Doing conservation science in challenging field conditions: Meet Jessica Bryant

Dr Jessica Bryant is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Zoology. She works with Hainan Gibbons in order to try to develop novel monitoring technologies for the surviving gibbon population, and explores appropriate methods to reconnect the fragmented Bawangling forest landscape and allow wider gibbon movement and dispersal. You can catch Jessica on her soapbox on the 27th of May in London, where she’ll give a talk called: “The singing king of the swingers: conserving the world’s rarest ape”



SS: How did you get to your current position?

JB: I grew up in the outer fringe of Sydney, Australia, surrounded by bushland, and so I’ve been fascinated by the natural world from a young age.  When I started to notice changes in my local area, I also developed a strong sense of needing to protect and conserve the amazing animals and plants around me.  It was only when I got to tag along with a ‘real’ scientist in my second last year of high school that I realised I could do this for a job! So I did a degree in biology majoring in ecology, with an Honours research project year looking at the impact of dog walking in urban bushland areas on native fauna. After graduating, I worked in various positions in the state government’s environment department on different conservation research projects, which gave me really valuable real-world experience in conservation practice. Then, in 2010 I moved to the UK to start my PhD investigating the Hainan gibbon in China with the aim of better understanding the species to inform conservation decision making. I have continued to work on the species in a post-doctoral capacity for the last couple of years, working with a small team of colleagues and the local nature reserve to research and enhance conservation of this species.



SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

JB: Well, my interest in science was originally inspired by my love of nature, but at the age of 17 this was nurtured when I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in the CSIRO Student Research Scheme – a scheme run by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (the top government agency for scientific research in Australia) that paired senior school students with active scientific researchers across a range of disciplines to carry out ‘real’ research. I was partnered with (then) Dr David Eldridge (now Professor) from the University of New South Wales, who studies arid zone ecology. We went to Yathong Nature Reserve in central NSW and spent a week trapping invertebrates, reptiles and small mammals to investigate the biodiversity in this semi-arid region.  I learnt from ‘Dr David’ how to catch these animals, as well as how to identify and preserve some, and how to analyse the data we collected. It was a fantastic week of adventure, discovery and learning and David’s enthusiasm for ecology was infectious! It made it clear to me that something that I was interested in could actually be a full time job! From then I was hooked! With my passion for nature and interest in biology channelled, and with David’s ongoing mentoring help beyond the scheme, I set out to do everything I could to forge a career in science and conservation.



SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

JB: Definitely the Hainan gibbons I have been studying for the past 7 years. They are remarkable creatures and it’s such a privilege to have been able to spend time with them in the wild, even more so considering their extreme rarity.  Their song has to be one of the most hauntingly beautiful forest sounds, and even now I get goose bumps when I hear it when I’m out in the forest in Hainan.



SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

JB: I’m really keen to spread the word to people from all walks of life that women CAN (and should!) do conservation science in challenging field conditions (such as remote, rural China) even in often male-dominated situations, e.g. working with an all-male team of forest wardens!  I want to increase awareness of the plight of the Hainan gibbon, some of the fascinating features of this amazing primate, and the work our team has done and continues to do to help to conserve this species for future generations.  I see Soapbox Science as a wonderful platform to communicate all this to a vast number of people with a great variety of backgrounds and levels of science awareness/education.



SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

JB: Energy!



SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

JB: I really enjoy communicating the work that I do in many forms, including peer-reviewed journal papers, public engagement activities (like Soapbox Science!), and talking directly with the local reserve officials who will use my findings to enact conservation actions for the Hainan gibbon. However, I do worry that even now a lot of funding in science and academia is still awarded largely based on only an assessment of whether you have published your paper in the right high-impact journals, or whether your research questions are ‘sexy’ enough, rather than taking all forms of the way that science is shared/communicated and used, and the holistic impact it can have on the ground, into account.



SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

JB: Do it! It is hard work and can be challenging, but all good things are and it’s also really rewarding! We definitely need more women in science, so go for it!


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