Chasing the elusive snow leopard dream

For many budding wildlife biologists, being paid to research a species as rare and elusive as the snow leopard is the dream. For Imogene Cancellare, a PhD student at the University of Delaware, this is her reality. Imogene kindly spoke with me about her journey to this position, and shared some advice for others starting out in their careers.

Studying the Snow Leopard

Imogene is in the second year of her PhD, working alongside Panthera to investigate the evolutionary and contemporary genetic structure of snow leopards across their range in High Asia. Aptly referred to as ghosts of the mountain, encounters with snow leopards are not common-place, so Imogene and her project collaborators collect scat samples for DNA analysis.

Following fieldwork in the Himalayan Mountains of China during summer 2018, Imogene will use SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) to measure snow leopard genetic variation. Alongside her research and as part of PhD Teaching Assistantship requirements, Imogene teaches an undergraduate Mammalogy class. This commitment ranges from grading exam papers to preparing taxidermy specimens for the university’s educational collection, and provides financial support covering Imogene’s tuition and salary. Further funding for research based activities within the PhD have successfully been obtained from external sources, most recently Panthera’s Sabin Snow Leopard Grant Program.

With her research explained, I asked Imogene how she came to land such an awesome PhD…

Snow leopard careers adviceExtensive field experience 

Following competition of a Bachelor’s in Animal Science at North Carolina State University, Imogene set out to expand her skillset by working in a plethora of carnivore focused fieldwork jobs. As a field technician or assistant biologist, Imogene worked on species from fishers and martens to cougars and black bears. These jobs provided Imogene with the comprehensive carnivore skillset; radio tracking and telemetry of live collared animals, tracking and trapping animals for collaring, setting and monitoring hair snares for DNA analysis, and use of camera traps.

To gain these experiences, Imogene worked across the United States from California to Colorado, and implores undergraduates to look outside their own state for opportunities. If your dream job does exist in your home town or state, it’s likely fiercely guarded by its current occupant. Such periods of travel can be expensive or unrealistic depending on the situation, but the message is simply to put yourself out there where you can, and apply for as many positions as you can.

Graduate studies

For people hoping to study for a PhD, a Master’s is a logical, and in some cases required stepping stone. For people hoping to build a career in wildlife conservation, in the field or otherwise, a Master’s can also be of great standalone benefit. Imogene completed a Master’s in Biology at West Texas A&M University, focusing her research on landscape genetics of bobcats in Texas, a project of her own design. Experience level of the student and logistics involved can dictate how projects are designed prior to the student starting, and Imogene was lucky that her acceptance into the program included learning how to design a project on her own.

Find your niche (but be open to opportunities)

In addition to extensive field and research experience, Imogene has spent time working at the Savannah River Ecology Lab at the University of Georgia as a research technician on a variety of genetic projects.  You’ve probably identified two key components that combine to form Imogene’s niche; carnivores and genetics, which inevitably made her the perfect candidate for her PhD on snow leopard genetics. That being said, it is important to be open-minded with jobs you apply for, as some careers are more competitive than others, particularly if you want to work on big cats or other charismatic mega fauna. 

Snow leopard careers advice

Don’t “just” network

Network, yes! Push your CV, yes! But don’t stop there. Networking is not just about telling someone who you are and what you want, networking is also about nurturing the relationships that you have. That, combined with the aforementioned experience and skills, is what led to the highlight of Imogene’s career – the moment Dr Kyle McCarthy phoned her up (at 7 o’clock on a Thursday morning, while Imogene was in a California RV park) and offered her the PhD. Five years previously, Imogene had applied for a MSc project with Dr McCarthy, and as a firm believer in “the squeaky wheel gets attention” kept in touch ever since. As a result, Imogene was in the forefront of Dr McCarthy’s mind when the project became available.

Snow leopard careers advice

Imogene demonstrates that hard work truly does pay off, and the connections you make along the way are valuable. PhDs (and jobs in conservation) are competitive, so whether you want to study snow leopards, salamanders, sea turtles or skylarks, the key take-away messages are the same; get experience, go to graduate school, find your niche, and always remember to network.

Imogene is an active member of the science Twitter (@biologistimo) and Instagram (@biologistimogene) communities, often dispensing natural history facts and updates on her field adventures. You can also have a look at Imogene’s website for blogs and further information on her research and science communication engagements.

Further Reading: Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists

Careers Advice, Interviews, Early Years, Wildlife