Graduate Study in Wildlife Science or Ecology for International Students : The Chimera, Pitfalls, Strength and the Quality
Undergraduate and graduate study surrounding ecology and wildlife biology is somewhat confusing for both native and international students planning to invest significant amount of their hard-earned cash, be it scholarship fund or personal finance. The confusions mainly arise from boundless choices of schools (in this article, by school I meant university) across Atlantic. Students from South Asian nations (Indian, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka to name few) often receive exceptionally high scores both in Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Graduate Record Exams (GRE) and often motivated to commence their graduate study either with commonwealth scholarship fund mostly directed to UK based schools or with Teaching Assistantship (TA) mainly with US schools across Atlantic. To pick right school for commencing either undergraduate and graduate study must be based on strong course curriculum, number of faculty members, the rigor and implementation of statistical and other mathematical modeling and simulation techniques it teaches in early stage of the ecological and wildlife related disciplines, candidates personal research interest that matches exactly with faculty members research work and finally good record and proportion of international students who graduated from that school and ended up becoming seasoned wildlife biologist.
Choosing a school that reflects little or insufficient strengths mentioned above could be disappointing for many international scholars and may potentially cause damages in future career as research ecologist per se. As a guidelines, the choice of school must not be based on colorful, stylish and often superficial portray of active social life in school’s websites, status quo, limited or no information about course curriculum, schools ranking, tuition fees, or geographic location relative to social amenity and conveniences. Broadly speaking every school has its strength and pitfalls and it is the responsibility of any serious student to carry out atom-splitting research either online or in person to find out much needed information about schools strength in the field of wildlife science (wildlife ecology and wildlife biology are often also know as wildlife science, and in this article I will use these terms interchangeably) before jumping the gun. Although the course offerings is the main aspect of choosing the school and for that there are certain courses that must be present in the curriculum before a student make her/his final decision to accept the unconditional offer of admission. The offerings of the course must need to be general prerequisite to begin with but also pedagogically sound with strong hierarchical learning curve for example from smooth to steep learning curve across the curriculum chess-board.
BS or MS in Ecology is not as same as BS or MS in Wildlife Biology. As indicated above, some schools may offer MS in Wildlife Science and some may offer MS in Wildlife Biology or Wildlife Ecology and in either cases, it is absolutely fine as long as students know the difference between Ecology and Wildlife Science. Wildlife Science is in fact branch of Ecology or one may say sub discipline of Ecology. Ecology teaches you more than a student really needs in future career but it is nonetheless a foundation of wildlife science. For example, basic understanding of how living (biotic) and non living (abiotic) things interact against the backdrop of climate, temperature, rainfall, human population etc is at the heart of ecology and without having to understand this basic course for example introduction to ecology (ECO 101), students may find wildlife science as relatively steep learning curve. On top of these, if the basic courses in ecology fails to integrate mathematical skills, for example, understanding the distribution and population size of species and its relation to abiotic and anthropogenic (human induced) stresses, students may very well suffer in future research career irrespective to what discipline or career she chooses in the future. Therefore, strong emphasis goes on hard core mathematical skills.
To start with college algebra aka precalculus where linear, quadratic, polynomial equations are solved both numerically, algebraically (symbolic math problems can best be solved by Maxima) and graphically along with solving and plotting these by utilizing the power of programming languages mainly Python, R, Maxima, Octave, Scilab (Solve algebraic problems numerically) are must. Functions both linear, quadratic, exponential, trigonometric (unit circle and right triangle approach only) followed by sequences, series, system of equations, linear algebra is must. Once you have these under your belt, you must take calculus as prerequisite where single variable differential and integral calculus is enough to start with. More importantly to plot, model and solve most of these calculus and algebraic problems by developing algorithm and writing clear and succinct code in Python and R is must.
Often people who did not come from mathematical background may choose wildlife science or ecology under wrong impression that these disciplines are not rooted into mathematics and for those students disciplines like animal welfare, zoo based wildlife courses, ethology, wildlife tourism, environmental study, green space and park management etc may be more appropriate. One must make clear distinction between these animal behavior / animal welfare related academic discipline and wildlife science / ecology which is pretty much equivalent to rocket science by and by. And why I said that, because when you dealing with uncertainty and in almost all cases, in wildlife ecology, you will have to deal with population parameters, for example, where the species population is decreasing, what is causing its decline, how the population size was in the past and how it is now, where and how the numbers are increasing and why some population remain stable over the past few years and many other similar questions that are simply numerical bound, you have no choice than utilizing advance mathematics to model the sampling population size so that you can develop scientifically valid prediction.
