Scarce skills in the natural and agricultural sciences
Focus on an ornithologist: Prof Andrew McKechnie (Holder of the South African Research Chair in Conservation Physiology, South African National Biodiversity Institute) in the Department of Zoology and Entomology
Q: What should you study to become a zoologist/ornithologist?
A: BSc in zoology or biological sciences, followed by BSc Honours will put you in a position to register as a Professional Natural Scientist in South Africa, which is a requirement for working in the environmental consulting industry. Continuing with an MSc and PhD focussed on research into avian biology will open opportunities to work as an ornithologist at conservation organisations and NGOs, or to pursue a career in academic research and higher education.
Q: Why are science and zoology important?
A: Humans are completely dependent on nature and the ecosystem services provided by animals, plants and a host of other organisms. Scientists in general, and biologists in particular, have a critical role to play in addressing the global environmental crisis we currently face. Biodiversity is facing existential threats from global heating and rampant habitat destruction, and the work of zoologists is critical for finding conservation solutions and informing policy intended to ensure a sustainable future for humans and all other animals on Earth.
Q: What skills/qualities does a zoologist/ornithologist need to have?
A: First and foremost, a passion for nature and biodiversity. Other important qualities include a capacity for critical thinking, good written and verbal communication skills, and an insatiable curiosity for how the natural world works. Some fields of zoology involve work in remote places for which field and outdoor skills are vital, but there are also many laboratory-based fields of enquiry. Some of the biggest questions in zoology can be addressed by computer-based modelling.
Q: Why did you decide to study zoology?
A: I was fortunate enough to spend my childhood living on a large farm, with regular visits to places like Kruger National Park for family holidays. My interest in zoology, and ornithology in particular, to a large extent developed from nature being such a big part of my formative years. By the time I finished school and went on to study for a BSc at the University of Natal, I was determined to pursue a career involving birds.
Q: What does a zoologist/ornithologist’s job entail?
A: In an academic environment, the major parts of a zoologist’s job are generating new knowledge through a research programme and training students at levels ranging from their first year to PhD. The research process includes raising funding, formulating cutting-edge research questions based on current knowledge in the area of interest, collecting the data necessary to answer the questions and publishing findings in scientific journals.
Q: Describe a typical day in the life of Prof McKechnie?
A: It’s impossible to describe a typical day for the simple reason that my workdays are so varied. They can involve anything from being in front of my laptop writing papers or teaching students online, collecting data at field sites deep in the Kalahari or Namib deserts, meeting with colleagues to discuss new projects and funding proposals, or travelling overseas for conferences or research (at least, pre-Covid!). For me, the diversity and variability of what my workdays involve are some of the most enjoyable aspects of a career in science.
Q: Who employs zoologists/ornithologists?
A: There are career opportunities for ornithologists in several sectors. One of the biggest is the environmental consulting industry, where the environmental impact assessment process for proposed developments often requires specialist avifaunal assessments. The advent of widespread renewable energy developments such as wind farms and solar facilities has increased the need for ornithologists, as these “green” electricity generation facilities can have severe impacts on birds and detailed ornithological studies are often needed to minimise these impacts. Other organisations that regularly hire ornithologists include national and provincial conservation authorities, conservation NGOs such as BirdLife and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and the biological sciences departments of universities.
Q: Do you have any advice for prospective scientists/zoologists/ ornithologists?
A: First and foremost, follow your heart. Career opportunities for zoologists are often not as obvious as those for students studying law, medicine, veterinary science, etc., but studying zoology can open the door to a truly rewarding and fulfilling career. If you are an undergraduate student, spend some time on your department’s website reading about the research interests of the various members of academic staff members, and chat to them about opportunities to become involved in research, perhaps as a field assistant.
Q: Are you currently involved in any interesting research?
A: After a decade of research seeking to understand the risks posed to desert birds by climate change, we are now in the process of establishing a new collaborative project that will involve assessing the impacts of rising temperatures on birds in Kruger National Park. We plan to use this world-famous conservation area as a model system for assessing how management decisions related to vegetation communities will affect the availability of cool, shady locations for birds to take refuge in during extreme heat. The rate of global heating is accelerating, and it is now critical that we identify ways to reduce the impacts of increases in temperature on birds, particularly threatened species.
Q: Highlights of your career so far?
A: Receiving a South African Research Chair in 2017 has undoubtedly been one of the greatest highlights, as it opened a host of research and collaboration opportunities for my students and me. At a more personal level, being able to spend a significant amount of time in deserts, in particular the Kalahari, continues to be a highlight of my career.
Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
A: As an academic whose job involves training undergraduate and postgraduate students, two quotes resonate with me. The first, by the Greek historian and writer Plutarch, is “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled”. The second, usually attributed to Albert Einstein, is “Education is what is left after all that has been learnt is forgotten”.