Biomedical Sciences

Jane Haakonsson: Protecting island endemics

Jane explains how the Masters programme has advanced her career, and enabled her to embark on new conservation projects.


What is your background?

I am a Danish Research Officer working for the Department of Environment (DoE) in the Cayman Islands. I first completed my BSc in Zoology at Roehampton University, London, and I then got a job at Bristol Zoo Gardens. I enjoyed my years at the zoo, and even volunteered as Research Assistant for the Head of Research. However, I longed to work with in-situ conservation, managing wild populations and preserving still-existing natural habitat. After a move to the Cayman Islands where I volunteered in my spare-time to the Government’s terrestrial conservation efforts, I decided to join the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health. 

What were your biggest take home lessons from the programme?

I thoroughly enjoyed studying for this degree. The long-distance and part-time option allowed me to continue gaining hands-on experience in the Caribbean while completing the course, and my dissertation tied in with the DoE’s research needs at the time. I have now worked full-time for the Terrestrial Resources Unit in DoE since 2014 and I still enjoy the benefits of the network I created during my time at Edinburgh.

Particularly useful for me was the Introduction to GIS and Spatial Data Analysis and the Invasive-Native Species modules. I monitor and map species distributions weekly, and have been instrumental in one of the biggest invasive species control efforts the Caribbean. 

What have you been able to do since completing the MSc that wasn't possible before?

Without my MSc, I would not have had the foresight to launch the DoE’s efforts to monitor the Green Iguanas in 2014, which has provided imperative data for our control efforts. The Introduction to Project Cycle Management has, however, been perhaps the single-most pivotal module for my current work. In 2019 I launched a complex Native Parrot registration effort which lasted two years and ended up registering 300 captive birds. With hundreds of stakeholders and endless moving parts, I am proud to have added an effective layer of protection against poaching for our endemic and endangered Cayman Parrot. The success of this local programme is in no small way thanks to my further education at the University of Edinburgh.

What advice would you give to students looking to get experience in conservation?

My main recommendation for a career in conservation (or natural resource management) is to use your spare time exploring what you actually want to do day-to-day by volunteering. Once you have identified an existing role, it is really helpful to gain insights into the specific challenges which the role, or perhaps even the given institution, is facing to advance their efforts.

Often, the answers will include a combination of missing legal power or funding, specific data gaps or lacking statistical analysis skills, or maybe even poor outreach efforts. My advice is to harness the particular skills needed in your dream job, chose your modules wisely, and make your assignments relevant to real-time situations.