Meet Dr. Isabella Mandl, who is working towards protecting animals by understanding their behaviour!

Veterinarian is not the only career path if you want to work with animals!

When I was around seven years old, I had already made up my mind to become a world explorer. The National Geographic was my go-to read at that age and I devoured any article on animals or different cultures at night by the light of my lamp. I wanted to be a female Gerald Durrell, or a journalist who would come back to report on new and exciting animals she had discovered. I exasperated my friends, who all wanted to become veterinarians because of their love for animals, by declaring “looking at guinea pigs and cats all days would be too boring”. My parents smiled at my dreams and my older sister gave me a few uneasy days by stating that there was no need for world explorers as the world had already been explored.

Shortly before I turned 18 though I realised how wrong she was. We might have a pretty good idea as to the world’s physical appearance but there is still so much more to discover when you look at the details. A sloppily put-together presentation on how honey bees make decisions settled it for me: I wanted to understand animal behaviour. And I meant really understand it – exploring the un-known depths of the living creatures around us. That autumn I signed up for a BSc degree in biology. From there on one thing led to another and now, twelve years later, I call myself a scientist.

My first research project was on tortoises. Ever since I have a very soft spot for these creatures. – Photo by Naina Rabemanajara

Over the last decade I have been led in my career decisions by my desire to study a particular mechanism/species or to experience a particular environment. My MSc degree I completed in the UK because at that time I found the German-speaking academic environment too competitive (and generally unpalatable). I ended up working on parrots for my MSc thesis after studying fish, tortoises and geese during my undergrad. My PhD on sportive lemurs was born out of an urge to visit Madagascar and work outside rather than in a laboratory environment, so when I was offered a place to develop and conduct my own project on the island under supervision from the University of Bristol, I took it up.

I followed an inclination to explore just to find that research is what I want to do.

If all this seems a bit hap-hazard, that is because it definitely was! I realised during my time in Madagascar that I wanted to work in the field of conservation science as most animals are actually very close to extinction, so I re-focused my efforts in that direction. I also started branching out towards science communication, edging my way slowly towards the image my seven-year-old-self had carved out for me.

Working hard or hardly working. Fieldwork in Madagascar for my PhD thesis. – Photo by Karena Tilt

I was still dissatisfied with academic research but not quite sure where to turn for alternatives, so I participated in career events and mentoring programs that were directed at women in scientific careers (the British Ecological Society is a great resource here). These, while not bringing with them the job offers I had hoped for, gave me tremendous insight. I also realised that in my student life I was surrounded nearly exclusively by men who had all gotten their jobs about a decade ago and could simply not relate what it was like for a freshly-baked woman scientist. None of them could give me advice for careers or how to manage your love-life when you are forced to move around for suitable positions. So making the necessary communications with my significant other (“Hey, you willing to move with me to a small island in the Indian Ocean?”, “Yes..?”) I took matters into my own hands and looked for a position outside academia. I knew I wanted to work with animals and conservation, preferably in the tropics.

I was lucky, and since early 2018 I have been living and working as a technical assistant to the ecology research team for a local NGO on the Western Indian Ocean island of Anjouan. While most of my work is currently done from my laptop, I have the pleasure of knowing the research results I produce can make a real difference to the endangered fauna and flora of this island. In addition, in collaboration with the University of Comoros, I was able to launch the world’s first movement study of the Critically Endangered Livingstone fruit bat! I also used my spare time to broaden my skills and participated in a training course on bat biology, as well as extended my network towards Mauritius where another NGO is busily working on protecting their fruit bats from extinction.

I have learned a lot from the men mentoring me, but I am indebted to my female colleagues for my willingness to continue.

Learning how to handle bats. Networking is important in every branch of science and I am grateful to the NGO ERA from Mauritius for helping me broaden my skills. – Photo by Kilian Egger-Peitler

Looking around me I see many men in higher positions. All my supervisors (excepting one for the MSc degree) have been men. All my bosses are men. I have experienced my fair share of not being taken seriously, of my input being completely ignored and I am still struggling as to how to respond in these situations. I have lost competitions to men despite the judges telling me I was their favourite presenter (what is that about??). I am the one being asked about when I want to have kids, not my partner who is also a biologist and a PhD student. I am the one fearing that I will be asked about my family planning in a job interview. Last but not least I am also the one thinking about these issues, looking for role-models, for guidance and inspiration because there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to answer all my questions.

Despite all this I feel that we are living in an exciting time. Now more than ever we women are carving out our space in the realm of science. Our voices are being heard, our work documented (which, looking back, is essential for our efforts to be acknowledged). The debate on how to encourage more girls into STEM fields has taken a new turn with more and more women pointing out that they don’t need encouragement (because we girls always wanted to be explorers) but a fairer environment to thrive in (glance towards equal opportunities!).

One of the rarest bats in the world being grumpy about being held. Fieldwork in Comoros. – Photo by Amelaid Houmadi

My career path is no-where near being settled. I know I want to continue with research that will be applied in conservation management and policy, but there will be upheavals along the road, one gigantic one coming pretty soon: a move to Canada where my partner has been accepted for a PhD. I have chosen my partner carefully and am very happy to support him on his journey, but I will have to be resourceful if I want to continue my own as well. Like many women scientists before me and many women scientists after me I will be floating about for a time, trying to find footing again. But this time I have resources: women to turn to for advice.