Katie James has a degree in Environmental Science from the University of Greenwich and is currently a PhD student at NRI. Between school and university, she did “a bit of everything” until realising that the natural sciences were “actually a thing”, and could be the gateway to a fulfilling career. Katie took five minutes out of her day to sit down with NRI Communications Officer Linden Kemkaran to chat about how it all began, and her determination to give something back.
"I finished formal education and took a slightly unconventional route; I went from school to A-levels to BTEC, then I took five years out to work. I did a bit of everything – I ran a gym, worked in the entertainment industry organising parties and functions, worked in a care home and in a pharmacy but none of it felt rewarding.
I came to an open day at the University of Greenwich Medway campus as I’d always had a passion for natural sciences and ecology. I mistakenly thought it was something you had to be born into; I didn’t know it was open to anyone. Growing up I watched documentaries on zoos and animals and it always seemed to be a family venture, for example Steve Irwin and his wife, and then his children taking over. I didn’t know there were opportunities for ordinary people like me.
If you’d told me at school that I would one day be paid to do research with pollinators, I would have thought you were mad. I never knew that this whole world of research and study existed. I came to the open day and talked to Dr Peter Burt, a Principal Scientist in NRI’s Agriculture, Health and Environment Department, and it was like a lightbulb moment. I sat down with him for 10 minutes and I knew exactly what I needed to do with my life; I was finally in the right place at the right time and this would be my career.
At school, science was presented as chemistry, biology or physics. The only reason I became aware of ecology was thanks to a science teacher who talked about natural selection, but even then, it was presented as something that had already happened in the past, not as a possible future career option. I feel that schools would benefit hugely from NRI people going in to talk to the pupils about careers and study options.
For the past few years I worked at the British Ecological Society summer school with A-Level students from inner-city schools, most of whom had never left London. We took them to Wales on an ‘insect ID walk’ and they saw a deer walk right past – they simply couldn’t believe their eyes! They just threw themselves into the great outdoors and I loved their enthusiasm.
I recognise myself in a lot of kids from modest backgrounds who assume they can’t afford to study or pursue a career in natural sciences. If there was more information available about student financing, how it’s paid, how to manage a budget, how to find somewhere to live etc, it would become more accessible. The ESU (Educational Support Unit) at this University goes out into schools and they do fun exercises where they give them a budget, tell them how much everything costs and they make a game out of it.
I loved every single minute of my environmental science degree – I wouldn’t change a thing – the interconnectivity between the topics gave me a much greater understanding of the whole subject. Take climate change and ecology for example, we came at it from an historic perspective going back through different eras and all the modules overlapped which made perfect sense.
But the real stars here at NRI and FES (Faculty of Engineering and Science) are the lecturers: all of them, especially Peter Burt, Sarah Arnold and Andrew Haggart are brilliant, and they absolutely love what they do. I was given the freedom and tools to investigate what I found most interesting and that’s what steered me towards my future research here. I have Sarah Arnold to thank for opening my eyes to the possibilities. It was during a field trip to the Lake District and Sarah was so excited, diving into bushes, finding insects and telling us all these facts, her enthusiasm was infectious. That got me into pollinators and agriculture and the whole issue of food security.
After graduating last year, I applied for a few PhDs, and then the opportunity came up to work on specialist pollinators within food security, increasing fruit yield and navigating problems, here and in Africa. It was a perfect fit and I got a research grant through NRI’s FaNSI – Food and Nutrition Security Initiative. I knew that here, working with Sarah, I couldn’t ask for a better support network to develop my career.
Ultimately, I would like to do a post-doc abroad, working more on behavioural entomology and its relationship with crop production in Africa; eventually I’d like to lecture, ideally back here at NRI. I want to give something back. I’ve been awarded a great privilege being taught by such fantastic people and having a career that I feel passionate about, something I thought I’d never achieve. I’d like to help others do the same."
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