Angela Simms (pronouns: she/her) is a PhD candidate studying freshwater turtle biology in Victoria, Australia. Although she never considered herself to be academic, Angela has followed her passion for reptiles studying chameleons and now freshwater turtles through the pursuit of her research career.
We discuss Angela’s project and the importance of protecting turtles on the Murray River in south-eastern Australia. We also talk about career advice and the importance of choosing fieldwork and projects that align with what we are passionate and comfortable with – and Angela reminds us that not all fieldwork will suit us (and that’s ok!).
Angela has always had a passion for reptiles and fell in love when she held her first bobtail or shingleback lizard at the age of 10. At 12-years old, Angela got her first bearded dragon when she was finally old enough to get a basic reptile keeping license, and soon after that began working in pet stores that sold reptiles.
“I’ve always loved animals my whole life – I’ve always been completely obsessed with reptiles, and I think I was about 10 when I held like my first shingleback and I thought oh my god, I love this thing!”
Because of her experience with reptile-keeping, Angela decided she would become a sparky, primarily so she would have the skills and knowledge to wire up her own reptile tanks but her dad suggested she might be suited to pursuing something more directly related to reptiles. Having been talked out of a career in electrical wiring, Angela finished school and enrolled in a Bachelor of Science in wildlife and conservation at La Trobe University.
“During my first year of undergrad, I was like any other 18-year-old, not sure what the heck I was doing. I really struggled through high school with pretty average grades – nothing really clicked in my brain and if I wasn’t interested, I had a hard time focusing.”
“In the first year of university you do the more basic and general units – chemistry, animal biodiversity – and again, nothing really clicked then either. I even hated the first field trips!”
It wasn’t until Angela went on exchange in second year and spent a semester abroad in the UK that something clicked into gear, and she realised she could follow her passion for reptiles through a career in research –
“I realised I wanted to do research so I could study lizards for the rest of my life. I still had the passion for reptiles, and I just wanted to be around them all the time.”
This realization was profound for Angela, and she returned from her exchange program with a clear idea of what she could get out of her degree – and began making friends with the others in her class.
“That was really great and I became more immersed in the university life and realized – I’m really passionate, the people around me are really passionate, I’m going to do Honors and I want a PhD.”
In her third year, Angela took on a research project focused on Chameleons and then found an Honors project investigating how fire drives communities in the mallee region of southwestern Victoria at La Trobe University. Angela spent a year understanding the differences between reptile communities between continuous landscapes and areas that are just surrounded by agriculture.
“That was a fun project. A lot of people probably say this about your first research project, I learned how mentally and physically exhausting research was, but I still absolutely loved it.”
For Angela, there’s a huge difference between being a volunteer and running the research. She explains –
“I love both. I really appreciate being a volunteer, not having to think about the mental load of doing the research, but I also love running the research projects as well.”
For Angela, this was a green light to pursue a PhD. However, after struggling for 2 years to be accepted into a PhD scholarship program, Angela completed a Masters project first at Macquarie University, radio-tracking freshwater turtles in Sulawesi, Indonesia. She explains –
“That was an eye-opening cultural experience and from that project, I became obsessed with turtles.”
“I was not a turtle person before this project, but I became absolutely obsessed and they play such an important role in our ecosystems and so many are threatened around the world.”
Wanting to be closer to home and her support network, Angela returned to Australia and started her PhD on Australian freshwater turtle –
“Now I’m here and really enjoying my PhD too with about a year left until I finish up next June!”
TURTLE CONSERVATION ON THE MURRAY
Three types of turtle are found on the Murray-Darling system in south-eastern Australia: the Eastern Long-neck Turtle, Broad-shell Turtle and Murray River Turtle. They fill an important role as scavengers within the ecosystem, and when healthy, provide a high biomass of prey for predatory species. Currently, many turtle species are threatened worldwide by introduced predators, altered habitats and hydrology as well as climate change.
Angela’s PhD work answers important questions behind the success of 1Million Turtles, a citizen science program looking to increase turtle recruitment including potentially using a head-starting program to restock waterways with freshwater turtles.
“About 50 years ago, turtle density estimates in the Murray River were about 100-150 turtles per hectare. Whereas we’ve seen up to 90 % declines in most areas, so now we’re lucky to see 10-15 turtles per hectare.”
