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How to become a successful e-quoll-ogist with Melissa Jensen

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Last post we introduced you to soon-to-be Dr Melissa Jensen and her amazing work to improve reintroduction success in the threatened Western Quoll. In this post, Melissa shares her journey as well as some top advice on how you can become a successful “e-quoll-ogist” just like her!

How to become a successful e-quoll-ogist with Melissa Jensen | #itsawildlife (Image: Jannico Kelk)

Let’s take it back to the beginning as ecology wasn’t always on the cards for Melissa. In high school, she took high level math, chemistry and physics rather than biology as she planned on joining the Air Force. She did her work experience at an Air Force base and began the arduous interview process, including physical and psychological testing. Serendipitously, her final panel interview coincided with an overseas holiday that she had planned but there was no flexibility on the interview date… so she went on her holiday and moved on.

Melissa then enrolled in a teaching degree with some electives in wildlife ecology. While she didn’t enjoy teaching, everything about the wildlife electives appealed to her and when she looked into it further, she quickly made the shift to a Bachelor of applied science, majoring in wildlife science.  And she’s never looked back!

“Before taking those elective classes during undergrad, I had no idea that working in wildlife ecology was even an option”, Melissa said, “the only way I thought you could work with wildlife was as a vet”

After her undergrad, Melissa spent three years working for a small consulting company  where she got to do lots of field work catching all kinds of animals all over Queensland. Following this, she enrolled in an Honours project at Arid Recovery, a fenced reserve in outback South Australia, where she studied the habitat use of the Shark Bay Bandicoot (Perameles bougainville). It was here that she fell in love with the desert. This experience also kickstarted her work with threatened mammals.

While Melissa loved research, she wanted to go back to work for a while before she embarked on a PhD and she accepted a 6-month internship with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy in the Kimberley and Northern Territory. Here, she built skills, networks and had the opportunity to work with different animals and habitats, and she had the time of her life! After her internship, Melissa travelled down to the Ikara-Flinders Ranges in South Australia to begin her PhD, working to improve reintroduction success of the threatened Western Quoll.

Throughout her PhD, Melissa has continued working in a range of roles including demonstrating for several universities, working as a contract field ecologist for Ecological Horizons, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, UNSW and the University of Tasmania, and a brief stint back in consulting before returning to Arid Recovery to work as the reintroduction and research officer.

She quickly realized that although she loved working across different roles her heart was still in the desert. So, when she received the call from Arid Recovery asking her to assist on the first Western Quoll reintroduction project ever within a fenced reserve she jumped at the opportunity.

Arid Recovery has a large system of fenced exclosures where threatened mammals including the Greater Bilby, Shark Bay Bandicoot, Greater Stick-nest Rat and Boodie have been reintroduced. In the absence of feral predators, Boodie numbers in particular had skyrocketed and they were eating themselves out of house and home. The team at Arid Recovery aimed to test whether the reintroduction of the Western Quoll, a native predator, could help control Boodie numbers and improve their predator naivety (Boodies were living the cushy life!).

Preliminary results suggest that the reintroduction was successful, with many young born in the first year of the release. And 4 years on, Quolls are still in the reserve! 

Following the conclusion of this exciting project, Melissa moved to Perth where she is now employed as a Senior Zoologist at a consulting company called Stantec, a highly versatile role where on any one day, she could be in the office, writing reports, working on budgets or proposals, or meetings with clients, or out in the field, conducting fauna trapping surveys across Western Australia, surveying Malleefowl mounds in the Goldfields, or flying around in a helicopter in the Pilbara!

And this could be you too! Melissa says

“The great thing about this kind of work is it can take you anywhere in the country, , so try to take up any opportunities that arise! Especially while you’re young and don’t have anything tying you down to one place. Take every opportunity you can to meet and work with different people in the industry”

Melissa is one of those amazing humans who takes her own advice – never one to miss an opportunity she divides her work time between consulting, completing her PhD write up as well as a recent role with the Western Australian Museum as a research associate!

Career advice

If you are looking to work in wildlife conservation just like Melissa, she has some hot tips to help you out along the way:

  • Consider any opportunity that arises, even if it’s far away or slightly different to the kind of work you have done previously – you never know where it could take you and it helps you to decide what kind of work you really enjoy and are passionate about!
  • Build your network and get to know people in the industry: opportunities come from the unlikeliest places – and so many positions aren’t advertised in this industry!
  • Lock in some practical skills– if you’re interested in fieldwork learn the basics like how to drive a manual vehicle, how to change a tyre, or how to 4WD.
The best part of working in wildlife conservation?

There are so many things Melissa loves about being a wildlife ecologist: it can take you to so many amazing places, and you meet so many lovely, like-minded people who often become close friends.

The amazing places we get to see, often in the middle of nowhere, can be breathtaking, and I love the opportunities to work closely with wild animals that very few people ever get to see

Being part of two successful Western Quoll reintroduction projects has also been a career highlight for Melissa. It’s amazing to know that all her hard work has contributed to the broader conservation of threatened species to ensure they don’t go extinct on our watch.

The downsides?

Melissa felt that one of the biggest downsides to working in this industry was the limited job security, especially when you’re starting out. Many positions in not-for-profit, academia and government are contracts, often quite short contracts, which means you have minimal financial or job security (never quite knowing if you’ll have a job next month/next year). This makes it especially difficult to plan for financial commitments, and it can be stressful trying to secure “the next contract” every few months.

Melissa says, “This is often the reason why I’m drawn back to consulting, because it’s a permanent, full-time, reliable position.”

And, *mic drop* Melissa hits the nail on the head!

While this isn’t the case for all jobs, it’s unfortunately the reality for many roles in wildlife conservation. And it definitely takes a toll on the self-worth and security young ecologists feel in the workplace.

Keep in touch

Did you miss part 1 from Melissa: Quoll-ity reintroductions? You can read it here. You can follow Melissa’s adventures on Instagram @melissajensen_ and Twitter @melissajensen_ All of Melissa’s papers can be found here.

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