The Birds and the Bees | Career Advice with pollination ecologist Dr Amy-Marie Gilpin
“If you take care of the little things, the big things take care of themselves” – Renford Reese
For many, it’s hard to imagine the intricate inner workings of agricultural ecosystems, especially in a place like Australia. With diversity across temperate and tropical environments, we tend to take the contribution of floral resources and their unique pollinators for granted. Pesky insects and supermarket produce are consistencies that co-exist (or plague) our everyday lives.
But with the increasing threats of climate change, population growth, and food insecurity, Dr Amy-Marie Gilpin is seeking to first understand these pollinator networks, their dynamics, and their responses, in order to conserve these invaluable resources.
Amy-Marie completed a Bachelor of Science at the University of Wollongong, where she majored in biological science and geoscience. She then went on to do an honours project focusing on the pollination biology of the endangered purple wood wattle (Acacia carneorum).
Amy-Marie also sought to understand the relationship between plants and their pollinators, as well as the circumstances under which positive interactions (like facilitation) or negative interactions (like competition) occur across both native and agroecosystems.
As a plant pollination ecologist at Western Sydney University, Amy-Marie shares her advice on crucial conservation skills in the collaborative work environments being built today.
Two birds with one stone
Like many conservationists, Amy-Marie struggles to identify the single event that inspired her career, but recalls having a life-long interest in the natural world, which was sharpened by her desire to understand how things work.
Having grown up in the picturesque Blue Mountains, her interests in bush walking and bush regeneration prompted a further passion for exploring the environment.
“I’ve always been very questioning about things… I combined both things, the love of nature and a questioning mind, and came out into science”.
Making a beeline for success
With a keen interest in the biological sciences having been solidified in her high school learning, Amy-Marie was swept up by the possibility of a tree change when it came to university. After attending an open day, the University of Wollongong and the surrounding coastal ecosystems it offered was the fresh new start she was seeking.
“It was there that I learnt about jobs in science and in conservation. To me, that just sounded amazing that you can combine a love of nature and the outdoors, and effectively working to help those ecosystems”.
After developing a clearer insight into university life, Amy-Marie pursued satisfactory grades to be accepted into the honours program. Yet again, her journey was uprooted and this time it was to the remote deserts of New South Wales. A fundamental question asked by her research supervisor was something that really paved the way for Amy-Marie’s career into further study, including writing her first paper, and being awarded a PhD scholarship.
“[He] said ‘do you want to answer other people’s questions, or do you want to ask your own questions when it comes to science?’. That got me thinking that I actually wanted to ask my own… I got to explore my own questions and had more independence with my research. That was amazing…”
Amy-Marie has since taken post-doctoral positions at the University of New England and Western Sydney University, where she was recently selected for a research fellowship.
“Now I totally get to ask my own questions and to help students learn about science… hopefully getting them enthused to do their own research, [which is] super rewarding”.
Despite her ongoing success, it was reassuring to hear that there was no magical pathway to her career gains. Instead, Amy-Marie explained that it is important to research what steps you need to take that are tailored to your own goals and interests. She firmly believes that this is made possible by three crucial skills – determination, organisation, and planning.
“You’re going to get setbacks all the time. But [by] breaking down what you want to achieve into manageable parts… you’re working towards something small to achieve something big. I’ve always got a plan to try and achieve those goals to get to wherever I want to be”.
Bitten by the travel bug
With a passion for research and science in many diverse contexts, Amy-Marie shares a bit about her goal of combining her love for travel and her conservation interests. Although travel is often logistically or financially difficult with the COVID-19 pandemic, she is hopeful that all budding conservationists will get to experience these transformative environments. From the deserts to the rainforests in Africa, to India and Nepal, Amy-Marie encapsulates the “mind-blowing” beauty of travel:
“I love everywhere, I love exploring new places and new ecosystems. I got my dive license because I just can’t believe that there’s this whole other world underneath the ocean that most of us never get to experience that often, and it’s just incredible. I try to pick places that have unique ecosystems, plants, or animals and explore them… I think once you’ve got an enquiring scientific mind, those places are just amazing”.
Check out some highlights from Amy-Marie’s ecological travels!
A hive of activity
When Amy-Marie isn’t wandering through uncharted territory, she’s wondering how she can utilise each day to tackle her conservation goals. This often means compartmentalising specific research goals and finding the tools that personally work best, even if it’s as simple as a special pen. Here’s her advice on how she allocates her time, according to when she works best and has the most energy:
- Mornings -> avoid emails and forms that you can get bogged down in! Instead, use this time to be creatively productive, whether that be writing papers, or planning talks and lectures. After all, writing is the currency by which scientists distribute information! This time is also important for any meetings, which can kickstart actions for the rest of the day, and to get guidance on anything halting your progress.
- Afternoons -> reserve this time for the tasks that don’t require as much brainpower. This might mean anything from data entry to processing field or lab results, depending on the nature of your job.
