finerty-genevieve-image-300x300Name: Genevieve Finerty
Age: “One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age.” – Oscar Wilde. Just kidding, I’m 30… Or am I?
Year of study: 2nd Year
Research Group: Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), Department of Zoology

What are you researching: My research focuses on how lions move through and interact with their landscape – and what the consequences are for wild populations of living in an increasingly fragmented habitat.

In reality this means I am spending most of my time at the moment driving around Botswana in a jeep and watching sleeping lions. I also spend an awful lot of time looking at photos of lions’ faces (for an explanation of why, take a look at my blog piece). As my project develops it will become increasingly desk-based, with a focus on modelling lion movements and how changing landscapes might impact these.

Why is important: I think it’s pretty intuitive to most people why lion conservation is important to lions; the African lion has decreased from an estimated 100,000 individuals to 32,000 within the last century, has gone extinct from 80% of its historic range and continues to decline rapidly across Africa. And within much of their remaining range the long-term sustainability of wild populations are threatened by human activities, such as prey consumption and habitat fragmentation.

It’s sometimes harder to pinpoint why we as researchers – or non-scientists – in Europe should care about conservation in Africa. In fact, a common comment I get from friends from other backgrounds is ‘I can’t believe you convinced NERC to pay to you go chase around after lions in Africa’. Neither can I, but here’s why I think they were right to do so.

Firstly, perhaps because they are found in relatively large groups for carnivores, and spend a lot of time lazing around in a pretty visible fashion, I don’t think people really realise the extent that lion populations are at risk. With the exception of a few intensively managed and protected areas in Southern Africa, lion populations are declining dramatically worldwide. I for one would not be happy if we lost lions from the wild – which is the direction that things are going. Secondly, the largest threats to wild populations tend to come from anthropogenic activities, such as habitat loss and degradation due to agricultural expansion, hunting, illegal trade of animal parts and human population increase. These are issues that I think are relevant worldwide and come up again and again. Finally, on a completely different note – although the goal, in my opinion, should always be to facilitate research by local and regional institutions, at Oxford I feel we are in a unique and privileged position to be trained in the skills and expertise to be able to tackle big research questions underlying conservation issues.

Academic background: My academic background fits somewhere in Biology. I did my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences and an MSc in Ecology, Evolution & Conservation, both at Imperial College London. I’ve always liked to study a variety of topics from within those themes – and the projects I have worked on vary from human genetics to ungulate population dynamics, plant functional ecology and now conservation biology.

Further back (quite a bit further back now!), I did my A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Ancient Greek. A bit of an odd selection, but honestly I think my Greek classes almost did more for me as a scientist than the other two combined. I think there’s a lot of crossover in the analytical skills required by both, and forcing me to write essays on a regular basis meant it didn’t come as quite such a shock when we were expected to be able to write further down the line.

Funniest fieldwork story: Off the top of my head, it’s hard to pinpoint my funniest fieldwork story. I’m one of those people who, if you put a single chair in an empty room, will somehow walk into it. And then fall over. Innocuously, but will end up with some mildly comedic injury anyway. My mother always said I could trip over a hair (she is full of many such sayings, as often as not they aren’t real sayings, but I feel like that’s part of her charm). It’s humour, in a kind of Mr Bean fashion. Imagine putting someone like that into a remote location full of dangerous things and I’m sure you can imagine how that goes.

The best moment of the PhD so far: The best part is being paid to do something I find both interesting and challenging. Having the opportunity to combine my studies with travelling has also been an amazing opportunity.

The worst moment of the PhD so far: That last bit, although a wonderful aspect of my PhD is also one of the more challenging parts. Over the years I have spent a lot of time in the field, and although I love my time there, it can take a toll on your relationships at home – family and partners. It’s good to take your PhD seriously, but also make sure you protect your happiness and life outside of academia at the same time. I do that by splitting my field seasons into two trips – I think you just have to find your own balance.