Stephanie is Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology and also works as an ecological consultant. Her extensive industry experience has inspired her to mentor students, helping them to prepare for careers in ecology.
I did my degree in Terrestrial Ecology at the Polytechnic of Central London. I had a really great lecturer who was so enthusiastic – he inspired us all on various field trips to the South Downs and Wales, looking at plants and ecology. I loved it from the start.
After university, I taught English in Japan for two years. I kept in touch with my lecturer during that time, and he offered me the chance to do a PhD. I came back to what is now the University of Westminster and I did my PhD on the ecology of heaths and mire ecosystems. I worked on Thursley Common National Nature Reserve in Surrey, where David Bellamy did much of his research. I also taught as a research assistant at the University.
Once I completed my PhD, I was really keen to work in industry rather than stay in academia. I worked for several different companies before setting myself up as a consultant in the West Country, working with local councils and industry to raise awareness of the environment in business.
Then I got involved with the quarrying company Hanson Aggregates, talking to them about how to make quarrying sustainable. That was quite a challenge!
I eventually ended up as Hanson’s group ecologist, where I worked with multidisciplinary teams to put together big planning applications for quarry extensions. I looked at how wildlife legislation affected what they could and couldn’t do, and advised them on how to do things in a green way.
It was very difficult – I had so many qualms. But I thought, how many companies are there that have ecologists on the team? We always say that companies leave that aspect too late, and that they don’t involve us in the early planning meetings, so actually being involved in that way was good. Being at the sharp end is much better than being tagged on at the end of an application.
Throughout my time working in the industry, I also worked as a lecturer at Bristol University. I was a guest tutor on their Environmental Management Master’s degree, and I also ran CPD courses freelance for those who wanted to learn about writing ecological reports.
I left Hanson and started working completely freelance, doing a lot of consultancy work. I then got involved at Bath Spa, working as an Associate Lecturer teaching conservation and ecology modules and running a field trip to Purbeck. Eventually, I became a permanent member of staff in 2013 as Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology.
I run two of the modules in our new Wildlife Conservation degree – Conservation Biology and Ecology and Biodiversity. I also work on the Environmental Practice module, which is geared up to develop skills that are useful in the ecology sector.
I continue to teach part-time alongside my consultancy work.
Mentoring my students
My main area of expertise is field ecology and helping to get young ecologists trained up to offer the practical element – skills such as how to monitor wildlife, learning how to identify habitats and different species, and getting the appropriate protected species licences. It’s a really practically-orientated, field ecology approach.
At Bath Spa, there hasn’t always been the necessary environmental mentorship available. With our push to become a “nature university”, our degree in Wildlife Conservation, and all the press out there about biodiversity loss, we need to be able to offer that mentoring support. In what was traditionally a creative university, we now have this strong drive towards conservation, the importance of nature for our wellbeing and mental health, and the science behind it, and it’s an important area of growth. Young people are very switched on to concerns about what’s happening to the environment and this requires inter and intra-disciplinary approaches across the whole University.
I’ve worked as a professional ecological consultant since the early '90s so I felt I was in a good position to give both the academic and professional perspective and bring that to my teaching. I have knowledge of what it’s like to work in industry, as well as the academic route, and that's what a lot of our students want – they want to go into business and work in labs or as consultants. That's why I'm so keen on mentoring – it’s one way I feel I can help and I think it's a valuable thing to offer.
“Mentoring students to develop their practical and transferable skills is the unique thing I bring to my teaching.”
Supporting women in science
Women do tend to struggle more with their careers – in science, generally – but particularly in ecology due to the rigours of the profession.
There are a lot of women working in ecology but the difficulty comes in gaining the right experience in a competitive field. You need to be flexible, willing to move around, and you’ll often need to work anti-social hours to do things like bat and great crested newt surveys. It’s easier when you’re younger, but as you get older or start a family, it can become more difficult.
Traditionally, it’s been a male-orientated field, but it’s definitely moving away from that now and there are some very strong female role models in the profession.
"Quarrying was a very male-orientated industry back in the '90s. Working in all male teams, and being the only female around the planning table was quite intimidating at times. It took a lot of guts to stand up for the bats that lived in the caves that would be affected by quarrying operations."
I got into mentoring through the British Ecological Society, of which I've been a member for most of my career, and I recently participated in their Women in Ecology mentoring scheme.
I mentored a young ecologist who had just completed her Master’s – she’s from California but was studying in the UK. I worked with her to develop her transferable skills. Due to COVID restrictions it was mostly online, but we were able to meet up in London at one point. She has now returned to the US and is working for the federal government, looking at the management of invasive species. She’s on her way now!
The pandemic led to many students missing out on work placements, so a third-year student who was struggling with her placement joined me. I don’t run a big company – I’m more or less a sole practitioner who works with a network of colleagues. I project manage to bring them together and make sure clients get what they need. I was able to bring this student on board to work with me, giving her professional experience of writing reports for clients, and I acted as a mentor. It worked well and I think she benefitted and enjoyed it.
My mentoring experience has allowed me to join Bath Spa's newly launched MentorMe scheme. I've been matched with a third-year student and we've had a couple of meetings so far.
Tips for aspiring ecologists
In difficult situations with clients, your membership will give you standing and kudos and you can argue you’re bound by your code of professional conduct. If necessary, you can turn to the organisation for support.
Companies don’t want the bad press that can result from doing things illegally – this can be worse than actual fines for them. Your knowledge of the law can be a great help in advising on the correct way to do things.
You don’t want to have communication barriers between you and a client. But even though you’re working for them, there must be boundaries. You can’t turn a blind eye to bad practice – you need to be pragmatic and flexible in your working relationships, but you need to remember there are red lines that can’t be crossed.
The importance of science
You can’t teach ecology and biodiversity without considering the human aesthetic.
People find woods beautiful and they love being out in nature. Combining the natural environment with art installations, like you see at sculpture parks and botanical gardens, is beautiful and I really appreciate that side of it. Landscape and a sense of place is also very important – our iconic landscape at Bath Spa is part of the reason we have veteran trees on campus which are really good for invertebrates and birds. The reason people work in this field is because they feel very committed to these aspects.
But I feel very strongly that you need to get down to the underpinning science. Ecology practice must be based on the research – it’s all very well coming up with ideas to deal with rare species on the site of a planned development, but will those ideas work? Evidence-based approaches to wildlife conservation are becoming increasingly important.
This underpins my approach to the idea of Bath Spa becoming a “nature university”. We need to make sure we’re using the scientific evidence to improve and enhance the biodiversity on campus. For example, we are now a hedgehog friendly campus, gaining the Bronze Award recently. Behind this achievement, research by both students and staff has asked the questions – is it the right environment for hedgehogs? Why aren’t they thriving here already? How can we adapt our management of the campus to best support them?
The evidence must underpin the beauty and the aesthetics – if you don’t get the science right, then you may inadvertently run the risk of doing harm. We need to understand nature, as well as appreciate its benefits.
“Ecology is a hard science, using data collection and statistical analysis to build up evidence that we can use in the practical world to create something good – something that’s better.”