Staff Spotlight: Dr. Heather Gilbert

Research and Operations Officer


After completing a PhD in Neuroscience, Heather began undertaking conservation research and has been lucky enough to work with a wide range of different taxa around the world. She finally settled on mammalian behavior and now assists with much of the African research within Operation Wallacea as well as managing the South Africa project.

What is your favorite travel memory?

Many of our research camps in South Africa are situated right in the heart of the reserves, separated from the animals by a thin (but electrified) fence. On one occasion, a large herd of elephants were passing by the camp at night just meters from my tent. We had spent all day trying to find this very herd, and now they were so close but barely visible.

Myself and a number of students simply sat there in silence, listening to the movements of these great beasts. With silent footsteps, all we had to guide our attention was the breaking of branches and the occasional trumpet or rumble. We knew there were many, but working out how many was impossible.

After what could have been hours the herd started moving towards and past the camp. The light from the kitchen stretched just far enough for us to see some huge shapes move eerily across the edge of vision. Estimates after ranged from 15 to 25 elephants, but as they sunk back into the darkness we knew we could never be sure.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

My knowledge and appreciation for global conservation issues has definitely increased. It can be so easy to think of different environments in isolation, but the global nature of Operation Wallacea really opens your mind to how this battle is being fought on so many fronts.

I have been able to take inspiration from other scientists who's work may, on face value, seem completely unconnected but we are all working towards the common goal of conservation. This wider vision is something I try to pass on to all the students I work with.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

Our elephant behavior project always seems to inspire a lot of passion in its students, and that's particularly true for a previous dissertation student, Vicky Boult.

Vicky spent six weeks studying our large, enigmatic herd in Pongola Game Reserve, South Africa in 2013. After a little detour into bird research, she's now pursuing a PhD in elephant ranging behavior at the University of Reading.

As an added bonus, in 2016 Vicky went full circle and has taken on the position of dissertation supervisor at Pongola. Her first-hand experience of the dissertation process along with an amazing memory for the individual elephants has made her an incredibly successful addition to our team!

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

The uniqueness of Madagascar is something that has always appealed to me to explore. There are so many species found here that you cannot see anywhere else in the world, and as a mammalian behavioral specialist, having the opportunity to watch how the lemurs interact with each other in the wild would be an amazing experience.

Madagascar is undergoing a huge amount of deforestation at the moment, and I think to see the devastating contrast first hand would be very humbling. This disturbance is endangering many species in Madagascar, but it would also be interesting to see first-hand the tenacity of those species who are adapting in order to survive, or even thrive, amid these rapidly changing landscapes.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

Every site we work in has such a diverse mix of people, and watching the initial tentativeness turn to lifelong friendships is something I will never tire of seeing!

We have an amazing diversity of people on site, with a great mix of local staff, internationally-renowned scientists and students from all over the world.

When you're in such a remote environment, everyone can and does help each other and learn from each other. It's not just the scientists sharing their specialist knowledge of invertebrates or the local guides sharing their stories of close encounters with wild animals (of which there are many!).

I've heard the conversation about the difference between a UK biscuit and a US biscuit more times than I can count - but the fact our students can learn from each other as well as the specialists is an amazing thing to be part of.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

I think it's really important to invest in excellent training at all levels, particularly in terms of ensuring robust scientific data collection. This is everything from ensuring school students know what information to note down during surveys, to making sure the country managers know how to keep everyone on site safe.

The efficient passage of knowledge is vital, in my opinion, and something that Operation Wallacea works hard to achieve.

Many students speak of being inspired by the almost encyclopedic knowledge of the scientists, but if those scientists were unable to pass on that knowledge and train the students effectively, it would mean nothing.