Advice for a Career in Wildlife Biology and Conservation in a Competitive Market

Wildlife biology has changed immensely in the past few decades. Some of the professors that I worked with for my Ph.D. had calculated statistical results for analysis by hand! The rise of computing power and sophisticated analytics have transformed this field; scientific knowledge and expertise alone is no longer enough for most jobs, and modeling skills and quantitative analyses are what is desired. I believe I went to graduate school during a time of such great transition. No, we weren’t calculating anything by hand, but back then, a lot of people didn’t know about R.
 
Most everyone enters the field because they love being outdoors and/or their study  system/species, but you need to be careful, because if you want to be outside, the more advanced your career becomes, the more likely you are going to be sitting at your desk staring at the computer screen.
Most people conduct field research during graduate school, but the more advanced your career becomes, the more difficult it can be to get to the field.
When I was deciding on a career in science and whether to get a masters degree or a Ph.D., I sought advice from many scientists across many fields. When choosing a Ph.D. program and project, I was so worried about making the right choice as I felt this would influence the rest of my career. Despite these worries, I was told over and over again that I would not be pigeon-holed into a position based on my graduate experience. But I believe the times have changed, and fast.
 
I have seen a shift in the market since when I started, and I now advise my students differently. I’ve been taught that job advertisements are “wish lists” and that if you meet 75% of the requirements you should still apply. Competition has increased so much though that employers now have the luxury to choose candidate with the credentials that perfectly match match the job posting (and in many cases, even exceed them). I believe current and prospective students need to be concerned about being pigeon-holed in today’s market and plan their experiences carefully to garner the skills necessary to get the job the want. Here’s my advice:
 
I post lots of beautiful photos of wildlife, but most of my days are spent writing and analyzing data at a computer.
First choose the job you want right now 
Look at job postings and the jobs you ideally want – not the entry-level positions, but your ultimate career goal jobs. Some of my favorite wildlife and conservation job sites are: Society for Conservation Biology, Texas A & M Wildlife and Fisheries Job Board, Ecolog, USAjobs.gov, and visiting the websites of companies or non-profits you would like to work for.  Do this over the course of several months. After you collect a large number of postings, look for common themes and make sure you get those qualifications before leaving graduate school. I think this step also applies for those interested in academia; look at how the job is advertised (e.g. urban ecologist, evolutionary biologist, etc.) and think about all the different ways you can sell yourself. Try to see if there are fields that are more desirable or where you can be more niche.
 
Truly understand what that job is, and why you want it
If you visit other sites on getting a job in conservation or wildlife, you will see lots of photos of people feeding animals, them out in the field, or amazing animal photos in general. However, there are many jobs, and I would even say the majority of the permanent jobs in conservation are office-based. 99% of the time I am at my desk behind a computer screen. I post beautiful photos of animals every day to Instagram for #MammaloftheDay, but I have only been to most of those countries once for days/weeks at a time. Almost all of the professors I worked with in graduate school never or rarely went to the field, and if they did, a lot was more of a managerial position (i.e. managing students in the field rather than doing the works yourself). I have seen the same pattern in federal and state positions, and even abroad. Many scientists I met during my field work in Gabon lived and spent most of their days in the capital, Libreville. So if you really love doing field work, think hard about getting a Ph.D. Also, take the time to understand what you will be doing in the job. If you are going into research, you have to really love the practice of research (asking questions, testing hypotheses) – that should be your driving factor. If you like just being around animals or nature, research may not be for you, and you might find more happiness in a zookeeper position. In the recent past, publishing papers on the natural history of species was enough, but now that is difficult to do due to lack of funding sources dedicated to this type of research, and journals’ reluctancy to publish results. Now research is driven by testing theories and concepts that can apply to a wide range of taxa. In other words, you have to really love science, which means analyzing data and writing. Finally, a lot of conservation work has nothing to do with animals, but everything to do with people. Again, if the parts that fascinates you about a job in wildlife biology or conservation is the idea of seeing animals or being around animals, then stick to the masters level position.
 
