Podcast: Ken Norris | ZSL

In this podcast we’re speaking with Professor Ken Norris, Director of Science at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Ken leads the ZSL Institute of Zoology, the world’s only university in a zoo, and also oversees the vet teams who look after the welfare of animals at London and Whipsnade zoos. He’s a busy guy!

We talk about his exciting career in conservation science and he shares his advice for someone looking to secure a PhD as part of the academic route into conservation. As always, it’s a wide-ranging career-boosting episode.

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Audio Transcript

KEN: My name’s Professor Ken Norris, I’m the Director of Science at the Zoological Society of London. An important part of my job is to lead the Institute of Zoology but I’m also responsible for the wider science directorate, which includes our vets and other people involved in wild animal health in our zoos and also what we call our science resources, so our library, our biobank of tissue samples. I’m also supposed to be the kind of chief scientist across the organisation.

NICK: Right. Well welcome to the podcast. For people who don’t know ZSL or the Zoological Society of London and the Institute of Zoology that sits within that, can you just give us a bit of a description, you know, people think of London Zoo but it’s way more than that, isn’t it?

KEN: Well it is. I mean the Zoological Society of London is one of the oldest scientific societies in existence. It dates back to 1826 and was originally set up as a scientific society so the collection of animals in London was originally brought here for people to study, not for people to see and experience in the way they do today. Way back then, they had research fellows, we have fellows still. Our early fellows included people like Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, so people who were very much at the forefront of recognising the diversity of wildlife on planet Earth and trying to understand how it got here. Fast forward nearly 200 years and we’re now a kind of, a very much wildlife conservation organisation, very unique in that we have some of the largest wild animal collections in the UK and Europe, we have overseas conservation programmes in a number of different countries and obviously, as you alluded to the Institute of Zoology, which is the kind of, the academic research, primary research component of the organisation.

NICK: Right, so you have the zoo, if you like, which people can come and visit and it’s obviously a fantastic place to come and see all sorts of different animals. You have conservation programmes that are active around the globe, and then you have this institute which is almost like a university within the Zoology, the ZSL environment, if you like. Have I got that right?

KEN: Yeah, that’s pretty much right, yes.

NICK: So tell me a little bit about the Institute of Zoology then, because I know it’s just celebrated an anniversary, 30 years old, last year. What sort of things do you do within the institute, what are the things that you’re leading on and researching?

KEN: I’ll answer that question in two parts. The first is, there’s nothing really quite like the Institute of Zoology. It’s a small part of the UK’s higher education system but for historical accident in a sense it’s part of a, what is now a conservation NGO that has zoos and oversees programmes, so we have a bunch of people who are actually very similar in terms of broad science to people in the university system, but you know, very, very unusual context. And that is interesting because it allows us to network with the wider conservation community and the public about what we do in a way that is much more difficult in a conventional university department. In terms of our science we talk about ourselves as being kind of world leaders in what we describe as wildlife health, and conservation science, so this is really marrying together ideas around the factors and processes that affect the health of wild animals. That’s not just whether they’re sick with a disease but their exposure to pollutants, to habitat change, all of those things affect actually the health of wild animals which has then knock-on consequences for their population’s communities in the wider ecosystems of which they’re part. And so, really that, the kind of interactions around all that is what defines the science we do.

NICK: And how big is the institute? Can you just sort of paint a picture as to, you know, how many people are involved and perhaps who you collaborate, that sort of thing?

KEN: I can go outwards for that for you. So we’re only about 25 of core funded science staff. About 50 staff in total, which includes kind of grant funded staff, technicians, administration support people. On top of that we have about 50-60 PhD students every year who are registered for PhDs with collaborating universities in the UK and sometimes overseas. We also provide teaching to a number of post-graduate programmes run in London either through University College London mainly, or the Royal Veterinary College. Outside that, we collaborate really widely, I think at the last count we’re part of collaborations globally with over 300 other research organisations in over 70 countries, so we’re a small part of some very big global research enterprises. Within that we have a range of close partners, as it were, particularly University College London who we’re affiliated with, who we have doctoral training programmes with, who we do collaborative research with and teach courses with, and the Royal Veterinary College who historically we’ve done lots of teaching with that are increasingly getting involved in much more the kind of research side too.

