A neotropical conservation career companion
“After I’d left university I was sure of one thing,” says Christopher Beirne, “That I never wanted to do a PhD.” But career trajectories are an awful lot like jungles – wild and unpredictable – and nearly 10 years after first falling in love with the neotropics, Dr Chris Beirne landed back in Peru as Research Field Coordinator for crees Foundation.
Whilst John Kricher’s famous ‘A Neotropical Companion’ has served as the ecologist’s bible for nearly 30 years, Beirne sheds some light on what few books can tell – just how to jumpstart a career in the tropics.
What does your job involve?
It´s an exciting job because you get to go out into the forest and on surveys a lot. But you also get to interact with local people, be it staff, community members or visitors from SERNANP, the Peruvian park authority. You get to work with people from all around the world, give talks and debates, collaborate with international researchers and work on datasets which you hope one day will contribute to our understanding of tropical ecology and conservation. There´s never a dull day and time flies by because you´re doing so many different things.
What is the most rewarding and the most challenging part?
It´s like a double-edged sword: the most challenging part is walking the same trails every day because I love to explore, but the most rewarding part is being out in the forest and never knowing what you´re going to get. You can be on a trail that you’ve seen five times that week and see something completely different that you’ve never seen there before.
Is there anyone that you’ve looked up to in your career?
I´ve never had a celebrity crush on someone, but I´ve always looked up to academics because of their child-like minds. Even academics in their 40s or 50s still get super excited by little things – that´s something that I don´t see in a lot of other adults.
What´s the best piece of career advice you´ve ever been given?
Don´t be afraid of doing something different. After my undergrad, I was offered the PhD which would have been easy to take, but it wasn’t what I wanted.
When I eventually took a weird PhD (in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Genomics), everyone asked, “Why are you doing that?” I did it because it was interesting, not because it was going to get me to X place. When I took my job at crees, there were people who thought, “You´ve got a PhD, you need a Postdoc.” But sometimes it pays dividends taking risks and doing what you want, not what you feel like you should do.
What advice would you give to someone early in their career?
Do stuff for the love of it, not for the money. I have friends who´ve done stuff for the money and when I go home now, and they´re not very happy. And the time to do it is when you´re young, because it doesn´t impact anyone except yourself.
What advice would you give someone considering an undergrad, master´s or PhD?
Do it because you want to learn. If you feel burnt out, go and do something else.
Take a broad option for your undergrad, keep your options open and your mind open and do things that interest you. Don´t think, “I’ve got to be a tropical ecologist so I have to study tropical ecology.” It´s not even as simple as that; you need to become a scientist first and then you can specialise. And you can do that by whatever route you choose.
What kind of experience is important to get outside of study?
Practical field work. It doesn´t matter how good your scores are in your degrees, some people just don´t get on in remote environments. If you want to be a computer nerd, sit on computers. If you want to become a tropical ecologist, marine biologist or anything that requires field work, you need to get field experience. It doesn´t matter how you get it – whether a university expedition or a volunteer programme – it´s the fact that you´ve got it.
What would you look for in a field staff candidate?
At crees we look for people who’ve got field work experience. You can have the best CV in the world but it doesn’t mean that you´re going to get up a half three in the morning, do a 12-hour day and finish with a smile on your face, happy to chat to people.
But we´re also looking for people who have a unique skill-set, something just a little bit different, be it in data analysis, a love of butterflies or some crazy handling experience. They´re the sorts of things that make you stand out from the crowd.
Do you have any regrets?
One of my only regrets was underselling myself. I was looking for graduate jobs when these two positions in Ecuador popped up: one was an unpaid internship and one was a paid job. The job said you had to speak Spanish and since my Spanish wasn´t great I went for the intern position. I got it, but as soon as I got out there they said I would have got the staff position if I´d applied for it.
If someone gave you ten million dollars towards tropical forest conservation, what would you do with it?
I´d selfishly use a bit of it and make my own reserve. Then I’d start employing local people, changing mindsets and getting in schools.
But I´d make other parts of it available as grants for early-career researchers or student expeditions – all the things that I used to get where I am today. There are lots of keen people out there, but there´s never enough money for every trip to go out and I´d love to contribute to that.
Feature image credit: Andy Young – Wildimages.org