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International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2021

11/02/2021 in Conservation

Meet Keri and Sophorn, two scientists at the frontline of wildlife conservation. Despite working on opposite sides of the globe, and with very different species, Keri and Sophorn are both breaking stereotypes at the forefront of the conservation world.

STEM industries, aka Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, are historically male dominated, but we’re making progress. Women now represent 24% of the core-STEM workforce and as of 2019 we’ve hit the one million women in STEM milestone. More girls are choosing STEM subjects at school, resulting in more women employed in the STEM workforce and holding executive seats in STEM boardrooms (WISE, 2020).

Sophorn Keath, laboratory technician

Sophorn is a laboratory technician at the Conservation Genetics Laboratory based at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP). Along with partners at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and funded by the UK government’s IWT Challenge fund, RZSS WildGenes has been instrumental in the development of this Cambodian facility. We train the RUPP staff in laboratory techniques and analysis to provide in-country genetic support for the conservation of threatened species, such as elephants and crocodiles.  Farmed Siamese crocodiles are often hybridised with other species, such as the more common saltwater crocodile. Sophorn uses genetic analysis to differentiate the species as part of FFI’s breeding and release programme for the critically endangered Siamese crocodile.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

When I was young, I liked reading biological books. The more I read the more I got questions in my mind. I like learning something new and wondering about the secret things behind nature.  Sometimes, I could not get scientific answers to the questions.  I wished to understand and explain all about the natural life processes. Moreover, I wish to pass my knowledge to the younger generation as a scientist.

Based on your own experience, what would you say to aspiring girls who want a future in conservation science?

Being a scientist is vital to societal needs and global challenges. Both women and men are needed to work as scientists, and women are as good at scientific work as men. They need to learn and to know a lot of things in science and to have strong commitment and manage high responsibility. Do not give up your goal because you are a woman. Be yourself and follow your dream for who you really want to be in the future. Gender is not your challenge anymore.

Describe a typical day in your role, what is your favourite part?

I love animals and I enjoy working as a conservationist. During my typical workday, I always plan and make notes for the experiments. Working in a lab, I need to clean every time before starting the lab work. I prepare samples and check reagents in the working stock. After the results have completed, I need to analyse and upload the data. I spend my day at the lab conducting experiments. It allows me to gain knowledge and help capacity build for genetic analysis. Science is one of the most important channels of knowledge and it has a specific role to create new knowledge, improve education, and increase the quality of our lives. I love the practical work of being in a lab.

Keri Langridge, Saving Wildcats field manager

Dr Keri Langridge is the field manager for Saving Wildcats, a European partnership project dedicated to wildcat conservation. The project aims to prevent the extinction of wildcats in Scotland by breeding and releasing them into the wild. Keri manages the in-situ conservation side of the project, planning and implementing the field programme and managing the field team. She is based at the Highland Wildlife Park.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I don’t think it's any one thing. I have always been interested in the natural world, and I was lucky to have parents who encouraged that and are also both career scientists themselves. The Natural History Museum in London was always my biggest inspiration. We used to go there a lot and I still visit whenever I get the opportunity. Being a scientist is not about being ‘brainy’, it's about looking at a massive whale skeleton or an extinct giant sloth and asking questions. What is it? Where did it come from? What happened to it? Those kinds of questions get me out of bed in the morning. I was always going to be a scientist.

Based on your own experience, what would you say to aspiring girls who want a future in conservation science?

Everybody knows that conservation careers are competitive but don’t let that put you off, because there are some very important things to remember.

The first is that everything worth doing is competitive, so there isn’t much point dwelling on it.

Second, the field of conservation science is incredibly broad and becoming more diversified every day. There is no one ‘set path’ to a career in conservation science, you can build a career from many different starting points, following exciting opportunities and trajectories when they appear. A career is a journey, not an endpoint.

Thirdly, skills are transferable. In my eclectic career history, I worked as an education officer for Cats Protection, giving talks to the public about responsible cat ownership. Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, this experience gave me a unique skill set and knowledge base and directly contributed towards my current position with Saving Wildcats.

The last and most important, is you must believe in yourself and take every opportunity that comes along. Don’t allow anybody else to dictate what you are and are not capable of!

Describe a typical day in your role, what is your favourite part?

I like my job because there is no typical day!

It can be very variable and often quite reactive, so I need to be prepared to respond to different situations. I could be sitting at my desk doing research into camera-trap survey designs and a member of the public might report a potential wildcat kitten which we need to assess.

When people ask what my favourite part of the job is they are sometimes surprised by my answer. I love working with cats and being outside, but I particularly enjoy giving talks to local communities and working with volunteers. Getting people interested in the work we’re doing to save wildcats in Scotland is so rewarding.

The role of women in science is continually developing and expanding and by promoting full and equal access for all we are ensuring the future continues to look bright. Welcoming diversity, be it gender, racial, ethnic, or cultural, in conservation and environmental roles can only benefit us all.

“Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.” – Shirley Chisholm, first African-American woman elected to U.S. Congress

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