NICK: And your role as the Director of Science at ZSL, could you just paint us a bit of a picture also as to what it’s like to do your job? If you have a typical week, you know, what does a typical week look like for a Director of Science?

KEN: Typical is the wrong description because it could be that I’m overseas involved with some research projects on the ground for a period of time, so back in April I was in Galapagos with one of my colleagues talking about the long-term collaborations we’ve had there and how we’d like to develop them. So an entire two weeks in an iconic place for evolution and conservation talking pretty much exclusively about science. This goes right across to something like this week, in which most of my week is involved in a whole pile of things that can range from anything like the podcast discussion that you and I are having to a promotions panel to a strategy meeting with my directors… with a team of directors and so on. So it’s… there’s no such thing as a typical week, it’s very, very diverse.

NICK: And is it the diversity that you enjoy about the job? Which elements do you think are the kind of best parts for you?

KEN: With all of these kinds of senior positions, there’s always a compromise between a whole bunch of different things. And if I’m honest, you’re never entirely happy about all of that.

NICK: Yeah.

KEN: I very much still identify myself as a scientist and still really want to maintain time and activity as a practicing scientist. That’s not just important for me personally, but that makes me a better science leader because it means I’m still in touch with what’s going on in the wider research community, where the new lines and directions are, where the new collaborations might be, all of that kind of thing. And of course, I also spend a lot of time on the leadership and management side, which itself is really important, so the challenge in my job, if that’s the right way of describing it, is to just maintain an appropriate balance between those different areas.

NICK: Do you get much time yourself to be doing the research or do you find more and more you’re doing your research through your students? Or do you try and sort of maintain a balance between those two?

KEN: I think both are true. So if you kind of map out, I mean I’m 30 years post-PhD now, your PhD, our PhD students often find it, quite understandably, quite a stressful part of their life but never, ever in your research… in your career again, get time to spend 100% of your time getting immersed in one particular project, and that in itself I think has always been a treat, and I always look back on those times as, yeah they are hard and challenging but they’re also really nice in that you get to spend 100% of your time as a research on a particular project. As you go through the system from post-doc to early careers, research into the more senior role folks like me, as you rightly identify, you do less and less of the research directly and you’re much more useful, actually, as an overseer of other people’s research, bringing on more junior colleagues, contributing to larger research projects as a person with particular disciplinary strengths and skills. So that’s just the way that evolution works. I think you also identified at the end that it is a challenge to maintain research yourself as somebody in my position because, as you might imagine, there are multiple demands on my time and managing those sometimes is quite challenging. But I still manage to try and keep some time aside for just thinking about science and doing the things that I’m interested in and I think might make a difference.

NICK: Which has got to be important when that’s where your passion has kind of evolved and come from. Yeah, I was looking to do a PhD myself, must be 15 years ago now, and as I started that, a mentor at the time said, these are gonna be the best years of your life, looking back they were for him. Well a) you’re being paid to do something you love to do, which is always nice. It’s a job in many respects rather than studying, but you also get the best training and you’re becoming an expert in your chosen area, a thing you should be really passionate about so if you can find the right PhD for you, it can really benefit you in all sorts of ways.

KEN: Yeah, that’s true. And just to add to that, I think the other thing that PhD students often don’t really appreciate as much as they might is all of the transferrable skills that come with that, because you can’t effectively take responsibility for day-to-day running a research project like your PhD were unless you’re incredibly well organised, you’re motivated, that you can problem-solve, that you can recognise challenges coming down the road and address them, that you can think about gathering data, managing data, analysing data and communicating all that to lots and lots of different audiences at different times. I’ve always thought that’s an incredible skillset and as a society, we don’t value that skillset nearly as much as we should.

NICK: And employers, they look for evidence of your skills, and I think that a PhD is very much like managing a project essentially isn’t it, you’re talking about deadlines, budgets, timescales, as you say, you know, there might be some sort of staff management or working with volunteers and others and, you know, conflict resolution, there’s all sorts within that that have after three years you’ve had a really intense experience, but gosh you’ve got a lot to talk about and a lot to showcase to employers.

