Read as Dr. Allison Alberts talks about her career as Chief Conservation Officer of the San Diego Zoo.  Find her at http://www.sandiegozooglobal.org/icr/allison_alberts_ph.d/ and on the Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.

What do you do for a living?

I currently serve as Chief Conservation and Research Officer at San Diego Zoo Global.

How would you describe what you do? 

I am responsible for ongoing endangered species conservation programs at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, including work at the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research and at field sites in 35 countries around the world. 

What does your work entail? 

I direct a staff of 200 scientists and researchers who are currently working on more than 100 projects locally and globally, and administer an annual budget of over $15 million dollars.  I am responsible for setting the overall strategic direction of our work and determining priorities for how we allocate our time and resources.  In addition to overseeing a wide variety of conservation initiatives, I am involved in helping raise funds to support wildlife research and awareness of the issues facing endangered species today.

What’s a typical work week like? 

Every week, I meet with the Directors of the eight research divisions at the Institute for Conservation Research (Applied Animal Ecology, Applied Plant Ecology, Behavioral Biology, Conservation Education, Conservation Partnership Development, Genetics, Reproductive Physiology, Wildlife Disease Laboratories).  This is an opportunity for us to share our research plans, provide conservation program updates, and strategize for the future.  I also meet with my peers on the Executive Team – the heads of each of the various departments at the Zoo.  Here, we discuss the Zoo’s finances, employee concerns, public relations and fundraising priorities, issues pertaining to our plant and animal collections, and our conservation work.  In a typical week, I also participate in more focused discussions pertaining to particular projects or the overall strategic direction of the Zoo.  The rest of the week consists of corresponding with colleagues, preparing grant proposals, reviewing budgets, writing scientific and popular articles, and meeting with donors and supporters.  The best weeks are when I have the opportunity to visit one or more of our conservation projects in the field.

How did you get started?

As an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, I studied biology, with an emphasis on natural history and animal behavior. Following that, I attended graduate school at U.C. San Diego, including a tropical ecology field course in Costa Rica.  I was interested in animal communication, and studied chemical signaling in desert iguanas for my thesis. After I graduated, I applied for a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health that paid my salary for three years. As part of this work, I conducted research with green iguanas at the San Diego Zoo.  I was very fortunate in that a permanent scientist position opened up at the Zoo about the same time my fellowship ended. I accepted the position, and have been with the Zoo ever since.

What do you like about what you do?

First and foremost, I enjoy all the people I work with.  Their dedication to the cause of endangered species conservation never ceases to amaze and inspire me.  It gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction to know that I am helping to make a difference, and create a brighter and more hopeful future for wildlife and their habitats around the world.  The other thing I love about my job is that it is different every day.  Any job involving wild animals is never going to be dull or predictable. 

What do you dislike?

The thing I dislike most about my job is the knowledge that there are far more species that need our help than the time or resources we have available to direct toward saving them.  We have made it our mission to focus on the most critically endangered species, such as the California condor, and strive to bring them back from the brink of extinction.  It can be difficult to prioritize which species are most in need of our help, and frustrating to realize that we could do so much more if we only had the resources available to us.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I receive a paycheck every two weeks.  In addition, I am provided with the opportunity to purchase health, dental, and vision insurance for my family, a portion of which is covered by my employer.  After I had worked in my present job for five years, I became eligible for a pension plan that will continue to provide me with income after retirement.  Finally, my employer leases a vehicle for me and covers the cost of gas.

How much money do Conservation Officers make? 

The amount of money that Conservation Officers make varies quite a bit from organization to organization, but is generally in the range of $75,000 to $175,000 per year.  It is important to remember that most Conservation Officers work for non-profit organizations, where financial resources can be stretched very thin.  Most people who choose this career do so not for the money, but because they are passionate about saving endangered species and their habitats. 

How much money did/do you make starting out?

Immediately after graduate school, most people in my field complete a two to three year postdoctoral fellowship.  This is considered to be a training position that pays about $40,000 per year.  After this training is complete, higher salaries are the norm.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

My job generally requires a PhD in biology or zoology, or a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine).  In addition, it is important to have experience managing people, programs, and budgets.

What is most challenging about what you do?

The most challenging thing about what I do is securing the funding necessary to save species from extinction.  Each species is different and the efforts that are needed to save them are often time consuming and difficult to implement. Even when bad news about animals and the environment abounds, it is important to remain hopeful for the future.

What is most rewarding?

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is getting to see species and individual animals that we have worked with for many years in zoos get reintroduced back into the wild.  It is a special experience to release an animal into its native habitat, hoping it will successfully integrate into the wild population and become a functional part of the ecosystem.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

It is important to gain a strong background in biology, zoology, ecology, or a related field.  It is also helpful to volunteer at a zoo or other conservation organization in order to gain first-hand experience with this type of work. 

How much time off do you get/take?

I am given six weeks of annual leave each year.  Someone starting out in my position would typically get less, but most likely be able to build up to this amount over time.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

The most common misconception people have about what I do is that I get to work with animals hands-on every day. In reality, most of my work involves meetings, fundraising, and networking with colleagues to develop and implement programs and plans for endangered species recovery.  I don’t get to hold baby pandas or pet cheetahs, but I do get the satisfaction of knowing that the work I and my staff are doing is making a significant difference for wildlife around the world.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I have many dreams and goals for the future but some of the most exciting are that we will be able to grow the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy, which anyone who is interested in helping to save wildlife can join (www.sandiegozooglobal.org), that we can continue to increase our presence globally through new field programs in South America and Asia, and that we can build an Endangered Species Disease Response Center where we can help prevent disease outbreaks in wild populations of animals.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

This is a wonderful career for anyone interested in wildlife and conservation.  Being based at a zoo is very different than being based at a university, but it allows for a level of interaction with the public that is unsurpassed, which brings with it a wealth of educational opportunities to engage people everywhere in the cause of wildlife conservation.