The David Attenborough Building towers over the Department of Zoology, the many hues of grey stone blending neatly into the grey sky. Cambridge, like most of the United Kingdom, is shrouded in rainclouds for most of the year. But the atmosphere inside the building is filled with excitement and enthusiasm as students from around the world gather to present their research at the Student Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS) – Cambridge.
The train from London to Cambridge takes a mere 1.5 hours, traversing the English countryside efficiently. The landscape is picturesque, just like the descriptions in my beloved Enid Blyton books, the train sweeping through emerald fields and scuttling over babbling brooks. Soon, we draw into Cambridge Station and disembark, clutching our bags and looking around. The station is approximately 2 miles from our accommodation, so we catch a University bus and head into one of the world’s oldest and most renowned universities.
Cambridge is the site of more success stories than nearly anywhere else in the world. From Darwin’s early specimen collections to his work on DNA, from Newton’s forays in the campus’ science labs to David Attenborough’s interest in the natural world, Cambridge and its famous alumni are a science-lover’s dream. When we walked around the campus from our accommodation to the conference venue, we soaked in the picturesque architecture. Quaint, painted doors, hanging baskets of bright flowers, and stone buildings lend a unique charm to this English town and I can see why everyone who visits Cambridge falls in love with it.
Our first day had cheery blue skies and we could enjoy an exploratory walk around the campus (or a part of it) as we familiarized ourselves with its history and architecture. Then, we retired after a delicious dinner at Aromi, an Italian pizzeria with an old-world charm. The rooms we were given were cozy and luxurious – the suite had four bedrooms (each for a single person!), two bathrooms, and a kitchenette. While the kitchenette was off limits, the bedrooms more than made up for it with the spacious cupboards, large wooden desk (which my laptop proudly occupied) and the cozy bed with fluffy pillows and a thick comforter. After a long day of walking and journeying from London to Cambridge, it was amazing to just crawl into that fluffy bed and curl up for the night.
The next morning was the formal start to the conference. After getting ready, delegates headed to St. Catherine’s College where we would be receiving an all-you-can-eat English breakfast. Warm flaky croissants, crispy fried bread, buttery scrambled eggs, perfectly round fried eggs, sweetened pancakes with choices of jams, freshly squeezed orange juice, and round sausages and bacon for the nonvegetarians. Eating that breakfast was an entire experience in itself! After filling our stomachs, we made the brisk walk two streets over to the Department of Zoology, which is situated right beside the Zoology Museum. A massive skeleton of a grey whale hangs in the entrance, and the museum itself houses countless specimens and skeletons, all perfectly preserved and free to the public.
Once we registered and picked up our delegate welcome kits, we took our seats for the opening plenary, an engaging talk by Dr. Sam Wasser, a professor from the University of Washington, USA. His talk was on his work on using genetic tools to trace routes of the illegal wildlife trade, focusing on ivory and pangolin scales. It was fascinating to see how a combination of methods – both traditional forensic science and cutting-edge conservation work – came together to create a surefire way of tracing the origins of trafficked animal parts. Inspired, we broke for coffee and tea and then returned to the auditorium for the first set of student talks, all focusing on methods for understanding threats. From the anthropogenic stressors to colobus monkeys in South America to antimicrobial resistance in mountain gorillas in Uganda to gharial captive breeding programmes in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, the first three talks set the bar high for the rest of the conference.
Next, we moved into the first session of student poster presentations. There were 140 posters presented by students both online and in-person, but the conference had set up a platform on zoom to ensure that the presentations went smoothly. It was fascinating to see the posters and listen to the presenters talk for a minute about their work, leaving us with room to ask questions. After the posters, we had a working lunch of sandwiches (all vegan and vegetarian) and then returned for session 2 of student talks.
Session 2 focused on species’ distributions in the Anthropocene, and we covered a wide range of landscapes and species in this set. From primate distributions to birds and their responses to landscape variables, we then moved to Malaysia and looked at the tapir and bat conservation work there. One of the most impressive things to me was the sheer effort that people put into their presentations. The visuals, graphics, and animations made the experience so enriching, and frankly this was something I could learn from. We then moved into the next poster session and broke for tea and coffee.
Next up were the workshops. SCCS organises in-person and online workshops, but I was delighted to see that the in-person workshops were not hybrid – they were very interactive and only people who were physically attending the conference were included, which made the activities and learning much easier. I was in a workshop on writing grants and raising funds for conservation research, a topic that I desperately needed as I am always looking for grants to fund my fieldwork. The workshop leaders were from three organisations – Rufford, Whitley Fund for Nature, and the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) – all of which have grants that I plan on applying for. We practiced our elevator pitches to grantees and learnt about the dos and don’ts of grant applications. We also worked on our skills at pitching a project idea to a prospective donor by pairing up and acting out the interactions, which was very helpful. What was even more helpful was that right after our workshop, we headed to the Who’s Who in Conservation session, which was essentially a meet and greet with organisations in London/Cambridge working on conservation. Some of these organisations are also funders of conservation work around the world, and we practiced pitching our projects to them and making connections that can hopefully come in handy.
Finally, we returned to the auditorium for the final plenary of the day by Dr. Ana Rodrigues, who spoke about ‘The curious case of the invisible whales,’ discussing the mystery of grey whale populations in the Atlantic Ocean. Her talk clearly highlighted her passion for whale conservation and her approach to deciphering the mystery behind the presence (or absence) of grey whales from the Atlantic. I particularly enjoyed her speaking style – it was overall a great finish to a very exciting and thought-provoking day.
Stay tuned for my next post which will highlight the next two days of the conference! This was a lot for a single post, but there was too much to capture!
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