Working as an ecologist for a consultancy based in Perth, Western Australia, Sam Girvan (pronouns: she/her) shares her experience of coming to ecology later, getting her foot in the door and landing a permanent, full-time role (the holy grail in ecology!) – and her advice so that you can do the same! Sam also shares her experience as a woman in natural sciences and ways we can further empower women and anyone that doesn’t identify as traditionally masculine.
Like so many people working with wildlife, Sam certainly doesn’t have a linear story. Sam started out in hospitality with no idea that jobs in ecology or wildlife conservation even existed! A trip to Borneo to volunteer with orangutans in her early-twenties changed that completely. The UK-based organization, International Animal Rescue had a program where people could volunteer to work on establishing an orangutan rehabilitation center in west Kalimantan.
“And I just fell in love with it… I thought “this is what I want to do”, and so when I came back to Australia, I started studying to become an ecologist”
“As someone who had never been particularly academic before and never did well in high school, it was definitely a challenge, but I just fell in love with it, kept volunteering and ended up doing my master’s at the University of Melbourne.”
Following her undergraduate, Sam hadn’t quite narrowed down on her niche and cemented her main interests and so she applied for a bunch of different programs – and when a project came up with corals, Sam jumped at the opportunity. The project was a collaboration with the Australian Institute of Marine Science under the supervision of Madeleine van Oppen and Linda Blackall, specifically looking at adaptive evolution of coral and their symbionts.
As Sam explained, the algal symbionts, zooxanthellae, are really important for corals, responsible for up to 99 % of their nutrition in certain coral species. However, when under stress such as marine heat waves, the zooanthellae are expelled by the coral, causing them to bleach. Similar species of single-cell algae that live in the water column have an important microbiome of bacteria associated with them that can control a number of things such as nutrient uptake and stress tolerance. Sam spent two years photographing zooxanthellae under a microscope and found that they do in fact have bacteria living inside them – and this work is continuing today! Sam explains –
“By figuring out which types of bacteria they are, and whether or not they’re important to things like bleaching, we can try to make corals as adaptable to climate change as possible”
Like so many people starting out in the industry, Sam had a qualification and some volunteer experience but no foot in the door. After several years of going for any work she could get, including an internship with the Conservation Ecology Centre, ten months ago, Sam landed her dream job: a permanent, full-time position with a consultancy based in Perth, Western Australia.
“It’s a bit like the holy grail in ecology, getting a permanent, full-time job.”
BARRIERS TO ENTRY
As a bit of a late starter herself in the ecology space, Sam has overcome some barriers to entry into ecology, one of the biggest being awareness that pursuing a career in ecology is even possible! Sam says –
“I had no idea you could work as a field ecologist, even when I started studying it… I just never had any role models in the industry”
“Another thing I think people assume is that if you’re a scientist, you’re extremely smart and good at math and I think that’s definitely a barrier for a lot of people… But, although I’m sure it helps, you don’t have to be top of your class to be an ecologist – only passionate”
But although it can be a winding road, there are certainly benefits to having such a self-motivated start to your career and diverse skillset – making everyone’s experience and career unique –
“It ultimately means that everyone can bring something different to the table – if we all had the same trajectory then it’d be pretty boring.”
Although there are some benefits to this “survival of the fittest” approach to starting a career, there are certainly detriments as well – and the real outcomes to starting out in the ecology space are dictated by privilege – as not everyone can afford the time or money required to volunteer or intern for long periods of time with no guaranteed work at the other end.
Leveling the playing field is a necessary step to increasing, not just the diversity of participants, but also the diversity of ideas and the ways that we do things in the field of ecology and wildlife conservation.
STAYING CALM AMIDST THE STORM
When asked about how she finds stability in her day-to-day life whilst moving about so much early on, Sam said –
“It’s such a tough one. I guess I’ve always enjoyed change and new adventures which was more important to me than stability at the time, but now, having a secure, full-time job definitely makes that difference: I have time to pursue other things and I know where I’ll be in six-months-time.”
And so, what about before it has worked out? Sam says –
“I had to try to cultivate an internal knowing that “it’s all gonna work out” and just keep following the things that you want to do”
Trusting is certainly hard before you’ve seen the outcome materialize – but Sam’s advice is on point – after all, you have to believe it to receive it!
WOMEN IN ECOLOGY
Anyone who’s had the privilege of speaking with Sam will know she is a strong advocate for empowering women as well as the LGBTQ+ community within the ecology and wildlife conservation space. She explains:
“There are certain historical expectations that have largely excluded women from working in sciences, especially ecology due to its physicality… four-wheel-driving, walking long-distances in the bush, withstanding harsh environments, carrying heavy loads – one of the things that I’ve had to learn myself and I try to reiterate to women and anyone that doesn’t identify as traditionally masculine around me is that we can do these things. Just because we’ve grown up in a society where we maybe haven’t learnt to change a tire or operate a chainsaw or whatever, doesn’t mean that we can’t. Rather, societal expectations have stopped us learning sooner. “
Sam is all about supporting and empowering other women
“I think it’s important not only for women to lift each other up, but it’s also a responsibility for men in ecology to be calling out gender discrimination.”
International Day of Women and Girls in Science is February 11 (also Sam’s birthday!) and important for sharing the amazing work that women do in science, ecology and the field. It’s amazing to see so many women today standing on the shoulders of other women, and continuing breaking down barriers to equality. Sam makes a great point:
“On this day and other similar days, all over the social media you see women supporting each other but I rarely hear anything from the men”.
If you’re a man, working with a woman in the field and she doesn’t know say for example, how to change a tire, it’s probably not because she doesn’t want to, rather she hasn’t been taught or had that opportunity.
So, what kinds of things could we be advocating for or doing every single day or just starting today to amplify the voice and the impact of women in natural sciences?
Sam says a great place to start is by reminding yourself and others that women can do things that perhaps we haven’t grown up thinking that we can do.
“Challenging that voice in your head that tells you, “I’ll just leave that for the men” – especially with physical things, like un-bogging cars, using power tools or driving ATVs. It’s really easy to hand those physical tasks straight over to someone who puts their hand up. But as a woman, it’s important to say, “actually, I’d like to try that as well”.”
After all, it’s not that she can’t, it’s just that she hasn’t been shown yet.
TOP TIPS FOR ECOLOGISTS
Sam’s three top tips for anyone starting out in ecology are:
- Volunteer – to build your skills and experience early on
“And if you don’t have the time or resources, pick a few things that you think you’ll be interested in. As it is a great way to test drive before you buy”
- Build and nurture your network
“For me, the opportunities I have had have often been thanks to the people I have met”
KEEP IN TOUCH
When she’s in the field, Sam’s Instagram @ecology.sam is inundated with amazing footage of cute Kalutas and small reptiles you might never have heard of! So, check that out if you’d like to see amazing, cryptic flora and fauna from some of Western Australia’s most remote locations! You can also find Sam on Twitter @Samuellaoza and Linked In.
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