Switching it up: From astrophysics to kākāpō conservation | An interview with Dr Andrew Digby
Dr Andrew Digby is a conservation biologist who works for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. He dedicates his time to saving two of New Zealand’s most vulnerable birds; the Takahē and the Kākāpō, and is the scientific advisor for the two teams responsible for their recovery.
Andrew hasn’t always worked in conservation, however. Originally from the UK, he has a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics and worked at NASA as a postdoctoral fellow before deciding to switch careers.
In this interview, Dr Digby talks about the importance of making new connections, using your existing skill set and following your passion. He also speaks about how volunteering can be a useful avenue into the world of conservation, and a way of meeting like-minded people.
For anyone looking to move into a career in conservation, this interview with Dr Digby is invaluable. Read on to find out more.
Your background is in astronomy and astrophysics – what made you want to work in conservation? And was it easy to make this change?
When I was growing up I was interested in a couple of things – one was astronomy, and the other was nature and wildlife. I would have loved to have worked in conservation from an early age, but it wasn’t really a career option when I was growing up, so I followed my other passion which was astronomy.
After a few years, I decided I wanted to change careers, which proved quite difficult. I came to New Zealand in 2006 and ended up doing a lot of volunteer conservation work, and really wanted to do it as a full-time job.
I spoke to a lot of people and tried to find out what I really needed to do to become a scientist in conservation, and was told I needed to do a PhD. So I ended up going back to University and training to do a second PhD, and after that I landed a job with the Department of Conservation.
Have you been easily able to apply your knowledge and experience in the physical sciences to your work in conservation?
That’s one of the things I tried to do when I made the switch. I don’t have the background that most people in conservation will have had – I didn’t even do biology as a separate GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education in the UK) when I was at school – so I thought I’d try and apply what I know from the physical sciences.
I was able to apply a lot of what I’d learnt from my PhD in astronomy to my PhD in conservation biology. A lot of what you learn from doing a PhD or a degree you can apply to other fields – it’s just a different set of topics. You can easily use a lot of the methods and analytical techniques you’ve already learnt. I actually think having a different background can be quite advantageous; sometimes you might think in a slightly different way to other people.
What would you say are the key steps you’ve taken to get to where you are today?
I’ve been quite lucky – being in the right place at the right time has definitely helped, as well as working hard and always trying to do my best at everything.
But also, the most important thing is just to do what you love doing. People think I’m mad for doing a second PhD, but I absolutely loved it. I was spending my time walking around in the bush and in the hills, surrounded by wildlife – it was fantastic! Following your passion and doing what you enjoy is really crucial.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
It varies. Often, I’m just stuck in front of a computer, because I’m responsible for the scientific content of our two species programmes. I try to work out what the gaps in our knowledge are and how we fill those gaps.
I also talk to people in lots of different fields, which is really cool. We work with nutritionists, for example, as well as human health experts, geneticists and vets. I’m always slightly amazed by how diverse the group of people that we work with are. A lot of these people are not in conservation at all, but we can apply their knowledge and their skills to kākāpō conservation.
I’m also a bit of a geek – I quite like analysing and visualising data. So I spend a lot of time trying to work with the data that we collect for kākāpō and takahē in order to understand some of the main issues these animals face – things like infertility and disease.
Other times I’m out in the field, which is my number one love. In breeding season, I’ll spend pretty much all summer out in the mud and in the bush. Most people who work in conservation like being surrounded by nature, being out in the mountains and in incredible places that most people don’t get to go to. I’m really lucky.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is definitely working with the species and being out in the field. The work that we do is very intensive; we do quite a lot of handling of birds in a breeding season with kākāpō. We weigh the young chicks and hold them and health check them, and we check the adults every year too.
But more and more I really like the idea of just just watching and observing the birds, and not interfering with what they’re doing. That’s something that we’re focusing more on for both programmes – how do we step back? How do we let them do their own thing and be more hands off? That’s something which I really enjoy.
What is the worst part of your job?
The worst part is probably the things that get in the way of the conservation work. And sometimes, that’s people.
You’ve often got lots of very diverse groups of people, and you have to get everyone to work together. Sometimes there can be slightly different agendas and that can make things a little bit frustrating. We just want to help the birds, but we have to spend a lot of time trying to make sure people are nice to each other.
Working for a large government department there’s always a bit of bureaucracy as well, which can get in the way of things, but that’s just the way that large government departments have to work.
Having said that, we’re lucky – our team is small and we’re quite agile, which means we can dictate and direct our own work. That’s one thing which I really love and one of the main reasons for the success of these two teams; the ability to be flexible and to change our management approach quite quickly.
What would you say are your career highlights so far?
Well, it’s been a long, difficult process, but recently we finished sequencing the genomes of all kākāpō. It’s been a huge project, and there’s been a lot of frustrations, a lot of different people involved, and a lot of bureaucracy to get through.
Now we have a data set of the genomes of most of the kākāpō, which is a really cool resource for people to be able to mine to try and help the species. It’s been pretty magnificent to be able to pull together a big team to do that.
The other two real highlights over the last few years are the two massive kākāpō breeding seasons we’ve had. We had the biggest breeding season on record in 2016, and then we had an even bigger one in 2019. Those are pretty monumental occasions when they happen because kākāpō only breed every two to three years. Being part of that has been really special.
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Doing what you love is really key. Sometimes that’s very difficult, but if you love doing something then it won’t be a difficult process to get ahead in that field, because you’ll put the extra effort in.
For people wanting to work in conservation, I would also recommend volunteering however you can. Volunteering is really important to get to understand the issues and to get to know people, as well as bolstering your CV a little bit.
If you’re a career switcher like Andrew, start with our free guide to applying for conservation jobs, our Ultimate Guides How to switch careers into conservation and Switching careers into conservation | A snapshot of jobs, or jump straight in and search for the latest conservation jobs.
To find out more about the work that Andrew and his team do, visit the Department of Conservation’s website. You can also head over to Andrew’s twitter page, where you’ll find plenty of videos of Takahē and Kākāpō in action.
Author profile | Jasmine Rees
Jasmine works in financial services and originally studied a degree in history. She first became interested in conservation after travelling to Australia and New Zealand, where she realised the landscapes and wildlife she encountered needed protecting. She enjoys writing, music and politics and hopes in the future to use her skills to further the cause of conservation. You can find out more about Jasmine on her LinkedIn page.
Main image credit: Deidre Vercoe.