A big part of these declines has been a drop off in recruitment of turtle hatchlings which is why the One Million Turtles program is so important –
“You can see many adults for ages, and you think they’re fine, but once they die off, we don’t have the recruitment there – so my project is looking at how we can optimize a head-starting program.”
Angela looks at wild- vs captive-hatched microbiomes, potential hormone alteration, prevalence of disease and pollutants and other important questions to consider before rolling out a successful head-start program for turtles on the Murray River.
There are ways that anyone in the region can get involved with the One Million Turtles research program and a Turtle SAT app including logging turtle sightings and running experimental nest plots to determine the prevalence of fox predation on eggs. Angela explains –
“Turtle SAT is an app where we’d like people to record turtles, dead or alive, that they see – it will help researchers like myself understand what turtles are doing across Australia and where they’re distributed.”
This information can feed into important management outcomes such as introducing underpasses for turtles on busy roads near wetlands or understanding where the nesting hotspots are so protection for these nests can be put in place.
NOT ALL FIELD WORK WILL SUIT YOU (AND THAT’S OK!)
Early in her career, Angela built her field experiences by taking part in reptile-focused research projects across Australia – spotlighting for frogs in caves, snorkelling for freshwater turtles across in the Kimberley, and digging for goanna nests in the Pilbara. Although they all sound like amazing experiences, Angela maintains that the realities of fieldwork aren’t always as glamorous as they are advertised –
“Find a project that suits you – because not all fieldwork will necessarily suit you.”
Fieldwork is incredible – and the opportunities are diverse in method, location, project, organisation and more – but at the end of the day, it has to work for you! Angela suggests –
“There are some things where I’ll just say no to it because I’ve done it before and I don’t want to do it again!”
“Even coming from my Honors, don’t get me wrong, I really love the fieldwork, but I probably wouldn’t do it again unless somebody paid me pretty well!”
Angela recommends getting as much fieldwork experience as possible so you can home in on what you really love and want to pursue as a career or research project –
Often in the ecology space, it feels as if there is pressure (even only from social media) to just love all aspects of fieldwork to be a successful and resilient ecologist – but Angela reminds us that being your authentic self as an ecologist is important for building a rewarding and fulfilling career. You don’t have to take opportunities that feel boring or uncomfortable. You don’t have to do things because they’re available, because you were asked or because someone says you should take that step to move your career forward – especially not unpaid voluntary experiences!
“Find what you’ll enjoy and you’re going to love whatever research project you choose. I wouldn’t do something because someone pushes me into it or says I should.”
Angela shares that she volunteered on a 10-day field trip in the Pilbara digging into goanna nests before committing to a PhD focused on this topic. She shares –
“By day two or three (early in), I thought, oh my God, this is so shit! Of course, it was exciting when we found nests, but I was never the person to come across them because I just didn’t have it in me to dig fast enough to find the nest in time!”
Although Angela found the research fascinating, the fieldwork was uncomfortable and exhausting in the heat and she realised the project wouldn’t be something that fulfilled her as a three-year PhD!
“After that, I spoke to who would have been my PhD supervisor for this project and said I’m sorry I can’t do this for my PhD. I didn’t want to be looking at every field season and dreading it!”
“Whereas I’ve shaped my PhD project so I’m excited to get into the field. I am so stoked to go out and catch turtles. It’s tiring work but not exhausting so I don’t just want to go home the whole time.”
Above all, Angela suggests –
Angela is an advocate for considering your own passions, strengths and goals and aligning your career path with that rather than external expectations and pressures. Above that, Angela’s top four tips for starting and sustaining a career in wildlife research is –
- Expand your network – going to conferences is a great way to meet your people – likeminded researchers and find opportunities to participate in research!
- Build yourself a really good support network.
- Not all fieldwork will suit you (and that’s ok!)
- Take care of yourself first – and consider your passions!
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Angela? Tune into the podcast or follow Angela on social media. You can check out her website, Instagram @angs_wild.life and Twitter @ang_wild_life, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find more information on the 1 Million Turtles project here and the SATS turtle logging app here. Angela says –
“If you want to talk turtles, I’m happy to talk turtles. If you want to talk anything else, reptile related, happy to talk about that or even just career stuff. I’m really happy to have a chat!”
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