Dr Morgan Hughes (pronouns: she/her), is a bat researcher and freelance ecologist specializing in bats in the UK currently. She shares her journey through ecology as a mature student starting her degree and completing her Bachelors in her 20s, her Masters in her 30s and now her PhD in her 40s. Morgan has been brave and adventurous in her career – and unafraid to change her mind or switch her focus – focusing on birds, then bees and now bats. Morgan encourages anyone at any stage of life to pursue their passions and give wildlife conservation a try.
Morgan grew up loving science and wildlife conservation and although originally from the UK, Morgan moved to Florida, USA with her family at the age of nine and completed her schooling there. Surrounded by wildlife, Morgan’s passion for the natural world grew as she did – although she never considered a career in wildlife to be on the cards for her. She explains –
“I didn’t think that that was on the cards for me though. I didn’t think I’d be able to go to university – I didn’t think I was rich or smart enough – I thought I would end up waiting tables my whole life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I just didn’t think that the scientific life or the conservation life was attainable for me.”
At 24-years of age, Morgan returned to university and did her undergraduate degree focused on birds, then later, her Masters focused on bees and most recently her PhD focused on bats.
“I did my Bachelor’s in my 20s, I did my Master’s in my 30s, and my PhD now in my 40s – all of that was self-funded while working the whole time.”
Morgan worked throughout and between her studies. Her first job in wildlife conservation was with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK, then the Wildlife Trust and went on to connect contracts in consultancy, non-profits and now academia. While completing her PhD, Morgan worked as an in-house ecologist for the railway and once she completed the bulk of her PhD work, she returned to consultancy as a freelancer. With an impending move to Sweden to pursue her career in researched focused on riparian bats –
“Even if you think you’re on the wrong side of the tracks to make a career happen, you’re not – it just takes a bit of work!”
Between paid work, Morgan has also volunteered her time on research projects in Ecuador, Brunei and Croatia and spends a lot of time teaching people about the importance of wildlife conservation as well as promoting involvement and compassion for bats.
Although she started out working with birds and then invertebrates, in 2004, Morgan went to a National Bat Conference and became completely inspired and fascinated to work with bats. Although she hardly knew anything about bats prior to the event, Morgan heard that they mate before they hibernate using delayed fertilization to control the time their babies are born – which blew her mind! Morgan reminisces –
“And so, 19 years ago, I came back completely changed.”
“It was so fascinating. And they’re just the weirdest little creatures that nobody knows anything about. And they’re maligned by a lot of cultures – but the more I learned about them, I realized how desperately they need our conservation efforts.”
“They’re a bit of an underdog in the world of wildlife conservation. I often say this is a problem with any animal that you’d find in a witch’s cauldron: uncharismatic species like spiders, newts, toads and bats and those things. They’re very hard to get conservation funding for, very hard to get people behind.’
‘It just felt like a good cause for fascinating animals and the chance to work with passionate people on this very niche thing.”
Inspired by that conference, Morgan began getting involved in bat research – radiotracking, trapping, ringing and monitoring bats in her spare time before starting her PhD and now post-doc on them. She explains –
“For anyone thinking about careers or PhDs in a topic, when you find something that you can do day in day out for years on end, then that’s probably a very good sign.”
“But I don’t tire of it, I feel like we still have so much to learn, and I still feel like I could do this for another 20 or 40 or 60 years and still not learn the things I want to learn.”
Bats in particular are extremely important for their ecosystems – delivering services for pollination, insect pest control and seed dispersal to name just a few! With approaching 1500 species worldwide, the conservation actions to protect each species vary depending on their location and situation. While many species are listed as threatened, many other species are data deficient and research is important to fill these gaps and ensure these bats don’t go extinct on our watch!
Morgan explains that outreach and education are important for changing people’s perceptions of bats, who have gotten the wrong end of the stick with an unfounded bad reputation –
“Especially in the wake of COVID – because of the media – people have gotten the wrong end of the stick, and people consider bats to be dirty, disease ridden, COVID carriers.”
