Durrell Women: Finella Gray - Data Specialist
How long have you worked at Durrell and what does your job involve?
I started working for Durrell as a volunteer in 2015 while doing a master's degree in Conservation Biology at the University of Kent. I attended a lecture given by Prof Carl Jones on conservation leadership skills and he spoke about the skills that are in short supply in many conservation organisations, one of which was data management and databases. As these were skills I had from my previous career, I was able to help Durrell’s team in Bath develop a publications database.
When I finished my master's degree, I got a part-time job at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment working as a data manager on a big NERC project, so I had the opportunity to intern with Durrell for the other part of my week. Then in 2016, Durrell offered me the chance to go to Mauritius for two months as part of my internship developing a data capture app using ODK (Open Date Kit). I was then offered a six-month, full-time contract there concentrating on data capture on Round Island, Gunners Quoin, and the southeast islands, and setting up a reptile database in Microsoft Access.
When I returned to the UK, I continued as a contractor working on the SMART programme with Angelo Ramy in Madagascar, helping them customise the CyberTracker app and manage data in Baly Bay and Menabe. Since the start of the pandemic, I have been assisting remotely with data projects in Madagascar, Mauritius, and Jersey, but currently much of my role is centred around the rollout of Microsoft 365 to Durrell.
What did you do before coming to work at Durrell?
When I graduated from my biology degree there very few jobs available in that field, and conservation was just not on the radar. My first job was for an American agricultural chemicals company on their European field trials programme. I very nearly didn’t take the job as I felt they were the 'opposition', but I learned a lot and my interest in data and databases started there. I then moved into IT before living in the USA for three years. On my return to the UK with two small children, I got a lucky break helping a local horse racing and breeding business with their IT set up, which led to me setting up my own contracting business with them as my main client for over 20 years. I also had a couple of conservation clients – the Knepp Estate and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – which relit my interest in conservation.
What were some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome in your career so far, and how did you overcome them?
The impending loss of my major client (and income) and a change in my personal circumstances was a little terrifying, but I knew that I wanted to be involved in conservation. A lack of confidence as I hadn't studied anything academic in over 20 years was a big challenge for me. I would never have dreamed of doing a master's without the support of a friend in conservation, who encouraged me to apply and wouldn't listen to all my reasons why I wouldn't be able to manage it (two kids, animals, moving house, 100-mile round trip for lectures, part-time job). Completing my master's was a huge challenge, but it opened so many doors and was worth every penny and all the late nights.
What advice would you give to others thinking of pursuing a similar role?
Doing my master's part time allowed me to take advantage of other opportunities. I volunteered with WCS in Cambodia for two months sorting out an Access database, and I had the chance to see some of their amazing projects there too. Then when a master's student dropped out of a project on Ascension Island, fellow Kent graduate Rachel White (also works with Durrell on the White Stork Project) and I were able to drop everything and spend two months there surveying plants. It wasn't a conventional career approach, but you can now retrain at any age so I would recommend it to anyone, and it ultimately led to my job now. Take all the opportunities you are offered and if you can't initially get a job in conservation, don't underestimate the useful skills you can develop in business roles. Almost all the skills I use now – databases and data management – were self-taught or learned during my business career. You are never too old to learn new skills (fortunately for me!) and change direction. If your confidence has taken a hit, look for a friend or mentor who can give you that push when you need it. I got that push when I needed it most and it would be very satisfying to be able to do the same for someone else one day.
Posted 10 March 2021