Undergraduate Summer School: an invaluable experience

This July I was lucky enough to take part in the BES Summer School's second year to explore ecology careers and better my ecological skills. I've always had a love for the natural world and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to meet with like-minded students and immerse myself amongst researchers and professionals.

2016 BES Undergraduate Summer School, Malham Tarn
2016 BES Undergraduate Summer School, Malham Tarn Karen Devine

I first heard about the Summer School through an email sent to all students in the environmental science and geography department at Northumbria University. The application was open to anyone in their first year studying a relevant degree, and despite initially having a few reservations due to anxiety, I jumped at the chance to take part.

The build-up was slightly nerve wracking but we had lots of contact with our PhD mentors and roommates which really helped to ease my nerves for arrival day. Shortly after arrival I realised my worries could not have been any less necessary and sharp bonded with my lovely roommates. It was great to see a mixture of attendees, from students who went straight to university from sixth form, to mature students, and students who took time off between A-levels and degrees. But we all had one common ground: our love for ecology. You throw a group of 50 or so ecology students into the middle of Yorkshire surrounded by what they love most and they will get on like a house on fire.

Over the 12 months prior to the BES Summer School I had immersed myself in volunteering and paid work experience in the ecology field to learn a little more about the different sectors of ecology and the job opportunities open to me upon graduation. Despite my best efforts there’s only a certain amount of jobs a first year undergraduate can be trusted with but the summer school was there to fill the gaps. Over the course of the week I was able to take part in monitoring river water quality and dabble in upland and cave botany. I even had the chance to experience sectors of ecology that I haven’t had the chance to before such as entomology (where I caught my first butterfly) and microbiology (something I had never thought to be related to ecology). However, spending the afternoon in a chilly cave on the hottest day of the year was easily the highlight of the practical sessions that week as it was something I had never experienced before academically, and it was a much needed break from the scorching sun.

Becky catches her first butterfly
Becky catches her first butterfly Karen Devine

There are so many facets of ecology and we had the opportunity to learn about a great deal from guest talks, from conservation biology by Dr Nathalie Petorelli to ecological consultancy workshops by CIEEM members Andrew Halro-Johnson, Alistair Headley, Kim Jennings, Ryan Mellor and Dave Martin. Our evening careers talks stick in my mind the most as being particularly helpful for my early career, I have often struggled with presentations and one evening we focussed on communicating science in and outside academia. This was a particularly important workshop, I feel, as poster and presentation production and delivery are key elements in most science related degrees and careers.

The practical skills I experienced over the Summer School were amazing but being matched with a PhD mentor was by far one of the most valuable parts of the school. It was great to have someone to go to with any questions about careers or PhDs or anything to do with ecology and the school. The mentors were definitely the highlight of my experience, leading much needed social activities on an evening and providing valuable feedback on CV writing and advice when applying for industrial placements. We had an extensive social calendar during the week with pub quizzes and bird walks as well as PhD Q&As. Most evenings were spent in the bar and then going for a bat walk with batbox duets or tracking invertebrates using UV techniques. The funniest evening, however, was Creature Creations on our final night in Malham, it was an hilarious way to say goodbye to lifelong friends and my field-family.

I went into the summer school thinking I had a decent amount of ecology knowledge but I soon realised I had a lot to learn! It was great to hear about other people’s careers in ecology and really motivating to find out what they would recommend we do as students when it comes to building our CVs. Being surrounded by likeminded students and respected professionals was both daunting and really motivating; we really got a taste for the ecology profession and what we all have to look forward to as we pursue our careers. All in all, the school was completely invaluable and I will recommend the promotion of the summer school through my university. I would 100% recommend any students thinking about applying to jump in and do it, you have nothing to lose and so much to gain from this experience.