Nicholas Berkley - BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences graduate

Current employer: University of Plymouth

Current job title: PhD student 

Current location: Plymouth

"My time at the University gave me a confidence and resilience that is invaluable to scientific study where solutions are not always easy to come by."

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

After finishing my undergraduate study I chose to remain at Plymouth where I began a PhD under the supervision of Professor Camille Parmesan, Dr Mick Hanley and Dr Rich Boden. The aim of my project is to investigate the impact that changes in the agricultural landscape may have upon ecosystem processes and services. Cultivation of the second generation bioenergy crops miscanthus and willow short rotation coppice have received a particular focus due to their potential to represent a major new change in land use in the United Kingdom.

Second generation bioenergy crop miscanthus.
Second generation bioenergy crop miscanthus.

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

At the end of last year I attended and presented at my first major conference, the annual British Ecological Society conference held in Liverpool, which is the largest ecological conference outside of North America. The three day event was a very enjoyable experience that allowed me to meet and discuss my work with students and researchers in both similar and diverse fields.

What would you do differently since graduating?

I would do the same again. Being given the opportunity to carry out a PhD is very challenging but a huge privilege with studentships being highly sought after and competitive. I enjoy the diverse subject matter that my PhD has allowed me to investigate.

Being based in the South West is also a major benefit with easy access to the countryside and coastlines of Devon and Cornwall, including Dartmoor and Exmoor national parks as well as many smaller managed reserves such as Aylesbeare Common, Bovey Heathland and Wembury Bay. 

Imagine you were about to start university again - with the benefit of hindsight - what would you now tell yourself to have done differently?

There are always a wide range of opportunities available both at the University and with local organisations in the region. Although I gained experience working with organisations such as Opal and the National Botanic Gardens of Wales, I now wish that I had involved myself in a greater number of extra curricular activities. 

What was your main reason for choosing to study your course at Plymouth? 

Plymouth offered a very broad based degree which provides a diverse range of experience well suited to both scientific research and employment where interdisciplinary skills are seen as very important. The ability to undertake a work based placement was also invaluable and allowed me to gain ecological experience working for the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust on their reserve at Slapton Ley. 

How did we support you in your studies?

The University has an excellent library service that allows free access to a wealth of software, journals and texts. The Careers and Employability service at the University is also excellent and provided me with guidance on CV presentation and applications. Academics are also very approachable and were swift to respond to any queries. 

How did studying at Plymouth change your career aspirations and plans?

I have always had a passion for wildlife and nature as well as an interest in understanding how and why life functions the way it does. The idea that I might take these values further first occurred to me due to excellent teaching in biology whilst at sixth form. The decision that I would pursue a career, and even PhD, in biology was definitely born through my undergraduate study which grew both my confidence and interest in the life sciences. I certainly did not begin the degree with a PhD in mind. 

What is your favourite memory of studying for your degree at Plymouth?

Fieldwork is always a highlight for me and visiting ‘my’ field site at Slapton Ley during the summer of my placement was probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of my degree. I have an interest in all taxa but studying insects, as I was at the time, meant that every square metre becomes something of a rainforest with a wealth of biodiversity. 

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

Plymouth provided me with a sound theoretical knowledge base in a broad range of disciplines as well as giving me the practical experience required to undertake future projects. My time at the University also gave me a confidence and resilience that is invaluable to scientific study where solutions are not always easy to come by.  

Why would you recommend undertaking a course with the University?

Plymouth has excellent facilities from its microbial and molecular laboratories to its dedicated electron microscopy centre. The location provides an excellent place to live and study with the possibility to collaborate with many other scientific bodies. 

How did your placement impact on your short and long term career plans?

Undertaking my placement with the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust definitely had a major impact on my career plans, both short and long term. Without the experience gained during this period of applied study I feel it unlikely that I would have succeeded in acquiring my PhD studentship. The placement provided me with very relevant ecological experience related to my current work, which in part focuses on insects and in particular pollinators. I also improved the statistical and writing skills necessary to undertake future research.

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