Seven Questions with... Ben Hollis

Ben Hollis
Ben Hollis
This week we meet MSci Biodiversity & Conservation student Ben Leo Hollis, who leads UCL’s Nature & Conservation Society. Here, he chats to us about working with communities in Papua New Guinea, cycling to Australia, and his favourite music events in London.

What are you studying, why are you interested in this subject and what do you plan to do in the future? 

I’m in my fourth and final year of the Biodiversity & Conservation MSci. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been really interested in wildlife, especially rainforests, and started university thinking I wanted to work as a biologist in tropical environments. Since then, I’ve learnt about the vast extent of environmental destruction going on, and how the issue is going to require complex social efforts in order to be addressed, and so my interests have shifted towards more applied conservation work that directly includes local communities. My Master’s project is centred on involving indigenous communities in scientific data collection to address local issues, through ’extreme citizen science’ , and I’m hoping to look for work in environmental NGOs when I graduate, potentially in relation to tropical deforestation in Latin America. 

What is the most interesting thing you’ve done, seen or gotten involved with while at UCL? 

I’m currently on the committee of the Nature & Conservation Society , and it has been an awesome thing to be involved with at UCL. It’s a medium-sized society with a really great little community, and through it I’ve met others who are passionate about the environment and biodiversity, and helped to run lots of different events, like nature walks, and talks by people doing various environment-related projects. We’ve had some great speakers, and I gave a talk last term on some capacity-building work I did in Papua New Guinea, with a community tree-planting organisation , in partnership with WWF. 

We also ran a big conservation conference , along with UK conservation journal ECOS. It was a really great event, and we had six speakers from different parts of the sector, from grassroots up to NGO management, with some fiery questions from students after! 

Have you discovered any hidden gems during your time at UCL? 

Assuming you’ve already found Senate House, then the SSEES or archaeology libraries are cool little spots to study, to escape the student centre hordes.  

And it’s not exactly a hidden gem, but I’d say the opportunities UCL has to study abroad are something more people should know about! I got to study in Sydney, Australia for a year, and now I do some work with UCL encouraging people from lower income backgrounds to go abroad, as there’s not many times you can move to a different country and have such great social and financial support available. There’s also funding for people to do short-term internships abroad too. 

Give us your top three things to do/see/go to in London: 

I’d say the Tate Late events are always worth checking out, where they keep the Tate galleries open in the evenings, and put on music and art installations. They recently started doing them at Tate Britain as well as the Tate Modern, and it’s awesome to see a usually very formal space get a little loose.  

I also think that Trent Park up in Cockfosters definitely deserves a shout-out. I decided to go up to the end of the Piccadilly Line one time to get out into some green fields, and I go there quite a bit now, to get out of the city for a few hours. You can get mildly lost in the woods, see some kestrels flying overhead, and there’s even a little wildlife hospital there you can visit, set up and run by a wildlife-loving couple since the 1980s. 

Last but not least, MAP Studio Café in Kentish Town is such a beautiful little community spot! It does awesome Caribbean food, has chess boards, vinyl records, and the jazz there on Sundays is always great. 

If you could study a different subject, what would it be and why? 

I think music. I’ve always made music and I’d love to have an excuse to dedicate more time to creating, as it’s something that’s really important to me, but often gets pushed to the side for other things. 

Who inspires you and why? 

I’d say Alessandra Korap. She is part of the Munduruku tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, and is an outspoken activist for indigenous interests, where land invasions for illegal deforestation and mining are a massive ongoing issue for many communities. She is one of many indigenous activists in Latin America speaking out for the environment, despite the danger they face in doing so. You can see her featured on a seriously inspiring episode of Planet Earth III , currently available for free on BBC iPlayer.  

And I’d also definitely have to say my gran. She grew up in one of the UK’s slums in the 1940s, met my grandpa in a factory when they were 16, and despite not getting to study for long, she is the most literary person I know - and will beat anyone at Scrabble. 

What would it surprise people to know about you? 

In 2019 I left my hometown of Leicester on my bike, with my tent, some clothes and a little stove, and spent 13 months cycling to Brisbane, Australia, through 31 countries. I raised money for three charities, combating deforestation, supporting girls education in Africa, and addressing islamophobia in the UK, which I think is a big issue in western Europe that needs to be better recognised. I funded the trip by working as a cycle food courier at night during my A-Levels, and it was definitely a life-changing experience. I have a lot of very happy memories from that year, especially from people’s generosity and kindness everywhere I went, with a lot of people welcoming me in to stay with them, from Myanmar to Meghalaya (the rainiest place on earth, where fig roots act as bridges across foggy valleys). I definitely recommend taking some time out of studying and work to see some of the world if you have the opportunity to, as it can really give some perspective on what’s important. 

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