Dr. Christine Fletcher

Dr. Christine Fletcher

Zoologist and TEAM Site Manager, Pasoh, Malaysia

“Oh, so you’re like Batgirl!”

Coming from a country where half of the area still consists of forests, it would be natural to think that the majority of the people would grow up loving wildlife and go on amazing adventures in the great outdoors…so I thought. After five years of pursuing my career in Zoology after graduating from university, mainly learning and studying about forest bats, I went to a school reunion dinner. You can imagine my surprise when every childhood friend who I thought should have known me best, were curious, and even shocked, to learn of my career path. No doubt, it was a conversation starter. “Can you believe what Christine does for a living?!? You would NEVER guess!” or “What compelled you to choose to work in the forest?! But WHY?!?!” And of course the very cliché, “Oh, so you’re like Batgirl!” So yes, I was quite the attraction during the reunion, and I guess that is a good thing – having chosen to do something different than others—to take the road less traveled.

Another five years after that reunion, I’m still doing what I love. I count my lucky stars that, unlike most people who work only for the money and thus find it hard to get out of bed every morning to go to work, I actually look forward to every day because I made my hobby and passion into a career.

Many could not understand why anyone would want to give up the comforts of a more civilized job like an accountant, engineer, businessman, lawyer or a teacher, only to tread in murky waters, walk long distances up and down hills and through bushes, breath humid air, sweat buckets and get bitten or stung by insects (or both at the same time!) and wear the same soiled (unfashionable) clothes for days. I must admit, it is definitely not a job for those who seek money for lavish comforts, glamour or fame.

If your DNA consists of the XX chromosome (females), it can be an even bigger challenge because the work is physically demanding and thus is dominated by males. In most of my expeditions and work in the forest I found myself being the only girl in a group of four to ten men. What I found most uncomfortable and difficult being in this situation is not so much as keeping up with the men physically (walking long distances, hacking through thick vegetation, carrying heavy loads of equipment and camping gear or climbing steep terrains), but having to answer the call of nature (girls can’t do it standing up, but I’ve learned to adapt!) and keeping hygiene during those times of the month!

The most important thing I learned from these experiences is that respect from your team members has to be earned – what a guy can do, so can I,if not better—even if it usually means I have to work twice as hard. Where I come from, women are still often considered as the weaker sex, especially in this field of work, and so by proving them wrong, not only do I earn people’s respect but also boost my self esteem and confidence – and that will carry me a long way in life.

A career in natural sciences such as zoology, botany and ecology has other perks. Television documentaries gave a much needed boost to the image of environmental researchers and scientists, placing some among the Hollywood celebrities. Thanks to the boisterous charisma (albeit sometimes a little too theatrical and outright dangerous) of international icons such as Jeff Corwin and the late Steve “the crocodile hunter” Irwin, there is a new found glamour and fame to being a naturalist. It is not just for the quirky, nerdy and geeky—traits that are so often attached to being a researcher. There are only a few good naturalists in the world (compared to other professions) so it is not difficult to establish your name in the profession. Once you have established yourself as a naturalist or researcher, it can take you places and your experience will only add on to your recognition.

I have encountered strange and unexplained happenings in the thick of the night: A large falling dead tree trunk stopping only 2 inches away from flattening my face like a pancake, close encounters with venomous snakes, confrontations with trumpeting wild elephants and surviving 14 days of miserable fever and chills from death-threatening malaria (an infectious disease transmitted by mosquitoes). But, thirteen years in this career path and I have not regretted one moment of it or any of the experiences I’ve had. In fact, I look forward to many more years and (mis)adventures that await me.

Christine Fletcher is a Zoologist working at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia. She obtained her PhD from the National University of Malaysia in 2006, but has been pursuing her professional career in forest ecology since 1999. Her passion for studying bats, which then led to her career, was not planned or preconceived, but was fated - when at 22 years old, she was left with a field assistant, a field guide, food ration and no experience, to study bats on a steep mountain because no one else wanted to do it.