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Miranda Strubel joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in January 2015. Her thesis title is ‘Shared Landscapes: the reintroduction of red kite in the UK’.
I am a British citizen, but I grew up on the East coast of Canada on Prince Edward Island. Since coming to the UK ten years ago, I have lived all over England, including Canterbury, Leeds, Cambridge and of course, Oxford.
I originally heard about Oxford Brookes when I was considering my first master’s programme. Upon finishing my honours BA in Anthropology (Mount Allison University, New Brunswick, Canada), I wanted to become a primatologist and looked into the world-renowned Primate Conservation MSc at Brookes. Taking the full spectrum of my research interests into account (e.g. human-nonhuman animal relationships; traditional ecological knowledge; wildlife conservation; environmental education; climate change), I decided to pursue a MSc in Environmental Anthropology (University of Kent), followed by a second MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation (University of Leeds). However, I have always retained a passion for primates, and have been involved in some research in this area, so it seemed quite poetic when my doctoral studies led me here.
I was impressed by the disciplinary coverage of my supervisory team, and the support I felt they would be able to provide throughout an interdisciplinary project. Professor Kate Hill is my Director of Studies and Professor Jeremy MacClancy is my second supervisor. I also have access to Professor Stephen Redpath as an external supervisor at the University of Aberdeen if I have any questions about raptor ecology . Having supportive supervisors is key to doctoral success, as those relationships provide the foundation that underpins your progress. I was also a 150 Studentship recipient and was extremely grateful to be granted the financial support to continue with my academic aspirations. Without funding, I would have had to continue to put doctoral studies on hold until grant funding could be obtained.
Prior to my PhD, I was a research assistant at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, as part of a team investigating children’s perceptions of environmental change in four Cambridgeshire schools. I was also an intern at the UNEP-WCMC (United Nations Environmental Programme – World Conservation Monitoring Centre) in their Ecosystem Assessment Division (also in Cambridge).
Before taking up my posts in Cambridge, I had been working as an educational assistant at an elementary school in Yukon, Canada, and volunteering with the charity Neotropical Primate Conservation in La Esperanza, Peru.
I have always been passionate about research and had carried out several smaller-scale degree projects by the time I arrived at Brookes. In my capacity as a research assistant, I was primarily involved in the fieldwork side of things, documenting my colleagues’ activities while developing and leading some of my own. It had been about three years since I had finished my last masters, so it took me a little while to acclimatise into a very different type of degree programme, but I was very much looking forward to devoting myself full time to a topic that encompassed so many of my research interests and carrying out long-term fieldwork.
When doing library research, it is of great benefit to have access to the Bodleian Library, in addition to all the resources at Brookes. However, as Oxford Brookes largely comprises an undergraduate student population, it can be easy for PhD students to sometimes feel underrepresented, regarding more specific graduate training or the level to which we feel included and communicated to in terms of university services and information sharing. As many PhD students will attest, doctoral research can be a very isolating process at times and lacking a cohort in the same way other degree programmes do can contribute to that. Happily, I think these areas are receiving more attention with the recent development of the Doctoral Training Programme and the increased research training activities that are being offered and promoted through this initiative. It is a really positive step, and I am looking forward to taking full advantage of those opportunities during the rest of my time at Brookes.
The Red Kite Reintroduction Programme was initiated in 1989 and has since been recognized as one of the most successful conservation programmes ever carried out in Britain. However, in recent years print media stories have suggested that the bird’s popularity might be fading in certain areas. My project looks at the social aspects of the red kite reintroduction and people’s relationships with these birds. By exploring people’s perceptions of red kites in both urban and rural, high and low density red kite areas, I wanted to get a better understanding of how people feel about red kites.
From the onset, this project has been conceived as an investigative exploration, as opposed to a hypothesis driven study. Hence my aim has been to identify the dominant themes arising from people’s narratives about red kites, as well as understand how they fit into people’s relationships with, and willingness to tolerate, wildlife in general.
By conducting this research, I wanted to uncover the key factors shaping people’s constructions of red kites, and, in so doing, shed light on the bird’s social carrying capacity (Needham et al. 2011) – otherwise known as wildlife stakeholder acceptance capacity (Organ & Ellingwood, 2000).
This project is the first of its kind to examine human-red kite relations in the UK and will make an intellectual contribution to ongoing discussions in human-nonhuman animal studies, animal geography, conservation biology and wildlife management. In addition, this research has practical applications for future conservation through its recommendations.
