Favourite Thing: Without doubt, my favourite thing in science is sitting and watching animals. The reason I got into zoology in the first place was because I can’t help looking at an animal doing whatever it’s doing (feeding, wandering around, grooming itself…) and wonder “what’s going on in its head?”. It’s not often that I get to spend time sitting watching animals these days, but that question is still the main reason for why I do what I do.
I went to Helston School in Cornwall until 1996, then went to University College London for my undergraduate degree until 1999. I then went to the University of Cambridge to study for a Ph.D. which I finished in 2003.
I have a degree in Zoology and a Ph.D. in Behavioural Ecology (the study of how evolution shapes behaviour depending on the local environment). I’m also (stupidly) currently studying towards a degree in Maths and Stats in my spare time.
Other than my university career, I’ve picked cabbages, worked on a till in a supermarket while I was a student, worked as a barman in a campsite and been an ecological consultant (doing plant and animal surveys).
I’m a postdoctoral research associate: it’s a 3 year job where I have to carry out a set of planned experiments for a particular project. In this case I’m trying to find out whether starlings that experience a lot of stress when they’re nestlings subsequently behave differently and are more ‘stressed’ in adulthood.
Me and my work
I’m trying to find out why emotions, like anxiety, have evolved and whether other animals experience these emotions too.
My work started because I was interested in how you could show that the conditions you keep animals in affect their mental welfare (how sad/happy/anxious/bored they are). My experiments were based on work showing that if you keep animals in worse conditions in captivity, they become much more ‘pessimistic’. What does ‘pessimistic’ mean? Well if you put them in a situation where they don’t know for sure what is about to happen in the future, pessimistic animals behave as if it’s likely that something ‘bad’ is about to happen (maybe a really loud uncomfortable noise for example). So what does this show? Well the idea is that humans who are anxious or depressed often show exactly the same type of behaviour: they’re very pessimistic about the future, even if they have no reason to be. So maybe the fact that the animals are showing the same thing, means that they’re anxious…..it’s still a big maybe.
Anyway, this got me thinking about anxiety: if you’ve ever worried about something in particular (say how you look), you might have noticed that you can begin to feel like are lots of things in life that you feel worried about (what your friends think of you, your homework and so on). This is a feeling called ‘generalised anxiety’ and we so far don’t have a very good explanation for why it happens. What we do know is that it’s very likely that we evolved to be able to have this emotion, so the chances are that at least a little bit of ‘generalised anxiety’ might help you survive (maybe it helped our ancestors avoid dangerous situations/animals? or maybe it made them care more about putting effort into their friendships?). My work now is about trying to understand why certain people might become anxious and in what situations it might actually be helpful to be a little bit anxious. This comes back to the animals: if we know how anxiety helps humans to survive, well then it should also help other animals to survive in similar situations. If that’s true then it becomes more likely that other animals really do have the same emotions as people.
My Typical Day
A mix of being in the lab, writing and reading at my desk, a bit of teaching and, on a very good day, out on farms in Northumberland looking for starling chicks.
The great thing about my job is that there is never just ‘a typical day’. If I have experiments running, then I have to be in the lab for a large part of the day: looking after my birds, taking down data and making sure that all of the equipment is running fine. A lot of the rest of my time is spent looking at the data and seeing whether they match with what we predicted, or whether we have to completely rethink our theories.
Those are the basics, but in April/May I’ll be spending just about every day driving about in the countryside looking for starling nestlings, tagging and weighing and recording them. Then when they get a little bit older I’ll be spending a LOT of time feeding them in the lab (they need food about every 20 minutes, for about 12 hours a day, thankfully it won’t just be me on my own doing this).
I also get to teach to teach a bit: this year I’ll be teaching psychology students about evolution. That means I have to give a couple of talks a week to about 100+ students in a lecture theatre, which is understandably very nerve-wracking. But also surprisingly good fun, especially since I try and get them to get up in front of the class and play ‘games’ as part of the lectures.
What I'd do with the money
I’d like to do something that informs people about animal welfare science and how it might help us understand the mental state of animals.
Yes that is a vague description, that’s because I don’t yet know exactly how I should explain this kind of work to people (where would I do it? what types of people should I be talking to? what’s the most important bit?). Part of the value of “I’m a Scientist..” for me will be asking for your opinions on what the best way is to get people (particularly schoolkids) interested in the science of animal welfare. Any ideas?
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Probably Jack White, especially with The Raconteurs.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Surfing with a bunch of friends on any summer’s evening.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. For my pooch to live longer than I will. 2. To find a job somewhere hot, near a beach, with amazing surf, preferably much nearer my family (that probably counts for four wishes in one…)
What did you want to be after you left school?
A zoologist. Actually since I was a kid it was a toss-up between wanting to be a vet or a zoologist. I discovered that I didn’t much like post-mortems on puppies…..
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Honestly? No, just about never. Sad isn’t it. I did once have my bum smacked in primary school for doing a jigsaw puzzle when I should have been working. Does that count?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Tell us a joke.
What travels at 80 miles an hour underground? A mole on a motorbike.
This is me collecting lovely fox poo (yes the poo of a fox) in Turkey for a project studying golden hamsters in the wild.
This is me with one of our starlings (it was being hand-reared which is why it’s so tame).