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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Sowing the seeds of change

Published: 19 June 2009
Billy Valdez

Former zoology student is off to help in Kenya

Billy Valdes has always been interested in biology and zoology, and has a natural enthusiasm for conservation. “It’s always been about plants or animals for me,” she says, “so one of my first jobs was as a veterinary nurse.”

Born in Germany, with a Spanish mother, Billy did her secondary school examinations in Spain and then again in Germany, before going on to business college in her home country. Then she came to the UK to learn English and after working as a nanny in London she found a vet who wanted help in his practice, so she had a job as an animal nurse for the next few years.

But she had always thought it was important to do a degree, and having heard that the University of Southampton was an excellent environment for studying animals and plants, she applied to do a foundation year before going on to study for a 3-year Zoology degree at the School of Biological Sciences.

Harvesting Arabidopsis mutants

“As I hadn’t studied for a few years I realised I really needed that extra year before starting my Zoology course, to get back into studying mode. Getting to know other mature students meant I had support from people in the same position, which was very important to me.”

Billy worked on her undergraduate project with Dr Patrick Doncaster, studying jaguar behaviour and contributing to a paper with a post-graduate student. After a year’s break, she was offered a job as a research technician at the School of Biological Sciences, and for the past two years she has been working on two projects in molecular biology and plant genetics, studying Arabidopsis thaliana, a model plant for which scientists have the full genomics, and barley. Working at the School focused her mind on conservation issues, but it was still a while before she realised how she could really help.

“I had a friend who was working on an eco-project in Kenya,” she explains, “and when I visited Mida Creek near Malindi, which is two hours from Mombasa, I felt that it was somewhere I could really make a difference.” The 2,000 people from the Giriama tribe who live there have only basic facilities, and when Billy first visited, the children did not attend school, life expectancy was short and nutrition and health were very poor. “Children were dying from coughs and colds because they didn’t have even basic medicines like aspirin”, she says. “Sanitation was non-existent, and thing like plastic bags and dumped batteries were damaging the environment”.

One of those involved in the project started fundraising, and the venture, called Mida Ecocamp, was registered as a proper charity. The additional money has meant that they have been able to introduce solar panels to power light bulbs, and the eco-camp is now bringing in tourists who will help to improve the area and the standard of living for the local population.

“People in Europe don’t realise the extent of poverty in Africa,” she says. “For instance, ten pounds sends a child to school for a whole year.” So she has decided to go out to Malindi to help for a few months, providing services like basic nursing and teaching which most people here take for granted.

What she learned in her degree about ecology and conservation should come in very handy for this new role. “It’s a different world”, says Billy. “It’s going to be hard, but I know I shall really enjoy it.”

Getting to know other mature students [during the Foundation Year] meant I had support from people in the same position, which was very important to me.

Billy Valdez - BSc Zoology
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