Ph.D.? Masters? 
Review the the job descriptions and requirements that you’ve collected to see what kind of experience you will need. I went from several internships after college into a Ph.D. program, so I didn’t have the opportunity to search for jobs at the Bachelor’s level, but based on my experiences and perceptions from being in the field, it seems difficult to get a permanent job with a bachelor’s. Deciding between a Ph.D. and a masters is a tougher decision. If you end up getting a Ph.D., but are more interested in jobs that require only a masters, you can be overlooked if you apply to those jobs despite meeting (and exceeding) the requirements. This happens frequently (both in my experience on hiring committees and as a job-seeker) and if you are certain you want masters-level jobs, then do not get a Ph.D. The employer might make a lot of assumptions about you, for instance that you might be unhappy in that type of job or that you are only using this job until you can find another better job. It can be very difficult to convince the hiring manager that you really do want this job. Once you get a Ph.D. you are expected to be the one managing research, so your top interests should be conceptualizing projects and writing up the big picture – not so much about data collection.
 
Courses? Area of Research?
Once you decide what level of education you want to get, you have to decide where to do this, but more importantly, with who. I personally believe your advisor/lab is more important than the degree/department, but opinions may vary on this. Why is the advisor more important? Because your advisor is your gateway to your next step. They are your major source of networking for future jobs and if they have a rock solid reputation and a lot of connections, this will get you places. You should also consider your labmates and the department. This will be your major source of future colleagues and collaborators, so if you find out that your advisor is not exactly a perfect fit (or frequently not there, yes this is actually pretty common), it may be worth it still to pursue working with them if they have a solid lab. In regard to the school/department you belong to, my degrees are in biological sciences, but they could have easily been in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department (and I would have been paid less for doing the same type of work, but that is another topic), and I even applied to a professor who  was in the Geography department. That said, make sure you get the courses you need for the job you want despite the department. When I was in undergrad, I went to a large state school, but there were not the specialized classes like there are today, and I also  didn’t realize the value of taking some classes. For example, in some government jobs you can meet and exceed every criteria, but if you haven’t taken a botany class, then you will not be qualified.
 
Courses seem to be less important than your actual research experience (except for government jobs, see above). That said, you CANNOT take enough statistics courses nowadays. Really, all of the most in demand positions are quantitative. Also, if you know what you want to do, you should get courses in that field because everything is so specialized. For instance, if you want to work for a nonprofit, you might want to take a policy, economics, or course about fundraising/marketing. There are so many options nowadays, so I think it is better to overprepare than under. Also, some fields are specific about their course work. Again, a lot of government jobs, especially state agencies, like to see formal training in a Fisheries and Wildlife type of department despite your research experience. My undergrad university did not have those types of courses, so even though I learned the concepts in graduate school, if I were to apply for some state positions, I may not be competitive. Go back to your job ads.
 
I hope you find my advice helpful in this incredibly dynamic, technology-rich world. If you have any advice you think I missed or questions, please comment in the sections below!
Scientists at work. We’re much more likely to post photos of us in the field, even though we spend a lot of time at our computers.
 
 
 

Why I Use Instagram for Science Outreach

Lots of people have been asking for my response to the recent Science magazine opinion piece “Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach,” so here it is. I never felt like wildlife biology (my field of science) was for people like me. As a young girl, wildlife content was geared towards hunters or whimsical (e.g. unicorns, ponies). My first years in grad school, I came in as “me” with make-up on and business casual clothes – not even that fancy, but I increasingly felt like I didn’t belong. Almost no one wore make-up, and Chakos and field clothes (REI, Columbia) were worn even though people did not go to the field. It was implied that any moment I would spend on myself, doing things that were not related to science (e.g. putting on makeup, shopping) was a sign that I was not a serious scientist. It was made very clear to me that almost every waking moment should be spent on science. So I conformed. I limited my makeup and wore yoga pants to show I was so busy doing my research that I couldn’t possibly have the time to put on pants with a zipper (even though it took me longer to pick out a yoga pants outfit). But I felt awful. I felt sad. I didn’t feel like me. So then I rebelled. I honestly also had so much eyeshadow that I figured it would take me forever to get through it if I didn’t wear it every day, lol. So I started wearing it again. And I felt better. I felt like me and when I feel good, I am more productive. It’s kind of like when you dress up for a job interview in a suit, you start to feel more powerful. Clothes have meaning. I’ve been giving talks to classrooms for 8 years now. Every time I enter a classroom, including this last Friday, the students tell me they thought I was a student teacher or a mom. They are SHOCKED when I tell them I an the scientist. I first changed my handle to @FancyScientist for Twitter because the teachers I worked with kept calling me fancy and I felt it reflected my personality. I started doing #FancyFriday to show that I am not the only #FancyScientist. That there are lots of us out there – to show young girls that they don’t have to choose between liking fancy, frivolous things and liking serious things like science (and to show those in academia too). Because society often casts us into stereotypes, we feel like we have to choose one. It was never my intention to show one type of scientist, or to tell scientists that they have to be feminine or frilly. In fact I have gone out of my way to show diversity in people and diversity in fanciness. But I also get that Instagram can be TOXIC for women, scientists included. That we only post when we look and feel our best (myself included). Remember it’s a highlights real – and that we usually just show our best selves. In fact, for my body, I had to unfollow any account that made me feel like I needed to sculpt my abs and started following women who love their bodies. So today I’m showing my  unfancy self. And a reminder that science is for everyone!

