We’re not science automatons – we’re people: Meet Joanna Bagniewska

My interview for the Soapbox Science blog.

Dr Joanna Bagniewska is a zoologist working as a teaching fellow at Reading University’s School of Biological Sciences. Her research interests encompass ecology and conservation biology, particularly the subject of invasive species. She is a very keen science communicator – she won FameLab Poland, gave a talk at TEDxWarsaw, and she even does science stand-up comedy.  Meet Joanna in our Reading event, where she’ll be discussing “How Disney & Science don’t always go hand in hand”.

SS: Joanna, how did you get to your current position?

JB: While completing my undergraduate in Biology at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, I did an internship with the University of New South Wales. I spent two months in Australia’s Snowy Mountains examining road ecology – i.e. the impact of roads on the surrounding wildlife. I found the subject absolutely fascinating, and from that point onwards I knew that I wanted to research ecology and conservation biology. To get more international experience, I decided to spend a semester abroad at Rice University in Texas, where I obtained a lot of hands-on experience in herpetology and animal behaviour. After completing my undergraduate degree, I went on to obtain my MSc from Oxford University; my research focused on the methods used for monitoring South African canid species, such as jackals and foxes. I then stayed at Oxford for my doctorate, which examined the behavioural ecology of the American mink in the UK. After graduating, I worked for a start-up company for a few months, and then went on to be a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Eventually I moved back to West Midlands to take the post of a teaching fellow at Reading University’s School of Biological Sciences.

SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

JB: My earliest inspiration came from countless books on animals that I received from my parents when I was very little. I’ve always had very diverse interests, and up until the very end of high school I wasn’t sure what to study. I was torn between studying architecture (like my mother), Chinese language (because I lived in China for a few years) and animal science (because I really liked animals). Eventually I settled for biology, even though it was my weakest subject in school – mainly because I was very passionate about wildlife, but not any of the other aspects of the curriculum! Going to university was pretty much the default option in my family, but as I was the first one to choose a science degree, my parents were very apprehensive – they did not think that biology was a viable career choice. In fact, it was only when I went to South Africa with my students last year, my mother finally admitted “wow, you really do have the coolest job in the world”.

SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

JB: There are several. Making sense of the world around us, interacting with animals, travelling, and finally meeting inspirational and passionate people.

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

JB: Talking to people about what animals do is one of my favourite activities of all time. Well, that and ceilidhs.

SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

JB: Woohoo!

SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

JB: The lack of stability. I understand that mobility is good for science, but I really don’t think it’s that good for scientists. We’re not science automatons – we’re people, we want to have relationships, start families, have a good night’s sleep without worrying about where our money will come from tomorrow. Continuous searches for funding, applying for grants, looking for jobs is what really sucks the fun out of science. Currently in some scientific circles revealing that you have a life outside of academia leads to, in the best case, a few funny looks, in the worst – being labelled a weak scientist.

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

JB: I have a dilemma here. The optimistic advice would be: believe in what you do, be kind to everyone, and build a supportive contact network around you. The truly heartfelt (although painful) advice would be: find a rich husband/wife, prepare for an extremely competitive environment with very little money to go around, and always have an escape plan. I know the second set sounds incredibly harsh, but when I look back at my academic career, I wish someone had given me a reality check like this – not to put me down, but to really allow me to prepare myself for any worst case scenarios.