To put these into better perspective, wild tiger population has drastically shrunk over the last quarter of century. Significant funding and political endeavor to revive tiger population size across its tropical nations have been deployed with mixed result. Some population size gone extinct both locally and regionally and some are facing serious human encroachment due to development regimes ranging from monoculture cash crop plantation to deforestation for human development. Nonetheless, as a wildlife ecologist, it would be your job to figure out the answers of these few basic but statistically /ecologically valid questions:
1. What is the current population size of the tiger in any particular ecosystem?
2. What is the current distribution range of the tigers?
3. Where their distribution is increasing, where they are in decrease and where their distribution is near absent?
4. Among these distribution ranges, where there is confirmed sighting of breeding females with or without cubs and what is the prey density in that particular distribution patch for breeding tigers?
You cannot answer any of these questions with scientific credibility if you have not mastered the skills of the element of mathematics I mentioned above. But to answer these four basic questions you will need to have advance knowledge in statistics that deals with animal population estimation methods (for example radio telemetry study, dung/pellet counts, camera trap capture-recapture model, fecal DNA based capture-recapture model and more). Therefore school you are choosing must offer Calculus and Statistics either as 100 level or 200 level course during your freshman or sophomore year. Student must carefully look into the course curriculum whether the Department of Wildlife Ecology offers course in geographic information system (GIS). GIS is a vast discipline altogether but for wildlife ecologists, we only need to cover the part of GIS that teaches us how to map animal population distribution, how to model their population size, and how to create ecological landscape model by utilizing the power of surface dimension model in which you can able to integrate your statistical data into a map to create population index from low to high density per se. This kind of GIS map allow you to keep track of population distribution parameters for years to come and very important computational tool for long term monitoring of any species that are at concern. Therefore, to conclude this article, I am going to list up the courses in addition to other courses that a school must offer if you want to commence your undergraduate or graduate study in Wildlife Science (Wildlife Ecology / Wildlife Biology) or Ecology:
1. Introduction to Statistics (STAT 101)
2. Introduction to R (R Programming)
3. College Algebra / Precalculus (MATH 101)
4. Linear Algebra (MATH 201)
5. Calculus (Calculus 101 or 102)
6. Programming in Python (The course may not offered by the department but you must choose it as elective from computer science department for example)
7. GIS for Wildlife Science
8. Wildlife Ecology and Management
9. Wildlife Population Estimation Methods (Radio Telemetry, Camera Trapping etc)
10. Introduction to Linux Command Line (Optional but student must learn how to work in Linux based computer system for their future wildlife research)
The above list is not exhaustive but generally a good indication of solid course curriculum. Please bear in mind, not all courses will reflect exactly the same way above in terms of coding or description, for example, a school may offer a course in Calculus in which College Algebra is integrated or students are advised to take it as non credit course. Same goes for R programming which may be incorporated with Statistics course as lab element and not as credit course. Therefore, it is advised to ask directly what the course will offer or contain and in good schools you will find these info in their curriculum or course description page. But generally speaking, the common thread that binds the Wildlife Science or Ecology together must contain Calculus, Statistics, GIS, Linear Algebra and Wildlife Population Estimation Method / Technique. Drafting mathematically sound reports require learning typesetting markup language and you may also need to learn LaTeX for getting high score in your reports and thesis. I indicated Linux distribution, notably Debian based Linux, where you will be exposed to high level scientific software, free of charge (like free beer) but more importantly freedom to bend down the computer to work at your will if you persevere to learn command line skills! It will pay off tremendously if you seriously work at it but unlike graphical user interface (GUI) command line can be non-forbidding environment for students who are neither patience nor motivated to reap the richer harvest for long term profits both academically and financially!
Finally as a tip, some of the best schools are Warner College of Colorado State University, University of Alaska at Fairbanks, University of Montana, University of Florida at Gainesville, Virginia Polytechnic and University of Idaho. Please also note, no UK schools offer mathematics-driven wildlife ecology courses nor it offers graduate degrees in wildlife science. Some awfully expensive private schools like University of Cambridge or Oxford may offer one or two courses in mathematics but often lack all the basic skills a student needs or more importantly what a student may paid for to get the most from that school. Therefore, personally, I will not advise international students to judge book by its cover, rather judge it by its content by carefully examining the course curriculum, course description, faculty lists, choice of books they offer for the course and of course social pursuits with the aim of creating ecological and socially balanced society both in micro and macro scale.