Monika Böhm (@MonniKaboom) is a researcher at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London. Much of her work focuses on the Sampled Red List Index, which is derived from the IUCN Red List Index and aids the measurement of general trends in the extinction risk of large numbers of taxonomic groups, which are broadly representative of global biodiversity. Here, she tells us about how she believes chance might sometimes get you where you are, about being a German living in the UK and how being a scientist isn’t always perceived as a proper job. Monika will be speaking at our Soapbox Science London event at the end of May.
SS: Monika, tell us how you got to your current position
MB: Probably rather unscientifically, I reckon I got to my current position through a string of chance events. Back home in Germany, my not so fine grades from school would have probably pushed me into a different career path. But because I was undecided as to what to do with my life (as so many school leavers surely are), I took a year out and moved to Scotland to learn English as an au pair. I fell in love with the UK there and then and decided to scope out university places in Scotland. The more streamlined degree system appealed to me – particularly the ease at which to get straight into my preferred subject of zoology rather than following the long and windy route through biology and other sciences to an eventual specialisation in zoology back home in Germany. And so I did my BSc in Zoology at Aberdeen, and followed this with an MRes in Ecology and Environmental Management at York. There I fell in love again – this time with badgers – and so I nagged my MRes supervisor to give me a job as a research assistant while trying to secure funding for a PhD on badger social interactions. I took another half a year out after my PhD to get the travelling bug out of my system – any regrets? No. It may have put me behind a bit in terms of career, but I wouldn’t change it for a thing. However, life in the UK had moved on and I found myself rather specialist – how many badger ecologists does one country need? A post-doc in Ireland fell through at the last hurdle and for a while I thought I wouldn’t find any position in research. Then another stroke of luck – and I ended up with my current position at the Zoological Society of London – and have turned myself from specialist (badgers) into generalist (monitoring biodiversity)!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
MB: The natural world, its beauty and all the amazing secrets you get to unearth! I grew up next to forest and fields, so was always outside poking around for creepy crawlies. My parents didn’t precisely discourage this either – they regularly took me to the zoo and local wildlife parks and on many occasions despaired because I would not move on from an enclosure or tank until I had spotted all the different species that were meant to be within it (but according to my aunt, I also looked at every rock in the geology section of our local natural history museum – must have been a very long day for her)! I also remember that on occasion I was allowed to stay up longer for specific animal programmes on TV – surely a very persuasive form of positive reinforcement, nature AND going to bed later than usual! But, for quite a while I thought my fascination for nature would just remain a hobby, not become a profession. Both my parents hadn’t been to university, and although my sisters both went, they both picked subjects which I suppose at the time were more likely to be perceived as “proper jobs”. Also, I wasn’t the brightest spark in science subjects at school (with the exception of biology) and definitely struggling with maths. Turns out, this was not as much of a hurdle as I had previously thought – and sparks eventually started flying!
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
MB: The diversity of it! Every day/week/month can be different. From being very specialised in my PhD, I feel I have turned around 180 degrees and headed down a very generalist route – that of monitoring biodiversity. Which means I have learned so much about so many different species, from reptiles to mussels and dung beetles to plants. I suppose I have always been gripped by the beauty of nature as a whole – as well as its intricacies of course – and so am very happy I have found a research topic that allows me to marvel at so many different weird and wonderful things on a daily basis!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
MB: As scientists, we probably have been guilty of skirting around public engagement in the past – true, we are probably not natural born communicators when it comes to interacting with the general public, but it is absolutely vital in this day and age to both engage and inform. Also, I would have loved to have met scientists and seen what they get up to when I was growing up – I have hinted at it already, but I think for a while I don’t think anybody in my family thought I was actually going for a “proper job”. And I think much of this is caused by a lack of communication between scientists and the general public. Soapbox Science and events like this are the way forward!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
MB: Can I use two words? Nervous excitement!
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
MB: To be fair, I think scientific culture is currently undergoing quite a lot of change – and for the better! We’re turning ourselves into better communicators and we engage with the “outside world”, and often in fun ways! If I could change anything, I would go to grass roots level and change the way science is taught at school (i.e. make it relevant to real-world problems, bring in real scientists, do cool experiments, show science is for everybody) and engage with those not in science to increase scientific literacy. I think this is the first step in addressing inequality in science – opening it up to people from different backgrounds. Having said this, as scientists we are still judged against our publication record – that does not leave much time for engagement with the “real world”! So assessment of scientific merit would have to change too to reflect the more diverse tasks scientists should (and hopefully want to) be involved in these days.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
MB: Go for it! It’s an exciting time to be in academia – it is changing so much from what it used to be, and is becoming more and more inclusive. Yes, a lot still needs to be achieved, but that’s the beauty of the challenge. Most important thing to remember is to not fall into the trap of the old academic system, even when confronted with it. This will only hold us back. Remember it’s not just about gender equality, but about equality for all.