IFLScience meets Dr Dani Rabaiotti, a London-based scientific researcher and author of popular science titles including True or Poo: A kids guide to animal facts and fakes and the New York Times Bestseller Does it Fart? (revealing some are deadly). Working with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), she has contributed to a number of published journal articles with a particular focus on African wild dogs. We caught up with her to find out what it’s really like as a zoologist in the field and in the office, and how one finds themselves in a "Wilddogpocalypse".
What do you do?
As a Postdoctoral Researcher for the Zoological Society of London, I study the impact of climate change on African wild dogs. As an author and science communicator, I’ve written a number of popular science books including the New York Times bestseller Does it Fart? and I regularly speak about animals, as well as being a consult for a variety of television shows.
What did it take to get here?
My route was fairly "traditional" – I decided at a very young age that I wanted to work with animals, worked out what subjects I needed to study to make that happen, and then worked hard at school to get onto a zoology course at university. While at university I got a job as a casual ecological consultant, carrying out bat, newt, and reptile surveys and did some work surveying pollinators. From there I went onto my Masters (Biodiversity and Conservation) where I did a lot of spatial mapping of bats, both in the UK and Kenya, and that lead to my PhD on African wild dogs, which I finished in 2019.
I think one key difference between the route I took and that of many other people working in conservation was that I didn’t volunteer – I really focused on getting paid work, even if it wasn’t in exciting far-flung places. That doesn’t mean I didn’t get to go to exciting far-flung places – I tacked a trip to Honduras onto a university field trip to Costa Rica, and went to Kenya twice for fieldwork during my Masters, and went to the field during my PhD, but I focused my time outside my studies here in the UK doing paid surveys.
After my PhD finished in 2019, myself, my supervisor (basically my boss), and lots of other colleagues applied for a grant based on my PhD research, which got funded and that pays my current salary as a researcher at ZSL.
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a career fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
I take data from the field and use it to build mathematical models that predict how African wild dogs will be impacted by climate change. Most of what I do is coding, like most scientists these days. It’s pretty cool coding though, and it’s not as boring or hard as you would think – it’s actually really interesting and helps plan conservation of the species.
On top of this I publish popular science books about gross things that animals do, and I do science-themed events and consult for television shows too.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
I think the biggest misconception is that being a zoologist means working mostly in the field. The vast majority of academics working in conservation are doing data analysis, paper writing, and grant applications in order to fund the fieldwork. I definitely thought I would be a field biologist when I was younger, but like most people these days I spend most of my time at a computer (although that computer is in London Zoo when we are working from the office!).
Even though it’s not running around touching cool animals, I really love my job and it’s amazing to be part of a team that helps conservationists in Africa protect wildlife. At the end of the day, local people that live and work in the same countries as my study species are much better placed to do the fieldwork. This has been especially the case in the pandemic when we aren’t able to travel. Given both the UK and our field sites in South Africa have been hit by new COVID strains, it’s been crucial to have our colleagues out in Kenya and South Africa to go check on the field sites.
Funniest moment on the job?
I think the funniest moment in my job was probably when I got offered the chance to write a book about animal farts. A lot of senior academics were utterly bemused by it. I remember discussing it with my then head of department, Dame Professor Georgina Mace, who asked ‘but is animal farts really what you want to be known for?’. I somehow convinced her that it was actually a great idea so I’m glad that it did turn out that way! Zoology can take you to some really unexpected places sometimes and I love every second of it.
Biggest fail on the job?
During a stint in the field during my PhD we managed to get five flat tires in 10 days…all on my side of the car.
A non-fieldwork fail is that when I first built my wild dog models I would run them and the number of wild dogs would just increase exponentially like bacteria, causing packs of like 200 virtual wild dogs roaming about in the model. Turned out the dispersal data that had been published in other papers wasn’t quite right (people thought more dogs that went missing in previous studies had died than they really had), causing a Wilddogpocalypse when put into a population model. Part of me would love to see that happen in real life, but I know deep down it would be an ecological disaster.
What do you never leave the house without?
Blister plasters. No piece of field kit has ever been so useful in everyday life as blister plasters. Living in London I walk a lot – 15,000-20,000 steps a day (pre-pandemic) – so I always have to be prepared for my shoes rubbing, and to avoid it where possible!
What advice would you give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
I think just take whatever paid opportunities come your way even if they seem off base or not especially relevant. I didn’t want to be an ecological consultant, but that job taught me a lot and opened up other roles to me. I got a policy internship in parliament because I used to work in a call center. I never had any particular dreams of becoming an author, but writing books has been fantastic and, again, means that I have been able to take many other cool jobs in science communication.
I hated maths when I was younger, but by persevering and learning to code I got to do a PhD on an amazing study species and see some amazing wildlife. I’ve basically taken whatever has come my way even if it is a pretty weird opportunity, and that has kept me working in an animal-adjacent career, working with animals in the zoo, and if it wasn’t for the coronavirus pandemic I would have been out in the field as part of this job too. Everyone needs to find a route that works for them.
Oh, and if you really want to be a field biologist? Learn to fix cars. That is an unbelievably useful skill that I am entirely lacking in and I have regrets every time I go to the field.
Reliant on income from ticket sales to care for the animals and fund their global conservation efforts, months of enforced closures have put?ZSL’s charity zoos under huge financial pressure. Vets and zookeepers?will?continue to provide the highest level of care for their?animals, working throughout the lockdown.?ZSL, the international conservation charity behind the?two zoos,?is calling on the public to?help ensure they remain open by donating?to ZSL?at?www.zsl.org/donate?????