Back to academia… and elephants

Ella Rhodes reports on a Fellowship scheme that helps academics return after a career break.

The Daphne Jackson Trust, which helps STEM academics back into research after a break of two or more years, taken for family, health or caring reasons, is urging psychologists to apply for its Fellowships. The charity offers flexible, part-time and salaried fellowships in universities and research institutes across the UK. We spoke to Dr Lucy Bates, who is researching elephant cognition, about how the Trust encouraged and supported her on the journey back into the world of academia.

Bates completed a PhD in evolutionary psychology at the University of St Andrews studying chimpanzee cognition in Uganda. She then went on to join the longest-running study of African elephants at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya for her postdoc research – also with St Andrews.

She said that before this postdoc little was known about the animal’s cognition, despite them being seen as ‘clever’. ‘Experiments we conducted in that postdoc showed that elephants recognise individual family members – based on their urine – and, moreover, keep track of where those individuals are in relation to themselves, for example far away and separate from the current group, or in the group and walking in front, or with the group and walking behind.’

During this work she also showed that elephants have amazingly sophisticated classification skills and can differentiate between different human ethnic groups. ‘The elephants show an intense flight reaction specifically to the scent of Maasai men, but not to the scent of Kamba men: another tribe in Kenya that unlike the Maasai do not have a history of negative interactions with elephants in Amboseli.’

Following this work Bates’s partner was offered a job in South Africa, and she went along to write up existing data and get experience working in conservation projects in the country. She said: ‘It is impossible to do animal field work and not get drawn in to conservation – the threat that there won’t be any wild animals left to study soon is horribly real!’ She spent time working with NGOs, and rather than answering questions about elephants it only opened up more. After four and a half years in South Africa, having her first child, she said while thoughts of returning to research had gone away, the questions she was hankering to answer hadn’t.  

While eight months pregnant with her second child she happened upon an advert online for a Daphne Jackson Fellowship, hosted and sponsored by the University of Sussex – one of the few psychology departments in the UK with professors studying elephant cognition. Although Bates’ Fellowship was advertised and fully sponsored in a specific STEM discipline and geographical location, the Trust also accepts applications on a rolling basis. In these instances, the Trust will secure sponsorship  once a fellowship proposal has been approved and accepted by the Trust.

Twelve days after her second child was born, and six and a half years after she left her last academic position, she had a Skype interview with the Sussex Psychology Head of School, a representative from the Trust, and two other School of Psychology faculty members. She was selected to submit a full application and develop a proposal for the research and retraining she would undertake. ‘I think the level of oxytocin in my body really helped me! I’ve never felt so relaxed during an interview, even despite knowing how much was riding on it. Seven days earlier, my husband had also had a Skype interview for that impossible job, and had been offered it the day before – so moving back to the UK was suddenly really on the cards.’

Bates is now studying culture and potential social learning in elephants. ‘Elephants have very long periods of juvenile dependency, and it is frequently assumed that social learning must be a significant part of their lives, giving them lots of information that would be too difficult or costly to acquire on their own. But there is actually very little evidence for any social learning in elephants – probably largely based on the immense difficulties of demonstrating social learning outside of a lab, and elephants not easily fitting into labs.’ She and Professor Karen Mccomb (University of Sussex) are also hoping to get funding to expand this line of research.

Bates said, with six months left of her Fellowship, that her experience of the Trust had been entirely positive and its staff were very understanding of the difficulties faced in returning to academia after a break. ‘They deal with all the aspects so well – from the practical exercise of an extensive application process that is designed to make sure we hit the ground running when we do actually start research again, having planned it all very carefully, to the emotional side of feeling guilty about returning to work, and feeling utterly unconfident and the proverbial “impostor” who is not quite up to it anymore.’

However, Bates added, the emotional support she had received from employees of the Trust and other Fellows had been the most helpful aspect. She said many of her peers from her PhD are now associate professors, readers and professors with long publication lists and huge H-indexes. ‘They are not catching up with what is going on in the field, they are the field! Not that I would change any of the
past 15 years from when I started my PhD, but just knowing there are other people who are returning and feel as daunted as you, but who are dealing with it and getting results, is really very inspiring.’

- If you’ve taken a career break of two or more years for family, caring or health reasons and would like to find out more about returning to research with a Daphne Jackson Fellowship, call 01483 689 166 to speak to Trust staff or visit daphnejackson.org.

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