“I think the most important thing people should know about bats is that they’re not villains!”
SUSTAINING YOURSELF THROUGH A PhD
Morgan doesn’t know a single PhD student who hasn’t faced burnout through their journey – and although she doesn’t know how to avoid burnout, she believes the following tips can help to keep your journey more sustainable:
- Nurture your support network around you
- Put your project into perspective
“It is a lot of work and it will be a huge accomplishment, but we’re not delivering kidneys.”
A few years ago in 2019, Morganwent to Ecuador to teach a field trip for the university as a visiting lecturer, and on the last day, she took some time to hike up a mountain. She shares –
“Halfway up the mountain, the heavens opened, and as I turned around, I could see the rainforest spread out in front of me and the clouds pouring out of the trees into the sky, which was quite weird!”
“I just had this moment, an overwhelming sense of the desperate need for conservation efforts – I was in a place that was struggling, deforested, experiencing species loss. And when I got back to the UK, I felt like, what am I doing here? Why am I here? I just felt like being in a city in Britain was not where I needed to be doing conservation work!”
“I felt very despondent and had like quite a prolonged period of what am I doing with my life?”
“I was so overwhelmed with the fact that I should be doing more and that I should be somewhere else – but I think it’s about having the perspective to know that however much you feel under the weight of having to get your studies done and having to pay the bills and all the other life stuff that happens, global pandemics or whatever, that you’re in the right place.
“You’re in the right place and you’re doing things for a reason. It’s about having that perspective.”
Morgan says that although burnout is going to happen and your workload is going to be insane at times, especially if you struggle to say no to things, having perspective and leaning on your support network will always help to bring you back and help you to keep pursuing your passion.
Morgan believes that social media can be problematic for setting unrealistic expectations and low self-worth around what you can achieve each day. There are many aspects of conservation that people don’t share on social media – and that can glamorize the industry!
“It’s not all just pictures from the top of mountains, it’s the sweat on the way up to the mountain and the people need to see it, especially people coming into conservation careers.”
Morgan maintains there are so many options for careers in conservation it is important people explore different pathways and experiment with so they don’t feel as if there’s only one way to get involved.
“We don’t talk openly about the downsides enough – the sleep deprivation, the exhaustion, the pressure you are put under to work long hours of often physical work for low or no pay.“
“Field seasons are often very intense and people coming into careers are often shocked by how exhausted they are and what the workload is like and how many hours you’re putting in in a week.”
“First, we normalize that and we shouldn’t, and second of all, we don’t talk about it. And I think that mental health for ecology work and biodiversity research is a huge thing because you can be very isolated, you can be working very long hours, you can be in remote locations without seeing your friends or families which can put pressure on your relationships.”
“But the trade off is that you get to have this amazing life – travel, experience nature, build lifelong friendships with likeminded people – and have a positive impact on the world!”
“Any career that you choose, there’s pros and cons. But most ecologists I know who are conservationists do this because the pros far outweigh the cons, but it doesn’t mean we need to ignore the cons!”
TOP TAKEAWAYS FOR LANDING A JOB WITH WILDLIFE
From Morgan’s experience, she advocates that the best things you can do when starting a career with wildlife is to be adventurous and brave, and above all, know that it’s ok to change your mind:
“The one thing that I think is often overlooked is that you can change your mind. Any decision that you have to make, you can change your mind.”
“Change your mind at any stage of your career, change your mind today! I’m doing it again now. I did pure conservation, wildlife trust, RSPB at the beginning of my career. And I worked for some local authorities and as a consultancy. And now I’m in my forties and I’m changing to academia. It’s fine. It’s all good.”
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Morgan? Tune into the podcast or check out her work on Instagram @thereremouse and @packupdinosaurs, and Twitter @thereremouse. You can also follow Morgan and the Urban Bat Project on Linked In here.
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