Several other reintroductions have taken place in the UK in recent times (e.g. great bustards, sea eagles, Eurasian beavers, and pine martens), and with a number of ‘rewilding’ proposals currently being set forth, namely involving the reintroduction of wolves and lynx, there is now an even greater need to understand people’s tolerance capacities towards wildlife. For reintroductions to continue successfully, the human dimensions need to be better understood. Therefore, in addition to having wider implications, the findings of this study will contribute valuable insights into local human-red kite interactions and further assist conservation activities in the UK.
How has the Santander scholarship helped your research project and progression of your research degree programme?
The Santander Scholarship for Continuation Fees has provided me with continued financial support after my initial three-year studentship concluded at the end of January 2018. The writing-up period can be a difficult time and having less financial pressure has certainly helped.
It was very important to me to have the opportunity to bring both my disciplinary backgrounds together for my PhD. Having a project that allows me to delve into so many of the topics I am interested in, while also discovering new areas for myself, is great. The burgeoning interdisciplinary field of anthrozoology is a very exciting place to be because you feel that you have the chance to really make a difference and explore complex dynamics from different angles. Of course, your PhD is really a beginning of sorts, so I am excited to see what the future may hold.
Specialising in human-wildlife relationships and interactions, at the intersection of anthropology and conservation, and having the opportunity to make an original contribution to my field is a very fulfilling thought. From a young age, I always wanted to make some small positive difference in the world. Impact is something that is very important to me, and if my research influences how something is approached in the future, that will be the biggest reward. I want my research to contribute to knowledge, but I also want it to be applied so that both animals and people can coexist in a shared landscape that is mutually beneficial to both.
Doing all the preliminary research as part of expanding your research design, and exposing yourself to new bodies of literature and ideas, is very exciting during the first phase of the PhD. You feel like anything is possible. The next stage, the fieldwork stage is, for me, the most enjoyable. It’s why we do what we do. The immersion process can come with challenges, but is also very rewarding, and it is exciting as you begin to see patterns emerge and start to unravel and interpret your data. The final stage of the PhD, the writing-up stage, is arguably the hardest. Even when you are passionate about a subject, after several years sometimes the motivation that is required to make sense of everything you collected during fieldwork can be difficult to muster, as it can be very overwhelming. All PhD students struggle with this. It is well documented. It is very easy to get overwhelmed with everything you have to do, and I think it helps if you can remind yourself of why you are doing it.
During the first seven months of my PhD I was very much immersed in preliminary research and carrying out all the tasks I needed to do in order to begin my fieldwork in a timely manner. This period was followed by approx. a year and four months of fieldwork. I spent most of this time living ‘in the field’, away from the university, my supervisors and colleagues.
Now that I am based in Oxford again, I can see how the Doctoral Training Programmes are being developed further and the additional opportunities opening up to research students. With workshops and seminars being offered through the Graduate College and Careers, as well as our individual faculties, I Iook forward to learning even more transferable academic skills that will serve me well in the future.
However, with several doctoral training programmes happening in different faculties, I think it would be wonderful to see more cross-faculty communication and collaboration. I believe it would be a great asset to research students, and faculty research development as a whole, if information about the different approaches and research tools being taught in doctoral training sessions across the university were more readily advertised to students outside each faculty. I know I have benefited from attending sessions on qualitative coding and analysis hosted through the Business School for instance, which I only found out about through some independent investigation. Colleagues have also expressed interested in attending valuable sessions hosted through our faculty (Humanities and Social Sciences) which they did not know about. With so many resources available, I feel it would be hugely beneficial to make the most of them collectively - and who knows, some very innovative projects could come out of it!
During the first year of my undergraduate degree, I knew that I would go on to pursue a doctorate, with the goal of one day becoming a lecturer or professor. I love teaching and have been very grateful to my supervisor for giving me the opportunity to teach several lectures during the course of my PhD. Since I have always been involved in less mainstream research areas, I really enjoy having the opportunity to introduce new topics to students, and expose them to new perspectives. If one or two students come up after teaching a class and say, ‘you made me think about this in a different way’, that’s what it is all about.
Positive change can come about by students having access to new ideas and alternative ways of thinking and relating to the world around them.
Because of this, they might think more critically about relationships and associations they took for granted. It might expand their worldview or influence their career path. As humans, it is important to have our assumptions challenged. It helps us grow.
While I am still interested in pursuing an academic career, I am also receptive to research and teaching opportunities that lie outside of academia.