Case Study: Ecologist - Sheila

What do you do?

I work as a professor in the biology department of a large university. During the winter months, I spend most of my time teaching, marking and supervising graduate and undergraduate students. I also have to do a lot of administrative duties, like sitting on university committees.

During the summer university holiday months, most of my time is spent working at an outdoor laboratory.

My main area of expertise is metal toxicity in plants - that is, how metals in a plant's environment can induce biochemical reactions in the plant's cells.

One of the applications of my research is that it helps people to understand the effects of industrial pollutants on ecosystems.

What is your background?

At university, I studied behavioural ecology and soil/plant ecology, and eventually earned my PhD in plant ecophysiology. I am still hoping to get a more stable long-term position at a university but such jobs are very tough to get these days.

I was attracted to this job because I like teaching at university level and doing independent research on topics that interest me.

What characteristics do you need to be successful in your job?

Because they give lectures and educate the public, ecologists should be good public speakers. They should also be creative; you won't be able to get funding unless you are able to do novel, unique and interesting research.

You really never stop learning in this job, and you have to learn at an extremely high academic level, so ecologists should be dedicated workers. You also need to be highly organised. As a senior ecologist, you will be responsible for supervising students and other ecologists.

What other jobs could you do using the skills from this job?

Many academic ecologists get jobs as environmental consultants with the government or in private research. In such jobs, they might study, for example, the effects of a planned road on plant and animal life.

What changes will there be in the future?

Improvements in technology have made it easier for ecologists to monitor and evaluate environmental conditions. For example, remote sensing satellites now allow us to see the ratio of concrete to plants to trees to farmland, in any given area.

This is a lot easier and more accurate than having to map it all out on foot.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

Scientific knowledge and technology are expanding very rapidly. As a scientist, you are expected to keep up to date on everything related to your field. This can be very difficult.

Are there many opportunities to enter this career?

It's very tough to get a job in this field. The best thing to do is to pursue a degree and then apply for as many vacancies as you can. A postgraduate qualification may give you an advantage, although this isn't always the case.

Apart from academic qualifications, it is vital that you have good communication skills and a very good awareness of current environmental issues.

What do you like about your job?

I enjoy the intellectual challenges that my job provides. For example, I discovered that standard methods of preparing some of my samples for viewing in a microscope caused the metals in the samples to disappear. I became an inventor and developed an entirely new procedure for my work.

The university also provides me with the opportunity to meet interesting people from all over the world.

What do you dislike about your job?

I sometimes feel a bit stressed out because of the amount of work I have. Don't get me wrong, I love being busy but sometimes it does get me down a bit.

I work every day, every night and most weekends. Part of this is because of the constant pressure to meet deadlines. No sooner is one task done than another is due.

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

Make sure you really love what you're doing. If you don't, you won't have the energy and enthusiasm to do the job properly.

A day in the life

8:00 am - 9:30 am

Marking students' papers, preparing for a lecture, answering questions from students who visit my office.

9:30 am - 11:00 am

Lecturing to a class of undergraduate students, answering questions.

11:00 am - 12:00 pm

Sitting on an administrative committee, discussing an issue related to the activities of the biology department.

12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

Eating lunch while reading scientific books and journals, taking notes.

1:30 pm - 2:30 pm

Meeting with a postgraduate student who I am supervising to discuss the projects she is working on.

2:30 pm - 3:30 pm

Preparing for another lecture, answering questions from students who visit my office.

3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Lecturing to a class; answering students' questions.

5:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Analysing data from experiments I've done (the experiments involved testing plant samples that I collected during the summer for metal toxicity levels); noting whether or not the data supported existing theories about plant cell behaviour; formulating hypotheses to explain unusual results.

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