Patricia Brekke has been a scientist at the Institute of Zoology based at London Zoo for 10 years. She talks bird matchmaking and career tips in part two of meet the scientist.
What’s your job?
I am a zoologist, research scientist. I like to find out why and how species become at risk of extinction and then what we can do to prevent it.
What made you want to be a scientist?
I love wildlife, in particular birds. I grew up in Colombia, where there are lots of beautiful species on your doorstep. We regularly had hummingbirds coming to our garden to feed on the flowers. My sister and I were always outside, digging around seeing what we could find. Collecting snails, worms, ants, whatever we could get our hands on.
I was never sure how exactly I could turn my passion for animals into a job. I am the only scientist in our family and at secondary school my career adviser suggested I become a vet or a zoo keeper, but I was more interested in animal behaviour. Then, I read in a biology textbook about zoology and I thought, “Yes! that is exactly what I would love to do. I want to spend my time outside, looking at weird and wonderful animals, in amazing places, and find out what they do and why.”
My dad was really into natural history programmes and we used to watch them together. I loved them, particularly the series’ that David Attenborough presented. The way he brought wildlife into our living room was inspirational. In fact I now work on one of the islands he visited during the filming of The life of birds, it’s called Tiritiri Matangi Island.
How did you get into your job at ZSL?
When I finished my undergraduate degree in Zoology I wanted to see if I enjoyed research, so I got a job with one of the professors in my department as a technician. It was a great experience because it gave me a real grounding in what scientific research actually involves and I was lucky because the work we did got published.
I also volunteered in Canada for a few months monitoring the spring bird migration which gave me valuable field work experience. I worked a few random jobs while I applied for PhDs. Then I applied for one at ZSL/Imperial and got it! It was one of the most exciting days of my life and I have worked here ever since, 10 years ago!
What’s the best thing about being a scientist?
I spend every day doing what I love, I get to sit and think, read and analyse things around the topics I am interested in and curious about. It makes me happy that the work I do could one day have a positive impact.
I love doing field work and being outside. My highlight was probably doing work in Hauturu Island in New Zealand, a remote island which has some incredible wildlife: kakapo, weta and my all-time favourite bird in the world, the hihi!
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to do at work?
Well, one of the problems the hihi bird has is that many of the eggs they lay do not hatch and we wanted to find out why. To do this we needed to learn more about hihi reproduction. So we put a stuffed female (which died of natural causes) on a stick near the male’s territory to attract him in. That is really weird right?!
What’s the number one tip you’d give for becoming a scientist?
Be enthusiastic, determined and follow what you love. Oh and you may not want to hear this… but a bit of maths is always useful!