After a short break, we’re back with another Careers Stories interview: this month, Rosalie Wright speaks with David Bartholomew, an intrepid PhD student who moved in his career from conservation of marine ecosystems to his current research on impacts of climate change on tropical forests. Listen to the interview here or scroll down if you prefer to read the transcript.

Find out more by following David on Twitter, @biobartholomew, or through his website. You can also get in touch and support The LEAF Charity fundraising campaign here

Career Summary 

Rosalie Wright (RW)     Can we start with a brief timeline of your conservation career and what you currently do? 

David Bartholomew (DB)     I’ve always been interested in wildlife and the environment, but I guess my conservation career started during my undergrad degree. When I first did my research project at a conservation organization in France called Tour du Valat, where I was studying flamingos and how changes to land use affects their reproduction and distribution. I guess that was the first moment I was immersed in conservation and it really inspired me to keep going, because they’re doing some really great stuff there. They are helping to conserve, not just flamingos, but other species as well. So I decided to do a master’s degree in conservation at the University of Exeter and through that, found out about more projects going on across the world. I did another research project based abroad, this time in Peru when I was studying fisheries with a local small NGO called ProDelphinus. I was observing how fishermen were catching sharks and rays, and trying to improve the conservation of those species there. After my master’s degree I went on to do some volunteering for a year. I did a small project in Tanzania working with birds then worked for five months in Indonesia, looking at orangutan health and how they use special plants for medicinal purposes. After that, I decided I wanted to do a PhD, which I’m currently doing, looking at how environmental change is affecting tree species in rainforests and how they might be able to survive in the future. 

RW You mentioned you shifted from marine research – so you were looking at small scale fisheries, and then you moved into tropical forest ecology. What inspired that shift? And did you learn anything from changing between disciplines? 

DB     I guess the big moment that really decided the change was when I first went to a rainforest in Southeast Asia, in Malaysia, and I had never understood how rainforests work, or just how complex and diverse they were. When I first went to that ecosystem, it really made my decision for me that that was what I wanted to study. So until that point, I liked all different wildlife, but I was unsure what was the exact thing I wanted to do. Just seeing the site was kind of what triggered the change. 

RW     Have you always known that you wanted to do a PhD? Or was this something that took a while to figure out, and if so, what inspired you to start? 

DB   The short answer is no, I haven’t always known I wanted to do a PhD. I think as time has gone on, I started to enjoy doing research more and more. I’ve always wanted to find out more about the natural world and how it works. This is something that I think research can really help you do. Also, when I was looking at different jobs, when I was an undergrad, I noticed that actually most of the jobs that I wanted, or were interested in, required at least a Master’s or probably a PhD. So it was the final thing that motivated me to start a PhD. 

RW In terms of the experiences you’ve had so far, is there anything you found particularly useful for applying in your PhD or your conservation career in general? 

DB  I would say just get as much diversity in your different experiences. So I have lots of different fieldwork experience from working in different projects. I was also happy to engage with either working abroad or working in different disciplines. I’ve worked with birds, with marine wildlife, with plants, and I think just showing that you’re able to adapt and to change and learn new skills quickly is an important aspect that they’re looking for when you want to apply for a PhD. 

RW And what skills have you found particularly useful? 

DB I think working within a team is really important, especially within ecology, because often you have fieldwork that requires coordinating people. I’ve also found my data analysis skills to be really important. Ecology is one of these really complex systems, that often requires quite complicated statistical methods to work things out. So if you have some data analysis skills, I think that can be really useful. I think it’s just getting a diverse range of skills, that’s the most important thing. 

RW I know something you’re doing at the moment is the LEAF charity. Could you tell us more about this? 

DB  Yes, so about a year and a half ago, myself and some friends that I met on my master’s degree and our connections, we decided to set up a small charity called the Little Environmental Action Foundation, or the LEAF charity for short. This charity is doing some forest restoration work in Kenya, and my role is providing their scientific input to advise how we best do the restoration, what species we should focus on, and things to look out for. We’re just a small start-up charity that’s trying to do some work on the ground in Africa and, and help protect the environment there. The LEAF charity has recently just had a fundraising campaign where we’ve managed to raise money for a new seedling nursery and helped us to start growing some rare trees. So thanks to everybody that has donated so far. We’re just in our early stages now and we’re hoping to grow a bit more, and start to plant out some more of our trees. So yeah, fundraising has been an important part of the charities work recently. 

