Becky Cliffe is a Sloth Scientist and Founder & Executive Director of the Sloth Conservation Foundation. She has attended the University of Manchester, where she received her B.Sc in Zoology & Swansea University where she is working on a Ph.D. in Bioscience. She has worked at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica and collaborates with Youngstown State and the University of Wyoming.
1. In layperson’s terms, explain what you do.
I am a sloth researcher. I’m studying sloths for my Ph.D. I study many aspects of sloth biology and ecology. Most my work involves tagging wild sloths with small data loggers to understand how wild sloths live. I am using this data to develop conservation strategies to preserve the species in the future. I am also working on a project looking at why there are such high occurrences of birth defects in the Costa Rican sloth population. The best way to do that is via genetics. I take hair samples from wild sloths and run DNA analysis at Swansea University. We are looking for signs of inbreeding that may be causing this trend. We’re on the verge of getting the results back, so I can start analyzing the results.
2. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
Nothing actually. Everything that has happened to me up to this point has built me into the scientist I am today. By all means, I have not done everything right; but, all the mistakes I have made have built me into a more aware person.
3. Why did you become a scientist?
I just really liked animals. Honestly, I didn’t want to be a vet because I don’t like blood. I had this natural curiosity about wildlife. That’s what took me to zoology. I got some research experience, and it seemed to fulfill everything for me. I got to be around animals and fulfill that curiosity in my mind.
4. When did you realize, you wanted to become a sloth biologist?
During my undergrad degree, I was doing a 12-month research placement. The opportunity arose to work at a sloth sanctuary as my professor knew the woman who ran it, and she wanted a research fellow there. I liked sloths; but, was never obsessed with them, and had never envisioned working with them before. When the opportunity arose, it was so perfect for me that I knew I had to get the job! It happened quite quickly
5. What is your favorite aspect of your work? ‘
My favorite thing about working with sloths, in general, is the opportunity to understand an animal that so few people have had the chance to work with, and for what so little is known about. Whenever I learn something new it really feels worth it.
6. What does being a scientist mean to you?
Fulfilling a weird childlike curiosity to find answers to question. It is about finding the truth. I personally want to learn what sloths are doing, how are they living. It isn’t about having the biggest finding or publishing the most papers. I think when scientists play that game they end up pursuing something that isn’t really there. What I care about is publishing robust, real science, even if it isn’t that interesting as long as it is true, and broadens our knowledge.
7. What has been your greatest failure, and what have you learned from it?
Putting my trust in the wrong people. I was trying to work with pygmy sloths in Panama. It was tricky getting permits as there is a lot of corruption and red tape over there. We fought and fought and fought for months to get them, and we finally did. I wanted to run genetic analysis on them, which is important as they are one of the most critically endangered species in the world. I worked for a year and a half I collecting all the hair samples I needed. Something happened, somebody in the loop was not particularly trustworthy, and our permit was revoked before we could export the samples. We have not been able to get our samples back. I still do not know what happened. I put trust in the wrong people and realized that I had to be more careful. Walking away from the project empty handed was a real kick in the face.
8. What is your greatest achievement in science?
My first big paper being published, 3 years ago. The very first publication was a pretty big deal to me as it kind of set the record for me.
9. What has been the biggest change you have witnessed in your field of science?
People now know what sloths are! About 8 years ago nobody really knew what sloths were, and they were perceived as stupid or lazy. Sloths have now become an internet sensation. It is a double-edged sword; it was good for the image of the Sloth but bad as people started to want them as a pet.
10. What problem would you most like to see solved by science in the next 10 years?
I would like for us to find a way that humans and animals can coexist. The human population is never going to stop expanding. We are probably not going to stop chopping down the rainforest anytime soon, but we need to respect the needs of the animals as well as our own. I would like science to figure out a way that can happen as right now it is not.
11. How do you think your field will change in 10 years?
I see a lot more research being done on sloths. Now that they are popular, I get e-mails all the time from people who want to work with Sloths. I think there will be a wave of people becoming field scientist. I also think we’ll see a change in the stereotype, people are realizing you don’t have to be a frumpy old gray haired man to be a scientist.
12. What motivates you?
When I’m working 3 jobs trying to pay the rent, and doing my research on the side, the knowledge that the results of my work will help a species I love keeps me going.
13. How do you define success?
It is different for every person. For me is the little things every day, I think those re the most important. We can set big goals but unless we have little ones, like getting through my data analysis, we can’t get there.
14. What one discovery in science do you most admire and why?
It isn’t a discovery; it is a mechanism invented by my supervisor. He did his Ph.D on Penguins. He wanted to find a way to study animals who live underwater for most of their lives as it is difficult to be underwater with them. So, he decided to solve this problem by inventing this microchip called the daily diary that records data that allows you to build up a 3D image of the animal, where it goes and what it is doing. It is now used on 90 different species across the world, including Sloths.
15. What are the greatest challenges facing humans today?
I think there are too many of us! It is a tough topic to tackle because everyone feels entitled to have children, which they all are. When we are all multiplying at such a great rate, it is upsetting the balance of the earth. The biggest challenge is to coexist with wildlife without taking more that our fair share.
16. What one book do you recommend everyone read?
I read a book when I was first starting out called Pink Boots and a Machete by Mireya Mayor. It is about a how she was an ex- NFL cheerleader who wanted to go into science. She was not taken seriously at first because she was blonde and very pretty; but, is now a very successful climatologist. It inspired me as I have always been a bit of a girly girl. It was nice to see someone successful out there, who, when packing for the jungle also bought a dress and high heels!
17. What is your favorite film?
The lion king. It made me love animals as when I was just a little girl. I never got over Mufasa dying! I’m sure that film is the reason I am a scientist today.
18. What is the best piece of advice you have received?
A woman once told me that whenever things are going badly remember EWOP. It stands for Everything Works Out Perfectly! So even when things are going terribly wrong, which they do 90% of the time out here, you must keep believing that everything will work out in the end.
19. If you could go back in time what advice would you give your high school self?
I’d tell myself not to get so hooked up on perfection all the time. I am a perfectionist, and I waste a lot of time being overly meticulous. Every now and you should just let go a little bit, and enjoy what you are doing while you are doing it.
20. What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful scientist?
- Problem-solving - Everything goes wrong, you have to find ways to fix things and make things work however you can!
- Perseverance – nothing goes right the first time, and particularly with sloths, everything takes ages.
- A Sense of Humor – You have got to be able to laugh at yourself.
If you have any more questions, or would like to reach out to Ms. Cliffe, her email is firstname.lastname@example.org