The eye of the tiger

Adam Cook is in good company, and that’s not just because he’s spent much of his career conserving wild bears and turtles, and working metres away from big cats and Iberian wolves. No, it’s the international connection that the Plymouth environmental science graduate has with a certain Winston Churchill that is most noteworthy.

Last year, Adam emulated the iconic wartime Prime Minister when he was chosen as the UK’s sole representative on the International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP), the US State Department’s premier knowledge exchange initiative. This meant three weeks of intensive networking across five states, meeting with a dizzying array of NGOs, universities, businesses, and government departments.

“It’s a cliché, but it was truly a life-changing experience because it has helped to redefine my professional and personal beliefs and goals,” Adam says, reflecting upon that whistle-stop tour. “The theme of the trip was to look at ‘urban resilience and sustainability’ and I learned so much from it; travelling from Washington DC to New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles enabled me to gain so many different perspectives.”

Nominated for the IVLP by the University’s Alumni Relations team, it was for the work of his company, the Science Assembly, that Adam was recognised by US officials. Founded in 2013, The Science Assembly has a mission to help students undertake volunteering projects, by providing funding and administrative support to send them around the world, without it costing them the earth. The Science Assembly also conducts critical research in sustainability and ethics to help design a better future.

“It’s about ensuring the best students get out there and take these opportunities – and not just the ones who can afford it,” he says. “We provide projects, and have partnerships with other organisations, so if you’re a student that wants to do bear-tracking in Italy, you can, and it will be a flat and affordable fee. I believe at the end of the day, people shouldn’t have to pay if they want to help others.”

Thanks to The Science Assembly, around 50 University students from degrees across the biosciences, psychology and photography have had the opportunity to undertake placements in the past year: 20 of them have been in Italy working on bear-tracking, and another 12 have worked on the Future Cities project, which is designing a concept city based upon principles of sustainability. Funding for The Science Assembly’s ventures is secured through the Erasmus+ programme, and also through Adam’s second business, WildSupport, which is developing and selling a range of ultra-ethical products, including organic Fairtrade coffee, T-shirts, and chocolate. 

Remarkably, Adam has found time to launch a third venture, Cura, which has arisen almost naturally out of the Future Cities project. Following a TEDx talk he gave at the University in April 2017, Adam was contacted by an architect keen to explore the possibility of taking the philosophical and the conceptual into the commercial realm. With a structural engineer now also on board, the business has formally taken shape and has been bidding for projects – and again, generating placement opportunities for students. Adam says: 

“Cura represents a genuine opportunity for us to take our research and ideas and apply them to the real world. It’s early days but we are excited to be part of projects that will create buildings of the future, focusing on biophilic design, the combination of nature and built materials.”

Adam’s connection to the University dates back to 2007, when he enrolled on Plymouth’s BSc (Hons) Environmental Science degree, drawn by the mix of “ocean, relaxed air and academic reputation and sustainability”. 

Encouraged to see "both sides of the environmental story", and to get out and speak to lots of different people, Adam cites the influence of lecturers such as John Bull and Dr Paul Lunt as instrumental in his career development. 

"I wanted to be a conservationist, which usually means postgraduate study and a PhD,” he says. “But John and Paul were very open in telling us that there were other ways to approach our careers. And that is what I did when I started The Science Assembly in 2013, three years after graduating. Plymouth taught me that there were plenty of paths to follow.” 

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Students working at Dartmoor Zoo

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<p>Students working at Dartmoor Zoo</p>
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Students working at Dartmoor Zoo

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For much of the past seven years, that path has been forged at Dartmoor Zoological Park, where he headed up the Dartmoor Institute of Animal Science (DIAS). And his legacy in many respects is visible in the DIAS pod, a dedicated research office used by students on placement – the vast majority of whom come from the University’s biology and conservation degrees. 

The building was funded by the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and since its opening in 2016, Adam has helped to guide hundreds of students through placement projects that have introduced a research culture to the zoo for the first time.

“Students have worked with every animal – from peacocks and deer to lions and tigers – and there has been a notable improvement in the quality of the work since the pod opened, with several projects moving towards publication in peer-reviewed journals,” Adam says. 

“And it’s not just in animal husbandry and welfare that we’ve seen important developments, but human wellbeing as well. Psychologists have worked with many different people, from day visitors to invited groups, including those with low-level social anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress from warzones. It’s all about looking at the ethics and morals of a zoo and where it should be in 50-100 years’ time.”

Now concentrating full time on the interwoven threads of The Science Assembly, Cura, and WildSupport (as well as, remarkably, a fourth project, a Community Interest Company called The Devon Farm), Adam is very aware of the significance of this moment - the leap of faith. But in many respects, it is a natural progression and continuation of a career that has focused upon envisioning and realising a more sustainable future, one that places equal focus upon developing people and place.

“This has been four years in the making,” Adam reflects. “Four years to show people that we’re not in it for the profit, but the positive impact we can make.”

Watch Adam's TEDx talk

As part of our Plymouth University TEDx series, Adam spoke to our audience on his chosen subject 'I am a futurist'.

Adam contemplates how the conversations we have about the future can help change the world. Exploring his own personal ethics and the inspiration for why he does what he does, Adam takes us on a journey through his experience of being a conservationist and entrepreneur.