Dr Mark Scherz is a Potsdam-based postdoctoral researcher and encyclopedia for all things moist and scaly in Madagascar. Successes in 2021 alone include publications of two new species, one of which is thought to be the smallest reptile in the world which – having a tiny body but massive genitals – is aptly named Brookesia nana (B. nana, for short... nice). Here, he tells us about the perils and perks of fieldwork, and what really matters in pursuing a career that's in alignment with your passions.
What do you do?
I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Potsdam in northern Germany, studying evolution and systematics of the reptiles and amphibians of Madagascar.
What did it take to get here?
I spent the first half of my childhood in Ohio, and the second half in Switzerland. At about eight years old I fell in love with the island of Madagascar. As time wore on, I became ever more interested in the reptiles and amphibians of Madagascar, and I wanted to become a herpetologist. I read voraciously on the topic, and joined online communities talking about geckos and chameleons. Eventually, I was able to convince my father that we had to go to Madagascar, and so, at 14, I got to visit the island with a group of like-minded adults. This, of course, sealed the deal.
Fast forward a few years to the end of high school, and my career advisor asking me "What do you want to study at university?" "Herpetology," I responded. This was greeted by a blank stare. "Can you spell that for me?" As it turned out, there were no herpetology programmes in the UK at the time, and I wound up going to the University of Edinburgh to do a four-year BSc in Zoology. I was particularly involved in the Photography Society, and wound up co-founding the Edinburgh University Zoological Society. I managed to make it back to Madagascar twice during my time there, but what I craved was being able to study the herps of Madagascar full-time as part of my studies.
So, at the end of my BSc, I wrote to two German scientists, Dr Frank Glaw and Professor Miguel Vences, the two globally leading experts in Malagasy herpetology (they literally wrote the book on the subject), to ask if I could come and do a PhD with them. The answer was "no". It was not that they weren’t generally encouraging, but rather that (1) you needed a Master’s to try for a PhD at their institutions and (2) there weren’t the funds. So, I started looking more broadly for opportunities, and eventually came across a Master’s programme in Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, where I would be able to conduct Master’s research projects with Dr Glaw.
This was the start of what I would call my actual career. I described several new frog species, and also worked on other groups, including chameleons and geckos. I wanted to continue my work as a PhD but funding was sparse. I wrote frenetically, submitting four big grants, one for the German Federal Foundation for the Environment, two for the German Research Foundation, and one for the Volkswagen Foundation. A year late, one finally came through. I cannot describe the relief.
After my PhD work, I took up an offer to go to the University of Konstanz in the south of Germany to work on genomics in cichlid fishes in the Meyer lab. This was a big change from the work I had done from my PhD, but I was keen to learn new methods that I could, in future, take and apply to any system I wanted. In this one-year postdoc I had to get to know a new research group while working on a new animal system with methods completely new to me. I started writing applications for my next PhD project but in March 2020 I, like most people, was forced into home office. I had to abandon my lab-based projects and focus on bioinformatics projects instead. Fortunately, this was quite feasible, and didn’t cost me too much. Three months later I got the good news that my next postdoc funding had been granted, and a few months after that I moved to Potsdam in northern Germany to start a new postdoc position and start the whole thing over again.
So now I find myself two months into a new postdoc once again working on the herpetofauna of Madagascar, so I am back in my element. If I have learned anything about academia it's that everyone has their own path into (and through) it. That path can be long or short, winding or straight. It's important not to compare yourself too thoroughly with other people in this business, because they have different backgrounds. And I think it is critical to acknowledge and understand the important role of privilege in how people can and do perform, and to lift up one’s colleagues along the way at every opportunity.
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fare: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
I get to do everything I wanted to do as a teenager, and more. I am phenomenally busy, and may spend a day doing nothing but answering emails, or working on six different papers; one on fishes, one on snakes, one on chameleons, one on geckos, a few on frogs… There is no end to the work. This suits my workaholism, but is of course exhausting too. It involves perhaps less time in the field than I would have hoped, but even getting to write about these animals is something I find immensely fulfilling. Seeing that work then featured in some of the magazines, radio, or television shows I followed as a child has been utterly surreal. But I would also tell my teenage self one important thing: a career in academia does not end with a PhD. The PhD is just the start. You have to think beyond it – what are the questions you want to answer? What position do you want to hold? And remember that there will always be some sacrifices that have to be made along the way to pursuing dreams; only you can know what cost is too great, and take care of yourself.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
Fieldwork makes up less than 10% of my work. Every year I try to make it to the field for a few months, but in reality, the vast majority of my time is spent writing, writing, writing.
Proudest/funniest moment on the job?
Although fieldwork is just a small portion of the work, it is where some of the most exciting and thrilling moments happen. There are few things like hearing a frog call and announcing, to no-one in particular, "Oh yes, I think that’s a new species", before diving into the bush after it, finding it, setting up the recorder and recording it, and then, heart racing, managing to catch the calling frog and secure it in a bag. Every now and then the frog is so distinct that it is immediately clear that it is new to science, and that is one of the best feelings I have ever experienced.
That being said, seeing my research featured in the mainstream media – especially getting clippings from newspapers – is almost as elating.
Memorable misstep/hairiest moment on the job?
On more than one occasion I have found myself at the top of a ridgeline as an electric storm has manifested around me, while I am carrying loads of metal on and around my person. I would not recommend this. Thunder is shockingly loud (see what I did there?) when the lightning strikes just a few meters away from you.
What do you never leave the house without/what’s your most treasured piece of kit?
In the field, having a good DSLR camera and a nice audio-recording setup is very important for my work. But in reality, the one thing that I use most heavily and intensively for my work is my laptop. If it were to need to go in for repairs for any length of time, I would go utterly spare. Which puts me in my mind of my personal mantra: BACK. YOUR. SH*T. UP. Losing irreplaceable data or work should never ever be allowed to happen, but happens all the time. Don’t let it happen to you.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
As I have said in perhaps too much detail above, a career in academia, and specifically in Zoology and related fields, is fraught with uncertainty and challenges. Do not do it for the money. And be aware that it probably won’t be a walk in the park. It is certainly not for everyone – but it could be the right thing for you.
Finally, I want to emphasise one thing: I have been incredibly lucky to have a single guiding passion throughout all of my conscious life, and to have gotten to pursue that and turn it into my career. But that is not the way with a huge proportion of people in academia, including many of the most influential scientists. It is certainly not a pre-requisite, and is actually probably quite unusual. It just happens that this was my path. You can find your own. Look for people who will lift you up, support you in what you want to achieve, and open doors for you. That can make all the difference.