Researcher Q&A: Dr. Alex Bond, Conservation Scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Dr. Alex Bond has recently begun his work as a conservation scientist as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Bedfordshire, UK. Prior to this, he has done extensive research on ornithology and field ecology while based in Canada. Here, he shares his journey to his present career.

What is your educational background?

I got my start at C.E. McManus Primary School in Labrador City (sadly closed, I believe), but spent my formative years in the biology program at Mount Allison University, which is where I fell in love with fieldwork, and ecology in general. I did a M.Sc. at the Atlantic Cooperative Wildlife Ecology Research Network (ACWERN) at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton before returning to Newfoundland for a Ph.D. at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

How did you get interested in conservation biology?

I went into my undergrad degree with the goal of being an optometrist, believe it or not. In my 3rd year, though, a prof brought in as a maternity replacement taught courses in ornithology, field ecology, mammalogy, and conservation biology. I was hooked. I also worked outdoors during my undergrad at an adventure tourism site in New Brunswick, so I was almost perpetually surrounded by nature, and spend lots of time hiking around Fundy National Park on my days off.

What is a typical day like for you?

I’m an early riser, and because I still have a fair amount of work left from my postdoc, I like to get into the office before the huge rush of arrivals at 9am to chip away at my own projects. My job is mostly desk-based, but I’ll be spending lots of time in the field starting in August. In the field, there’s no such thing as a typical day since we have to work with the birds and the weather (and when neither of those work, neither do we).

What are some challenges you face working as a conservation biologist?

I think the biggest challenges as a conservation biologist are facing the harsh reality of our impact on the biosphere every day, and trying to convey that to members of the public, policy makers, manager, and funders. A lot of the work I do involves the effects of marine wildlife ingesting plastic, how climate change affects different species and ecosystems, and the effects of introduced species on native wildlife. It’s really hard to provide concrete actions aimed at the first two, since the solutions are so global, and we’re just now starting to see the extent of the problems (even though the warning signs have been there for decades). It’s the classic “well, what can I do?” question, and I don’t always have an answer. Not having that quick and easy solution makes it challenging to communicate the science to the public and to policy makers. Conveying the idea of complexity is very hard. Given that conservation biology really isn’t a “feel good” discipline in the sense that the bad news generally outweighs the good, it can be easy at times to feel very down and helpless. Friends and colleagues have discussed this, and we take solace in the fact that we’re doing good by bringing these issues to the forefront, and that not studying them won’t make them disappear.

You were working as a NSERC postdoctoral researcher for Environment Canada and University of Saskatchewan. What was that like?

I really enjoyed my time as a postdoc. I had the freedom to pursue my research, largely uninhibited, for almost 3 years. It was a really formative time, professionally, and I was based in a fantastic facility with great colleagues. It was also when I started blogging, and using Twitter as an academic tool, which has been absolutely fantastic. Being based in government was, on the whole, good in that it gave me lots of insight into how government research happens (or not), and the challenges faced by government researchers.

Did the changes to the publicly funded science infrastructure introduced by the Harper government affect your work?

The cuts didn’t really affect me directly, but some of the systematic issues in government science (some of which may date back to the Chretien years) were constant problems. There’s a lack of funding for technical staff, so we had several pieces of lab equipment that sat idle for years because there was no one to run them. Our building had one administrative staff, and when she was on vacation, or out sick, we had no admin support (including mail). The libraries have been gutted and are chronically understaffed. Travel is a royal pain because approvals don’t come until mere days before scheduled departures. Spending on lab equipment could be nixed at the last minute because the paperwork sat on someone’s desk in finance until too late in the fiscal year. But I think the best analogy for the current state of government science infrastructure is a cheap bookcase from WalMart – on the outside, or to the casual observer, it looks find enough, but when you look underneath the veneer, you see more and more that’s wrong with it, and supporting the books (i.e., science) is harder. On their own, the cuts and procedural changes in government science might not seem like much, but it amounts to death by a thousand cuts.

You have recently started your position as a conservation scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science in the UK. What are your roles and responsibilities in this position?

My role is to provide the necessary science for two main research projects (the eradication of rats from Henderson Island, Pitcairn Islands, and the eradication of mice from Gough Island Tristan da Cunha), and to support our goal of saving wildlife in the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). I work with partner organizations in the UKOTs, and with other groups (British Antarctic Survey, University of Cape Town, Oxford University, Cambridge University) to improve the conservation status of species, right now focusing on these two UKOTs.

How is working as a conservation scientist in the UK different from working as a conservation scientist in Canada?

I think the main difference is the level of threats faced by the species. The sheer number of globally threatened species in the UKOTs is greater than those in Canada because the UKOTs are so far-flung, and are often islands with unique flora and fauna. In terms of the actual day-to-day work, I don’t think there’s much difference.

What are some of your interests outside of work? How do they complement your research?

The two main interests I have are photography, and improv. Photography (digital and film) is a fantastic way to hone those observational skills that are essential for natural history, and makes for some good shots for conference talks, posters, and seminars. There’s something about shooting a roll of film – the calculation for the right exposure, finding the right frame, and the patience required for each shot – that I find very relaxing.