KEN: Absolutely. I think they are wonderful experiences for those sorts of reasons and we should really recognise them as such.

NICK: What guidance would you give someone who’s looking to secure a PhD in ecology or in conservation science? I mean, it’s one of those areas I think going into conservation science where it feels like there is almost a career path for you, so it would typically – and correct me if I’m wrong – but it would be a degree and then maybe a masters leading into a PhD and then beyond that, you’re looking at post-docs and possibly then, you know, a tenure track or a more stable position. And each step I guess gets more competitive as there are fewer people staying within it. But for those who are looking to go into a PhD, if they think that’s the way they want to go, to develop their skills and, to kind of, to become a, you know, a real scientist if you like, you know, what should people be thinking about?

KEN: The first thing to say is that getting a PhD place is an interesting question to ask me because it’s many years since I did mine in a system that was very different. Now it’s very competitive to get a PhD place. Often people will be looking for graduate students with a good 2:1 or a first with some experience through their project that’s kind of indirectly relevant at least, to the areas of research that the PhD might be in. We’d be also looking for somebody that’s typically got a masters degree now, that has some obviously research experience through a masters degree and that is important because just to kind of be reassured that academically that person’s strong, and also that the kinds of work we do where you might be in the field in challenging circumstances, that you’re not approaching a PhD with a rather romantic view of what it’s about, that you do have a feel for how research works and how challenging it can be at times. And also people have experience, that helps. So that’s really challenging for people to get all of that. So my advice with the kind of playing the PhD game is, sometimes I see potential students being a little bit narrow in their focus, they go ah I’ve always wanted to work on, I don’t know, gibbons in Borneo or something, this has been my passion. But the chances of you finding something that’s that focused is really difficult. If you do, the chances of you getting it because of the intense competition is also going to be challenging so the trick is to spread your net quite widely. And also that’s a good idea because you never quite know what’s out there and you never quite know how that’s gonna shape the rest of your career and often, those kind of turns in the road that you didn’t foresee are the things that define you and kind of if I can give you an example in a while if you want to explore in a bit of detail, that’s quite how my career has developed too.

NICK: Well let’s talk about that. What have been the key steps that you’ve had in your career so far? Can you just give us like a brief potted history of how you got to be Director of Science?

KEN: Yeah. Just really briefly, so I was a PhD student and a post-doc in Oxford. I worked in mainly behavioural ecology at that time, I was really interested in how animals behaved and how the environment shaped those decisions. And so if you’d have asked me at that point where I would have wanted to go and where I saw myself, that kind of academic pathway that you just described would have been exactly it. That’s not the pathway I went down and that’s because, shortly towards the end of my post-doc I also applied to a job with the RSPB working in their conservation science department because they were looking for somebody at the time who had a background in behavioural ecology, who could think about the conservation of coastal birds and bring a bit more of an understanding to the processes through which human activities might affect bird populations and I had some of the basic science skills, although I never really worked in conservation up to that point, that would help do that. And I worked there for four years. That really changed my approach to science and for the rest of my career I always worked at the interface of what I’d call basic and applied science, so thinking about how we bring ideas and thinking that are typically done through more basic ecological research into a conservation context and make that work positively for conservation. So then I went through your classical academic route as a junior lecturer, as a reader, as a prof before I came here, most of that time was at the University of Reading. So that fundamentally shapes the kind of person I am now in that I had a real strong kind of tie to basic science and recognise how important it is but I also want that science to do some good in the world and that’s what’s really motivated me in my career.

NICK: When you look at your career so far, is there anything that stands out as a highlight or something you’re particularly proud of, maybe something you’ve discovered or a moment that you’ve had?

