Have you ever wondered how conservationists spend their days, or what keeps them optimistic about the future of nature? Do they always spend their time in the distant wild, or might they be hidden all around us? Do their roles encompass aspects we never thought of? 

“Meet The Optimists” is a monthly blog series by Conservation Optimism which introduces conservationists working in different fields and contexts to our readers. We discuss their journeys into conservation, typical daily activities and  reasons for hope. 

Read on for the inside story on different careers and fresh approaches to conservation!

In the first blog of Conservation Optimism’s “Meet The Optimists” series, Prof E.J. Milner-Gulland talks about her work as a professor of biodiversity and conservation, what a typical day looks like for her, and what keeps her optimistic!

Professor EJ Milner-Gulland

Professor EJ Milner-Gulland is the Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Oxford, working to understand ecological, social and behavioural factors that are instrumental to conservation. As the Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, her research interests focus on understanding natural resource users, exploring social-ecological systems, and managing human-nature interactions. She founded the Conservation Optimism movement in 2016. 

Can you trace the origins of your interest in conservation and what led to your current work?

I was brought up in the countryside and spent many hours exploring the hills and woods around my home on walks and on horseback. My parents inspired me to love nature in different ways – my father taught me the names and history of plants and he taught me to “read” landscapes for their history and their nature. My mum taught me about how to care for animals and she inspired me with her artist’s vision of the world. Then I had a brilliant biology teacher and he gave me the direction towards studying biology as a degree. When I was at university, I decided that I wanted to make my career conserving the nature that I loved. 

What does a typical day of work look like for you as a Professor?

I read and write a lot of emails (hundreds a day), and I have lots of different meetings to talk about the research that my students and research teams are doing, and to give them feedback. I also have lots of meetings about administration of my Department, about managing my research group, and administration of the various projects and organisations that I lead. I edit and revise manuscripts and write grant proposals. I sit on various boards and committees. Every now and again I travel to have even more meetings, in London or sometimes overseas – though that’s much less common nowadays.

My job is very varied in terms of the content, though, even if it does involve rather too many emails and meetings!  I might have 12 meetings in a day, and I will move between planning for a symposium about saiga conservation, to talking about eco-compensation policy in China, to fundraising for Conservation Optimism, to deciding on space allocation in my Department, to research on how people feel about housing in Oxfordshire, to building tools to track the environmental impact of our food systems, to shark fishing in India, to the gender aspects of wildmeat hunting in Africa, to reducing the environmental impact of our University’s operations… and all sorts of other topics in between. It can be quite a whirlwind!

My favourite times are when I’m bouncing ideas around with people, and suddenly we have inspiration and we see links between things, and new ways of thinking. It’s so exciting! This happens both with my research and with my conservation work, but you need to create the conditions for it – short, online meetings with set agendas just don’t really work, you need a bit of time and you need not to be distracted. That’s hard!

Very occasionally, I go out to the field to experience the nature that I am trying to help, that’s amazing too – these trips sustain me as I’m ploughing through all my admin tasks!

What is your favourite and least favourite aspect about your role?

I don’t have much patience for meetings that I think are a waste of my time, particularly if they are not efficiently chaired. I have so many things to do that I find it very hard to stay focussed if people are being boring. 

I have many favourite parts of my role, but it is very special when I see that I’m really making a difference. For example, I love to see my students grow in confidence and expertise over the years they are with me, and then flourish in their careers. It makes me really proud that I’ve had a part in their success. 

As a conservationist, what makes you hopeful about the future?

It can be very hard to see, because of all the bad news, but overall we are progressing – biodiversity is on the public and political agenda in a way it certainly wasn’t even 5 years ago. Businesses and governments actually talk about it now, even if we haven’t got much in the way of action yet. We’re not moving fast enough, but we’re at least moving… 

What helps you stay positive day-to-day?

Professionally, interacting with passionate people who are making a difference; my students, the Conservation Optimism team, conservationists around the world. It’s exciting and I never feel alone in the struggle to help nature recover. Personally – getting out in nature with my dog or my horse really helps a lot when I feel it’s all too overwhelming – how can you not feel positive when there’s birdsong and sunshine, and you’re seeing the turning of the seasons in a place you know and love?

Could you share a story about a formative moment in your conservation career?

A wonderful moment was in the Stepnoi reserve in southern Russia about 15 years ago. I was there with a group of people including my parents, we were on a trip to test out saiga-related tourism opportunities. We’d had a really long day of driving in diesel-fumed jeeps over very bumpy tracks, and visiting schools to give out art prizes for their saiga drawings, everyone was exhausted but we decided to head deep into the reserve as our last outing of the day, to visit the saiga birth areas, even though time was tight. We arrived just as dusk was starting to fall. There was a breeze causing the long-headed feathergrass to sway like ocean waves and the sky had a pinkish hue. We were surrounded by mother saigas who had come back to their babies to give them their evening milk. We couldn’t see the calves in the long grass but the air was full of gruff moos from the mothers and bleats from the babies. It was a magical moment that reminded me what we were fighting to protect and why it was worth carrying on. These types of moments sustain me through all the long meetings and boring paperwork – knowing that those saiga mothers and calves are still mooing and bleating in the steppe grass, and I’m doing my bit to keep them safe. It was especially precious because my parents were there with me.

Any advice for someone interested in pursuing your field of work in conservation science?

Find  group of like-minded people to collaborate with, and a lab where people support and encourage each other. There’s lots of challenges in doing research in conservation, so support networks are absolutely vital to keep you going through the tough times, to inspire you, and help you test out new ideas and build your skills. And over time you’ll find that you too have lots to offer to others – that’s how we are going to make it through; by working together.

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