Vicky Graves (pronouns: she/her) is a passionate large mammalian carnivore biologist and PhD candidate with research focused around the Scottish Wildcat. Vicky has travelled around the world to work on conservation projects and has learnt to speak four languages – English, French, Spanish and Portuguese! Vicky discusses her journey through the conservation space, the benefits of travelling to broaden your perspective, as well as the importance of communication and speaking in native languages to deliver effective conservation outcomes. Vicky also shares her advice for aspiring biologists to work with wildlife.
Similar to many people in this line of wildlife conservation work, Vicky’s journey has been unique and somewhat unconventional. Vicky didn’t study science at high school or have any idea that a career in wildlife biology even existed when she was at school. But working a ski season in the French alps changed that as she explains –
“I was quite aimless for my early twenties. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do career wise but when I was working in the French Alps one winter, that I saw firsthand the effects of climate change.”
“Speaking to people about when the snow would arrive, when it would melt and hearing the differences in people’s lifetimes showed me that I wanted to work in something where I was going to make a positive difference environmentally.”
So, at the age of 25, Vicky started my undergraduate degree in environmental protection at SRUC in Edinburgh and fell in love with the ecology side of it. After completing an internship in Guatemala, Vicky completed an Erasmus Mundus Masters (an international Masters program where you can study at a few different universities) in France, Portugal and then Brazil. And after a variety of voluntary experiences and work as a teacher, Vicky enrolled in a PhD, focused around the effects of grouse moor management and rewilding on predator-prey interactions in the Scottish Highlands.
PERSPECTIVE ON CONSERVATION
Something that shines through from Vicky’s experience in wildlife conservation is the international focus. Vicky explains –
“I think, especially as a British person, being able to go abroad and discover new ecosystems, new species has been really eye opening, especially since British nature is so degraded and managed, so we have no idea what a wild landscape looks like.”
“And It’s allowed me to meet so many people and learn their diverse viewpoints, learn from their experience and their knowledge. And I’m so grateful for this.”
Like so many biologists, Vicky has seen the need to open up the world of wildlife biology to promote diversity within the filed. There is a real need for new ideas and solutions – and this comes from leveling the playing field to create more equal opportunity for involvement through paid employment.
SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE OF CONSERVATION
For Vicky, one of the most important things in wildlife conservation and research is communication. And while internationally, Vicky has found that the dominant language tends to default to English, and yet not everybody is going to speak English. Vicky shares her experiences –
“I’ve worked in Latin America with indigenous people there, who’ve already had to learn one colonial language, Spanish or Portuguese. Should they really have to learn a second? Is it fair that we expect conservationists and researchers from other countries to all speak English and yet English-speaking researchers and conservationists won’t learn other languages?”
Whilst travelling, Vicky has met people who’ve spent 20 years of a working career based in a country that they don’t speak the language of. Vicky believes we should always be responsible for (at least trying!) to learn the language of the host country when living and working abroad. After all, she explains –
“I think we lose a lot when we don’t have a shared language – when we go somewhere as a conservationist to work, if we don’t speak the language, we’re never going to fully understand the culture – and that’s always going to be such an important component of meaningful conservation.”
ADVICE FOR WILDLIFERS
From Vicky’s experience, her top advice for anyone starting out their career in wildlife biology is to broaden their experience and to try as much as possible. She explains –
“There are a lot of opportunities out there to do various types of volunteer work with different taxa, working with the public, working in nature reserves, in so many different locations, and I’ve often found for myself a lot of the most fun things I’ve done have been things that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of doing.”
And while Vicky sees the problems associated with the expectation of copious amounts of volunteer work at the start of a career as a biologist, she says it does have its benefits: allowing you to try before you buy!
“It means you don’t have to necessarily commit to a full career before you know if you like the realities of that type of work.”
Vicky explains that first of all, you gain lots of experience and discover where your true passions lie, but this also turns you into more of a generalist!
“I think that’s quite important now. Everyone’s trying to specialize in things but actually it’s the generalists who are the really useful people in a conservation organization – the ones who can work with any group of species, and even have experience in other career paths.”
“And so for any early conservationists, I would say don’t discount things you’ve done outside of the industry – for example, if you’ve worked in a bar, you’re good at working with people., you think on your feet, you can solve problems – and those skills are also needed in conservation.”
Vicky suggests thinking about all the skills you’re gaining from every experience and how you can write that on a CV or a cover letter to show that it’s something positive that you can bring.”
And in terms of sustaining yourself and promoting longevity in your conservation career, Vicky warns about the importance of avoiding burnout. She explains –
“Burnout is something that happens so often in conservation and research: people push themselves too hard and lose their passion because of it, because they’re exhausted. And it’s very important to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
“It’s very important to recognize when we need to take either a mental or a physical health day, particularly when you do fieldwork!”
Vicky also suggests that we can come and go from the industry and should never feel as though its now or never. She explains –
“We need to not be afraid to step away for a while! If you’ve been doing fieldwork for a long time, maybe you want to teach for a couple of years and have a different experience. That’s also okay. Every job you do, every experience you have, there’s something you can learn from it.”
After all, there’s something you can take from everything you do that will make you a better person tomorrow!
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Vicky? Tune into the podcast to hear our conversation. You can contact her on her email address Victoria.firstname.lastname@example.org also follow her adventures on Instagram @vicky.graves or Linked in.
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