Dr. Monika Bohm works in the Indicators and Assessments Unit at ZSL's Institute of Zoology. She tells us how she was inspired at a young age by a book about frogs, and talks extinction.
What’s your job?
I am a zoologist and ecologist. I study extinction risk of all sorts of critters, from great to small.
What made you want to be a scientist?
I suppose growing up I never really considered becoming a scientist as a career option. I grew up next to forest and fields, so was always outside poking around for creepy crawlies.
An acquaintance of my mum’s gave me a book when I was not even four years old, about frogs and toads (see picture, I highly recommend it, it’s a classic). My mum thought it would be way too difficult for me at that age, but it grew into my firm favourite, particularly the diagram showing the different developmental stages of amphibians.
When I was maybe 10 or 11, I actually wanted to be an archaeologist. I guess I primarily liked the word! But the natural world has always interested me, for as long as I can remember. Actually realising I could become a scientist took years though!
How did you get into your job at ZSL?
Probably rather unscientifically – more through a string of chance events. I wasn’t the best at school and a bit clueless as to what to do with my life, so I took a year out and moved to Scotland to learn English as an au pair. I fell in love with the UK there and then, and the more streamlined degree system appealed to me – particularly the ease with which to get straight into my preferred subject of zoology.
I followed my undergraduate degree in zoology with a Masters and a PhD in York. Then another stroke of luck – I ended up with my current position at the Zoological Society of London – and turned myself from specialist (I did a PhD in badgers) into a much more generalist role (monitoring extinction risk of all kinds of species, from insects and snails to reptiles).
What’s the best thing about being a scientist?
The best thing about being a scientist is that you essentially get to learn every day! Finding out things about the natural world just never gets boring – even more so when the research you do is contributing to solving real-world problems. In my case, that’s the extinction crisis we are witnessing worldwide.
Apart from working on cool species, being a scientist also means that you get to work with a large number of amazing people from around the world. Working with species experts to collect data means that not only have I learned so much about such a large number of different species (dung beetles and freshwater mussels are currently my favourites) and countries, but I have made some really good friends along the way.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to do at work?
Before starting my PhD, I was working as a research assistant. I was cutting up deer teeth using proper power tools to then count the layers of cement and age the animals (much like tree rings, essentially). Now that was quite weird - and also very stinky.
More recently, I was taking a call from a journalist who wanted to find out about stick insects – after it had been reported that Gordon Brown had lost his pet stick insect. Turns out despite my best advice on where to look for it, they never actually found the poor thing.
What’s the number one tip you’d give for becoming a scientist?
It’s a very competitive environment, so work hard, be enthusiastic about what you do and embrace the opportunities that present themselves. Giving 110% at all times does pay off.