07/04/2017

Interview with Dr. Catarina Ferreira - MSCA Fellow


 

Dr. Catarina C. Ferreira has been a conservation biologist for over 15 years with vast experience working for the private and the public sectors, and academia. Her expertise spans topics in terrestrial ecology, reintroduction biology, wildlife management, and impacts of human-driven global environmental change on biodiversity across multiple taxa, regions and scales. A Portuguese native, Dr. Ferreira completed her undergrad in 2000 at the Faculty of Sciences of Porto University in Portugal, as well as a MSc in Applied Ecology in 2003, focusing her research in the conservation and management of small mammals and their predators in the Mediterranean Basin. She worked as the Senior Biologist in one of largest Protected Areas in Portugal for seven years and from 2009-2010 she was the Assistant Director/Ethologist of the Iberian Lynx Captive Breeding Centre in Portugal. In 2011, she obtained her PhD in Management of Game Resources at IREC‐UCLM in Spain, and in 2013 she started a Postdoc position at Trent University, Peterborough, Canada, where she developed different projects related to furbearer conservation and management. In that same year she was awarded a MSCA Individual Fellowship to develop predictive models of landscape connectivity for wild felids, using Lynx species in Europe and North America as models (Project CONTRASST). This project, that runs until December 2017, is being developed in Canada (Trent University) and Germany (UFZ) as host countries and relies on a collaboration network of several cooperating partners. CONTRASST's ultimate goal is to provide conservation guidelines on how to maintain large‐scale connectivity for umbrella species across fragmentation and climate scenarios (more info at http://contrasstprojecteu.com).

 

 

 

 

Could you tell a bit about your experience as a female scientist within your research field?

Working in applied conservation science is often more about working with people than with a particular species of interest. My research involved working specifically with certain stakeholders (hunters, farmers, etc.) which are typically men. So it was difficult at times to be taken seriously and challenging to be heard and I frequently felt like I was expected to proof myself more than my male colleagues had to. For example, I remember when I started working as a Senior Biologist in a Protected Area in south of Portugal and was making contact with hunter associations to collect European rabbit samples for a genetic study, hunters had a hard time acknowledging my presence in the meetings (and yes, this was 2002). In one of the most extreme occasions, I was asking the President of a hunter association questions related to rabbit hunting habits and, without even looking at me, he answered directly to the Park Ranger who was accompanying me and who stayed quiet the whole meeting! This was a situation that happened more than once and that I had to learn how to deal with, but that eventually wore off. The recipe is active listening, some emotional intelligence, and acknowledging the contribution of every person involved in the discussion. In the end, I gained their trust to the extent that these stakeholders learned to appreciate my work and became my greatest allies in the development of sustainable game management practices across the Protected Area. In academia, also a very male-driven environment, I have always had men as supervisors. In this case, I have not felt discriminated but there are always gender-related conflicts, simply due to differences in the way men and women think and work. For example, and with the due exceptions, women tend to be more collaborative and are better at structuring work, whereas men can be more pragmatic and take greater risks. This causes frictions sometimes, even though in general I’ve found these skills to be complementary more so than opponent.

 

In a previous interview, you said MSCA grant “will help me raise my profile as a researcher in applied conservation science, and hopefully lead to my integration into a European research institution as a leading scientist”. Two years into the grant, could you reflect on that a bit?

The two years as a Marie Curie Fellow in Canada have definitely helped raise my profile as a conservation scientist both in North America and Europe. It has helped me develop crucial skills and provided me with extraordinary opportunities to network and expand my collaborations. I am currently enjoying the last year of the Fellowship and I do feel that I am a much more mature and more efficient scientist, and much better positioned to thrive in science.

 

What would you say the biggest challenge in the application process was? How did you overcome it?

I think the greatest challenge, for me at the time, was to understand what lingo to use and to get acquainted with the format of the proposal. Up until then, none of the funding proposals I had written went into such detail about the potential impact of the research and benefits to society, as well as the specifics of the implementation of the project. In a world where scientists are increasingly required to produce impactful research, this type of exercise is incredibly important and useful, and it helped me improve my skills of elevating my research and put it in a bigger picture context. Particularly useful for this were a thorough read of European directives on biodiversity conservation and an understanding of all the support structures available to help researchers disseminate their science (beyond scientific conferences).

 

While in Canada, were you a member of any European Scientific Diasporas? Why/ Why not?

