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The University of Southampton
Biological SciencesOur alumni

Rachel Gardner MRes Wildlife Conservation / PhD in Biological Sciences, 2021


Rachel Gardner's Photo

Tell us about your time at Southampton

The University of Southampton, in conjunction with Marwell Wildlife, offers a unique collaborative MRes Wildlife Conservation course that places its students within a team of conservation biologists and university academics at the forefront of research. I was successful in my application to join the inaugural year of this course in 2013 and it well-prepared me for continuing in this field both academically through a PhD, and now vocationally.


The MRes provided the opportunity to gain and improve skillsets in practical, theoretical and written areas including a field-course to Kenya, as well as offering excellent grounding in core software for analyses, such as ArcGIS and R. The course comprised both taught and independent research components, making for both a challenging and very rewarding year. My desk-based research placed me in contact with conservation NGOs internationally, to obtain and then analyse a large, novel dataset on the variety and wealth of their contributions to species reintroduction projects. With a small cohort of like-minded students around me and a brilliant team of scientists at the university and Marwell Wildlife leading the course, the MRes was a key step in progressing my future career.

I returned to studying at Southampton for my doctorate in 2016, again as a collaborative study with Marwell Wildlife. My PhD allowed me to apply many of the principles explored in my Masters thesis to the first-hand reintroduction and post-release monitoring of a cryptic British reptile, the sand lizard. For this research I was heavily involved in the sand lizard captive breeding programme that Marwell Wildlife has contributed to for over 30 years, in conjunction with the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust and with support from Natural England. I followed individuals through from hatching and captive-rearing, to release and post-release monitoring, studying elements including individual behaviour, habitat use and post-release movement. It is hoped that my research will help inform national reintroduction protocol for the sand lizard and contribute to the wider literature on reintroduction biology. 

Tell us about your life and career since leaving Southampton

I am now an Ecologist at Marwell Wildlife, with a focus on planning and delivery of the organisation’s British species conservation and habitat restoration work. Both the MRes and my PhD provided me with a diverse range of skills, be they practical, written, analytical or logistical that are being utilised daily in my work. Having undertaken my undergraduate degree in BSc Geography, my postgraduate studies were a pivotal point in readdressing what I wanted from my career.

For example, at the end of my Masters year, I presented my research results to an international audience at the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria Annual Conference; I then went on to co-author an academic paper incorporating my MRes study. The sand lizard releases and research during my PhD gained attention from the media and I took part in both radio interviews and local television news features, including a live interview on Nature Notes on Radio 4. I found this invaluable experience in discussing my research in a manner accessible to a wider audience, in order to disseminate conservation efforts and increase public awareness. There was enormous value in undertaking such additional elements beyond the immediate research I was focused on. Through my postgraduate studies and their associated opportunities, I have felt my confidence grow, alongside my skillsets. 

I embarked on both postgraduate studies because I saw the potential they had to take me one step closer to the sort of role I am now working in. They also opened the door to a variety of unanticipated opportunities and experiences which I draw from continually.

What’s your advice to current students?

Immerse yourself in your chosen area of study, especially through conversations with the team of people around you, fellow students and staff and be open to learning as much as you can. Seek out and make the most of opportunities that arise as part of, or in addition to, your studies – you never know what further doors they might open.

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