I’ve also done improv theatre since 1999 in some capacity or another. Improv isn’t just about comedy and making things up on the spot, but learning how to tell a story, how to develop characters, how to work with others, committing to the moment, and living in it. I think a lot of the lessons we teach in improv could be applied to academia.

Researcher Q&A: Chris Granade, PhD Candidate in Physics at the University of Waterloo

What is your educational background?

My primary and secondary education were primarily through homeschooling, followed by undergraduate degrees in Physics and Mathematics/Computer Science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I then took part in the inaugural year of Perimeter Scholars International, a new Masters program in theoretical physics offered bythe Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo. I am currently nearing completion of my PhD in Physics (Quantum Information), also at the University of Waterloo.

What is your current research all about, and what got you interested in it?

My current research has several threads that each support the goal of building quantum information processing devices at a significantly larger scale than has been realized thus far. For instance, part of my work concerns how to use quantum resources as a tool to produce further quantum resources by drawing on techniques from classical statistics and machine learning together with new developments in quantum simulation. I became interested in these kinds of issues by working as a theorist in a very experimental group, such that I am continually exposed to experimental challenges and opportunities, leading me to explore how to better bridge the gap between theoretical and experimental concerns.

What is a typical day like for you?

I’m not so sure that there is a typical day for me, per se. I juggle a lot of projects, all of which are always at different stages. Some days are all about writing up results, some days are taken up with debugging simulation or inference libraries, while other days still are taken up with discussing new research directions with collaborators. There’s not a lot of routine to it, really.

What are some challenges you face as a researcher in your PhD program?

My work tends to be strongly interdisciplinary, which create a lot of opportunities, but also a different set of challenges. Some of these challenges are quite technical, for instance, those arising from applying statistical techniques in different scenarios where common assumptions tend to fail. Some challenges are cultural, and stem from trying to find the right way of communicating about problems whose solutions necessarily draw on very different areas of expertise. Perhaps the most profound challenges, though, that I have found as a researcher aren’t even about research, but rather are about balancing research with the rest of my life. Left to its own devices, research can take up as much of my time as I let it, but that’s neither a good way of getting things done, nor is it good for one’s health.

How does the ‘War on Science’ affect your work?

In a lot of ways, quantum information research is relatively well shielded from more general problems with science funding, so my own work is not directly affected yet. Partly, I think this is because quantum information has thus far been relatively apolitical in its implications.

What would you recommend as good policy solutions to Canada’s problems in science policy today?

At a high level, I think that treating research as a business is a significant policy mistake, even from the perspective of enabling private development. Academic research is at its best when it is able to explore. It is this very exploration that is threatened by imposing a business-like model on academic research. By prioritizing business development over all else, we endanger that advantage, and perhaps ironically, even endanger the benefit that academics can provide to private development.

What are some your interests outside your research work? How do they complement your research?

In many ways, research has given me an outlet for lifelong interests that I continue to explore outside of a research context. For instance, I have been interested in programming for quite a number of years, and continue to cultivate this interest even in the absence of a direct benefit to my research. I also maintain interests that are more purely social, such as tabletop gaming. These have proven especially useful to me in maintaining focus and drive.

Swimming lanes

In my life, the major athletic activity I found myself saliently passionate about (apart from kabaddi, hiking, rock climbing and other outdoorsy things) is swimming. I have loved the water as long as I can remember, and something about the solitary and meditative aspect of the act of swimming lanes it is particularly appealing to me as an introvert.

I like swimming because it lets me concentrate on the minutiae of my body’s movements and allows me to compete against my personal best. It allows me to hone in on and understand how various muscle groups in my body coordinate themselves to not simply keep me afloat, but transport my physical being in the water at desired speeds and directions.

After a few months’ hiatus, I have found myself swimming again.

Initially, I was rusty. I would get tired only after having swam a few laps. I would need to rest for quite a few minutes before I could go on again. This was embarrassing – I completed the Bronze Cross as a teenager, which required me to swim far greater lengths without stopping.

Nonetheless, I continued to swim for the sheer pleasure of it. I strived to improve my own strokes, speed and stamina. It’s a sport where I compete with no one but myself and at least, when it comes to solitary lane swims, the only perception of the other people that I must take into account is when I try not to crash into someone else while they are completing their laps.

In this kind of solipsistic exercise, I realized that I should take life (or rather, how and when I achieve certain professional and academic milestones) as I approach swimming. I should concentrate on my strengths and weaknesses and strive to improve my abilities as a student, a researcher, a writer and whatever else I seek to become, and not feel overwhelmed by the successes of others, especially if I have not reached the same goals as they did when they were my age.

This is a roundabout way of explaining as well as allaying my own anxieties about my upcoming masters program. Often I have wished that I had a clearer idea of my professional interests earlier in life, and that I had sought out the appropriate guidance to direct my educational course accordingly. This is, of course, inane anxiety, for a person who is barely two years out of her undergraduate program. Nonetheless, the allegory of swimming lanes helps me keep going, as I slowly learn how to swim in my own lane, and not pay too much heed to those in the other ones.