Unfortunately, I was made aware of extant European Scientific Diasporas in North America at the tail of my stay in Canada, so I did not belong to any until late 2016, when I joined PAPS (Portuguese American Post-Graduate Society). As a MSCA Fellow in Canada I felt a bit isolated from other Fellows for a while and until I developed a closer relationship with EURAXESS North America, because there’s hardly any support structure in this region (like, for example, a MCAA North American Chapter) that helps Fellows settle and adapt to the North American system. This motivated me to put together a proposal for the creation of a MCAA North America Chapter (currently in progress) which allowed me to connect with other Fellows. I have also created and currently manage a Facebook page called Marie Curie Alumni - North America, that is an initiative of Marie Curie Fellows and Alumni/ae who are (or were at some point) based in Canada or in the USA. The purpose of this group is to create a community of Marie Curie recipients with experience working and living in North America, to encourage local networking, to increase awareness and visibility of the MC Actions in North America, and to provide support to new MC Fellows settling in the region. A LinkedIn page was also created for the same purpose, and is currently operational.

 

From your experiences, how does the research environment in Europe differ from that in Canada, if at all? And, how do you think EURAXESS North America can further promote research collaborations between Europe and North America?

I think they are quite different. There are features, like competitiveness, that are inherent to academia and, hence, similar between the two research environments. However, I found that in the Canadian context researchers are less motivated to be mobile and to collaborate internationally, two aspects that are at the core of the European research agenda, to know more see EURAXESS North America Newsletter. On the other hand, there are obvious differences in resources available to do research, which, despite political sways, I think are still more abundant in Canada. Additionally, academia is structured slightly differently in both regions with more emphasis on the individual researcher establishing an independent research group at a very early stage of the scientific career in Canada than in Europe. For example, in North America it's not unusual to see young researchers create their own lab soon after their PhD with only a few years of postdoc experience and despite not having a very extensive publication record. This happens, in my view, because there’s a push for differentiation at a very early stage of the scientific career in North America, greater than in Europe.

  • I believe EURAXESS North America is playing a vital role in connecting researchers across North America, which scale in itself poses a challenge for researchers to come together. Therefore, this project has been pivotal in advertising European research and funding opportunities in North America, promoting networking among researchers, and connecting scientific diasporas, helping to create a sense of community which is so important to have in an environment that is culturally, socially and academically different from the one European researchers are used to.

What would you tell someone who is hesitant to apply? 

Having developed my career inside and outside of academia, I too felt reluctant when I first applied because I wasn’t sure my profile was adequate for such a prestigious award, since admittedly my publication record was not that extensive, and everyone told me that the proposal alone was a lot of hard work with little chances of return on that time and energy investment. It was very intimidating at first, overwhelming to go through all the documentation available and realizing that what I had been told was not a complete lie. The MSCA Fellowships are incredibly competitive, writing the proposal was a full-time job, and even putting my heart and soul on that proposal wasn’t enough to get the Fellowship the first time I applied (in 2012). But like they say, everything worthwhile in life is uphill, and I was convinced I had a good project and a great set of conditions and network of collaborators to back it up. I just hadn’t done a good job convincing the reviewers of that the first time around. The fact that the reviewer panel provides a thorough evaluation report is very helpful to fine-tune the proposal. Surprisingly, they had scored my professional experience as high (or higher) than some colleagues with purely academic CVs, which together with an appreciation for the research topic I proposed, gave me the motivation to apply for it again (in 2013). That second time I was successful and the feeling was exhilarating. Since then, the rewards have been continuous and some of the doors these actions open are very exclusive, which makes me feel even luckier. So, if you’re hesitant to apply, reflect on this:

  1. Believe in your project, if you don’t believe in it nobody else will;
  2. Gather as much information as you can on these actions (for example, through former and current Fellows, info sessions, National Contact Points);
  3. Allocate 1-2 months to mature the proposal and ask friends and colleagues (not necessarily in your field) to revise it;
  4. Revise, revise, revise again and fine-tune the proposal.

Not giving up and believing in yourself when everyone else will say it will be hard is the key to persevere.

 

Finally, what’s next for you?

I believe the MSCA Fellowship has provided me with one of the greatest experiences in academia a scientist could ever have and wish for. It has allowed me to position myself better in the labor market and to achieve the level of scientific maturity I needed to understand where to steer my career next. I’ve become more interested in the past years in the topic of closing the knowledge-implementation gap in conservation science and that’s what I want to do next. I’m currently looking and applying for opportunities that will allow me to do just that and hopefully the fact that I’ve been recently invited to edit a book on the topic will help differentiate my expertise and increase my chances to get a position. Wish me luck!