Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 15 - Dr. Joanna Alfaro (Director of Pro Delphinus)

April 26, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks Dr. Joanna Alfaro, a University of Exeter doctoral graduate who is now the Director of the Peruvian conservation organisation Pro Delphinus.

 

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter, Doctoral College

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree. I'm your host, Kelly Preece

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And for this episode, I'm delighted to be talking to Dr Joanna Alfaro,

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who is the president and director of the Peruvian conservation organisation Pro Delphinus

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So, Joanna. Are you happy to introduce yourself? Yeah.

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Well, my name is Joanna Alfaro and I am Peruvian.

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I work in Pro Delphinus and Universidad Científica del Sur. So in 2008 I joined in the programme for PhD

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My advisor was Brendan Godley and Annette Broderick at Exeter

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And I was. That's probably my favourite years as being back a student in the U.K., a dream that I was able to fulfil.

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And for my the theme of my PhD was ecology and conservation of marine turtles.

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And that was also great because it allowed me to to apply the knowledge and the

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experience that I got to working with sea turtles in Peru towards my PhD.

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It's brilliant. Thank you. And what are you doing now?

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So when did you graduate? So the though after the PhD, the I was able to to be back at home and and keep working.

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And what I love, which is marine conservation. So the projects we we have right now are focus.

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It was a very interesting transition because we started our careers being a species oriented.

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And by that I mean that I was I love dolphins and whales and sea turtles.

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So that was my interest. But we learnt over time.

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And and my PhD was a big lesson learnt that is not only about the animals that we were,

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that we're when we're working with animals, we should also look at the people that is related to the animals.

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So in my case, these people were fishermen. And mostly small-scale fishermen.

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And so the the the current work we do now is trying to support fishermen, to keep fishing.

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But in a more clean way, in a sustainable way, in a way that they can keep fishing for the for many,

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many years to come, but also in a way that we are helping animals.

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And in this case, it'll be the ones that we have this passion for the dolphins, the whales, the sea turtles.

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So it's it's a very good combination to be able to to be in the middle between biodiversity

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and economic activities as fisheries and also communities and engaging the main users,

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which are fishermen. That's great and really interesting how, like you say, that you've moved from thinking about particular species to.

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To fishermen. And that sort of shift in focus. So can you tell me a little bit about when you were doing your PhD?

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Did you know that you want to move on to this kind of role? Oh, yes.

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Well, that's a great question. And that's a question that I mention when when I have the chance.

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When we started the PhD, we had no idea that we will end up working with fisheries and with people.

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And I think that's an idea that a lot of young people start with.

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I mean, you go with with with this love for the ocean and the creatures, but then it's it's important to realise that it's.

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It will give you have to become useful. It's a bad way to say it, but you have to become useful for society.

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And and it's great if you can, because, well, that's a role we all have.

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But but it and in a way, our careers as  researchers and biologists are key to to to make this transition

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between nature and wildlife and maintain the livelihoods of of people like fishermen,

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in my case, for example. So can you tell me a bit more about.

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The conservation organisation you work for. And what kind of what sort of work that you're doing and how you're drawing on

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your experience as a as a researcher and and particularly during your PhD

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Yes, sure. So my PhD was on sea turtles and most of my chapters had to be on sea turtles.

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And I did my PhD with my husband, which is which it was a great challenge.

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At some point, we were we were sharing the same.

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Stress, and it's but we made it through somehow.

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And the we are we can we evolve from being a species oriented.

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So my my focus was marine turtles

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workingwith Brendan and and my husband  was working on seabirds and marine mammals.

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So we shifted a little bit once being back at home in Pery to work to to apply what we learnt and

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apply it to improve fisheries and support fishermen to continue to be able to continue fishing.

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So that has changed just slightly or like I don't know.

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And the thing is, that is it continues changing, especially now with COVID

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Some of our work at Pro Delphinus has changed dramatically.

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We can no longer go to the field. We do most of the stuff by phone call or Zoom or Whatsapp

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So we are where we see changes in our work during the the latest circumstances of of health worldwide.

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And that's the fun part of it. I think the to be constant changing.

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I think it it brings challenges is not always the same.

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Every day there is something new that we are learning, but it's is where we are enjoying this.

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Right. Really. And Pro Delphinus there is we have perhaps over 20 people on the staff and we keep growing, which is very good.

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And each of them have an interest and that's the that's what it reaches the the environment

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we work in because somebody else may be interested in the social side of the work we do.

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Somebody else could be interested in the economics of it. So it's it's I'm enjoying it.

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It sounds amazing.

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And not only kind of really rewarding work, but also incredibly diverse in the different things that you're gonna be doing, especially.

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And, you know, as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic and the impact that that's had on all, you know, the ways, everybody's way of working.

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So you won an award. Last October.

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Did you not Peru's highest award for conservation? Can you tell us a little bit about that.

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Oh, man, that was fun. That was that was unexpected. So they they sent me an email saying, the name of the award is Carlos Ponce

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Premio para la Conservacion which is a very renown prize

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And for Peru, for people working in conservation in Peru. The organisers is a group a consortium is Conservation International.

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WCS, Pronaturaleza  these organisations have worked for a long time in Peru.

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And when with with the e-mail when I answered, I said yes, but I haven't applied to this award and I had no idea.

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And then the lady. Well, when I was notified, it was a big surprise.

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I enjoyed it a lot. The ceremony was by Zoom and that was that was very different.

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But it was very moving. And for me personally was very moving.

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And for Pro Delphinus, I think the staff really enjoy it because it's not an award for a person.

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But to, in my opinion, is an award for an organisation that has over two decades working.

