In our first blog in the #ConservationCareersStories series, Rosalie Wright talks with Joshua Powell, to hear about his career experiences as a conservation biologist who has a keen interest in the social and political dimensions of conservation. Josh is a National Geographic Explorer and one of the faces for WWF’s #WWF Voices campaign. He has worked in locations from Svalbard to South Georgia, Jamaica to Azerbaijan, and is also Expedition Leader for the multi-disciplinary research project, Rangers Without Borders.
2019 – pres. PhD at Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and UCL
2018 – 2019 Policy Advisor – Defra
2017 – pres. National Geographic Explorer and Co-Founder, Rangers Without Borders
2017 Churchill Fellow, Island Conservation for Island Nation (Australia, New Zealand, Fiji)
2017 Freelance conservation biologist
2014 – 2016 Master of Environmental Studies at University of Pennsylvania (Thouron Award)
2011 – 2014 Geography (BSc) Hons. at the University of Nottingham
What have been the most challenging aspects of working in conservation?
“The financial dimension of conservation and pressure of expectations – financial or otherwise – can be disheartening, particularly when your peers may be securing 9 to 5 jobs with stable incomes. Conservation can offer an incredibly fulfilling career, but may not bring smooth career progression or financial reward, which can be difficult for personal expectations and those of family and friends. Always worth taking a step back and looking at things from their perspective: more often than not, they’ll be incredibly proud of you for choosing your own path and seeking to make an impact. Finally, the emotional toil of working with ‘bad news’ and species at the brink of extinction can take its toll – though this is also a hugely rewarding side of conservation as there are so many positive differences you can make!”
What would you like to see change in conservation?
“I’d like to see us tap into – and thus capitalise on – the enthusiasm and skills of young conservationists better as an industry. Our team for Rangers Without Borders is all under the age of 30 – in fact most of the team was under 25 when they started – and I’ve been determined to showcase that young conservationists (and photographers or film-makers) can make a genuine contribution for some of the most challenging subjects in conservation.”
Conservation role model?
“Dr Doug Smith – Project Leader for the Yellowstone Wolf Project and a Senior Wildlife Biologist at Yellowstone National Park. Doug heads the Yellowstone Wolf Project, one of the few big success stories for wildlife. I got to interview Doug while presenting a documentary in Yellowstone and he is both an impressive wolf biologist, but also possesses an innate understanding of the social (and political) dimensions of wildlife conservation and a remarkable talent for engaging with local communities.”
“A recent one would be hosting a Live Q&A from Svalbard for WWF on polar science and Arctic conservation for Frozen Island, Arctic Seas, which was a huge honour, as part of hosting the series for the #WWFVoices campaign. The series was a big success, reaching a global audience – from Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka – and some of the content even being picked up by actor and environmental campaigner, Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Josh’s conservation career advice:
- Never lose sight of why you chose to work in conservation: to make a difference for the natural world.
- Consider studying abroad – opens new horizons and is a tremendously valuable experience, chance to be challenged, gain unique experience and expand your networks beyond the UK.
- Expand your experience beyond pure scientific study – if you are at university, join varied societies or clubs. Consider politics or debating groups to gain novel perspectives and public speaking experience. Consider student TV, radio or newspapers for science communication experience. These are key skills for increasing the impact of your work and understanding the social context of conservation. Studying modules in other disciplines can have similar benefits, for example environmental economics and ecosystem services, taught by Economics or Geography departments.
- Keep searching for opportunities (examples below) – and if these aren’t available, create them yourself! Planning scientific fieldwork provides extensive and diverse skillsets.
- Applying for grants and funding is a really important learning curve and will help widen networks.
- Never, ever, let anyone tell you that you are too young to make an impact!
Volunteering with your local Wildlife Trust, the National Trust or the Woodland Trust – Excellent experience and a great way to meet other people interested in conservation. Josh volunteered for the National Trust for over 7 years.
The Explorers Club – Adventure Canada Young Explorers Program – Funded research program in the Arctic.
Students on Ice – Teaching program in the polar regions for students.
British Ecological Society – Travel and research grants for early career ecologists.
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) – Wide range of research grants, covering biogeography and conservation. If you are a first year undergraduate, there is a specific grant, the Fieldwork Apprenticeships scheme, designed to give you a first taste of scientific fieldwork.
Royal Society of Biology – Travel grants for early career biologists for research or training.
Scientific Exploration Society – Expedition and exploration grants, covering biology and conservation expeditions.
Moosewatch – One of the world’s longest running biological studies, on Isle Royale, Michigan, USA. Takes volunteers every year.
The Facebook groups Wildlife Workers’ Network, Conservation Jobs, Conservation Careers and Marine Biologist network and job postings, have a range of opportunities advertised between them.
Fellowships and Study:
Winston Churchill Memorial Trust UK (also counterparts in Australia and New Zealand) – Churchill Fellowships for overseas travel to bring benefit for the UK. Dedicated Environment category.
Thouron Award – Full scholarships for graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.
Kennedy Scholarships – Scholarships for graduate study at Harvard University and MIT, USA.
Josh adds: “I can highly recommend building your network and attending as many events as you can – from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) events in London, such as Explore (every November), to those hosted by the UK Chapter of The Explorers Club, or the British Ecological Society’s own conferences or workshops. New Networks for Nature and A Focus on Nature (AFON) both run events which rotate across the UK and focus on other aspects of wildlife conservation, including from a literary, media and arts perspective. The Scientific Exploration Society host events with eminent field researchers.”
Follow what Josh is doing next here:
Website – https://www.joshua-powell.com/