Royal Zoological Society of Scotland

Alaina Macri is a Senior Education Officer at The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. She has overseen Nuffield Research Placements since 2011.

"The most interesting skill I have gained through working with the students has been the ability to work through the scientific process with them, continually adapting the projects to suit the individual student’s needs, while still creating a sound piece of research."

Where research placements take place: Mainly at Edinburgh Zoo although others have occurred in the Trossachs National Park and Knapdale, Argyll.

Website: http://www.rzss.org.uk/ 

What type of projects do you run?

Over the years that I have been involved in the projects we have had a variety of topics covered, from various animal behaviour projects to koala and panda nutrition studies and even zoo visitor studies. We have also had two projects conducted in our field sites so some selected students have had a chance to participate in in-situ conservation science of beavers and water voles.

What motivated you to supervise a school student through the Nuffield Research Placements scheme?

My main role with the society is college and university education, and part of this role involves coordinating undergraduate researchers on site. For this, students write proposals which I evaluate, then decide if they can conduct their work at the zoo. This allows me to be aware of the research that is going on, although they design their studies themselves.

When I was approached by our research department to take over the Nuffield students from them, I saw it as a chance to get more involved in designing research again and it also gave me an opportunity to work with the students on the projects.

What do you feel are the main benefits to your organisation to taking on a Nuffield student?

There are many staff and society benefits to taking on the Nuffield students. For staff it offers an opportunity to work with young aspiring scientists and also makes them think about science communication at various levels. It also provides an avenue for training staff on how to be an effective supervisor.

For the society it allows us to run long term projects that can be repeated every summer, assists in our education programme by expanding our breadth and depth of teaching and the students allow us to conduct studies that staff would not otherwise have time to do themselves.

What do you feel are the main benefits for students from taking part in the scheme?

I feel the students benefit in many ways from taking part in the scheme, most of all a sense of responsibility and the opportunity to problem solve on a greater scale than conventional school lessons. Furthermore, while being here students not only have an opportunity to conduct research but they also learn about the variety of careers that zoos and conservation organisations can provide, which then broadens their ideas for future employment.

By completing a Nuffield project with RZSS the students have something very bold that stands out on any/all job and university applications. Not many teenagers can say they did a study on the eucalyptus preferences of koalas, or studied the use of medicinal plants in captive chimpanzees. 

Has this activity been recognised in your institution, and has it been of benefit to your department?

There has been a great interest in the Nuffield projects from a variety of departments, especially the ones that have been cross departmental. For example, our communications, education, and visitor services teams were all very interested in the results of a recent study entitled ‘Do people anthropomorphise some animals more than others?’. In fact our CEO also took a great interest in the study as any information that hints at what makes people connect with nature will ultimately assist in the society’s mission of ‘Connecting people with nature. Safeguarding species from extinction’.

For the education department, it has given the whole team an opportunity to be more involved in zoo research. Because the students and I are based in the building, other education officers become involved in assisting with the project supervision and design.

Would you recommend the scheme to others?

Yes, however I would say you must ensure a staff member has an appropriate amount of time to support the students. In our case (and I am sure with most providers) your science is new to the students and it will take some time to teach them the basics before they can be up and running doing the research on their own.

What personal skills would you say members of your team gained from supervising a Nuffield student?

I think all of us have gained patience, problem solving and planning skills from having the students working with us. Also I feel we have gained a sense of pride in what the students accomplish in just a short amount of time.

Has it helped communicate your area of science to a wider public, and why do you feel this is important?

It has helped communicate our science and our education initiatives. This year (2013) our CEO blogged about the projects and the Nuffield projects also now feature in some of our regular lessons/lectures.

I feel getting zoo science more publicly known is of great benefit for everyone in the zoo community. Many people still hold the perception that zoos are just about seeing animals and having a fun day out; this is only part of the role of a modern zoo. The main objectives of any modern zoo is to provide a great visitor experience, offer an expanse of education opportunities, support conservation through breeding and field programmes and to research and improve all areas of how we accomplish our objectives.