James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

How To Get The Most Out Of Biological Expeditions

Last month, Craig Turner and I were excited to have an article in The Biologist magazine about biological expeditions, something which we are both pretty passionate about.

You can sign up and read the full article here, but for all the folks that don’t have a subscription to the Society of Biology, I thought I’d outline our main points on my blog. Special thanks to Craig, the whole thing was his idea!

Where to start…

For aspiring young biologists, there is now a miryad of opportunities to gain field experience, but making choices on what is best for you can be difficult and confusing.

Many people want to build on more formal training and education. They want practical experience to complement lectures, courses and text books – in fact conservation jobs often demand it.

This is a really important part of developing as a conservationist, but how do you choose between all the flashy websites promising the experience of a lifetime, the small volunteering outfits or perhaps even the option of just doing it yourself.

The Commercial Expedition Provider Option:

From chatting with Craig, here’s a few of the things we thought were worth thinking about or questions to ask yourself.

  •  A great option if it’s your first time.
  • Good for the project as it frequently involves volunteers with a useful variety of skills and backgrounds.
  • Often provides a way to visit places that would be nearly impossible to visit on your own.
  • Projects and providers vary (considerably!) in quality and cost.
  • Some organizations make rather a lot of money out of volunteers. Worth checking where the money goes? Do they have big admin overheads?
  • Check their safety record, do they have emergency plans in place?
  • What are conditions like in the field. Do they match your expectations?
  • Do they work with local partners to help build capacity, especially in developing countries. We agreed that this is very important.
  • What sort of training will you receive, can you gain aqualification in the process (if you want to)?
  • What outcomes have they produced so far? How do they measure the success of their project?

Overall, we thought that one of the best things you can do to find out more information, is to try and speak to someone who has been away previously with that organization. From our experience, a reputable provider will happily put you in touch with past volunteers to help answer any questions.

On the other hand, you might think about leading your own expedition.

Planning Your Own Expedition

Craig is the expert here, having been involved with a number of seriously cool projects. Meanwhile I’m in the middle of planning one myself that may or may not be successful.

Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of this approach.

  • Planning will take many many times longer.
  • You will have to organize permits, safety plans and logistics yourself.
  • If successful, the sense of achievement is likely to be greater (and it looks good on a CV).
  • You can plan your research to address issues of your choosing. You have a much greater level of control.
  • It will be up to you to organize a team and in-country collaborators.
  • You are likely to gain a greater set of skills, including research design, team management, analysis, publications and more.
  • Organising the funding can be harder, potential supporters are taking a greater risk.
  • If it all goes horribly wrong, rectifying the situation is your responsibility.

Although that might sound a little negative, overall we thought that the potential rewards far outweight the costs.

So Which Should You Choose?

Well, it doesn’t really matter – as long as you do something! Expeditions play a hugely important role in understanding our natural world and preserving our biodiversity, and this isn’t going to change any time soon.

Good luck!