Dr. Kate Pressland
There is a well-documented gap between scientists and practitioners. In reality though it’s possible to move between the disciplines career-wise and being able to talk both languages is a very useful skill, both from a solving the world’s problems point of view and from creating an interesting career too. Dr. Kate Pressland discusses how her academic training and current research career with the Soil Association help her bridge this gap.
My father and brother were always fascinated in wildlife documentaries and what we could find in my dad’s pond, and this imprinted on me early on. After eye-opening gap year travels in Borneo (to see if this wildlife lark wasn’t just a ridiculous dream), I studied Zoology at Bristol. I loved studying for my projects but was terrible at exams so I left feeling a bit disappointed. Picking myself up, I luckily managed to get a field assistant position in Jane Memmott’s group through an old lab partner’s recommendation. After working on a project comparing conventional and organic farm food webs, involving masses of herbivore-hunting and plant identification, my colleagues encouraged me to think about PhDs. Being a field assistant on a big project helped me realise that you have to constantly learn, be a great team member, and put in the hard graft to be a scientist – being a genius at exams helps of course but certainly isn’t the only skill required. Luck struck again for me when a PhD came up in the department looking at the impact of releasing pheasants for shooting on invertebrates and plants. The topic was so interesting – pheasant shooting is a rather secretive business, yet an astonishing 38 million pheasants are estimated to be released each year. The PhD was challenging but rewarding, even with the 4am starts counting pheasant territories at sunrise.
I enjoyed investigating land management so after completing the PhD, I wanted to move from academia to practitioner. I realised that the gamekeepers I met didn’t read the academic literature, they did what their peers and families did, what Farmers Weekly or shooting magazines advised. They were, however, interested in what I could tell them was in the literature in language that cut to the chase. A position working for Avon Wildlife Trust as a project officer on wildflower grassland conservation and restoration came up. This was an opportunity to get straight to the farmers and help them make positive changes, albeit on a local scale. I was promoted to Senior Project Officer in charge of a conservation project on the North Somerset Levels and Moors working with farmers and organisations to improve water management in the region. It was great to get experience in another habitat and learn considerable amounts about working with stakeholders and the restrictions that come with conservation, research, and people’s needs of the land.
After four years of conservation work, talking to farmers and working with policy and agrienvironment schemes, I was compelled to return to a more research-focussed role working intensely in agriculture, so I joined the Soil Association as the Research Manager for their Innovative Farmers programme. My role in the programme is in supporting groups of farmers interested in trialling and developing more sustainable agricultural management. The farmers are in the driving seat on what they want to look at – I support their ideas development and then team them up with researchers from top agricultural institutions around the UK to help make their trials meaningful. The field trials act as simple pilot experiments that can lead onto larger research projects and have genuine impact and engagement through the process.
We now have a toddler which provides its own management challenges. I am fortunate that my organisation enabled my role to continue largely unaltered into part-time to allow a balance of life and work. It is hard to juggle everything and you feel guilt no matter what ratio of home and work you are able to take. I enjoy my work and found it is important to keep up to date with research and policy as it is always evolving. I know I can’t do everything - many an evening or nap time is spent working to catch up! When I’m at home on mum duty, we go on nature scrambles together. I guess I am hoping to do a little imprinting of my own.
Dr Kate Pressland