Remember this can look different for everyone, depending on if you’re an early bird or a night owl, or anything in between!
“Daily life starts with making a plan. [By breaking] down each day of the week, I have tasks that I set myself. I really have to identify when I do work best and prioritise that time”.
The social butterfly
In a dynamic field like conservation, it is no secret that cross-disciplinary, collaborative efforts are essential in order to implement revolutionary best practice. For Amy-Marie, this has meant applying conservation skills in new environments and social contexts.
“[The Greenscapes project] brought us all together from very different backgrounds… one of the key things that I actually learnt from that collaboration was effective communication and how important it is within a team to progress research”.
With anthropogenic disturbance causing urban environments to impede further into vital conservation areas, community outreach is increasingly being recognised and implemented.
“[The Greenscapes project] totally relies on input from the public, because we’re actually trying to create a space for the public, and it’s very important that we get the public’s opinion on what they actually want to see in their environment… [We can effectively make something to service the people], because we are coming at it from very different angles. Collaboration and bringing multiple disciplines together is always a challenge, but it’s so worthwhile”.
Do you feel like your communication skills need a boost? Learn more about the Communications for Conservation Projects course!
A fly on the wall
From an outsider perspective, a career in conservation promises a life of passion and reward. Yet, like in any job, Amy-Marie knows that field work and data processing can be plagued by monotony, and she describes the “love-hate relationship”:
“The best thing is definitely teaching others, I love that aspect… Just trying to inspire others to think, to engage with their environment, to understand it and to hopefully conserve it…”
“The worst part is the repetitiveness… You’re out in the field for a really long time doing the same thing, and in my case that’s standing and watching plants and pollinators, which doesn’t sound that bad. But when you’re out there for months on end, it does get quite tedious”.
“When you come inside, then you’re putting all that data into the computer for weeks on end… even when you’re writing or doing the statistics, it gets very repetitive. By the time it’s going to publish, it’s like I never want to read that paper again. But you do, and you repeat that process all over again…”
Stirring up the hornet’s nest
It’s hard to shy away from the serious nature of conservation work, especially for those who are working at the knife’s edge of wicked problems like climate change and food security. With the added pressure of gatekeeping issues in science, Amy-Marie touches on how she deals with these tough challenges:
“I guess I see massive reward in what I’m doing… I want to make sure that I communicate things effectively to people in the public, so that then we can hopefully make change, [raise awareness], and start to change our habits”.
“Quite often, scientists have a tendency to do the research and publish the papers, and that’s the end of the story. But I think we need to get a lot better at communicating not just to scientists, but to the general public… … I think the only way we get change is by informing people, so how I do that is giving talks to retirement villages [for example]…”
“If anyone asks me can you please give a talk, I always say yes…. I should be trying to make every effort to communicate as best as I possibly can and as frequently as I can what I’m researching because I’ve spent a very long time at university, studying and researching. Not everyone has the time to be able to do that, so if I can convey what I know to people I think that’s super rewarding”.
Find out more about Amy-Marie’s involvement in community outreach and media engagement.
Have you got ants in your pants yet?
Despite all her success, Amy-Marie humbly describes her most proud highlights to be the achievements of her students, whether it be publishing a paper, giving a talk, or presenting a poster. It’s crucial that the next generation of conservationists are equipped with intra-personal skills such as determination, organisation, realistic goal setting, and persistence.
“Research exactly what you want to do… If your aim is to be an academic at a university [or a leading conservationist in a not-for-profit organisation], you need to know the steps to get you there… Planning it out in realistic terms is exactly what I think you need to do, [but be prepared for setbacks and know you need to move past them].”
However, it’s equally important not to be disheartened by your experience. Everyone has their own unique pathway to their ideal career and as long as you are passionate enough, you will find your way through adversity. If you’re feeling a bit lost, check out this ultimate guide to find the best conservation internships and volunteering opportunities.
“…It’s certainly not just about whatever marks you got in high school; that’s not going to dictate whether you make it or not. There are so many opportunities where you can work or volunteer for a bit, where you can try and gain experience. [You] should be looking for paid opportunities because it’s your time, and it’s not just about the experience”.
Interested in learning more about Amy-Marie’s research? Please check out her current projects and published research outputs.
“If you want something bad enough, there’s lots of different ways to get into conservation and ecology”.
Author Profile | Madison White
Madison is a proud Indigenous Australian with strong spiritual, cultural, and familial roots connected to the Kamilaroi tribe. She is pursuing a Master of Research at Western Sydney University, with a keen interest in, and contribution to, projects studying the platypus. She has a passionate commitment to ecological and wildlife conservation, which she hopes to achieve through a career in field research. She also volunteers for bush regeneration efforts with her local council.
Featured Image: Amy-Marie Gilpin capturing pollinators in an apple orchard in Bilpin, NSW. Credit: Western Sydney University.