KEN: I don’t know, I think that’s quite a difficult question to answer and the reason is because you do this thing for a whole bunch of different reasons, ok? So as a research group leader, you bring on and support more junior members of staff and students and that’s a learning experience for the people doing that as well as it is for the students and the more junior staff involved. And I’ve always enjoyed that and got a sense of pride out of that personal engagement and personal progression. Kind of as a much more senior person now, we worry a lot about our institutional culture around all that, so about a year ago we were awarded a bronze award which is all about your kind of working culture and how you make it inclusive and open and fair and that’s the foundations on which science is done, underpins all the collaborative stuff and so I’m proud we did that, not because of the role I played but because it’s important for all of us and the way we work. In terms of my own science, you know, I’ve always find this quite a difficult question to answer because I work as part of some very big teams, a lot of people pushing all in the same direction and our successes are communal success, not just mine so… but I have luckily one example being involved in conservation in Mauritius for 20 years now. The endangered species recovery programmes there are among the most successful in the world and they… the person, Carl Jones, who works for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, got the Indianapolis prize three years ago for his role in leading all that and we’ve played an active role in the science around that for 20 years. And I’m proud of the contribution we made to that and a little bit of me will always go to some kestrels, Mauritius kestrels flying around in the world and we helped that happen. And if we hadn’t helped and been part of these bigger teams, that may not have been the case.

NICK: Science and conservation is all about collaboration, isn’t it, it’s all about working in partnerships with others and rarely is it about working alone, so it’s nice to hear those examples and to hear about the Mauritius kestrel. That’s an endangered species?

KEN: It is, it was formerly in the 1970s the rarest bird in the world.

NICK: Yeah, I thought I kind of half-remembered that.

KEN: Yeah, it’s an iconic conservation success story. How you turn around things that are so rare and so imperilled, 40 years ago nobody believed that you could, now we know that we can.

NICK: What were the threats then briefly, and then what were the conservation actions that were informed by science which have helped to turn that species around?

KEN: It’s obviously an endemic species to Mauritius, Mauritius lost after colonisation 85-90% of its forest. These are forest birds so stuck in very small relic areas of natural habitat. Then they used organochlorine pesticides to get rid of mosquitoes to control malaria in Mauritius, which they did, there was no endemic malaria there any more. But unfortunately that caused eggshell thinning, as it did in peregrine falcons and other birds of prey in Europe and North America. And so they became incredibly endangered and very, very rare. They were down to four known wild individuals in 1974. And how did they recover from there? Well, when you’re that imperilled, science isn’t gonna help. And so, the people led by Carl Jones at that time used all sorts of techniques from zoos, from falconry to breed birds and release them back into the wild, to build the populations back up again. While doing so, put in place monitoring programmes, then allowed people like me to be engaged to think about how those populations are recovering, what’s going on in them, if they’d stall for some reason, as the west coast kestrel population has in recent years, what’s going wrong, how do we fix that, what sorts of strategy should we put back in place to deal with that, and so that’s been a 40-odd year journey of severe endangerment to the point we are today when there are a couple of hundred birds now in the wild and a much better understanding of how their populations work, what we can do to protect them and conserve them and manage them, and what threats they might face going forwards.

NICK: That’s a great example of conservation in action working. We spoke to Nirmal Shah from Nature Seychelles who’s worked on Cousin Island with the Seychelles warbler, and it tells a similar story actually, right down to just a dozen individuals and now we have, you know, several hundred individuals, several decades later.

KEN: Well it’s just to show what a small world it is, I’m not involved any more but I was involved in the Seychelles magpie robin recovery programme because at one time that was run out of the RSPB. And yeah, so I was involved in that for a few years and so I’ve had the pleasure of going Cousin and seeing those warblers as well.

NICK: Oh, fantastic. Yeah, it’s such a small world, conservation, isn’t it? We’ve also spoken on the podcast to Cheli Creswell from Conservation Optimism actually, quite recently and we talked in depth about the importance of being optimistic in conservation and yes, biodiversity is facing, you know, lots of threats, we’re losing all sorts of battles across the globe with threatened species and habitats and populations. When you get up in the morning and you look forwards, you know, into the future, do you feel optimistic that we can still turn things around? That we have the knowledge, we need more support or, you know, what’s your outlook with the conservation and biodiversity movement globally?

