International Women’s Day
Blog by Michelle Jones and Laura Beasley
For International Women's Day this year, we are celebrating the achievements of Michelle Jones, Gough Field Assistant at the RSPB, and have asked her to answer a few questions about her career so far, her role on Gough, and #balanceforbetter within science!
What does your role involve? What skills are important?
I am a Field Assistant for the RSPB, working on one of the world’s most remote Islands - Gough Island. My day-to-day job involves monitoring the breeding success of various seabirds (and one land bird - the Gough bunting), looking for evidence of mice predation on seabird adults and chicks and occasionally we get to weigh seal pups. Our time is quite balanced between collecting data and entering it into databases which provides an interesting insight into the life histories of birds (some which have been alive longer than me!)
Important skills are being physically and mentally strong; hiking on Gough can be tough and long in miserable weather (Gough is one of the windiest and rainiest places in the world). So, it helps to have a positive attitude. You have to have an eye for detail and take meticulous notes. Also, when living on an island with only ten people for a year, you have to have good interpersonal skills. Any issues need to be resolved as you don’t ‘get to go home’ at the end of a work day. Baking skills come in pretty handy too!
How did you get into this sector? What’s your background?
I completed a MSc in Marine Biology and a Post Graduate Certificate in Education, and initially set out to become a teacher. I started dating Chris Jones in my Honours year and he initially applied to come to Gough. It wasn’t something I had ever thought of doing before, but a position opened up and I applied and I haven’t looked back. I first overwintered on Gough in 2014-2015, and have been living on remote Islands doing fieldwork since, working in both the Seychelles and on Marion Island. I had always wanted to come back to Gough to be part of the mouse eradication. Having seen the devastating impacts that mice have on birds on both Gough and Marion, it’s a subject very close to my heart.
Do you think women are well represented in your sector? If not, why do you think that is?
Historically, women were not allowed to overwinter on Gough or Marion Island's basis. This rule was changed by the South African National Antarctic Programme in 1994 which runs the field stations on both of these islands. Thankfully times have changed and women are now encouraged to apply for all positions.
What advice/tips would you give someone/women looking to start working in your sector?
Networking is very important. I have heard about a lot of similar jobs through word of mouth.
What’s been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge for me on Gough is the difficult terrain. In the lowlands the vegetation is extremely dense. Falling becomes part of your walking style, and in the highlands it is spongy/mossy/mire-y so it sucks the energy from your legs fairly quickly. After my first hike on Gough, I thought what had I gotten myself into?! My solution was a fairly simple one - distraction! An MP3 player is now an essential on all hikes and I enjoy listening to podcasts such as "Radio lab" and "No such thing as fish". I have also learnt to fall with style, and get back up and going again very quickly!
What do you feel are the challenges facing women in this sector?
Currently (in my experience) I don’t feel that women face any different challenges to men. The walking in inclement weather is challenging for all three of us (Chris and Alexis included). Perhaps someone might say that a woman is not tough enough to do fieldwork in the sub-Antarctic. This was probably the attitude in the past, however, I have not been met with any of these stereotypes and have met many incredibly strong women who love to work on sub-Antarctic islands.
What has been your biggest success?
My luckiest break was getting selected for Gough in 2014 as this has led to a continuation of island jobs. But currently, I consider the work we are doing, which is aiding the effort of the Gough Restoration programme, to be the most important work in my career thus far.
Who has been your biggest inspiration? Are there any female scientists/environmentalists (or anyone) that inspired/does inspire you?
There are many women who inspire me, I have been fortunate to work with a few; one to mention is Antje Steinfurth, our line manager and Conservation Scientist at the RSPB. She is an inspiring woman who has worked with seabirds all over the world.
The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha , BirdLife South Africa and the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa and Island Conservation . The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.