 

The ABC’s of Elephant DNA

My previous blog brought up how difficult forest elephants are to see, and therefore study. Much of the research on forest elephants has actually been on their dung to obtain information about the elephant.

Forest elephants defecate roughly 17-20 times a day, making it an accessible source of information. Traditionally, dung has been used to study diet. Forest elephants consume hundreds of species of plants, either as fruits, bark, or leaves, and sorting through dung piles gives scientists’ detailed information on what they are eating. More recently, scientists have used dung to obtain DNA. But how do scientists get DNA from dung?

DNA is found in nearly every cell in an individual’s body. The best sources of DNA come from tissue and fluids. Scientists who study amphibians will often cut off a portion of an individual’s toes (“toe clipping”) to get a DNA sample. For many species (forest elephants included), sampling body parts simply will not work. Tissue can be accessed though from dead animals, which is important in forensics cases to combat poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Collecting blood, although less invasive than tissue collection, still requires capture, which is stressful, and for many species, anesthesia, which is costly, and a risk to the individual. Within the past few decades, methods have been developed that allow researchers to collect DNA samples without ever even coming into contact with the animal. This is called non-invasive genetic sampling and uses sources such as hair, feathers, shed skin, egg shells, and feces to obtain DNA. It is more difficult to obtain DNA from non-invasive samples than tissue or blood, but it is worth it because it has no impact on the animal you are studying.

For elephants, the best way to get DNA is from their dung (feces). As mentioned before, they defecate often, making it easier to collect a large number of samples. We obtain DNA from dung samples, but the DNA is not in the dung per say. Rather, the DNA is located in the cells that have been sloughed off onto the dung. When the dung passes through the intestines inside the elephant’s body, it scrapes along the walls. When the elephant defecates, some of these cells will be stuck to the dung bolus and fall off with it. That is why it is best to have fresh dung (we use look for dung that is 24 hours old or less). When scientists find fresh dung, they put a small portion of the dung inside a collection tube. It’s easy to tell fresh dung apart from older ones; it has a stronger smell, sheen around it, and is usually intact as a bolus (unless an animal stepped on it or went through it; insects can break it apart and red river hogs will go through it). For importation into the U.S., the sample needs to be boiled within the tube in a bath of hot water to make sure that any pathogens are killed. To preserve the DNA for long-term storage, a liquid buffer is added, turning it into “dung slurry.” These samples are stored in a cooler, dark area of the field station for the duration of the trip.

Once the samples make their way through customs and into the lab, they need to be turned from dung into just the DNA. This involves an extraction process that takes several hours. Briefly, the samples go through a series of steps that involve breaking open the cells (the DNA is inside the cell) and removing the parts of the cells and the sample that are not needed. The sample contains large non-DNA parts including grasses or seeds from fruits the elephant has eaten, and also insects that may have been on or inside the sample when it was collected. The extraction process removes all of this. People often think it’s gross to work with dung samples, but after extractions, you are only working with the DNA, which is basically colorless, odorless liquid that resembles water inside a tiny tube.

In my research, I was able to use dung to identify patterns of sociality in forest elephants. When I found more than one dung pile together and of the same freshness, the elephants were likely part of the same group. The DNA from the dung allowed me to uniquely identify each individual. Therefore, I could keep track of who was hanging out together without ever even seeing them. I found that forest elephants were mostly in groups of individuals of the same matriline (their mother’s ancestry), which is also seen in African savanna elephants. Also they have larger associations than what is observed just from their group sizes – a hidden social network.

