The Biodiversity Fellowship at ICCS: A Delightful Slice of Research Life at Oxford

Divya Narain

I had the privilege to spend the first quarter of 2017 as Biodiversity Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS), a centre of excellence in conservation research within the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford. Supported by Merton College and Oxford University, the fellowship provides one mid-career researcher/practitioner every term, the opportunity to work as a part of the ICCS research group.

And how was the experience? - I have been ceaselessly asked since my return home. I struggle to answer – how do you express in words the exhilaration of experiencing leading-edge research at the world’s highest seat of learning? How do you begin to tell what it is like to be in a place where every experience stimulates your intellect and stirs your imagination? How do you explain to someone that in just a matter of three months you come to see your strengths, your aspirations and your interests with crystal clarity?

 

Photo of an Oxford college by Divya Narain

 

The fellowship begins by letting you set your own targets within your chosen area of work. My plan for the three months was to try my hand at research in ‘Business and Biodiversity’, an area in which up till then I had worked as a consultant. I was carefully guided through the process of goal-setting by my supervisor Dr. E.J. Milner-Gulland and my fellowship ‘buddy’ Dr. Prue Addison, both of whom are pre-eminent experts in the area. They made sure that my target was challenging, yet achievable within the given timeframe – I decided to work on a research paper that would attempt to clarify policy on ‘no-go areas for development’. The great thing about working at ICCS is that you are encouraged to associate with members of the extended group even if they are not physically present at Oxford – I got a chance to associate with Dr. Joe Bull, a leading researcher and consultant based at the University of Copenhagen. The process of arriving at a line of argument that is novel and demonstrable enough to result into a journal paper is a complex one. But I was able to successfully navigate through the process, thanks to regular inputs and reflections from my mentors. I remember having the most stimulating discussions with them, exploring and debating on all possible strands of argument on the topic.

In addition to working on the research paper, I got an opportunity to interact with and learn from other researchers of the ICCS group who work across the globe on diverse domains ranging from biodiversity offsets to sustainable fisheries and poaching to illegal wildlife trade, producing cutting-edge research which informs as well as influences policy. During weekly meetings, external experts are invited to share their work with the group, providing an opportunity for further exposure. I was also encouraged to attend events across the UK and expand my network by meeting relevant people within the industry.

The Biodiversity fellowship comes with a membership of the Senior Common Room at the Merton College, one of the most prestigious colleges of the Oxford University. The college buildings are magnificent and the dinners, a classy affair. But more than that, you get to interact with a number of senior academics – an edifying experience in its own right. I also got an opportunity to interact with Merton College undergrad Biology students when I delivered a lecture on ‘How Businesses Interface with Biodiversity’ for them.

I completed my Master’s from the University of Oxford back in 2011 and I am yet to come across anything that fires up my brain cells like the scintillating talks at Oxford. My ICCS exposure was matched only by the various talks I attended on a range of frontier topics including Climate Change, Development Financing, Energy Markets, Food Systems, Stranded Assets and Impact Investing – the quintessential Oxford experience. I also got a chance to attend a two-week training programme on ‘Enterprise and the Environment’ organized by the Smith School. An exposure to such overarching issues added a new dimension to my understanding of my domain i.e. ‘Business and Biodiversity’, making me increasingly curious to examine how broader systems and patterns of globalized economy, trade and consumption impinge upon biodiversity and govern the impact corporations have on it.

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that the fellowship at ICCS has been a turning point in my career. It has expanded my horizons and opened my mind to a whole new world of ideas. It has allowed me to take a step back, re-caliberate my goals and embark upon them with renewed vigour.

There are some experiences that divide your life into two parts – before and after. My ICCS stint was one such experience.