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Helen Senn

After gaining her PhD in Evolutionary Biology, Dr Helen Senn spent a year cycling from Scotland to China before joining a newly formed lab at Edinburgh Zoo, where she now manages a team of ten researchers and field biologists.

Name

Helen Senn

Degree 

PhD in Evolutionary Biology

Year of graduation 2009
Helen Senn

Your time at the University  

I spent some of my summers as an undergraduate (at St Andrews University) volunteering on a research project on the Isle of Rum run by Prof Josephine Pemberton at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Evolutionary Biology. This inspired me to apply for a PhD to work with the same group. I’ve got a lot of fond memories of working in the department as there was always a lot going on both academically and socially. The best times were in the field – I think these will always count as some of my very favourite working days despite the rain and midges!

Your experiences since leaving the University

After completing my PhD I spent a year cycling from Scotland to China. Not really an obvious next step and a number of people warned me that I would never find my way back to any sort of career in science. I thought I would find inspiration for my future working life en route. I am not sure that happened, but I did gain some very useful skills, without which I don’t think I would be doing the job I do today. Decision making, evaluating risk and negotiation might be easier to practise away from your place of work (and in testing circumstances)!

When I arrived back I took a technical post in a newly formed lab at Edinburgh Zoo. Eight years later, in my role of Head of Conservation and Science Programmes, I manage a team of ten researchers and field biologists. This includes the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) WildGenes lab which is one of only a handful of applied conservation genetics laboratories in the world.

We provide practical, real-time advice to species restoration projects including the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland and the conservation breeding of wildcats. Our conservation team work on everything from chimpanzees in Uganda, to addax in the Sahara, pond mud snail on the Pentlands and rockhopper penguins on Tristan da Cunha.

Using science and sound decision making to improve the status of threatened species is what I really enjoy about my job. There are a lot of challenges for the conservation sector today, particularly around funding and because of a global political atmosphere which, astoundingly, is moving away from fact-based decision making. In the conservation world, traditionally dominated by the field biologist, we are now adopting a very broad range of interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to safeguarding species more effectively. I love the diversity of the challenge.

Using science and sound decision making to improve the status of threatened species is what I really enjoy about my job.

Dr Helen SennHead of Conservation and Science Programmes, RZSS

Alumni wisdom

Learn from everyone you work with and try to work with good people.  

Related links

PhD Horizons Careers Conference - 17 June 2019

School of Biological Sciences

Evolutionary Biology

RZSS WildGenes (external link)