The diagram above is a network of forest elephant associations collected from dung samples. Individuals (symbols) are connected to one another by lines if their dung samples were ever collected together. Darker lines mean they were collected together more often. The symbols are a circle if the elephant is a female, and a square if a male. Each color represents what matriline (mother’s ancestry) the elephant belongs to.

DNA is a powerful tool and allows you to answer questions about animals without ever even seeing them. Some of the ways that scientists use non-invasive DNA include species identifications (finding new species or detecting if a species is present in a certain area), population estimates, the connectivity of populations across the landscape (are animals moving between populations?), and inbreeding. These findings are not only important contributions to science, but often critical in the management and conservation of threatened species.

*This post was originally featured on the African Wildlife Foundation

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Ten Songs to Boost Your Confidence (Especially For Women in Science)

Recently I tweeted that part of my preparation for a job interview included listening to Demi Lovato’s Confident during my workout. And I wasn’t kidding! Music has a big psychological impact on me and I’ve found that when I’m in a bad mood or feeling insecure it can help me feel empowered. Today was one of those days, where something happened, I started to doubt myself, and lost my confidence. Women in general struggle more with confidence and it can be especially hard in the sciences where there is so much competition and rejection. I had to workout anyway, so I took my own advice and listened to my confidence-building playlist. And it worked. So by request, I am sharing my playlist with you:

  1. Formation by Beyonce. This is a requirement. If you can only listen to one song, listen to this. I actually listen to the Formation (Beyonce Extended Fitness Version) by Dance Guru vol 1 on Spotify because it is more upbeat than the original (better for workouts) and Beyonce’s is not on Spotify. Here are my favorite lyrics: Get what’s mine, take what’s mine, I’m a star, I’m a star ‘Cause I slay, slay (sing along while you work out); I just might be a black Bill Gates in-the-making. (I am obviously not black, but the latter applies. Oozes confidence.)
  2. Sorry Not Sorry by Demi Lovato. This is a more recent addition, but I love it because Demi is not apologizing for who she is. Favorite lyric: Feeling inspired ’cause the tables have  urned, yeah, I’m on fire and I know that it burns.
  3. So What by P!nk. While this song is about a relationship, it is a good song to listen to if things aren’t going your way (e.g. after a rejection, a failed experiment, etc.). Favorite lyrics: So what, I’m still a rockstar, (Obviously) I got my rock moves. 
  4. All of the Lights by Kanye West. Kanye is the king when it comes to confidence. This song does have some good confidence-building lyrics, but it is more about the overall drama of the song. It feels empowering. Turn up the lights in here baby, Extra bright, I want y’all to see this
  5. Woman by Kesha. If you thought Kesha was all about partying and auto-tuning, then you are wrong. Kesha’s latest album Rainbow is all about women empowerment in light of her #metoo struggle with her former manager. Woman makes you feel like you can do anything.
  6. I Wanna Get Better by The Bleachers. I love this song. This is a great song to listen to if you’re not quite ready to call yourself a “Bill Gates in-the-making.” It puts some baby steps in between so that maybe one day you can think that way about yourself.
  7. Feeling Myself by Nicki Minaj featuring Beyonce. Nicki basically raps for four minutes about why she is awesome. You can learn from her.
  8. Confident by Demi Lovato. The name says it all. What’s wrong with being  onfident? This song is the opposite of Wanna Get Better. It’s when you are feeling good (or need to feel good about something like a job interview) and gives you the boss attitude you need: It’s time for me to take it, I’m the boss right now
  9. Let ‘Em Talk by Kesha. I told you her new album was good! Once you have your new found confidence, this is great to listen to as you continue to pave your own way.  Empowering lyrics: Do your worst, ’cause nothing’s gonna stop me nowDon’t let those losers take your magic, baby, yeah
  10. Can’t Hold Us by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. This song for me is about the drama of the music more than the lyrics, but there are definitely some good lines. And he references sharks:
    Y’all can’t stop me, Go hard like I got an 808 in my heart beat, And I’m eating at the beat like you gave a little speed to a great white shark on shark week…

Those are my favorite confidence building songs. What are yours? Leave in the comments below.

 

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