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Dream jobs in research: teaching conservationists – and penguins in the office

This conservation biologist finds ways to make her research count in the wider world; what’s your dream job?

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As a Lecturer in Conservation Science at the Bristol Zoological Society, Dr. Alison Cotton teaches undergraduate students from three universities and heads the zoo’s South Africa Project, which aims to save the endangered African penguin.

Growing up on a farm in New Zealand, Alison Cotton always knew she wanted to work with animals. After graduating from college, she had the opportunity of a lifetime, traveling to the Amazon to work in a wildlife conservation center.

There, she encountered the harsh reality of conservation.

She and her colleagues would rescue trapped primates and release them into the forest only to find them trapped and eaten. “I was still in a naïve mindset that we needed to protect everything and save all the animals,” she recalled. “But people there were poor, and this was an easy source of food.”

At first, she became disillusioned with conservation. Research would identify problems, but it wasn’t getting turned into policy. “I realized over time that there was a lot of amazing work getting done,” she said, “but if it didn’t work economically, it would get sidelined.”

Ultimately that reality served as a lesson, prompting her to search for ways to bridge seemingly disparate worlds.

“My passion was always going to be conservation, but you quickly learn that if you want to do anything really useful, you have to communicate about it,” said Alison, who went on to become an evolutionary and conservation biologist after getting her PhD.

For her, that means making sure her research gets noticed – and not just by her fellow scientists.

It’s not just about the penguins

Communication is at the heart of her work on the Field Conservation & Science Team at the Bristol Zoological Society in the UK. As a Lecturer in Conservation Science, she teaches undergraduate students from three universities and heads the zoo’s South Africa Project, which aims to save the endangered African penguin. Once numerous, African penguins are now starving due to climate change and overfishing near their breeding colonies and foraging areas off the coast of Namibia. As their food supply of sardines and anchovies dwindles, hundreds of penguin chicks are being abandoned by their parents, who are unable to provide for them. Many are rescued by a local conservation center called SANCCOB and rehabilitated before they are released back into the wild.

However, the government in South Africa has many conflicting priorities, including preserving the fishing industry, Alison pointed out. But that hasn’t stopped her and her colleagues from seeking a solution that would be mutually beneficial. At the Bristol Zoological Society, they work with organizations in South Africa to advocate for stricter fishing quotas and more marine-protected areas; in the long run, she said, this approach would also benefit the people there by enabling the fish population to thrive.

Alison and her colleagues, including BZS postdoctoral research associate and African penguin specialist Dr. Richard Sherley, also work with national and international organizations to monitor the penguin populations, contributing, to a dataset scientists are using to test survival strategies.

The importance of translating research into policy is something she emphasizes in her work with conservation students.

The vast majority there are very passionate and really want to do the right thing. But they can be idealistic. My job is to show them that things aren’t always black and white; there are shades of gray. You can’t just go out there and save the animals; you have to consider the needs of the people and what government wants.

Show me the evidence

Dr. Alison Cotton observes the African penguins – an endangered species – at the Bristol Zoological Society.

That’s where scientific research and “evidence-based conservation” comes in. “You need to provide evidence,” Alison stressed. When livelihoods and economics are at stake, it’s crucial to show policymakers the science behind your recommendations, she explained: in this case, that means showing the data behind the movement of fish stocks, where the fish are going, and how this will impact the local economy.

To keep up with developments in her field, Alison searches for related research on ScienceDirect, the world’s largerst platform of peer reviewed scholarly literature. Then she collates it on Mendeley, a free reference management and networking system, so she can access the information she needs to make evidence-based recommendations.

She also uses Mendeley to network. Since creating an online profile and a Mendeley Blog that promoted a recent public talk, she’s been getting emails from people inviting her to lecture at their organizations – from youth groups to universities. It’s helping her to reach a less specialized audience as well as connecting with researchers in related fields.

In her work to secure grants, Dr. Cotton will also be able to take advantage of the funding recommender, which will soon go live on these and other Elsevier platforms.

The practicalities of research have become an integral part of the work Dr. Cotton shares with the next generation of conservationists. Her work starts with the animals but inevitably involves people.

That was the case in the Amazon, where her team found a way to save the primates while also helping the people who lived there. “One of the most important things was communication – so people didn’t feel isolated and ignored,” Alison recalled.

The solution: they created jobs that involved tourism, giving people another source of income that depended on protecting the environment.

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