As part of International Day Women and Girls in Science, we're profiling several RSPB women scientists from our Centre for Conservation Science, asking them what they do, how they got their current jobs and for any tips they have for aspiring scientists.
Dr Fiona Sanderson is a Senior Conservation Scientist working in our International Research Section. Here's what she had to say:
My work includes trying to understand the impact of international policy instruments such as the European Union Nature Directives and REDD, and the impact of tropical agriculture, particularly cocoa, on birds and other biodiversity. In practice this means I spend some time managing people and projects, quite a lot of time interrogating large datasets for patterns in bird populations in relation to policy-driven land use, and small amounts of time in exciting and exotic places like Sierra Leonean rainforests. It’s all good.
I don’t have any science A-levels, unless you count geography (some do; some don’t). When studying geography at A-level and reading about conservation in my spare time, I realised I wanted to become a conservationist – my plan up to that point was to become a writer.
I took a four-year degree in Zoology at Glasgow so that I could transfer into science without the A-levels needed for a three-year course at an English university. After an MSc in Ecology, spells counting penguins in Australia and Manx shearwaters on Skomer Island, my first long-term contract was as a Research Officer at the British Trust for Ornithology.
I left that for a PhD in population ecology and monitoring of the hazel dormouse, before going back to bird research for the International Research Section at the RSPB. I’ve been here ever since.
What was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
I have two daughters and I know it's a cliché, but managing a young family and a career is not easy. I was on a long-term contract when I became pregnant with my first daughter, was ill for some of the pregnancy and quite worried about my future career. I was lucky enough to be offered a permanent contract just before I went on maternity leave, and the RSPB were happy for me to come back part-time.
It does feel challenging initially trying to keep up with your research field whilst working part-time and parenting, and I could not have managed without a supportive line manager. It was more unusual then to be a mother, a scientist and working part-time – there weren’t any in the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science when I first went on maternity leave.
Now it’s more common, which is great to see. As well being the right thing to do, it just makes good business sense, because if scientific employers don’t support parents sufficiently, they don’t have the opportunity to draw from the widest pool of talent available to them.
Can you tell us your proudest science achievement?
Back in 2015 I was researching the population trends of EU breeding birds which are protected under EU Nature legislation, compared to those which are not. EU policy might sound excruciatingly dull, but international nature legislation is potentially incredibly powerful for protecting wildlife, which doesn’t recognise international borders.
Our work showed that birds protected under EU nature legislation have more positive population trends, and that this remains true even for species you would have expected to decline under climate change – so nature legislation, probably by creating protected areas, can mitigate the impact of climate change.
This is a really hopeful conservation message and helped provide evidence to support the RSPB and BirdLife International campaigns to retain the EU Nature Directives at a time when they were under threat.
The European Commission could have decided to weaken them, but instead they decided to retain the legislation and strengthen its implementation. I’m really proud to have been able to provide evidence to support such an important policy instrument for conservation.
I particularly like the fact that this kind of work involves thousands of volunteers across the continent who go out and count birds at weekends. I’ve worked with these citizen scientists throughout my career, and the amount and quality of data these armies of people can collect is astoundingly powerful in enabling us to detect large-scale patterns in wildlife populations.
What are your top tips for an aspiring scientist?
Watch out for Imposter Syndrome! This is just a fancy name for the feeling that you’re not good enough, despite being successful, and that you’re about to get found out.
Self-reporting suggests that the majority of female scientists, and a lot of male scientists, experience this at some point in their career. It sounds really obvious, but I found it useful to learn quite early in my career that thinking this way is very common, and feeling like an impostor does not mean you are one.
Are there any female scientists you aspire to/follow on twitter/wish to be more like?
I really admire my ex-colleague, Annika Hillers, who is now Liberia Country Director of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation.
Annika is a brilliant field scientist – she’s a world expert on West African amphibians. Fieldwork conditions in West Africa are tough and there’s no way I could do the kind of work Annika has done there! She did an incredible job building the capacity of researchers in Sierra Leone.
Building the skills of scientists in countries that have high biodiversity but low financial resources is obviously fundamental for effective global conservation – and she set up an educational NGO for Sierra Leonean children. On top of all this, she’s also a kind and generous person.
Inspired by Fiona? Why not read our other profiles of female RSPB Scientists?
As part of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we're profiling several RSPB women scientists from our Centre for Conservation Science, asking them what they do, how they got their current jobs and for any tips they have for aspiring scientists.
Dr Lucy Wright is a Principal Conservation Scientist based at the UKHQ, in Sandy. Here's what she had to say:
I lead a small team providing scientific support for the RSPB’s casework relating to planned developments (eg renewable energy, airports), and site conservation work (eg protected areas).
