Museum scientist Justin walks through the Iwokrama Forest Reserve in Guyana.

Justin carrying out field work in the Iwokrama Forest Reserve in Central Guyana. He volunteered as a research assistant in Guyana during the first year of his undergraduate degree and was subsequently hired as a tropical forest ecologist for the following two years.

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Behind the Science: Justin Isip on the challenges of doing a PhD

Our researcher Justin Isip is investigating how human activities impact insect communities around the world. Here he candidly shares some of the pressures he's experienced in getting a PhD placement and maintaining a work-life balance.

This interview is part of our series where we talk to our young scientists and researchers about what they're working on.

What's your role at the Museum and what's the most exciting thing about it?

I'm a PhD student based jointly at the Natural History Museum and the Centre for Biodiversity and Environmental Research at UCL. For my PhD, I'm investigating how human activities restructure and reorganise insect communities around the world. I work with the PREDICTS database, which has collated site-level data on many thousands of terrestrial insect communities facing threats relating to land-use change and allows detailed modelling of how land use and related pressures affect different taxonomic and functional groups of insects.

I'm also embedded in Global Insect Threat Response Synthesis (GLiTRS), which is a large NERC-funded collaboration to develop and validate a threat-response model for insects and is broadening the approach by developing a database that also considers other anthropogenic threats. The plan is to collate and then synthesise datasets that have sampled multiple interacting insect - and even non-insect - functional groups in sites facing threats and gain deeper insights into how and why insect communities are changing.

In the last decade, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of studies reporting that insects are declining all over the world, but not all species are declining, some are stable or even increasing. This suggests that perhaps rather than catastrophic insect declines, we are instead seeing rapid insect biodiversity change in response to human activities. The aim of my PhD is to unpack this idea further, which I find super exciting!

What would you say is the most common misconception about your job?

I think very few people know that there are researchers and scientists that work here at the Museum. So when I tell people I'm doing a PhD here, they're usually quite surprised but intrigued to know more!

Justin smiles at the camera.

As a tropical forest ecologist, Justin was part of a team that conducted long-term research collecting data on the rich biodiversity found in Guyana. Photo by Tammana Begum.

Did anyone inspire you while you were growing up?

My mother was a massive source of inspiration growing up. She introduced me to the outdoors, which sparked my initial love and curiosity of the natural world.

Name one challenge you've had to overcome within science.

One challenge I faced was financial barriers to education. After finishing my undergraduate degree in Zoology, I knew I wanted to do the Taxonomy, Biodiversity and Evolution MSc run by the Natural History Museum and UCL, but the tuition fees for the course were much higher than the maximum postgraduate loan available. Unfortunately, there were no bursaries or scholarships available from UCL and there was no maintenance loan available from the government. I knew the only way I could do a masters was with financial support.

I came across the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding (AGPF) - a website set up by two former PhD students who self-funded their entire PhDs by applying for grants from educational trusts, foundations and charities. I used the website to help me find ones that I was eligible to apply to based on academic merit and financial need. In the end, I was able to raise just over £4,000, which helped alleviate some of the financial stress. I still needed to work part-time throughout my masters, but I would recommend the AGPF to anyone faced with financial barriers to education.

If there was something that you could change about your profession, what would it be?

The stipend PhD students receive is less than the London living wage as set out by the government, which makes it very difficult to live in London without additional streams of income. I know lots of PhD students have to work part-time jobs unrelated to their PhD to make ends meet, which inevitably has negative impacts on their research. I think considering the kind of work PhD students do, they should be on an acceptable salary.

Justin stands in front of giant silk cotton tree in the Iwokrama Forest Reserve in Central Guyana.

Justin under a giant silk cotton tree while on a field trip to the Iwokrama Forest Reserve in Central Guyana. His field work included bird mist netting, camera trapping for mammals and insect sampling. 

What advice would you give someone who comes from a similar background as you who's trying to get into science?

Take advantage of every opportunity! There are an increasing number of schemes, internships and volunteering opportunities available specifically to individuals from underrepresented and marginalised backgrounds. I'd recommend checking out the London Wildlife Trust, the Racial and Ethnic Equality and Diversity Network (REED) at the British Ecological Society (BES) or the Explorers Programme at the Museum, to name but a few. These organisations are working towards breaking down barriers faced by underrepresented and marginalised groups, as well as creating supportive communities and platforms that you can be a part of.

You may experience significant challenges because of your background but remember that these factors do not diminish your worth - it's something to be celebrated! Your lived experiences add intrinsic value to your perspectives, which adds value and benefits the scientific community. It's a shame that these systems and institutions are set up in a way that usually doesn't support and discriminates against underrepresented minorities but know that a career in science is possible for you.

What kind of stuff do you do outside of your work?

Outside of my PhD, I also work on the Explorers Programme, a pilot project within the Museum that aims to develop events and resources to encourage and support students from marginalised and underrepresented ethnicities to pursue careers in environmental research. I'm also a member of the REED Network run by BES. Ethnic diversity in the environmental sector is very low, after farming and agriculture it's the second least diverse field in the UK according to BES. I believe that we can't overcome the threats that the planet is facing without addressing the global patterns of racial and societal inequality and disparity. I'm committed to increasing ethnic diversity within the environmental sector and raising awareness around these issues. Outside of my equality, diversity and inclusion work - I enjoy combat sports, yoga, meditation, philosophy, hiking and good food.