RW We’ll make sure there’s a link to that included! So if anyone’s interested, you can check LEAF out online as well. Has working in that diverse team, and from the charity perspective, has that changed how you’ve conducted your PhD research? 

DB  Yeah, it’s been really interesting to work with a mix of people that have scientific backgrounds, like myself, but also have backgrounds in marketing or fundraising. I think it’s opened up how complex conservation can be. It’s not just people that have scientific backgrounds that are important, but also other aspects that are needed for any conservation project to happen. 

RW I saw you’ve also done public outreach work – how did you get into that? And how has it impacted your work? 

DB Yeah, so I’ve done some work with the Eden Project. I helped develop a small lesson for school children to learn about rainforests, and how important the big trees are within a rainforest environment. I got involved in this because I think it’s really important to give something back to the younger generation and to get them engaged in conservation. I think I’m in a unique position that I’ve been to these environments, and I know lots about it, so it’s great to help other people to understand about their importance. I think outreach is one of the key ways we can engage with people that aren’t directly involved in conservation, but maybe can spread the message or help us to raise money for these different projects. 

RW Do you have any advice for students that may want to get involved in similar initiatives and how they might go about getting relevant experience? 

DB My first piece of advice would just be to make the most of all opportunities that are out there. If you find something that you might be interested in, just go for it, I think you can gain a lot from taking that attitude. I would say there’s lots of websites out there with different job opportunities or volunteering prospects that you can use, but also use any connections that you might have. Don’t be afraid to ask people if they have things out there or they know somebody that’s looking for help with some work. 

RW And what have you found most challenging about working in conservation? People often mentioned the uncertainty is a real difficulty. 

DB Yeah, I think the short term nature of many contracts can be quite challenging. It’s difficult to have a settled base, and you’re always kind of looking for the next short-term contract for a job. 

RW  What motivates you to keep working in conservation, despite that? 

DB I think it’s quite shocking how many problems there are in the world, and that nature continues to be overlooked in terms of its importance. I just want to help make a difference on that front, and to help save species, but also other ecosystem services that they provide to people. 

RW What do you feel is the biggest global conservation challenge? 

DB  I think that one of the biggest challenges is integrating all of the different stakeholders in conservation. I think there’s very strong community movements, very strong research communities, even politicians are starting to get engaged with the importance of conservation. But I think connecting all of them together and making sure that there’s a good flow of knowledge and also of money between them is critical. Because without this connected nature of these stakeholders, action can get limited and actually, we can’t have as much impact as we might be able to have otherwise. 

RW And is there anything you wish you’d known at the start of your career or when you were a student? 

DB I guess it’s how complicated conservation can be. I think when I was young, I was quite naive and thought that it was very simple – that we could just set places aside to be protected and to save everything, but actually, it’s very complicated because often nature is not destroyed for no reason. It might be because people are in extreme poverty, and they really need something to help them make a living. So I think thinking about how humans are involved in the system is really important and this is something that when I was younger I hadn’t really appreciated. But through time, I’m starting to realize how important it is. 

RW On a slightly different note, but relating to the current circumstances, how has the pandemic affected your work? And do you have any strategies for coping with that? 

DB  I guess the biggest impact is having to work from home now. And motivating myself to keep going when you have lost all of the contact and conversations that you have with other people about your work, and about everything else. Just staying connected with people has been really important, even if it’s a struggle to have these virtual meetings all the time, just staying connected is a good coping strategy. 

RW  And to end on, do you have any examples of positive change that you’ve been involved in or seen recently? 

DW So as part of the work with my charity, in Kenya there’s been a growing environmental movement at the moment, and it’s been really inspiring to see how this is having change on the ground. There’s a big push to plant lots of trees there, not just for wildlife, but also to help improve farmers’ livelihoods, increase the types of products they can produce, but at the same time, help to protect nature. And then other things like their big push to ban plastic bags in Kenya has been revolutionary, and they’ve really helped reduce a lot of their plastic pollution. So it’s been quite inspiring to work in a country that’s so wants to overcome its environmental issues. 

RW It sounds like a fascinating charity as well, must be great to do alongside your PhD! 

DB Yeah, it’s been really good to see tangible actions. Because sometimes when you do research, you understand that in the long term your research might make a difference and might change the way conservation is done. But being involved directly in a charity, it’s really good to see how you can have an impact immediately on the environment. It’s been great to be involved. 

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