This week we chat to…April Burt, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford in partnership with Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF). April believes passionately that success in marine conservation comes more from building strong teams, working collaboratively, being resilient and self-motivated, than having strong qualifications.
Name: April Burt
Job Title: PhD candidate (Marine conservation)
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
Short answer: Seeing a basking shark aged 6 from a boat in Cornwall!
Long answer: I went on a rather unconventional route to university, and I chose a couple of A levels (English and Drama) based on what I got the best marks at in school. After finishing these I decided to go and spend the summer in a tent by the sea in Cornwall. The sea has always been this mind-blowingly and inspiring place that seems to put everything else into perspective in my life. This experience led me to apply for an Access course at Plymouth University. The course was a year long and covered maths, biology, chemistry and a bit of statistics and was enough to get me into Bangor University to study Marine Biology and this set me on the road I’m still travelling today.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
It was definitely not an easy jump onto the career ladder. I met a girl who worked as a divemaster in Greece, and we spent the summer in Jordan as dive guides where I gained a lot of experience and dive qualifications. After I graduated from university I went back to Jordan and worked for another year gaining my divemaster qualification. I felt pretty confident that I would easily get a job with my dive skills and degree under my belt, but I was wrong. I must have applied for hundreds of jobs but I still didn’t have any enough experience.
I managed to get a place volunteering a couple of days a week at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth. This coupled with my dive skills and a powerboat license I gained, landed me an internship at a scientific research station in Chilean Patagonia. I spent a few months working in this small team and learning new skills, but was also still applying for jobs and eventually secured a role with Frontier Madagascar as Assistant Marine Research Officer (unpaid). After six months in Madagascar, I got a position with GVI in Seychelles. As science coordinator for GVI’s marine programme on Curieuse island I was finally getting paid to do conservation work! I also learned a lot about team management and working with local organisations to achieve shared objectives.
After two years with GVI I secured a role working with a local NGO on another island and spent another two years managing a team of volunteers and working with Seychellois to conduct conservation and monitoring work. I soon learned that any additional work outputs like analysing data in detail and writing scientific papers would have to be done in my spare time and this is what I did, collaborating with other islands to turn some of the many data sets being collected into information useful for management. After another two years in this role I landed my dream job as science coordinator for Aldabra Atoll in Seychelles, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and spectacular example of a near-pristine marine ecosystem. With two and a half years in this role and a few scientific papers under my belt I successfully gained a scholarship to complete my PhD at Oxford University in collaboration with the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) and that is where I am today.
- How did you land your current job/position?
Really it came through making a success of the opportunities I was given and learning very quickly that being successful in conservation is more about building strong teams, working collaboratively, being resilient and self-motivated, than having strong qualifications. So I am a strong advocate of giving people opportunities based on how hard they have worked not on how many qualifications they have.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Getting to work in incredible locations goes without saying, but the biggest kick I get is from mentoring others, building a sense of teamwork and working together to achieve shared goals.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
More recently we conducted a project to clean-up the marine debris that is cluttering Aldabra’s (in the Seychelles) coastline (@AldabraCleanUp / https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kf3PcL8gUpU) and this has had a much further reach than I ever imagined it would, it certainly felt like we, like other small initiatives, had made a real impact. Overall though I think the biggest difference I can make is building capacity and empowering others.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
The sky is the limit!
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
One skill that I was never taught, and I still think is massively lacking worldwide, is data management. Organisations collect huge amounts of data but very few people have good data management skills, myself included. Also, in my roles I’ve needed to be more than just a conservation scientist, often cook, nurse, mother, teacher, manager and a whole lot more!
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
To be really successful you need to be open, communicate well and above all build strong and healthy relationships within the community you are working with. Question yourself often; how is what I’m doing helping both marine conservation and the communities I’m working in? If you can’t find a good answer then challenge yourself to make changes so that you can.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
I love watching the big silvery pelagic fish like tuna and trevally chasing shoals of little fish underwater, their speed and agility is insane and they are mesmerising.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
Diving the main channel at Aldabra Atoll, in one of the fastest currents in the world is a bit like underwater horizontal sky diving with all sorts of marine life whizzing past. You feel the inexorable power of the ocean and its very humbling.
Thank you April, for this fascinating insight into your career so far. We are all a little jealous of the time you get to spend on Aldabra, such an incredible opportunity and well deserved.