James borrell is a conservation scientist and science communicator, with a particular interest in how species adapt to changing climate.

How To Build An Expedition Team

Martin Holland once told me that good leadership is simply ‘effective communication of a vision’, and he ought to know, having put together some exceptionally challenging research expeditions in the past few years.

But even the most compelling vision doesn’t get you very far without an effective team.

For a successful research expedition, building an effective team comes before almost everything else. Before we could apply for research funding and long, long before we knew whether we had been successful, we had to demonstrate our ability to achieve that vision. A team with the right skill set and motivation is the only way to do that.

Hard Problems

Conservation is a complicated nut to crack. These days, there is no single person with all the skills you need to tackle a problem with so many dimensions, (and anyone that thinks they have must be in high demand indeed!). Science is increasingly collaborative, and the answers we seek draw on many different disciplines. Finding all those people is not always easy; conservation is challenging, it’s tiring, and good people are in high demand.

In just the same way, an expedition is not simply a period of time in the field. A project like this takes months and months of planning, and even longer afterwards to properly report your findings.

So it was a little over a year ago that I started looking amongst my friends, colleagues and contacts for people with the diverse variety of skills that could be brought together for Expedition Angano.

Setting Expectations

They had to be willing to work really hard in rubbish conditions, invest in the vision and goals, be away from their friends and families over Christmas and spend a sizable chunk of their own money. All with no certainty of even running the expedition, let alone success. Those were the criteria I laid out right at the beginning.

Perhaps the single most defining characteristic of conservation, is that it’s full of people willing to do precisely that. Conservation is a passion and a purpose, rather than a job.

The Expedition Team

And so here is the team that we’ve managed to bring together for the expedition. A ridiculously heady mix of skills I’m sure you’ll agree.

http://www.jamesborrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Lawrence_Ball_Dragonflies_Amazon001-300×230.jpgLawrence Ball

First up is someone who ‘can keep their head when all about them are losing theirs’. I’ve worked with Lawrence before in Oman and Lapland, and he’d be my first choice for any expedition. He’s particularly good at thinking up inventive ways of catching things, on our project hopefully this will include elusive reptiles like skinks and frogs the size of your thumbnail. Lawrence is also in charge of logistics and food supplies – which pretty much means he can hold the entire team’s moral in the palm of his hand!


http://www.jamesborrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/tumblr_nfh8irNs5e1r4f0qjo1_500.jpgMark Scherz

Next was to cast around for someone who knows all there is to know about Madagascar’s herpetofauna. One name kept coming up, and that was Mark Scherz. Based in Germany (because all good taxonomists are), Mark is working on a PhD with Dr Frank Glaw and brings an enormous amount of expertise to the team. Madagascar’s wildlife is staggeringly scarily diverse, and so being able to tell your Platypelis tsaratananaensis from your Platypelis alticola from everything else(!) is essential for our research. The rest of us wouldn’t stand a chance, so luckily we have Mark on board.


http://www.jamesborrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Jeanneney_rabearivony.jpgJeanneney Rabearivony

Jeanneney is a Malagasy scientist based at the University of Antisiranana, our principal in country collaborating organisation. He has extensive experience with WWF and of fieldwork in the eastern rainforests. Building relationships with in-country experts is essential, as local scientists know the flora and fauna far better than we could ever hope to. With luck, we’ll all learn a great deal from each other.


http://www.jamesborrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/marius.jpgMarius Rakotondratsima

Marius is a Malagasy conservation working towards a PhD studying forest fragmentation. By coincidence, he has also studied at the University of Kent, something more than half of the team have in common! Marius has experience with the Peregrine Fund working in our research area which is incredibly valuable for giving us a head start. He is also responsible for coordinating the creation of three new protected areas in Madagascar. Exciting times.


http://www.jamesborrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/thom_starnes.jpgThom Starnes

It’s not a proper expedition unless you have big colourful maps to pore over. Enter Thom, a self confessed map geek. In the UK Thom coincidentally specialises in GIS for the Amphibian and Reptile Group. Out in Madagascar he will be in charge of managing our data and meteorological equipment and characterizing the habitats in our study site. Thom is also likely to be a strong contender for best beard.


http://www.jamesborrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/duncan_parker.jpgDuncan Parker

Every good research expedition needs someone to help tell the story. I wanted to find someone with passion for wildlife, experience of Madagascar and a willingness to make the science really shine. All roads pointed to Duncan Parker and his reputation as a bit of a gadget man. We spent a weekend together in Bristol to put this together, and in the field he’ll be in charge of photographing and documenting the incredible variety of species that we find.


http://www.jamesborrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Harison.jpgHarison Andriambelo

As part of this journey we’ve been keeping our eye out for more opportunities to collaborate. A chance conversation lead to meeting Harison, who is rapidly making a name for himself as a top notch biologist and expert UAV pilot. Harison will be joining us in the field to help us build a picture of forest fragmentation in the area. He and Thom should get on like a house on fire!


Local Students

Last but not least, we’ll be joined by some local Masters students who will be conducting projects as part of our research. This has been a really important component for us from the start, and Jeanneney has been fantastic in helping us arrange the collaboration.

UK Team

It’s never glamorous, but it can be tremendously important to have a UK (or wherever) based contact to support you. As part of Expedition Angano, Jessica Plumb will be tweeting our progress, whilst Tino Solomon and Jennifer Whitgift are very kindly providing 24h medical support.

http://www.jamesborrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/SquareLogo.jpgIn Summary

I think we’ve got the best team we could hope for. Everyone brings a unique perspective and bucket loads of experience to the mix, and the outcome can only be better quality science and greater benefit for conservation. So whatever your challenge, build your team, make a plan and go.

For more about this project, visit Expedition Angano.