What's it like to study... Zoology

Becky Cliffe made the decision to study Zoology after going to a University of Manchester open day. She is now working on her PhD working with sloths

“So you want to be a zookeeper?”

This is the general response I get after telling people I study zoology. In reality, when I chose my degree I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be; I just knew I was good at biology and loved animals. No one could have guessed I would end up as a sloth biologist.

I hold Sir David Attenborough entirely responsible for my infatuation with the natural world. As a child, his documentaries inspired me and my parents would often find me out in the garden collecting a whole range of creepy crawlies in my various ‘bug boxes’ (looking back, I’m sure this wasn’t so great for the local ladybird population!)

When choosing my degree, I was very much split between my head and my heart. I’d dreamt of studying zoology since primary school, but frequently found myself advised against this in favour of broader and more recognized degrees such as biology. After attending an open-day at the University of Manchester, there was no going back. I was well and truly sold as a zoologist.

The first year for all students in the faculty of life sciences is relatively similar. Students cover a wide range of topics, varying from molecular biology through to biodiversity and conservation. Although not all of these modules will initially be of interest, this provides everyone with a broad baseline knowledge which can be built upon and specialised throughout the later years. As a general rule, the majority of budding zoologists tend to hate anything to do with genetics and we would rather focus on animal behaviour, but unfortunately for us they come as a pair. We are entering an exciting age of genomics where virtually anything is possible, so an understanding of all the scary molecular stuff is essential.

Away from the taught lectures, the zoology course has a very strong emphasis on practical work throughout the entire degree; both field and lab based. This for me was what made Manchester really stand out. With access to state-of-the-art equipment, world-class facilities and leading professors, we were immersed in a cutting-edge research environment from our very first week as students.

The real selling point, however, is the range of field courses available. Throughout my degree I had the opportunity to wrestle lobsters at the Millport Marine Biological Station in Scotland, play with lion cubs while studying animal behaviour in South Africa and live with the remote Payamino tribe while researching tropical biology in the Ecuadorian rainforest. These amazing opportunities gave me experience in designing and completing my own independent research projects under the guidance of internationally recognised professors. Furthermore, going on these once in a lifetime adventures with great course mates really helped us to get to know each other – especially when you go without a shower in the jungle for two weeks!

The final year of study at the university is where all these skills are really brought together. We were given the chance to contribute to the cutting edge research completed in the faculty through an original research project of our choice. This forms a major part of the degree and provides an opportunity to really use what we have learnt over the previous years study.

The highlight of my zoology degree was easily my third year, which I spent on a 12-month research placement at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. During this time I had the opportunity to complete a major research project while assisting with the rescue and rehabilitation of sloths at the sanctuary. Furthermore, I was able to feature in a Discovery Channel sloth documentary which was an incredible experience and has opened many doors. I can honestly say that playing mum to a whole nursery of baby sloths is something I never thought I would end up doing when I chose to study zoology four years ago. This placement year was the longest learning curve for me. Besides the technical skills I acquired, I also developed the ability to problem solve and to think for myself when things don’t exactly go to plan – all of which are essential for anyone wishing to work out in the field!

This experience, which wouldn’t have been possible through any other university, has truly paved the way for my future career. I managed to leave the University of Manchester with a first class honours degree, three published papers and I am now starting work for my PhD back out with the sloths. I now have the dream of developing a rehabilitation and release program for the hand-raised baby sloths brought into the sanctuary, and the dramas of this challenge are going to be filmed for an eight-episode TV series later this year – perhaps I am tentatively following in the giant footsteps of Sir David Attenborough after all.

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