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Meet the Team: Women in Science Edition – Dr Kirsten Pullen

Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day founded by the United Nations to help achieve full and equal access and participation in science for women and girls.

To celebrate today, we’ve sat down with our Chief Science Officer, Dr Kirsten Pullen, to have a conversation about her career so far and her favourite parts of her job and to see what advice she has for other women that are looking at a career in conservation.

You can listen to our full conversation with Kirsten in our podcast, ‘So you want to work in a zoo?’, which you can find on our Youtube channel, and on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and all other major streaming platforms.

What is your role at Wild Planet Trust?

I’m the Chief Science Officer for Wild Planet Trust. My role involves looking at our strategy and forward-planning, so I look at the our values and see where we can go and what we can achieve.

It’s a really interesting time for conservation generally because we’re facing such strong challenges ahead. I truly believe that zoos are an integral part of solving that problem and I want Wild Planet Trust to be at the forefront of how we do that.

How did you get to where you are today?

After doing my A-levels I went straight into university and did an applied biology degree. Then I took a year out and volunteered for the Devon Wildlife Trust identifying and surveying lichen.

I got a place on a Master’s degree with Bangor University in Ecology and also started volunteering at the Welsh Mountain Zoo. Then a job came up as a keeper; as I spent time working, I began to realise the true value of zoos – not just in terms of working with animals and looking at conservation projects, but engaging with the public and trying to get them to think in new ways about conservation.

That fed into my choices – I decided to stay in zoo work and then moved down to Bristol Zoo, where I became the Head of Primates. I came to Paignton Zoo as a Research Scientist in 2001. Then in 2013, having got my PhD, I had the opportunity to work as the head of BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria), looking at professional standards and making sure we move things in the correct direction for zoos and aquariums in the UK. That was a really fulfilling and diverse job, and I realised that I wanted to see what we could do within a specific organisation to really make a difference – Wild Planet Trust at Paignton Zoo and Newquay Zoo really fit the bill for me.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

Seeing organisations move forward: the last couple of years have been an incredibly difficult time for so many people and we’re just beginning to get to the point where we can properly rebuild and look at where we’re going, so putting those foundations in place is really important to me.

One of the things that I’ve found particularly rewarding is when you see younger people coming into the organisation and gaining from the passionate people working here. Seeing them take on that passion and drive to succeed is absolutely amazing.

What advice do you have for other women looking at a career in conservation?

I think one of the most important things is don’t be put off – stick with your dreams.

A lot of people focus on the fact that I have a PhD, which was a great thing for me, but it’s not the only route into getting to these things. Think very carefully about where you’re best suited to be – don’t be put off if the academic route is not for you: I know any number of successful conservationists who don’t have PhDs.

If people aren’t careful, they tend to pigeonhole themselves into thinking they have a certain set of skills and that’s the only thing they can do. Try not to think about yourself in that way – try to think about yourself as someone who has a range of skills that can be applied to a range of different subjects.

We’re now seeing a number of women come up in senior positions in zoos across Europe – there has definitely been an increase over the past 5 to 10 years!