Meet our scientists: Nathalie Pettorelli

Nathalie Pettorelli is a scientist in ZSL's Institute of Zoology. She recently received a Points of Light award from the UK Prime Minister for her work on Soapbox Science, an initiative to encourage women to pursue a career in science. 

What’s your job?

I am a scientist working at the Institute of Zoology, the research branch of the Zoological Society of London. My job is about figuring out how to make use of the wealth of cool technology available to us to inform conservation science. 

Nathalie Pettorelli in the Serengeti.
Nathalie in the Serengeti.

What made you want to be a scientist? 

When I grew up, I didn’t know that the job I do existed. I did, however, know that education could eventually get me into a job that had the characteristics I was after. Namely the opportunity to travel, and a clear lack of routine as I can get easily bored. The opportunity to be creative, to develop my own ideas and projects, and to take responsibility for these. The opportunity to meet people from all over the planet, share experience and work collaboratively. And finally, the opportunity to do something useful to more than just me. There aren’t that many jobs that can match these criteria, but a job as a scientist definitively delivers on all of these.   

How did you get into your job at ZSL? 

I answered a job advert that was circulated to me by colleagues while working in Norway. It looked amazing – a three year contract to work on carnivores in Africa was definitively appealing to me at the time, and I worked for days to make sure that my cover letter and CV looked as good as possible.

I ended up being invited for an interview days after 7/7; I still remember the feeling of taking the tube in London that day. The interview went well, and I was offered the job. Ten years in and I’m still in love with the Institute; it’s an amazing place to work as a scientist. 

What’s the best thing about being a scientist?

You get to go to incredible places, places that only a few people have the privilege to see in such depth. You also meet truly inspirational people; people that make you think, that challenge your perceptions and ideas. And then you get to wake up most days happy to go to work and see your colleagues. 

My highlights? Definitively getting to visit scientists at NASA’s Goddard Centre, the European space research institute, and the German Remote Sensing Centre: these are the sort of places that make you realise the incredible technical achievements underpinning the functioning of our modern societies.

I would also count as a highlight the days I spent learning how to spot cheetahs in the Serengeti with the world expert on the topic, as well as the day I ended up with a black bear cub in my arms.

Nathalie Pettorelli holding a bear cub.
Nathalie with a bear cub.

Oh and the highlight for this year is definitively to receive the Points of Light Award from the Prime Minister for Soapbox Science. Seirian and I worked extremely hard to make this initiative what it is, and this level of recognition made our days. 

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to do at work? 

For my studies as a researcher apprentice, I had to gather information on vegetation distribution in a reserve in France. I ended up having to survey more than 500 plots in a month, and learn to recognize more than 40 different plant species. The survey was carried out in a reserve full of ticks, many of which carrying Lyme disease. So I ended up being dressed up as an astronaut (or close to that) while the temperature was around 30 degrees each day, for a month, fighting my way through the ticks and the bushes. I even ended up using tick repellent for dogs to keep the ticks away!

What’s the number one tip you’d give for becoming a scientist?

There is no rule as to what a scientist should look like or what he/she should be good at. We are all doing things our own way, contributing to increasing general knowledge on our own terms.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not good enough, that this isn’t for you, that you should do something else.

And if you are not sure that this is the career choice for you, then just reach out and talk to a scientist – you’d be surprised how many live just round the corner. 

Explore ZSL's Institute of Zoology

Want to know more?

Learn more about Nathalie's work on her ZSL profile page.

You can also follow her on Twitter @Pettorelli.

Find out more about Soapbox Science on their website.