Introducing Alex Mills | Identification Trainers for the Future

At the end of February we waved goodbye to our second cohort of trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project. Kristina, Jaswinder, Sophie, Joe and Niki are now off finishing their final projects and starting their careers and we will update you on their progress shortly.

In the meantime, our next few posts will introduce our third and final cohort on the project. Alex, April, Matt and Steph joined us on 6 March, and Laura will be joining us in the next week. Over the next few posts our new trainees will introduce themselves to you. First up is Alex Mills:

Alex Mills - Intro Blog - Photo
Alex Mills

Curiosity and care. This is why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m fascinated by the natural world and by how best we can conserve it. We rely upon the organisms and systems which constitute our environment for everything: wildlife is our life.

I’ve come to the Identification Trainers for the Future traineeship via a somewhat circuitous route. Until recently I was a student of English literature. After my undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature (University of Oxford) I completed an MA in Shakespeare Studies (King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe). I was set to carry on to a PhD (on the children’s acting companies of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, if you really want to know).

Yet something wasn’t right. Despite my interest in my subject I was finding myself increasingly drawn to observing and reading about the natural world – irresistibly so. This nature lark was a new thing for me. To perform a self-assessment I’d suffered from what has been termed the ‘extinction of experience’ – a disconnection from nature. Although I enjoyed an occasional walk I wouldn’t have known one tree from another, a beech from a birch (let alone the particular species). Having studied Biology at A-level I knew the word ‘biodiversity’ and probably could have produced a perfectly acceptable exam answer about it. I had no experience, however, of what this word truly meant. This was to change.

The more I saw and the more I read, the more questions I had and the more I wanted to know. I became particularly interested in plants and insects. I took great joy in this. A consistent thread running through my reading was the grave threat to the organisms with whom we share our planet and the loss and degradation of their habitats. I did not take great joy in this. Through contact with the natural world, and getting to know some of these other organisms, biodiversity became something tangible and, painfully, so did its loss. Being able to put a name to some species made me care more about all wildlife. The specific supported the general. I realised that I wanted to work to conserve this variety of life and encourage others to do so too. This trajectory would entail declining my PhD and taking a rather large risk. Deciding that blind optimism was the only way forward I did just that.

After hearing about the Identification Trainers for the Future traineeship (which sounded far too good to be true) I applied for cohort two, albeit unsuccessfully. However through this process I was offered invaluable advice and the opportunity to gain much needed experience by attending workshops at the Museum. I changed my job to allow for the necessary flexibility and funds. Further this move enabled me to expand my volunteering, from which I’ve benefited greatly.

For example: undertaking a BeeWalk for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, aiding practical conservation efforts and writing blog pieces for local Wildlife Trusts, running invertebrate hunts with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and assisting in the collections at the Warwickshire Museum. The workshops and volunteering enabled me to build my field skills, my ability to identify species and my understanding of ecology. It helped confirm and develop my particular passion for all things botanical and bee-related. Additionally I was fortunate to meet many generous, knowledgeable and inspiring people. To my delight (and relief) my application for the third cohort of the traineeship was successful.

I am indescribably excited for the next twelve months and the chance to explore the biodiversity of the UK with my fellow trainees. Having enjoyed working in Heritage Education with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust I also look forward to the focus this traineeship places on sharing the knowledge we acquire. There’s a pressing need to conserve our remaining biodiversity.

But there’s a problem. Our biodiversity and its value can only be appreciated and any changes understood if we know what’s there (or not there) and what it requires to thrive. Such understanding largely rests upon reliable wildlife recording on a grand scale. Yet the necessary skills are, like the wildlife itself, diminishing. The provision of training in how to record wildlife in order to facilitate the collection of sufficient data is therefore essential.

Citizen science is at the heart of attempts to provide such training and gather such data. This can be a wonderfully democratising process which gives everyone the opportunity to get involved and contribute. Such initiatives widen public engagement with the natural world and allow more people to experience the joy to be gained from observing and recording it. Greater engagement leads to greater understanding of the natural world’s value and, hopefully, increased desire for its protection. At least it did for me.

The too good to be true traineeship appears to be coming true. Being based at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity offers an unparalleled opportunity to indulge my curiosity and develop the knowledge, skills and experience needed to begin a career in what I care most about. See: it all comes back to curiosity and care.

Alex Mills – Trainee, Identification Trainers for the Future