KEN: That’s an enormous question. But just to kind of answer it very simply. Just during the time of my career, which is about 30 years post-PhD, I think we now know so much more about what works in helping nature recover, whether we approach this from the point of view of individual populations like the Mauritius kestrels we just spoke about, or whether we treat this as some sort of landscape-scale piece of work where we’re trying to put let’s say wild bees and other pollinators back into landscapes. All across different areas, different systems, different species, we’ve got some really good ideas now about what works, what doesn’t and I think the Conservation Optimism movement really, I think is moving us from a mindset in which we just think about the decline of nature and the problems it faces, to thinking about recovery in a positive way, how do we help nature recover. So we have the tools I think to do that. Why it’s a much bigger question is because that’s not enough by itself. You know, if globally, humanity wants this to happen, you know, enough people around the world have to recognise why that matters and care enough to do something to help it. You know, we put more money into saving the banking system in 2008 than probably we’ve ever put into conservation, yet which is probably more important to the long-term sustainability of humanity? So our priorities are a little wrong in that sense and so, kind of, it’s not just about people like me knowing technically what to do, it’s much more about the bigger human ecosystem out there and how it works.

NICK: And if you could click your fingers and I made you a tsar for the day, you could make a significant change, enact a new law, whatever it might be, you know, what would you like to see happen in an ideal world that you think would have a real positive impact on the planet? I know that’s a tough one and a big question but do you have any priorities you’d like to see happen?

KEN: Yeah. I think the major one is that we have to completely change our economic system and the way we think about that and move towards a much less individualised view of the world and much more communal view of the world and you know, this isn’t a kind of political statement, that’s just the realities of where we are, we’re on a finite planet. But we behave as if it’s infinite. And that’s simply because individuals can behave like that relatively with impunity but those behaviours have consequences for other people, particularly the poor and vulnerable in the world. And so, we need a more communal view of the way we run society and our approach to economics in particular, and how that supports people or not is really key in sorting that out.

NICK: Amen to that. Perhaps as my last question then we could just circle back on careers advice. Lots of people listen to the podcast to hear careers advice, to hear kind of hints and tips that’s gonna help them to secure their first job in wildlife conservation, whether it’s someone coming out of university, having finished their studies or someone maybe mid-career looking to switch in from a different job entirely. Do you have any advice for people who are looking to work either in conservation or in conservation science more specifically?

KEN: I guess you get lots of trite answers to that question and I can… it’s very easy for me to give one, too so perhaps I’ll try and say something a little bit different. And that is to recant a little story about my first head of school when I was a junior lecturer gave a talk about his career. And he put a blank slide up and he said, write down what you think would be single word I would use to describe my career. And everyone wrote down a word, right. I can’t remember what word I wrote down. And then he put up on the word “serendipity” and he said, for all of the kind of logic and you know, sense in which science works, serendipity matters more than anything else. Recognise the opportunity when it arrives and take it. And often we over-engineer things cause we think we’re gonna have particular pathways and that’s true in research and our own careers. And that blinds you to some extent to opportunities that you didn’t think about that arise. And so I would say, just always keep an open mind to what’s out there and what might be available. Don’t close yourself down too quickly and too early, in your own research but also in your own career.

NICK: That’s great advice, so to be open and have a plan but perhaps be open and be flexible.

KEN: Yep.

NICK: Yeah, fantastic. Well Professor Ken Norris, thank you so much for finding the time to chat today, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, hearing about your career, hearing about ZSL also. If people wanted to find out a bit more about ZSL and get involved, where shall we point them?

KEN: You can go to ZSL.org and if you want to see the science, there’s a science tab there, you can click it – which is where you found me so feel free. We’re very open to people contacting us. I think we have easy ways of getting in touch on the website and feel free to do so.

NICK: Fabulous, and we will provide links in the description and yeah, absolutely encourage people to get involved and actually we see regularly internships and opportunities to actually get involved in ZSL beyond the paid opportunities, so I encourage people to go and take a look.

KEN: The other thing very quickly to say is we do do collaborative events with organisations like the British Ecological Society for early careers researchers, helping them think about how to develop their careers so watch out for those, too.

NICK: Fabulous. Yeah and we’ll share them, and we’ve been involved in them also so yeah, that’s great. Thank you so much Professor Ken Norris, appreciate the time also and all the best. Thank you very much.

KEN: Thanks Nick, thank you very much.

NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.


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Careers Advice, Podcast, Senior Level, Scientist