International Women in Science Day – Sarah Watts


Sarah Watts

Job title:

PhD researcher & Conservation Manager

What course/subject did you study?

Bsc in Ecological Science

Briefly describe what you do and your areas of interest in your field?

I am currently undertaking research for my PhD project “Improving outcomes in montane woodland restoration”, which aims to develop conservation management actions to help restore the altitudinal treeline in Britain. As a plant ecologist and botanist, I am particularly interested in studying the impacts of climate change on arctic-alpine flora, having spent several years monitoring populations of some of Britain’s rarest mountain plants. Since January 2021 I have also been working part-time as a Conservation Manager at an estate in the Scottish Highlands, which presents an exciting opportunity to directly put the outputs of my PhD research into practice. I am responsible for biodiversity monitoring across a wide range of species groups and habitats, from freshwater lochs to mountain summits.

What got you interested in science/STEM?

I loved watching natural history documentaries as a child and learning about the incredible diversity of life on Earth. I became obsessed with penguins and dreamed of visiting them in the Antarctic one day. In my late teens and early twenties I got into mountaineering, which gave me a closer physical connection to the Scottish Highlands and made me aware of the necessity for conservation management in degraded and threatened ecosystems. I was originally more focussed on animal behavioural ecology, but working at Ben Lawers NNR, Britain’s best site for rare plants, steered me towards a specialism in arctic-alpine plants. But I was still whole-heartedly committed to seeing several species of penguins in the wild when I joined a gap-year expedition to South Georgia!

In your opinion, what makes a scientist?

Someone who is inherently curious and always wishes to learn more about the world around them. Critical thinking, problem solving and creativity are important attributes. You have to be willing to try new ways of doing things, deal with the unexpected and not be afraid to ask questions.  

What is the coolest thing about your work?

Getting to find new populations of some of the rarest and most threatened plants in the Scottish Highlands. We’ve even made the first record in Scotland for the Nationally Rare species Coralnecklace. I can spend long days in the mountains visiting spectacular and remote high-altitude locations which provides a completely difference experience than just climbing to the top via a footpath. I’m often doing fieldwork on my own and embrace the sense of solitude that this can bring. However, I also enjoy days out in the hills surveying and exchanging knowledge with enthusiastic colleagues.

If you could have dinner with 3 scientists (living or dead) who would you invite?

Rachel Carson, who was an American marine biologist and conservationist. She wrote the book Silent Spring which describes the environmental damage inflicted by agricultural pesticides. Sadly she died from cancer shortly after its publication; never knowing just how much her writing would advance the global conservation movement.  

Suzanne Simard, a Canadian forest ecologist. She carries out ground-breaking research on the underground networks created by mycorrhizal associations between fungi and tree roots. Her work as completely changed how we view competition, communication and cooperation within forests.

Sir David Attenborough – I know he is probably an obvious choice, but watching David’s natural history documentaries as I was growing up was hugely inspirational in my decision to study ecological science. I am very grateful that my own children have recently enjoyed watching Green Planet with me too.

In your opinion, what’s the most exciting problem in STEM currently facing humanity?

Work to combat the biodiversity crisis has many challenges in the face of global climate change and widespread habitat loss. However, landscape-scale ecological restoration projects, conservation initiatives and nature-based solutions provide hope for the future.

If you didn’t pursue a career in science, what other line of work do you think you would have went into?

My first attempt at a career was actually in music performance. I played the oboe and trained at classical music college until I was 20. This experience was “instrumental” (pun intended!) for teaching me the value of sheer hard work and dedication to mastering a complex skill over time. But the work environment was brutally competitive, and I realised I didn’t want to spend my life in a constant state of stress.

What words of advice do you have for young people thinking of a career in STEM?

Enthusiasm for your field of study is perhaps the most important characteristic you can have, because it provides an intrinsic motivation to pursue research and share it with others. Don’t be afraid to champion yourself and your skills. If you find something you excel at that really excites you, no matter how small it seems, then tell the world about it! This can be a great way to build confidence in your abilities, connect with other scientists and create new opportunities.

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