Image of a landscape

February 22, 2023, by Leah Sharpe

First Steps in the Jungle: An Insight Into My First Research Placement as an Aspiring Conservationist.

By Iona Felfeli, third year Zoology student 

Beginning to think about life beyond university is daunting, however this past summer, I took my first step. I completed a two-week research expedition with Operation Wallacea in the Calakmul Biosphere reserve in Mexico.

This expedition runs every year and monitors changes in biodiversity of both the flora and fauna in response to the changing rainfall patterns in the area. The project also aims to work with the local community to promote more sustainable living and create jobs that boost biodiversity in the area.

My role

I worked alongside other researchers to carry out daily surveys on a range of taxa from bats to primates as well as getting to attend lectures and pick the brains of many renowned scientists. I learnt new scientific techniques such as bird mist netting and mammal tracking, which I otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to in the classroom, as well as getting to experience what it is like to live as a researcher in the field.


To help me fund this expedition, I applied for grants such as the University of Nottingham’s International Work Experience Grant (IWEG), as well as running a fundraising page that I shared among friends and family. I was able to fundraise over 70% of my fees in under a year because of this. 

What this opportunity meant for me

In parallel to the importance of the research experience, the opportunity to live in the forest and gain an understanding of what it is like to live in such a harsh environment was equally valuable, as your suitability to live in a certain environment is a vital consideration when looking to work in the field.

My camp was in the far south of the reserve, a more mountainous, wet part of the forest. This camp required a higher level of fitness as you could be walking for up to eight hours a day through dense, steep forest. Our camp had a no toilets, rainwater dependant bucket showers, hammocks for beds and a sheet of tarpaulin for the roof. I remember spending my first night awake trying to comprehend how I was going to live here for the next two weeks but by the end of the two weeks, I didn’t want to leave.

Every morning you wake up to the sound of undisturbed nature, miles and miles of untouched forest as far as you can see. Every day you spot a new species, toucans, coral snakes, hummingbirds, spider monkeys. Being surrounded by such vast and beautiful nature for the first time was again an invaluable experience and helped reignite a sense of determination and desperation for me to embark on my career as a conservationist, so that the biodiversity I was lucky enough to see, doesn’t disappear. 

Though embarking on opportunities outside of university can be daunting and expensive, the knowledge and insight I gained from this expedition was invaluable, I proved to myself I can survive harsh environments; I learnt techniques I may otherwise have not; and speaking to researchers helped me begin to formulate a plan for my career beyond university.

The International Work Experience Grant 2023 offers funding to University of Nottingham undergraduate students to support overseas work experience. 


Posted in International Work Experience GrantStudent Bloggers