Meet Your Lecturers: Dr. Matt Wood

This post is the first in a series by our Guest Editor, Tolga Aktas…
There is a primary reason why all of us students at the School of Natural & Social Sciences are enrolled at our preferred courses. Something triggered that desire one day to strive for a career that focuses on wildlife conservation towards an endangered species, aspiring to cure cancer or to become a field ecologist in the West Midlands or something. When us students attend lectures at the university, I wonder if any of us consider that all of the above applied, at some point, to the Lecturers who teach our course? Do you even know them? Do you even know their field of study, and what inspired them to do what they do, and why they share their passion with you? Or do you just turn up each week to your lecture and you are completely oblivious to it all?
Whatever your reason is, I have interviewed some of our lecturers, and they have kindly shared their story with us which will hopefully inspire us all with our career journeys and make future lectures more connected and unique.

Matt released into the wild: in his natural habitat on Skomer Island

On this blog post today, we focus our attention towards Dr. Matt Wood, who is a Senior Lecturer in Biology and Postgraduate Research Lead for the School. I asked him a series of questions in an interview, and this is what he had to say:

  • What inspired you to get into the field that you are in currently?

My family and the landscape I grew up in were really important influences. My grandparents had a dairy farm in Lancashire, so I was always out and about exploring the fields, or helping to feed the animals. It’s a beautiful part of the world, very diverse habitats in a relatively small area. My dad was into birdwatching, and he used to take me out with him. We’d go down the road to the Ribble Marshes in the winter to watch huge flocks of waders, and on holiday we’d visit somewhere special like an island… he took me to Skomer Island when I was eight, and I’d never have guessed I’d be back there studying the seabirds as a job!

  • Was your current discipline/field what you always strived to get into, or did you happen to get there by chance?

 Yes and no! I always wanted to be a scientist, but I chose my undergraduate degree at Manchester to study biotechnology and microbiology. That didn’t last long, I quickly found out I belonged back in the field rather than the laboratory, and I really got into evolutionary biology thanks to some inspirational lecturers like Dr Robin Baker. I then did an MSc in Ecology at Bangor University in North Wales, and everything clicked into place. It was a superb course, with a field course in the Caribbean, and an EU ERASMUS project in Sweden. We could go and watch wading birds in between lectures, and I could see mountains from my bedroom window… I never looked back.

  • What would you consider to be your most ground-breaking work to date?

I’d say the work to use UAV (drone) to count nesting gulls might well make the biggest single contribution. I ran a workshop at the 2018 Seabird Group Conference in Liverpool which went very well (check out #UAV #SG18 on Twitter), but it’s very new work so only time will tell how that develops. It all started from sharing an office with Lucy Clarke, and was a real team effort with MSc Applied Ecology student Graham Rush and BSc Animal Biology student Meg Stone, a classic UoG example of working across disciplines and involving students in our research. You can read the paper here

Lucy Clarke and Graham Rush launching the drone to count gulls on Skokholm Island

  • Is there any advice that you would give fellow students/individuals looking to embark into the same field that you’re in?

Tough one, everyone’s experience is unique, so I guess my best advice would be to tread your own path. If you had to press me for something more specific, I’d say do something you find cool, and make it something useful! A career in science has its ups and downs with long periods of often dull work in between, so it helps if it’s something that fascinates you to keep you going. If you enjoy reading about your subject and doing a research project, then science might be for you! I say do something useful, because then there’s a chance someone will pay you to do it! And personally I like to think that what I do might make a difference.
More generally, take as many different opportunities as you can. I tried to shape my career, but my career also shaped itself by the opportunities that came up. I jumped at opportunities to study nest box birds in Sweden, damselfly mating behaviour in Sri Lanka, counting sheep in St Kilda or watching Razorbills on Skomer Island… some seemed like jollies but I learned from every experience: I learned about myself, working in a team, the kinds of jobs I did and didn’t want to do. Most importantly, I built a network that brought career opportunities later. And sometimes I had to take a deep breath, take a risk and go for it. Like moving from Oxford to UoG (so far so good, watch this space!).

A career in science has its ups and downs, with long periods of often dull work in between.” Matt not quite on Skomer Island September 2018

  • What is the latest research project that you’re focusing on right now?

Counting invisible seabirds! Well, nocturnally-active species that nest in burrows, like European Storm Petrels and Manx Shearwaters. They’re hard to monitor because you can’t see them by day at the breeding colony, and it’s too dangerous to work in most of the colonies at night, so we use playback of their calls and listen for a response. Noting the response in survey plots gives you a handle on population size. I’ve been working with colleagues at Oxford University, Natural Resources Wales and the RSPB to refine the census methods and develop new analytical techniques. It started off as census work on Skomer and Skokholm over the past few years, and we’ve recently got a grant from DEFRA to make our work available to other seabird researchers. So that’s quite cool, it means we’ll improve seabird monitoring in the UK and internationally. I’m working on a few projects developing methods of seabird population monitoring – like the drones and gulls – using new approaches and technology to develop better ways of estimating population size, breeding success, survival rates… all really important for evidence-based conservation.

“I’m a binocular-wearing field biologist with a fondness for islands, and it’s great to be able to bring that into my work on seabird populations and disease ecology” – Dr Matt Wood
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for future posts giving you an insight to the lecturers that teach you, their backgrounds and what inspired them to stand at the front of the class and teach you all that they know.
Edited by Tolga Aktas
Second-year BSc Animal Biology student
Twitter: @tolgaaktas_
Instagram: @_tolgaaktas_
Facebook: taktaswild

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