Interview: Heather Graham
Ahead of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Development and Communications Intern, Heather Graham, reflects on her experience studying a science degree and how that feeds into her work within the Trust.
What was your experience of wild places while growing up?
I have always had a passion for the natural world from a very young age, finding great joy and peace when I was outside in nature or engaging with animals in some way. Growing up in a low-income household in a city with no access to a car meant the ability to experience wild places was limited. However, I jumped at every opportunity to interact with nature I could.
I joined a nature-based club at Hopetoun House where I learned about different wildlife and how to help care for them, how our impact as humans has affected the world around us and what we can do to reverse some of that change and make the future a greener place. I eventually ‘graduated’ from this to their Junior Ranger programme, the first pilot group in the country. I learned in more detail about the holistic approach to land management and environmental protection, got more hands-on experience taming invasive rhododendron and balsam, and took part in citizen science surveys on the local wildlife.
Once I out-aged that group, I stayed on as an assistant, taking on more responsibilities. I helped plan and run events for both the Junior Ranger group and the public visiting the estate, sparking a real passion in environmental communication. This is something I continue to be a part of to this day.
How did you decide to study science?
When it came to thinking about what I wanted to do after high school, I knew it had to be something to do with nature. As there were limited options of degree I could choose at the time, I decided to study Animal Biology at Edinburgh Napier University as it allowed me to establish a broad spectrum of skills and knowledge.
To secure a place, I had to achieve certain grades and in my final year I even did an Advanced Higher in Biology to help increase my knowledge and better bridge the gap between high school and university. However, I actually ended up failing due to the level of chemistry and maths required, two subjects I always struggled with. I felt quite apprehensive going into my degree and began to think maybe my dream wasn’t attainable.
What was your experience of your degree?
The first couple of years were quite challenging with many hours conducting lab work and various modules involving lots of chemistry and microbiology which I knew were not avenues I was going to pursue. With many visits from industry professionals, the focus seemed to be developing students into environmental consultants, lab technicians or science teachers, none of which appealed to me, and I had real difficulty remaining confident in my choice of degree.
Despite this, once getting to third year I was able to undertake modules which interested me much more such as animal behaviour, survey and data analysis skills, and environmental law. While on a field course in Portugal, one of our lecturers set a task based on surveying the public and the importance of scientific communication. That was a game changer and my perspective on what I could do using my degree was broadened instantly – it was like a light bulb lit up in my head and I knew this was the route for me.
In my final year I chose my dissertation project to link with an animal welfare charity I had become very passionate about, Podencos In Need - Scotland. I undertook a number of surveys and used statistical analysis to compare public perceptions of animal welfare issues. The most rewarding parts of this project was being able to bring awareness to the cause as well as giving the organisation valuable data they could use to communicate with a variety of demographics in the future.
How did your degree lead you to your position at the John Muir Trust?
I graduated during the 2020 lockdown, which meant there were very few options available for immediate progression into the sector. As well as this, during my university career I couldn’t undertake the same number of unpaid internships as many of my peers, and never had the opportunity to learn how to drive - living independently and having several financial obligations meant I had to prioritise full time paid work in the city each summer. As I began applying for positions, I quickly realised how much those missing components hindered my opportunities in the sector. After a few years of working in a number of vaguely related retail and customer service jobs, I realised that one of the things I enjoyed most through all my roles was communication: bringing awareness to things I was passionate about and sharing my knowledge with people.
At the start of 2023, I was lucky enough to gain an internship in the Development and Comunnications team at the John Muir Trust through the New to Nature scheme run by Groundwork, funded by National Heritage Lottery Fund. With no official experience or qualifications in communication, this internship has been truly invaluable to me, increasing my skills and confidence as well as giving me an opportunity to experience working in the sector in a totally different capacity than what was pushed at university.
How do you use your degree within your role?
A degree in science gives me a great starting point to work with - whether it’s concepts I have studied before or new ideas, just having that background means I am better able to understand the information when creating digital communications, especially when it comes to complex biological systems and environmental legislation. This allows me to edit down the sometimes complicated material into more accessible pieces of information, transforming them into fun and engaging articles and social media posts.
The experience of undertaking a science degree also gave me lots of transferable skills that I use on a daily basis - from computer skills to data analysis to working in teams to researching and presenting information. I am very grateful that I had an opportunity to learn these skills at university in the first place, and to have a job in which I can use my qualifications for good.
How important is it to have examples of different roles?
Through all stages of my education, I wish I’d had more relatable role models - people who had similar experiences and difficulties with the more ‘traditional’ science subjects, but still had a passion to work in the sector and were successful in achieving their dreams. I think it’s incredibly important for schools and universities to better inform students of the full spectrum of roles available are related to science and support young people in exploring their options – you don’t just have to work in a lab coat all day if you don’t want to!
What advice would you give those interested in becoming more involved in science?
My advice to anyone interested in a career in the environmental sector is to get involved in whatever you can. Using online platforms such as LinkedIn is a great way to cultivate professional relationships and connect with others in the industry, getting a more in detailed look into different organisations and keeping informed about what jobs, internships and training opportunities are out there. Joining local volunteering groups, taking part in online workshops, becoming a member of charities and organisations that align with your passions and making sure you’re staying up to date with current changes in the sector are all great ways to develop your skills and knowledge out with education.
The best way to succeed in anything is to have passion, perseverance and positivity – as the great Walt Disney once said “If you can dream it, you can do it!”.