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Q&A | A week in the life of an engineering ecologist

Chris Wing, Aecom senior graduate ecologist describes a typical week protecting newts and bats and talks about the first time he heard a nightingale

Describe your job

As ecologists, we assist our clients in the delivery of their projects while complying with the specific legislation relating to any protected species and habitats found in association with their site. This, in practice, is a mixture of field work and office work. With field work, we assess the site for any ecological features present, including the identification of notable and protected species or habitats as well as identifying any potential ecological constraints. The office work includes reporting on and assisting our clients with overcoming these constraints and obtaining planning consent while ensuring that biodiversity is considered throughout the life of the project and, where possible, is enhanced.

What do you most look forward to on a Monday morning?

I am bit of a tea fiend, so it has to be my first cup of the week! Joking aside, I am lucky that my job has a large amount of fieldwork, which I really enjoy, so it would probably be getting out on site.

Chris Wing Aecom

Aecom ecologist, Chris Wing

What’s the most exciting part of your week?

As I get to travel quite a lot to a variety of different sites, there is always the possibility of seeing rare or new species I have never seen before. I heard nightingales for the first time last year, which was really exciting.

Why do you think your job matters?

Humans, as a species, exert a lot of pressure onto the natural environment. I like to think that we give a helping hand to the species and habitats that aren’t able to handle these pressures as well.

What specific skills have you learned through the job?

Due to the large variety of different projects that Aecom is involved in, I have been given the opportunity to be trained in a number of specialist survey techniques required to fulfil our project commitments. These include becoming a certified marine mammal observer. I did this to reduce the risk to marine mammals from noise-induced injury while impact piling was being undertaken under the scope of the Mersey Gateway Project.

What stands out as the most interesting project you’ve worked on?

Probably the Mersey Gateway Project, which entails the construction of a new six lane toll bridge across the Mersey Estuary. Aecom is part of the Merseylink design team delivering this major infrastructure project. Part of our role is to undertake monitoring of the biological communities that could be affected by the project to support our client in delivering on environmental commitments and managing the risks associated with the presence of protected species. I really enjoyed working on this large, multi-disciplinary project with the challenges and problem solving skills that go with it to make sure the construction process runs to schedule.

How does your role impact on the built environment?

All new build developments have opportunities for ecological enhancement. This can be relatively straightforward to incorporate and can make a significant contribution to wildlife and the people that live and work within it.

How do you explain what you do to your friends and family?

I normally say I get muddy looking for protected species, just to keep it simple!

How did you get into the job/what was your career route?

I always enjoyed biology and studied it at university. Prior to starting university, I was unaware that this type of role existed, but it instantly appealed once I heard about it. I worked for the Environment Agency as an aquatic ecologist before my current position, I enjoyed it but I wanted to be involved in a greater variety of work rather than just focus on aquatic systems, which this position allows me to do.

How far removed from the traditional role of the civil engineer do you think your job is?

At first it might seem that my role of surveying the natural environment is quite far removed and might, in fact, restrict the construction process. However maintaining a healthy environment can provide a range of services that can benefit people within the built environment from flood management to cultural benefits.

How do you see your role changing in next five years?

There currently is a lot of new technology that is helping us to achieve results over shorter time periods than was previously possible. This includes techniques like environmental DNA, which can detect cryptic species like great crested newts through the DNA they released into the water. Furthermore, thermal imaging technology is allowing us to be more certain in the identification of bat roosts. So I can imagine that, over the next five years, more novel survey methods will become available that will allow us to be more accurate and time effective with the services we provide.

Chris Wing Aecom

What is the logical career progression for you?

In the short term, I hope to progress upwards from a graduate position to a principal ecologist, which will allow me to take greater responsibility for the planning, management and delivery of projects.

What’s going to be the most exciting thing about it then?

I think I will enjoy having greater ownership of projects, I can imagine that there is a great sense of satisfaction when you deliver your final work to the client.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming an ecologist?

It’s quite a competitive industry, especially at the graduate level, so I would suggest investing time in developing species-identification skills. Candidates with strong field skills instantly stand out, and voluntary positions are often a good way of getting this training and experience.

What would you be if you weren’t in this role?

I always thought I might enjoy being a mechanical engineer, although now I can’t really imagine myself doing anything different.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Would you need a degree in ecology to do this job or would a civil engineering degree be suitable for a graduate engineering ecologist?

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