M. A. Sanjayan

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.

Degree                                         Ph.D.
Position                                       Director
Department                                 Conservation Science
Organization                               The Nature Conservancy of California

sanjayan

When did you get interested in ecology? Who was most influential in guiding you into ecology?

I think all children are born with an innate curiosity about nature – about things that move, or are colorful, in particular. As we get older, particularly if we spend time outside, some of us are fortunate enough to not lose this. For me, growing up in Africa , it was easy. Of course, as a kid, I was hugely influenced by people like Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough and later, as a graduate student by Michael Soulé and Dan Doak. My parents while not being especially fond of nature or the little bits of it I brought into the house, always encouraged my enthusiasm.

How did you learn about ecological careers? What is your position title now?

Today, I am incredibly fortunate to be one of three Lead Scientists for The Nature Conservancy – an organization with incredible people whose enormous capacity for getting conservation done is a source of inspiration to me. I help my organization promote the science it is engaged in (through the 300 science and stewardship staff we employ) and bring good science to bear on the big strategic decisions we make. As a student I spent every summer working for various organizations, from radical environmental groups to The World Bank. My advisors encouraged me to do this. By graduation I had a fairly decent list of contacts and some solid experience.

Describe your route to a career in (or using) ecology. What challenges did you need to overcome? What was your training, and what positions have you held?

Spending too much time planning a “career path” may not be terribly useful. Even just a few years ago I would not have imagined that I would be doing what I am doing today. Thus, I don’t think my path would be particularly instructive to someone else except to say that each person will likely get one or two lucky breaks and the trick is to be ready when you get yours. It’s far more important to focus your life on doing something that makes you happy or is important to you, and to do it as best as you possibly know how. If you do that, chances are in a decade or so someone will be asking YOU about your “career path”.

As for challenges, well, I am obviously not white and in a field dominated by mostly white Americans or Europeans, my heritage often means that people initially make certain assumptions about me. But this can be an incredible asset as well. People tend to remember you if you are different and if you can exceed their expectations, then you can get a lot done, maybe even more so than if you were just another face in the crowd. Think about it. If you were just mediocre then blending in is not a bad strategy. But if you were really good at something then standing out can only help. As far as training goes, I did my Bachelors and Masters in Ecology at the University of Oregon and my doctorate in the Department of Biology, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. My graduate work focused on loss of genetic variation and fitness using pocket gophers in California and African cheetahs as model systems for study.

What key advice would you offer a student today?

In terms of giving advice to students, I would say:

  1. On a practical note take lots of stats classes (yes it’s hard but its supposed to be), take a good genetics class and a good GIS class or two and learn Spanish (or another language). Write often, it’s the only way you will get good at it.
  2. Never underestimate the importance of hard work. Intelligence per se is vastly overrated. People often tell me I give good talks and they assume that it must be easy for me to do so because I communicate well. What they don’t know is that it takes me about an hour of preparation for every minute I am lecturing. A 30 minute talk takes 30 hours to prepare. I am pretty sure if most people are willing to put that kind of effort, they will also give pretty good talks.
  3. Have fun. I have found that for most ecologists, the difference between job and life is blurred. We are a breed that rarely works to live. So make sure you are having fun along the way collaborating with lots of people. Make sure you are spending time out in the wild.

What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?

Being a good communicator is enormously useful for an ecologist. And the good news is that you can get better through practice. Being a TA helped me prepare and speak in front of audiences – so teach when you can. Keeping a field journal helped me write and writing to someone back home when you travel is a good way to practice your craft. And as for diverse audiences, remember that people at the end of it all, often remember you for how you made them feel rather than exactly what you said to them.

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