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So it was it was a very nice recognition for our work.

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Absolutely. Could you tell me a bit more about how Pro Delphinus started?

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Yes. Well, Pro Delphinus started to  so.

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The father, the mother of Pro Delphinus, called Sipek whi is a

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a private organisation,

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a group of biologists and veterinarians living in Pucusana and working in marine mammals back in 1990s and towards the end of the 90s.

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They decided to to be more inclusive for for students and volunteers.

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And that was the start of Pro Delphinus and for for their early years.

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We didn't do much. But in 2003, we started strong.

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It was the year that we applied for a few grants and we got them all, which was a very nice surprise and a great challenge.

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We we started growing slowly. We have been growing organically.

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I want to say over the years, right now, I think we probably have.

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Ten projects and two are big.

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One is to focus on sustainable fisheries.

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The small scale and the although the other one is for leatherback turtles.

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Conservation. And and I want to take the chance to to mention that the population of Eastern leatherback pacific turtles are doing very bad.

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So there's a bunch of countries from Mexico to Chile working on improve the conservation of this species to avoid extinction.

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This is one of the species that is highly impacted and nesting sites and at sea.

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So this project is all about Leatherbacks and working with to reduce bycatch and the water.

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And is this work with turtles that led you to become involved in Pro Delphinus or

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Was it the fisheries work? It was my my work at Pro Delphinus started with marine mammals, and it started with dolphins because.

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Because then when I was a student in the 90's, dolphins were brought to shore and my.

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But if you ask me what I thought. My thoughts about a young student I wanted so badly to work with dolphins.

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It was my dream. So this group that accepted me as a volunteer, Sipek, they worked with dolphins.

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So I went there and started volunteer and.

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But I had no idea that all the dolphins were going to be dead because they brought them from the fisheries interactions to shore and.

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So it started with dolphins and then they evolved and move on to turtles.

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Because as I was observing dolphins, it was the same issue with turtles.

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One day we went to a port and there was leatherback turtle laying on this Scarapas

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And that was a pretty shocking image. Luckily, we don't see that anymore these days.

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But that was the start of my interest on sea turtles.

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And I was had had been very rewarding. In fact, the project we have that I just mentioned on leatherback turtles is trying to.

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distribute LED light which have proved to help reduce the bycatch of sea turtles.

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And with this project, we can hand them, the fishermen, to have them in their nets to avoid

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The entanglement of the turtles. And reduce mortality, hopefully.

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You're currently the director at Pro Delphinus. Did you.

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Did you go straight into that position after your you completed your PhD

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No. No. I started volunteering and my volunteer was cleaning floors, dusting bones, picking up buckets of guts of Dolphin.

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My volutneer was pretty rough, and I think it was good.

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I'm very grateful that it was a rough start because there was a test in my mind was a test and probably in the mind of my my bosses on that time.

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So I started as a volunteer cleaning, mostly helping in everything.

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And then I became a junior researcher.

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And then from there, an assistant researcher. And then now I'm the director of Pro Delphinus, which is very different.

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But I still clean. So really a case of sort of getting involved with the organisation from the ground up.

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Yes. Yes. And that has been good. I am I'm happy that it was started that way, because now I can I can place myself in the shoes of the volunteers.

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And and and I, I work my way up, which which was has been a rewarding feel is.

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So could you tell me kind of like what your typical day is like?

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I know the answer is going to be there isn't one Yeah, sure.

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My typical day has changed now.

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And there were a lot of sitting. A lot of computer time.

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But before that. And that's because of COVID then because the office is partially closed, we are starting to go but not many hours and et cetera.

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But my normal day before COVID was a little bit more fun.

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Most of my days will be meetings with government officers or in some occasions I also

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go to fishing ports because I don't want to lose the connection of with the field.

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If somebody asked me in my job, I want to be able to tell them from experience what I have been observing and respond with the experience.

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So the contact with the field and fishermen, it's important to me.

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So I will go I will combine meetings, office time with some travelling and.

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And some and phone calls, a lot of phone calls, too. We write a lot of papers.

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We we work on that. That's our most precious.

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Give give back to society and to academia and to the country that has this has been the focus.

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Last year we did over 20 papers, the year before I think 18.

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So we're we're good. The staff is great about that.

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They're really into research and publishing.

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And that sounds such a varied day and a varied kind of type of work in terms of advocacy and being in the field, writing papers and, you know,

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still having that really important kind of academic research contribution,

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as well as the wider kind of contribution that you're making to conservation.

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Sounds like a fantastic kind of combination. I wonder if we can sort of.

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To finish up what advice you have for anyone who is currently doing PhD

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Who wants to. Pursue a career in the kind of conservation organisation that you're working in.

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Mm hmm. Yeah, well, the advice in general will be if you have a topic that is of your interest.

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That's great. But if you don't, it will come up.

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It will come up at some point and you will identify something that is really interesting for you.

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So don't worry if you don't have that passion that that some people do at early age and take

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opportunities as they come to experiment and try different things within your career and out of your career,

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because sometimes you can combine things that are not specifically related to biology or research.

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And if you're thinking about working in an NGO is this is great.

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I mean, for us has been great. I know it's challenging because you have to look for your own funds.

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But the early years are difficult. And then it becomes smoother as your expertise, as you develop your expertise.

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And combining that with PhD had been for us a great step in our careers, in our lives.

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We still collaborate with Brendan So we build a little network in Exeter and that I hope it continues over time.

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And and and and I'm looking forward for what's coming in the future.

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Thank you so much to Joanna for taking the time out to talk about the really exciting and important work that she's doing.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

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