We interrogate (and where necessary criticise) the scientific validity of environmental impact assessments, work with developers to refine their plans to minimise impacts, provide scientific advice on protected area designations, and conduct research to improve understanding of the impacts of developments on birds (and how to reduce these impacts).
I had a couple of short research assistant contracts (wild goose chaser then flamingo breeder!) before doing a PhD at the University of East Anglia. A series of short research contracts with the RSPB and a consultancy followed, then I started my first permanent job in 2007 as a Research Ecologist and later Research Manager at the British Trust for Ornithology.
My work there focused largely on investigating the potential impacts of developments (wind farms, tidal power, airports) on birds and advising on the designation of marine protected areas, though I also dabbled in non-native species, mammal population trends and ecosystem services. I started my current role at RSPB in 2016.
Learning to pace myself. Research is a challenging and competitive career and there is always pressure to achieve, especially early in your career when trying to outshine the competition for those elusive first jobs.
At times, I pushed myself too hard, and became both physically and mentally ill. This resulted in me taking months away from work, so in the long term I’d have got more done if I’d pushed myself a bit less in the first place.
Overcoming this has been a combination of getting a good work/life balance, learning not to be a perfectionist, prioritising and saying no, and trying not to compare myself to the people I know who are best at each skill I aspire to (then feeling like a failure when I’m not as good as them).
I still have to remind myself to take a step back and get some perspective sometimes!
I was part of a team that demonstrated increasing the height of offshore wind turbine rotors by just a few metres, and using fewer, larger turbines (generating the same amount of power as many small turbines), considerably reduced collision risk for most seabird species, in some cases by around half.
We worked closely with the industry, government advisers and regulators to achieve buy-in to the work and understand how they could best use our results, ensuring that our science was rapidly applied.
This resulted in design changes to several of the world’s largest offshore wind farms. What makes me proudest about this work is how my colleagues and I worked as a team to achieve it – none of us could have had this impact individually, but by combining our knowledge and talents we made a tangible difference to the world.
Talk to other people about your work as much as possible – including people working on completely different things and those outside research (even your gran!).
Never assume they won’t understand or be interested in what you do – learn to communicate with people from all backgrounds and listen to their ideas. Key insights and opportunities can come from surprising places.
Professor Jen Gill, an applied ecologist working on shorebird migration and population regulation as well as a series of other interesting research themes. I chose Jen not only for her excellent science, but also because of the way she supports and develops early career researchers; I’m quite sure some of her proteges will be the leading scientists of the future.
Inspired by Lucy? Why not read our other profiles of female RSPB Scientists?
Dr Jen Smart is a Principal Conservation Scientist, who's based at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
I lead our scientific work on lowland waders which means I spend a lot of time designing and testing solutions to reduce the effects of predators on our threatened waders. I also play a key role in the outward facing activities of the Centre for Conservation Science.
I started out in practical conservation in the early 90’s working in country parks and nature reserves getting dirty and doing lots of people engagement and environmental education. I became more and more involved in monitoring birds through volunteer surveys and as a ringer so I then returned to education to get a degree in Ecology followed by a PhD at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
I joined the RSPB in 2005 where I have worked through the ranks from contract research positions to the Principal Conservation Scientist role that I do now.
For many years my biggest challenge has been that I live in deepest, darkest Norfolk - two hours from the RSPB's UKHQ where I was based. For almost 10 years, I worked from home with regular trips to the UKHQ, with one-two nights away from home each time.
For this to work you have to be super disciplined and organised and you have to work hard to maintain that contact with your team and the people you work with. I am now officially based at UEA, where I hold an honorary position and this move has been brilliant for my work life.
I have four that spring to mind: my PhD, being instrumental in the launch of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, winning the RSPB Conservation Scientist of the year award and knowing that the research that my team and I have done and continue to do is having direct impacts on the way land is managed to help breeding waders.
Know where you want to go and how you might get there. It won’t be easy and you will probably have to deviate occasionally but having a plan will help you to make the right life decisions. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there – get involved in other things and organisations because that’s how you will meet new people and make connections that can last a lifetime.
Professor Jenny Gill has been my friend and collaborator for many years, she has an amazing list of scientific achievements, has been a leading player in shaping the direction of the BOU and BTO and has been recognised with awards such as the BTO Marsh award for ornithology in 2010 and the BOU Union Medal in 2017.
BUT most of all she continues to inspire me with the openness with which she shares her time, energy and enthusiasm for science. She is truly a role model for any young scientist.
The fact that every one of her former PhD students have gone on to successful careers in Conservation and Ecology is testament to the effect Jenny has on the people she teaches, supervises and mentors.
Inspired by Jen? Why not read our other profiles of female RSPB Scientists?