In the summer of 2022 I went on a 4 week expedition with Operation Wallacea to Mexico. I had the most amazing time, and then got a job in the Opwall sales team for most of the year, before leading mammal and herpetofauna surveys at the Knepp field course for Opwall a year later. So, what did I take from my time as a research assistant in Mexico to help me work in conservation?
There are a long list of things that make an Opwall expedition an incredible experience, and I have tried to focus on the employability side here (but you can’t blame me for also dropping in spider monkeys and royal flycatchers as well – photo below for anyone interested!).
Survey skills is the big one of course. Working as a research assistant you get to experience a whole range of different surveys. In Mexico, I got involved with mammals, herpetofauna, bats, birds, butterflies and habitats, as well as learning to dive and then helping with marine surveys. This range of experience was brilliant, as I got familiar with how to go about each survey and the equipment needed. For example, I learnt how to set up a mist net, how to use a camera trap, what to look for when tracking mammals, how to handle lizards… You get the idea. I learnt a lot.
So while the environment and the species I surveyed were not the same as in the UK, the survey skills are extremely transferable. I have been able to build a lot upon the skills I learnt in Mexico, but while leading surveys this summer at Knepp I was still thinking about when I had first learnt them on the other side of the world.
For better or for worse, the world of conservation is determined by who you know. A very low number of people I know working in UK conservation jobs got their positions through simply replying to job adverts, and many more got them because they knew the right people. Making connections is a key part of the job search in this field, and joining an Opwall expedition is an incredible place to start! The survey staff are leading scientists in their field, so they are brilliant people to get to know. You are also on site with other research assistants who share your interests, so it is a great community of people to be around and stay in touch with. For me personally I met a lot of incredible people in Mexico and at Knepp, both staff and volunteers, who I am keeping in contact with. I can’t recommend this part of an Opwall expedition enough.
Experience is a bit of a vague title, but I basically mean everything about an expedition that you can talk about in your CV or in an interview. Survey skills is one thing, but being able to talk at length about a conservation project in the forests of Calakmul looking at helping locals start honey businesses rather than cutting down trees for cattle farming is just a bit more interesting for an interview! Employers are also often interested in hearing about the fundraising that you did, or the inter-personal skills you developed while on site. This is also where you can name-drop all the species you saw into conversation and make everyone jealous by talking about the vultures and howler monkeys you saw from a Mayan temple (do you see what I did there…).
There are many reasons why going on an Opwall expedition is an incredible experience. It will definitely boost your employability, whatever field you are hoping to work in, for the reasons I have outlined above. Hopefully if you haven’t been away with us yet this will have convinced you to join us next summer to experience an expedition for yourself!
All photos taken by Fran Anderson (2022).