For the love of ecology: Christell Chesney

Christell Chesney

On any given day, Christell Chesney could be found dissecting the body of a frog or bat and examining the stomach contents or she could be found in the dead of the night on a trail in a remote area looking for varied species of reptiles.

Some might not find her job interesting and might even question its importance, but Chesney is passionate about it and can easily spend hours explaining how important it is to humanity and preserving the environment.

Chesney is one of the five persons who man the Centre for the Study of Biological Diversity (CSBD) at the University of Guyana (UG) and this number includes its Director Dr Gyanpriya Maharaj. Chesney and the other three are referred to as scientific officers.

According to Chesney, she does several things at UG and some of these include helping to maintain the CSBD centre, which involves keeping checks on the records of all the verifications of specimen that were exported, ensuring that classrooms and the centre are clean, maintaining the specimens that are there which can be found in the dry or wet museum and the herbarium. The herbarium is where dry plants are stored, while in the dry museum one can find dried specimens and in the wet museum, specimens kept in bottles filled with alcohol.

It does not stop there as Chesney and the others also ensure that the database of specimens is updated, and they are liaison officers for researchers such as those from the Royal Ontario Museum, which helps to improve the museum.

They also work in the Department of Biology where they lecture and plan and conduct tutorial sessions and laboratory sessions.

“My schedule is so crazy I have to have it on my telephone. I have my schedule as my screen saver, so I wouldn’t miss a class,” Chesney told the Sunday Stabroek.

They also do verification checks, as when researchers need to export dead specimens or samples these go through the centre which ensures that the quantity and type of specimen match what is listed on the document. And this can mean going through over 5,000 different specimens of fish for one shipment.

Fellowship

Less than a year after she started work at the centre, Chesney’s passion has led to her landing the prestigious the 2017/2018 Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean (CLiC) Fellow. The highly competitive selection process drew candidates from 14 countries; Chesney is the first Guyanese to secure the fellowship.

“CLiC will definitely help me to improve my skills in conservation planning and leadership. These particular skills will be used at the CSBD, UG, to guide students’ research as well as to contribute to the conservation efforts of the CSBD, through various workshops, courses, etc,” Chesney said shortly after she was selected as a fellow.

The goal of CLiC Fellows programme is to have an established, sustainable Caribbean leadership-training programme enabling effective regional networking and action to achieve sustainable conservation.

The fellowship is in its second iteration and is funded in part by the US Fish and Wildlife Service with the support of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, St George’s University and the Windward Islands Research and Education Foundation. It creates an opportunity for up-and-coming Caribbean conservation professionals to gain invaluable first-hand skills and experience working with proven conservation leaders.

Meantime, in addition to three in-depth training sessions over an 18-month period which commenced in May 2017 and concludes in October 2018, fellows are working in teams to design, implement and evaluate cutting-edge projects in biodiversity conservation in support of sustainable development in the Caribbean.

In Guyana, Chesney is part of a team, which comprises Guyanese Govindra Punu from Vector Control Services, Ministry of Health; Surinamese Tanja Lieuw from the Inter-American Development Bank and Haitian Josué Céliscar from Foundation por la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine. They are working closely with Kene Moseley and her team at the Guyana Mangrove Restoration Project to conserve the mangrove forest at Hope, East Coast, Demerara. The project includes biodiversity surveys, stakeholder interviews, clean-up campaign and education and awareness programmes. In addition, fellows have access to a qualified training expert, Dr Tsitsi McPherson from the State University of New York College at Oneonta, who guides them on this journey and provides one-on-one mentoring, networking opportunities and career development. Director of the CSBD, Dr Maharaj supervises Chesney’s work.

Chesney is high in praise of the experience she has so far gained from the fellowship and believes that the team’s project will greatly assist Guyana’s environment.

Birds and bats

Meantime, Chesney told this newspaper that she likes working with students whose projects are geared towards management and conservation of the environment.

As part of her scope of work Chesney takes students out of the classroom to do field work, which can include field method techniques that consist of catching fish using various forms and mammals with different traps and these can include birds and bats. She also takes the students into trails at night to catch reptiles.

Chesney shared that her thesis for her biology degree focused on human-wild cat conflict and she chose this because she grew up in New Amsterdam which even though it is described as a town is close to rural villages and often has direct contact with wildlife which includes wild cats. The thesis focused on understanding how humans view the animals and why they are viewed that way. That thesis, she said, set the basis to move on to her Masters (which she hopes to read for soon) thesis which will focus on finding out if the cats are viewed similarly in other area in the country and then suggesting a strategy to address the issue.

As regards choosing a job which many might find strange, Chesney said that as a child everyone she knew wanted to be a doctor or a nurse and while she knew she wanted to help people she did not like blood and knew she could not “handle blood and patients.”

She did biology and even though many of her classmates went on to study medicine, she did not because there is no limit to her field it and there is so much that can be done.

“That is where the need is. The more I stay in it, the more I am exposed and the more I love it,” she said.

“These things are so important to us… We kind of make life easier for doctors and all the other medical practitioners.”

She admitted that her parents always wanted her to be a doctor and at first it really disappointed them when she did not move into that field. But after seeing her achievements they have come around and understand the work she has been doing.

“I look after myself, which is a really fulfilling feeling…,” Chesney said proudly adding that she sees many irresponsible youths in her work as a lecturer and tries to change the attitude of some of her students.

Chesney is convinced that she has chosen the right field, as she has gained many different skills and the networking that has taken place cannot be compared.

“I really like what I do, the more field work I do and when the experts come…and they allow us to tag along when they go out to do research, you learn lot,” the young researcher, who one day hopes to become an ecologist, said.

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