13 December 2017

A prizewinning student gave up a successful teaching career to become a student, just as her son was starting school

Liz Davidson wanted a change of career after 13 years as a primary teacher. Her youngest child was about to start school, so she decided to return to her first love, Ecology.

So, a few weeks after her son started school, Liz began studying for a part time masters in Conservation and Biodiversity at the Graduate School for the Environment at Lancaster University.

“It was hard, to begin with, I had been out of it for so long, there were so many skills I needed to get up to date, a lot of new software to get to grips with,” said Liz.

“It was a steep learning curve, but people were really friendly, really welcoming, and there’s a lot of help available, particularly for mature students. The younger students were great at helping with the technology that had changed.”

Despite the difficulties, Liz loved studying again, gaining new skills, and enjoyed the freedom offered by the wide choice of modules at Lancaster.

Two years later, Liz has graduated with distinction, and won the Lancaster Environment Centre prize as the top performing postgraduate student in her year. She has also jointly won the prize for the best dissertation, which was her favourite part of the course.

“You can choose a project off the list or talk to supervisors and come up with something of your own, which is what I did.

“I was interested in doing something on fragmentation, looking at how habitats have been fragmented into smaller areas and how species cope with this.

Dr Andy Wilby, one of the ecology supervisors, had contacts with Butterfly Conservation and helped Liz get work on a research project on Warton Crag nature reserve studying two endangered butterfly species: the pearl bordered fritillary and the small pearl bordered fritillary. Her job was to carry out a mark, release and recapture study.

“I caught them, and marked them through a net using a very fine marker pen. I’d never done anything like it before and I was nervous of causing any damage because the species are both declining.”

But she learnt quickly and even took her two children with her to help during half terms, teaching them how to identify butterflies from their markings.

Her results showed that while the small pearl bordered were quite widespread the pearl bordered were much more vulnerable. They like recently coppiced woodland which is a good habitat for the violets they feed on: but there were only three very small areas on Warton Crag where they occurred, which were a long way apart, and very few of the butterflies travelled between the sites.

This makes the butterflies particularly vulnerable to changes in habitat and shows the importance of finding ways to create butterfly friendly ‘corridors’ or ‘stepping stones’ to connect up the sites.  Liz and the other students involved with the project fed back their findings to Butterfly Conservation and the three other charities that jointly run Warton Crag.

Liz had found what she wanted to do for a career: continue doing research into wildlife. So she decided to look for a funded PhD.

“I did a Lake Ecology module as part of my second year which was taught by staff at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

“I loved that module and, at the end of one of the lectures, they talked about a PhD that was on offer. I also did some lab experience with a researcher I met through the module involving the identification of macroinvertebrates and I loved doing that as well.”

So Liz applied for and got the PhD, which is with Cardiff University but based at CEH within the Lancaster Environment Centre. She is using DNA metabarcoding to work out food web interactions in lake ecosystems in Cumbria and beyond, and how they differ across environmental gradients.

“The questions are really exciting and so is the new methodology involved. I’m still based in Lancaster, at CEH, sharing offices with other PhD students and researchers.”

For Liz, it is a vindication of the hard work, and the decision she took to give up a secure job and go back to studying. “It was worth it to do something I’m passionate about.”