Emma Mellor – BSc (Hons) Animal Behaviour and Welfare; MSc Zoo Conservation Biology graduate

Current employer: University of Bristol

Current job title: PhD student

Current location: Bristol

“It’s really down to the excellent support given to me by academic staff at Plymouth, which is ongoing even now, that I ended up where I am doing my PhD... More recently, throughout the PhD, job, and funding application processes, Plymouth academic staff gave me valuable advice and feedback. Staff really went above and beyond what was required to support and encourage me, and I can’t thank them enough for it.”

Tell us what you have been doing since completing your studies.

After completing my MSc I knew that I wanted to go on to complete a PhD. So, I spent a year working full-time for the employer I worked for throughout my university studies, while applying for various PhDs. Additionally, during this year I gained further animal welfare research experience by volunteering as a research intern, undertaking behavioural observations of captive elephants for a DEFRA funded project. I also continued work with a research group I collaborated with during my MSc, on a project investigating species-level risk factors for poor welfare in captive Carnivora.

Early 2015 I was awarded a University of Bristol PhD Studentship, and in October of that year started my PhD, entitled: How does natural foraging niche influence captive animal health and welfare? It was quite a change moving from Plymouth to Bristol, and switching from a taught environment to a research-focussed one. My first year has been jam-packed with planning my PhD, reading, attending and presenting at conferences, writing, writing, and more writing. I’m just about to start the second year of my PhD, and loving it!

What is the best, most exciting or fun thing that you have done in your career?

While undertaking my BSc I started reading about the work of a well-known animal welfare scientist on a topic that I find fascinating: abnormal repetitive behaviours (ARBs) in captive animals. When I made the decision to do my MSc, I already knew that I wanted to do my MSc dissertation on ARB, so I emailed this scientist to ask if I could work with her. It seemed like an unachievable long shot but she replied, I went to visit her and her research group, and I got to do a project I really wanted to do. I’ve continued to work with her since: she is now one of my PhD supervisors. To anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation, I would highly recommend just getting in touch with people whose work you admire; the very worst that will happen is that your email is ignored or they say ‘no.’ And if it pays off, then it is totally worthwhile.

What would you do differently since graduating?

I would have liked to have been able to do a placement year. It was not feasible for me, unfortunately; but after hearing about the experiences fellow course-mates had, I would definitely encourage future students to do it if they can.

Imagine you were about to start university again - with the benefit of hindsight - would you advise yourself to do anything differently?

I would not have spent my first student loan payment almost as soon as it hit my bank account! I think I would also tell myself to only work one day per week at my part-time job while I was doing my MSc. Masters are stressful things, and trying to balance a part-time job and manage a dissertation was really difficult.

What was your main reason for choosing to study your course at Plymouth? With hindsight how significant was this for you?

The main reason I chose to do BSc (Hons) Animal Behaviour and Welfare was simply because it was the course that interested me the most. I had worked with animals for many years before my course, and have always been interested in science, so it was a natural choice. I knew fairly early on that I eventually wanted to go on to do a PhD, and that having a masters would be beneficial in achieving this. I had such a good experience doing my BSc at Plymouth that I decided to go on to MSc Zoo Conservation Biology. Plymouth’s beautiful location and surrounding countryside was an added bonus to my choices!

How did we support you in your studies? If you used any support services whilst at the university how did they enable you to get to where you are today?

It’s really down to the excellent support given to me by academic staff at Plymouth, which is ongoing even now, that I ended up where I am doing my PhD. The teaching was high quality and thoughtful overall, but especially so for potentially tricky subjects like statistics, and with other added extras such as additional first year classes for students, like myself, who did not have an A level in Chemistry. Supervision during both of my dissertations was brilliant, in particular during my MSc; even staff outside of my supervisory team gave gratefully received advice where required. More recently, throughout the PhD, job, and funding application processes, Plymouth academic staff gave me valuable advice and feedback. Staff really went above and beyond what was required to support and encourage me, and I can’t thank them enough for it.

How well did Plymouth prepare you for the challenges that you have faced, or will face, in your career?

Both of my degrees helped prepare me for ongoing and future challenges in various ways. My BSc provided me with a really good, broad understanding and appreciation of animal behaviour and welfare. In particular, the statistics modules and the process of planning, managing, and writing both dissertations helped prepare me for my PhD. As one element of my PhD is investigating obesity in captive lemurs, the zoo-focus of my MSc and the zoo contacts I made during that time, continue to benefit me now.

Why would you recommend undertaking a course with Plymouth University?

I would recommend Plymouth for the high quality courses and teaching, academic support, and, of course, a beautiful combination of sea and moorland.