of my main job at BTO to be really beneficial because it encourages idea sharing between organisations and helps me to develop different skills and networks.
“For example, my previous roles with the Darwin Expert Committee taught me a lot about grant applications, and with the British Ecological Society I learned about how science is incorporated into policy in the UK. A lot of the people I’ve worked with in all these roles have become a supportive network, which is invaluable to me professionally and personally.
“I strongly believe that you can’t win on the outside if you’re losing on the inside, so I ensure I make time to listen to staff and keep up with what is important to them. It’s not easy when you have staff across the four countries of the UK and are working remotely, especially during covid, so I have worked hard with the other leaders at BTO to make sure staff continue to feel supported.”
“A lot of the people I’ve worked with in all these roles have become a supportive network, which is invaluable to me professionally and personally.”
What key steps have you taken in your career so far?
“I followed the conventional route of a research scientist, and then took time to try various roles with different types of organisations to find what felt right for me in my career.
“I fell in love with the ability of science to answer conservation questions during my bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t a birder until I did an undergraduate project on swifts nesting in the museum tower and the effects of weather patterns upon them. The fact the swifts I studied were a fantastic indicator of what was going on in the world around them, and that the simple measurements I took could reveal fascinating and important insights, hooked me on ornithology.
“I fell in love with the ability of science to answer conservation questions during my bachelor’s degree.”
“I then researched water birds in Scotland, focusing on dippers, for my PhD. I met lots of brilliant people during my fieldwork – many of them BTO volunteers – who encouraged me and taught me field skills.
“After my PhD, I applied for a few jobs but was consistently losing out to people with post-doctoral research experience, so I instead did a 3-year post-doc on brent geese that was centred around the conservation-agriculture conflict arising from these wild geese grazing on farmers crops. Some important friendships and working relationships began during this project.
“I then had enough experience to apply for jobs outside of universities. I tried one role in the public sector, but I realised I didn’t feel fulfilled unless I could see the direct impacts of my work – an important lesson that guided my future career decisions. I had a short spell back in academia as a lecturer. I enjoyed teaching but became certain that I wanted to use science to answer conservation questions and see that work translated into conservation action, which was harder to achieve back then as ‘real world impact’ was not valued in the same way as it is now by, for example, research councils.
“[I] became certain that I wanted to use science to answer conservation questions and see that work translated into conservation action.”
“At this time, my husband was working on the other side of the UK and it was a tough decision to prioritise my career, but I stuck it out until a job came up at an NGO near his workplace – which turned out to be my first role at BTO as their Head of Terrestrial Ecology! This role required a lot of partnership working, particularly with policymakers in Government, and through those partnerships we saw a great deal of our science translated into policy on the ground.
“The role of Head of International Research came up at RSPB, and I took the opportunity to get involved with more international conservation and learn about how a much larger organisation than BTO operated. I came back to BTO when I was offered my current role as CEO, tempted by the chance of a new challenge and to test my leadership skills.
“Looking back, I’m glad I switched jobs several times in my early career (before commitments made this more difficult) to try new things and find out what I really wanted to do and which type of organisations I wanted to work for.”
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
“When I was starting out in conservation most scientists were men, but I’ve been incredibly lucky to have always felt genuinely listened to, supported and encouraged in my career. It’s so important for leaders to think about who they are putting forward for opportunities, experiences and even awards to try to support and encourage those who often feel overlooked or unheard. I am passionate about embedding equality, diversity and inclusion into our ways of working at BTO.
“I didn’t plan this, but looking back I can see that starting a family later – at the point in my career when I was leading a research team – reduced the impact that often has on working parents. My team continued working on our research grants while I was away on a (short) maternity leave. If I had been younger, becoming a parent would have had a bigger impact on my career, and this is one of the barriers that needs to be overcome if we are to make careers in science more accessible.”
You have just returned from BTO’s inaugural Youth in Nature Summit, which brought together young people and leaders from across the sector for a day of networking, talks and workshops. Why are you passionate about engaging young people with ornithology, and how is BTO making that happen?
“It’s often repeated that young people are the future. But young people are also the present – they’re making big contributions to conservation right now! Every time we put our trust in the BTO Youth volunteers they exceed all expectations; they’re a hugely valuable part of BTO. This has been reinforced by the BTO Youth in Nature Summit, which was completely designed and delivered by young people from start to finish!
“Young people are under-served in UK wildlife conservation, and the things we learn from our work with BTO Youth are helping us support other underrepresented groups in conservation as well. If there’s one thing that everyone can do to help nature, it’s getting other people to care. We need lots of different people communicating conservation stories in lots of different ways to encourage their peers to get involved, and the young people working with BTO deliver that in so many new and novel ways!
“It’s often repeated that young people are the future. But young people are also the present – they’re making big contributions to conservation right now!”
“Young people come with energy and optimism, and that can inspire and energise many of our staff, driving innovation and imagining new ways of solving conservation problems. I think the key job for my generation of conservationists now is to do all we can to equip young people with the tools, knowledge and confidence they will need to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the world.”
“If there’s one thing that everyone can do to help nature, it’s getting other people to care.”
Do you have any further advice you’d like to share for young scientists and conservationists?
“A lot of people think only scientists can work in conservation, and that’s not true! What we need now is conservationists in every walk of life.”
- “Hold onto your passion! Even in your dream job, there will be tough times, and the way through is to remember why you are doing it. Getting out into nature whenever I can helps me. A highlight for me this year was getting involved with Curlew fieldwork with a PhD student in the Brecks. Hearing the peeping call from a Curlew egg on the brink of hatching was one of those moments that reminds me why I love this job.”
- “Hold onto your networks! Something special about the conservation sector is the brilliant people you get to work with. Keep in contact with your networks not just because they’re useful (although they are!) but because they’re what makes work fun.”
- “Grab opportunities! When you have a chance to get involved with committees, voluntary roles and collaborations, don’t be afraid to take them. You’ll gain new skills, and opportunities can lead to great things.”
- “Finally, a lot of people think only scientists can work in conservation, and that’s not true! What we need now is conservationists in every walk of life. If you have a passion for biodiversity but your career is in business, finance, creative industries, logistics, etc, we need you! Think about all the many and varied ways your skills could make a difference for nature.”
Author Profile | Jenna Woodford
Jenna is the Social Media Officer at BTO and a volunteer Conservation Careers Blogger. Through all their work, Jenna aims to help make nature and the conservation sector more accessible and inclusive.
Featured image by David Thomas.