A Researcher Working in the Wild

A Researcher Working in the Wild

Sophie May Watts is passionate about wildlife, fieldwork, and conservation. Recently, we were lucky enough to speak with her about her educational and work experiences before she heads to India for her next project.

Sophie recognizes that her passion for wildlife began during her childhood, she has always preferred to be outside playing with animals, rather than staying inside with her two younger sisters. Sophie remembers collecting woodlice from the family garden and bringing them to school in jam jars. She found wildlife fascinating and spent countless hours watching documentaries to learn as much as she could about different species. As she grew older, Sophie planned to become a veterinarian so that she could have a career working with animals. However, after not receiving a spot in veterinary school her father asked her one question which fully changed her career aspirations, “Do you really want to spend your career opening up dogs and sewing them back together, wouldn’t you rather save animals in the wild?” This caused Sophie to realize that she would much rather work toward a degree in biology with a focus on wildlife and ecology. After this revelation, Sophie was sure she was on the right track.

When asked about specific experiences that helped to shape her path, Sophie excitedly recalled her first summer of college, when she was able to spend a month volunteering for the Scottish Beaver Trial, which was the first legal mammal reintroduction in the United Kingdom. This was Sophie’s first hands-on introduction to wildlife ecology, and here she learned to use trail cameras, carried out field sign surveys, and was able to observe GPS tagging of male beavers. This experience further confirmed Sophie’s passions, introduced her to her love of fieldwork and gave her a strong technical skills to build upon in the future.

When we asked Sophie to explain further why she loves being in the field, her initial response was, “I can not accurately describe why I enjoy fieldwork, aside from to say it’s where I feel most at home.” She elaborated by mentioning that she feels fieldwork is the best way for her to get close to wildlife, which is what she always wanted from her career. Sophie’s favorite fieldwork experience to date was while she was working at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. Here, she was lucky enough to go with the senior field biologist to fit red foxes with GPS tags. Getting to see these stunning mammals up close in the wild is something that she will never forget. While she truly enjoys fieldwork, Sophie did mention that it is not always pleasant or easy. This type of work involves long days, early mornings, uncooperative weather, and unexpected challenges. However, Sophie noted that in light of all of these difficulties she will not be swapping her fieldwork positions for an office job anytime soon.

In order to further her career, Sophie recently completed a master’s degree in Wildlife Management and Conservation. Sophie’s thesis project was very interesting and we were excited for her to tell us more about it. Sophie worked to model red deer population dynamics which can help to predict population changes and inform population management projects based on future climate scenarios. An individual-based model simulates the actions of individual agents, which in this case were red deer. The red deer expend energy which informs an energy budget model. To represent realistic energy expenditure, parameter values were obtained from literature for things such as ingestion rate, body mass and gestation time. With
"availability of vegetation" as an input, agents were able to grow and reproduce, allowing population dynamics to emerge. In order to confirm the validity of the model, the results were compared to data from the Isle of Rum Red Deer Project where deer have been individually studied since 1982. Sophie’s project was a success and she was able to identify emergent patterns that aligned with the Rum Red Deer Project’s previous research.

Having just finished her master’s degree, Sophie is already looking ahead her next major endeavor, working as a field technician assistant at the Snow Leopard Conservancy in India. Here, she will assist field staff with field camera setup and footage analysis. Sophie expects this to be a fun and eye-opening experience and we hope to catch up with her after her time there to learn more about this experience.

Looking even further into the future, Sophie is beginning to think about pursuing a Ph.D. While she is not sure where this will happen, she would like to study the spatial ecology of animals. This would allow her to look into research questions such as, “Where can a species be found?” and “Where are individuals moving from and to?” Sophie would like to combine fieldwork, mapping, and modeling to create a project that would address these questions. Looking even further ahead, Sophie does not want to set concrete goals for herself beyond working in conservation ecology. Instead, she is keeping an open mind to all possibilities surrounding how she can further contribute to this field.

To close, Sophie offered some amazing advice to others who are early in their careers: remember the importance of networking. As she mentioned, this is a term that can seem intimidating to some, but Sophie really emphasized the value of making connections. She mentioned a few practical ways to do this including, “building a rapport with university lecturers, being active on Twitter (where there is a great science community), keeping in contact with employers or supervisors, and cold emailing.” Through email alone, Sophie has recently gained the opportunity to volunteer with the Sri Lankan Carnivore Project and found possible support for her Ph.D. work. Her parting advice was not to be afraid to reach out to someone because the worst that can happen is an unreturned email, so it doesn’t hurt to try!

Sophie is doing some very exciting work in the fields of conservation and ecology. If you want to follow her journey, check out her website here! At Conseris, we are happy to help researchers who are passionate about fieldwork. As Sophie has noted, the ability to digitally store information without wifi can really boost efficiency. Try a 30-day trial of Conseris today and see firsthand how it can help you with your next fieldwork project!