Cicely completed not only her undergraduate Biological Sciences degree with us, but also her DPhil in the Department of Plant Sciences. She now holds a post as a Junior Research Fellow, King’s College, Cambridge.
Why did you choose biology at Oxford?
I went for an Open Day at Oxford, and by the end of the day I knew I would love to spend three years studying there. I loved the city, the colleges, the department, the way the course is taught. I met the then-Biology Tutor of New College, who was very reassuring about the application process, and answered some of the questions I had about the course. He made it sound like applying was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
What did you enjoy most about your degree?
I loved learning from brilliant researchers who are passionate about what they study and teach. I had interesting, highly motivated people as my peers and friends. I never felt limited by anything apart from my own capacity. It was very inspiring. I particularly enjoyed the later years of the course, when you can specialise a bit more.
What was your final project on?
I called it “The effects of two management regimes on higher plant diversity in Northumberland grasslands”. I developed a fondness for identifying plants, and for field work, which I still do now.
What skill sets did you gain during your degree that have equipped you for where you are today?
I started to develop some skills in plant identification, which have helped me to earn an income since graduation. But that would be different for everyone – in Oxford, you can almost certainly find someone willing to teach you what you want to learn. I spent three years working right up to and sometimes beyond my limits, and by the end I found that my capacity was much greater than it had been.
What did you do after Oxford?
A two-year interdisciplinary MA in Environmental Studies at Brown University, USA. I wanted to stop climate change, stop biodiversity loss, end poverty, save the world…I still do. I covered my tuition fees and living costs through scholarships and teaching. I got some paid work on a botanic baseline survey in Liberia, and used that experience to write my MA thesis. I returned to Oxford to develop this work. I spent about two years working on short term contracts in the Plant Sciences department. I wrote some papers, I applied for grants and scholarships, I did some teaching. I applied successfully for a DPhil in the department, still working in the same research area. That was five years ago; I finished my DPhil last year. I’ll start my new research job in Cambridge next week. It’s been precarious at times, but I feel lucky to have created a career for myself that I really like.
What do you currently do, and what do you enjoy most about it?
My work life is a mixture of research, teaching, and botanic consultancy. The consultancy is about collecting and identifying plants, in order to interpret landscapes, and advise on better ways to carry out big development projects to protect plants and people. My research is about working out the best way to do this. It’s staggering what we don’t know about the world.
My work feels important, and it tends to make the world better. I have a lot of intellectual and personal freedom. I travel regularly, and always have something interesting to do when I get there. I’ve worked in Liberia, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi… and not necessarily in places you would get to as a tourist. My work feels like a tremendous privilege.
What advice do you have for prospective students looking to apply for biology at Oxford?
Go for an Open Day, and try to meet with the Biology tutor at any college. You can ask them any questions you have about the course, or the application process. You may even end up in the same room with the same person when it comes to your interview, which would be reassuring. And apply to the college you genuinely liked, and felt comfortable in. Because you might well get in, and then you’ll have to live there!