At the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science, we are lucky to have incredible women who are working hard to find practical solutions to the most pressing conservation problems. For International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’ve asked some of them how they got into science and their advice for any aspiring female conservationists.

For the love of nature

Whilst some of our women in science followed different routes, many of them started out with a simple love for wildlife and a fascinating with the natural world.

Principle Conservation Scientists Fiona Sanderson works in the International Conservation Science team on tropical rainforests and commodities. She oversees a small team of researchers who carry out research on biodiversity in the Greater Gola Landscape, a 350000 ha area of tropical rainforest and community land in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

She said: “I didn't get into science in general so much as conservation science! When I was a teenager, I got a copy of 'Last Chance to See' by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. It's about species on the brink of extinction. Some of the species they visited are now sadly extinct. Some, thanks in large part to conservationists, aren't. That probably had more impact on my career than anything else.”

Fiona taking part in surveys in Gola rainforest

Like any good scientist – Experiment!

You don’t have to know what to do immediately. A lot of our scientists volunteered for a while before deciding what to do or next step in their education.

Conservation Scientist Zoe Deakin has recently joined the RSPB as a Conservation Scientist and is working on the potential impacts of offshore wind farms on petrels and shearwaters.

She said: “I've never had a career plan but have always kept an eye out for interesting opportunities. After a Zoology degree I spent a few years alternating between short-term fieldwork roles and temporary jobs outside of science. That definitely helped me work out what I didn't want to do but it also gave me a broad range of skills that I might not have got from a science-only route. I discovered a love of seabirds and far-flung islands and that eventually led me to a PhD on storm-petrel ecology and now to my role with the RSPB.”

Leah Kelly is a Conservation Scientist in the monitoring section, working on multiple projects including the capercaillie and beached bird survey.

She said: “I found my placement year incredibly helpful for providing the opportunity to experience carrying out research in the conservation science sector. My tip would be to seek out opportunities like this which will provide you with relevant experience and help build your network of connections.”

Jen Smart fitting trail cameras (c) Ian Dillon

Not the traditional route

Conservation Scientist Ashley Lyons is leading our Haweswater grazing experiment. Ashley said: “Unconventionally. I really hated school and from the age of four my ambition was to leave school so as soon as I could I did. Straight after school I studied agriculture for three years and developed an interest in grazing animals. I worked on a few farms for a while then found myself working in a very unfulfilling job so decided to quit and go back to college to do A levels and then on to university.”

And whilst many of our scientists have PhDs, not all of them do. Senior Conservation Scientist Alison Beresford is also in the International Research team, working on birds and habitats throughout the East Atlantic Flyway. 

Alison said: “Unlike most of my peers though, I don't have a PhD and I don't know very much about birds!  I struggled with self-esteem and didn't think I was good enough to do a PhD.  I'd also had some difficult experiences with supervisors and couldn't think of one thing I loved enough to have it take over my life for 3 or 4 years. I found working with spatial data during my masters suited me well though, and I did a placement project with the RSPB as part of that course.  A year and a half later, they called me up and offered me a job!  I worked my way up through lots of short contracts and am still here 12 years later."

Ellie Dimambro-Denson doing some 'extreme logger downloading' in Abernethy (c) Neil Cowie

Be brave

Emma Witcutt is our newest Senior Research Assistant, working on a project studying the seabirds nesting on the cliffs of Fowlsheugh and St Abbs in Scotland.

She said: “Don't let anyone tell you "You can't!" I've been told that so many times, first by my school careers advisor and so many more times along the way. Ignore them. You can, and you should.”

Alison added: “Try not to be put off by imposter syndrome, as even the most experienced scientists I know still suffer from this.  You don't have to have a grand plan for your career path as you never really know what lies ahead.  Take things one step at a time and don't be afraid to change your mind or change direction as you work things out: it's a sign of strength, not of weakness.”

Conservation Scientist Ellie Owen is an excellent seabird scientist, science communicator and creator of the Puffarazzi project, and offers up some sage advice. She said “Conservation science is a field where women and girls can and do pioneer solutions to the problems of the nature and climate crisis.

My tip is to be aware that bias, sometimes unconscious bias, still very much exists. If you find you are being treated differently because of your gender, even in a subtle way, get some advice and consider raising it in a positive manner with the people involved.”

Conservation Scientist Ellie Owen (right) downloading data from a GPS tag (c) Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Conservation Scientist Hala El Haddad, who is working with farmers on a social science research project, said she got into environmental work because there was a clear need for it back home in Lebanon. Lebanon has some of the highest pollution rates in the world, which is associated with high cancer rates and other illnesses.

She suggests: “Be curious and determined. Don't be afraid to be wrong or point out that others are wrong. Remember not to get lost in the numbers and jargon, think of the effect of your research on people in general, and especially vulnerable communities and minorities. Finally, find a community of people where you respect and support others and are respected and supported.”

Kim Stevens checking out a grey petrel burrow with chick (c) Veronica Perold

Working for the RSPB

Not that we want to brag (well, maybe just a little) but there was certainly a common theme around working for the RSPB - the cause and the people!

Conservation Scientist Antje Steinfurth has been working in conservation for more than a decade, her work focuses on understanding the processes which regulate species’ distributions, demography and population dynamics. She’s also our resident penguinologist!

She said: “I am proud to be working with an organisation that shares that vision and puts both social and natural sciences at the heart of what we do to inform practical and long-lasting solutions to conservation problems.

I also feel very fortunate to be surrounded by and working with, above and beyond, inspirational, committed and dedicated teams within the organisation and across partnerships.”

Simone Mordue is a Conservation Scientist working on monitoring the state of nature in the UK. She added: “Everybody I have met at the RSPB shares the same passion for wildlife and really cares about what they do. There's a great team spirit and the RSPB is very supportive and flexible for parents with children. An amazing organisation to work for.”

Feeling inspired? Check out our vacancies, volunteering or postgraduate opportunities page and maybe next year, we’ll be including you in this list.

Also check out our short video interviews with some of our female scientists below.