Career Conversations with a Conservationist

Sarah goes back to the K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary every year to hang out with bears. Pictured here are a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs that Sarah encountered in August 2018. Read about it in her blog, here

by Gabriel Forest, Contributing Writer

The modern career is a rollercoaster that requires patience and adaptability. Long gone are the days where you’d get a job out of college and work at the same company until you retired. “All of your decisions will form the future you,” hopefully in such a way that you can look back happily during your retirement party. 

So Sarah Elmeligi, PhD, tells me during our conversation. Sarah is an interdisciplinary conservation scientist based in Canmore, Alberta, focusing on bear ecology and management. Originally from Edmonton, Sarah completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Alberta (class of ‘98). But when she graduated, she knew she needed a break. “I wanted to run as far away from the university as possible,” she says. 

Sarah took a break – a five-year break. She traveled with friends, then got her first “real” job as a science educator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, a summer position that turned into a valuable three years. She followed it with another bout of traveling. “I spent a lot of my twenties just exploring,” the scientist told me. A self-described late bloomer, Sarah credits these self-reflective years as an important part of her eventual success. Finally ready for grad school, she took a serving job in Calgary to make some money while she looked for the right Master’s project. 

Sarah always knew she wanted to work with large mammals. After meeting with professors across Alberta and British-Columbia, she temporarily had her eye on a UBC program studying sea lions. Before she could commit, a friend convinced her to visit the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. There she met Prof. John Shultis, her eventual thesis supervisor, who needed a student to lead a joint project with BC Parks measuring the impacts of boat-based tourism on grizzly bear habitat use to inform new protected area management plans. 

The second John presented this project, Sarah knew she wanted it. But she wasn’t the only one interested, so the grad-student-to-be immediately started researching bears and boat-based tourism, putting together a proposal that exemplified her eagerness. Her enthusiasm worked in her favour, and Sarah began her graduate studies in the fall of ‘04. 

This project was pivotal in launching the young scientist’s career. She had found work that was exciting and interesting. She was ready to do it, but it wasn’t easy. After a year of gathering data, she realized she didn’t have enough bear observations to conduct meaningful analysis. Sarah had two options: abandon the project, or extend the program by a year and find a way to bolster her thesis. Sarah decided to use visitor satisfaction surveys, combining data about bears and people to inform the future management plan. When speaking about this unplanned addition to her project, Sarah describes it as the “awesomest thing [she] could have done”, adding that “there’s a whole lot of people out there who work on animals, but not a whole lot who work on people and animals at the same time.” Through this project, Sarah carved her niche as an interdisciplinary bear researcher and cemented her place in the field. 

After this success, Sarah worked in government agencies and conservation NGOs for five years before the itch to conduct research struck again. She undertook a PhD at Central Queensland University in Australia, where she studied the balance between grizzly bear habitat requirements and visitor experience in Canada’s Rocky Mountain National Parks. Somehow, she’d found a PhD where she studied in Australia and conducted summer field work based out of her Canmore home. Sarah again combined bear data (this time from GPS units and cameras) with visitor surveys to holistically examine how bears and people share the landscape.

Once she’d completed her PhD, Sarah accepted a three-year position as a Park Facility Planner with Alberta Parks in Canmore, where she still lives today. Once that term was up, Sarah felt that she’d made enough connections and learned enough through her career to launch her own conservation consulting company, Sarah E. Consulting. Her expertise allows her to accept a variety of contracts, and it’s made her more successful than she anticipated. 

Sarah tells me she’s happy doing this gig and could see herself doing it for many years to come. “But getting to this point wasn’t as easy as I’ve made it seem.” Throughout our conversation, Sarah emphasized the importance of patience in her journey. She took time to mature before finding a Master’s project, then took the extra time to complete it when it didn’t go as planned. The lack of data wasn’t the only challenge. As a grad student, she faced sexism and derogatory comments from the male tour operators who feared the results of her research might shut them down. 

Sarah also informed me that opportunities didn’t simply fall in her lap. In fact, she didn’t get many opportunities early on. She took the museum job knowing that she wasn’t going to work in paleontology long term. And the serving job in Calgary wasn’t a choice; she couldn’t find work as a biologist. Those early years taught her the importance of staying flexible in her career plan and adapting to opportunities, a lesson she carried into her Master’s as she adjusted to a lack of data. 

Sarah had to stay adaptable even in the years following her masters. She applied everywhere and took what she was offered, keeping in mind that each job, while it may not be her dream job, was a step in the right direction. At each position, Sarah was searching for new and better opportunities, ready to say yes when they presented themselves. 

Even today, despite the success of her consulting firm, Sarah is staying alert for a few bear and park related jobs with the Alberta government that may open up. Until that next chapter, Sarah will stay in Canmore, where she is a mother to teenagers and a Great Dane.

As we finish our conversation, Sarah emphasizes one final time that everyone’s career will be full of unpredictable twists and turns. As a young graduate, her image of a wildlife biologist drew from Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, who worked hands-on with primates for years. Not interacting with bears as directly as she’d hoped, the conservationist has had to reconcile those ideals with her reality. Sarah makes up for it by returning to the K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary (her Master’s thesis study site) every summer to visit the bears that launched her career. One thing’s for sure: things worked out for Sarah, and she assures me that they’ll work out for me, too. 

Special thanks to Sarah Elmeligi for taking the time to speak with me about her inspiring career. Sarah recently published a book, “What Bears Teach Us,” authored by her with photographs by John E. Marriott.  If you are interested in Sarah’s work, you can check out her website here, and her book here.

Edited by Laura Reumont

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