Dr Sarah Durant (SD) is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London. Her research aims to develop applied approaches to conservation problems, with a particular focus on large carnivores. She believes using science is key to reverse declines in large carnivores and promote coexistence between people and wildlife. Sarah will be on her soapbox today at our London Soapbox Science (SS) event. Join us and meet her from 12-3, Gabriel’s wharf, London.
SS: Sarah, we are delighted to have you on our soapbox this year! We are very much looking forward to your talk today on the South Bank and hope this little interview will help people get to know you pre-event. To start with, maybe you could tell everyone about your career path: how did you get to your current position?
SD: I was fortunate to find the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), where I am based now, very early in my career. I was appointed as a post doc soon after I had completed my PhD, and joined a new ecological science research group at the Institute of Zoology (IOZ) within ZSL in 1991. However, I spent much of my first 10 years not in London but in Tanzania engaged in field work in Serengeti National Park, where I established a long term project on individually recognised cheetahs – now the longest ongoing study in the world on wild cheetahs. In 2002 I expanded my activities in Tanzania to establish the Tanzania Carnivore Program – with the goal of establishing national capacity for carnivore conservation and research. Later I broadened my work across Africa to establish the Range-Wide Conservation Program for Cheetah and Wild Dog. I was appointed to a permanent position as a senior research fellow at IOZ in 2003, and last year was appointed to lead a new research theme – People Wildlife and Ecosystems – which focuses on research to understand and address anthropogenic impacts on ecosystems and wildlife. For me, this is a very exciting development at IOZ, as it is the only research theme that explicitly addresses linkages between people and conservation. Although people are the cause of many of the problems facing wildlife and ecosystems, they must also be part of the solutions.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
SD: From my earliest memories I was always fascinated with wildlife and the natural world, and as I grew older I became increasingly engaged with conservation issues. It is difficult to pin-point any exact time or individual that inspired me towards making this passion and enthusiasm my career, but there were a number of individuals who helped me along the way. One particular teacher stands out. She taught me maths at secondary school and, while not a biologist, encouraged curiosity and independent thought. My secondary school was a girl’s school and at that time did not teach maths to the high level needed to get into Oxbridge – unlike its boy’s school counterpart. She single-handedly took on this higher level maths teaching – and, despite it being a struggle for both of us, I have her to thank for the fact that I managed to secure a place at the University of Cambridge. I went on to graduate in Applied Biology and undertake a PhD in Conservation Biology.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
SD: My research depends on the collection of data on wild animals, often in extremely remote locations. I have been extremely privileged to be able to spend long periods living in one of the most amazing wildernesses on earth – the Serengeti National Park. I found getting to know the individual cheetahs in my study area absolutely fascinating, and, as my projects have grown, and my desk-based workload has increased, I greatly miss those days spent in the field getting to know the Serengeti cheetahs.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science?
SD: Working, as I do, in conservation science,I believe it is really important to engage the younger generation in helping to address the growing problems facing biodiversity on our planet. Soapbox Science provides a forum in which to do this. The fact that it is limited to women, gives women a voice, in particular, to reach out to young women scientists, and presents an alternative, female, view of science.
SS: Right, so the event is later today! Sum up in one word your expectations – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: And if you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
SD: Women have broken through many barriers; however the prejudices and assumptions that can persist in our unconscious minds remain extremely difficult to combat. Until we do this, then men’s voices are more likely to be listened to than women’s. The responsibility for addressing this falls upon each and every one of us. We all need look deeply into ourselves and be mindful of our interactions, if we are to ensure that we treat each other fairly and without bias.
SS: And finally, what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
SD: Go for it!