Jungle girl Holly sets sights on Oxford University

Holly O'Donnell has been studying wildlife in the jungles of South America. Picture: Contributed
Holly O'Donnell has been studying wildlife in the jungles of South America. Picture: Contributed
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A promising young Scottish Zoologist has won a coveted place at Oxford University - but is reliant on the generosity of the public to help her realise her dream.

Holly O’Donnell, 26, has been spending the last two years in the Amazon jungle, but her time studying amimals in South America is coming to an end.

Holly holding a Rainbow Boa. Picture: Contributed

Holly holding a Rainbow Boa. Picture: Contributed

She has now been offered a place for a degree in International Wildlife Conservation Practice at the University of Oxford, to begin in January.

She said: “Because I have only been receiving a Peruvian wage for the last year and a half I can’t afford the tuition fees and so I am fundraising.

“Currently rated as the second top university in the world - by The Times - this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me.”

The total cost, including tuition, accommodation and living costs is £18,000 and Holly has so far received some grants towards this, but still requires almost £10,000.

Holly with a rare Amazon leap frog. Picture: Contributed

Holly with a rare Amazon leap frog. Picture: Contributed

READ MORE: Highland zoologist lands dream job in Amazon

She added: “Being offered a place at Oxford is a dream come true. Something that I never thought was possible for me, coming from a state school.

“A degree from this institution will open doors for a Ph.D. But it’s not all about me. The degree, ‘International Wildlife Conservation Practice’, is only for early career conservationists who have been working for Non Government Organisations (NGOs) in developing countries.

“Guidelines stipulate that I then bring these skills back to South America to share with colleagues, students, and local biologists who do not have the opportunity to the education that Oxford is currently offering me.

This degree is about me developing my skills, receiving a world class education, and sharing that for the greater good of conservation.

“Teaching the local people to cherish and protect what they have, to study and understand, and to succeed as conservation biologists themselves, earning a living protecting their future, instead of logging, mining and hunting for bushmeat.

“I want to be a leader in my field in the future, to set an example to other aspiring conservationists and to change the future of the children in these countries.”

Holly grew up in the town of Invergordon in the Scottish Highlands and later earned a BSc Hons Zoologogy at the University of St Andrews.

After graduation she embarked upon a three-month internship in Paraguay with Para La Tierra. This turned into an eight-month stay.

She carried out two small mammal population studies - one focused on the reproduction and life history of the mouse opossum Gracilinanus agilis through a mark and recapture program.

She also partook in a study of unhabituated primates, used mist nets to trap bats, practised VHF radio tracking and handling of the rare White-winged Nightjar, and learned how to construct pitfall traps.

She also sighted of the largest predator in South America - the rare and elusive Jaguar.

Holly continued: “After a month back in Scotland I was on my way to the Peruvian Amazon, having been offered a paid position with NGO Fauna Forever.

“As Mammal Research Coordinator I independently lead the mammal research at a number of remote field stations in the Amazon rainforest, notably ARCAmazon’s Las Piedras Amazon Center, through line transect surveys and a camera trap study.

“I train interns in wildlife monitoring and rapid assessment techniques. I am responsible for the data analysis and report writing: estimating abundance, diversity, and density, occupancy rates and activity patterns, and compiling species lists.

“Working in South America for two years has been challenging - physically, mentally and culturally. But I have always had a strong work ethic, persistence, and a determination to succeed when the odds are against me.”

Regarding her appeal for funding, the young zoologist added: “It seems a huge amount of money to raise but it’s been done before, particularly in the United States.

“The education system in the U.K is failing us. University education is becoming harder and harder to access, particularly for the working class, with annually rising tuition fees and high interest loan sharks waiting for desperate students like me.

“Why should I miss out on this incredible opportunity just because my parents are unable to pay for it? I am 26 and should not need to rely on my family financially in the first place.

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“Education should be equally accessible for everyone. I am really embarrassed to have to ask friends, family and even strangers for money via a fundraiser, but at this stage, anything is worth a try. If I fail to get in, then I need to feel that I tried everything that I could.

“I have a steely determination to succeed, to fight against the odds and not let anything hold me back.

“Oxford is my opportunity to stretch my wings, to fully immerse myself into my studies, to achieve my highest potential.

The future of my career is on tenderhooks. I cannot do it without help. I feel that I have won the lottery, a ticket to the rest of my life, but if I don’t get help soon then that ticket will expire and my chance of winning again goes back to a million to one.

“I have tried absolutely everything, applied to every grant, charity and council, applied for bank loans and government loans.

“This fundraiser is an absolute last resort. If I don’t reach my target, I don’t go to Oxford. It’s as simple as that.”

Click here to donate to Holly