New week- updated profile :)
Favourite Thing: I really love most aspects of my job but the best has to be finishing up a good piece of work and celebrating having it published. Getting the work published and communicating it to people is what its all about.
I went to lots of schools, my family moved a lot when we were young! I did most of my school years in Ireland but did years 7 and 8 in England.
When I left school I didn’t know what to do. I went to a university in Dublin and studied journalism. I do love to write but I soon realised that I would rather be studying science. After that I went to the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. I studied Biology and Theoretical Physics which is why I ended up doing a little bit of work with animals and a little bit of maths.
I have worked in universities in Ireland, London, Scotland and New Zealand. When I was in Uni I worked in Boots to pay the way- I may know more about shampoo than animals actually…
The University of St.Andrews in Scotland
I am studying to get a PhD
Me and my work
My job is to examine how animals (and especially humans) got so good at learning in different ways.
I am from Ireland originally. One of the good things about science is that in each field there is a small community spread accross the world. I moved here to Scotland to study for my PhD but I could move anywhere from America to Japan for my next job.
Here in Scotland I study the evolution of social learning or how animals learn from each other. This especially applies to humans because we are animals too, and more importantly we are all extrememly good at learning in lots of different ways.
I study this in two ways, the first is using animals that we keep here in the university. (Don’t worry! Our animals are very well looked after and we don’t do anything that would harm them.) I work mostly on budgies <-like these. but there are some other types of birds in the aviary too.
We give the birds small easy tasks to solve so that they can get a treat. We then watch to see which bird in the group learns the solution first and which birds learn fom him. This way we can track how the birds are learning from eachother. This type of work lets us see patterns in how animals learn and we can translate these patterns to look at animals, like Chimpanzees, in the wild that we would rather not keep in captivity. We think that this type of learning is what makes culture possible. Humans have vast and diverse cultures but so do chimpanzees and whales.
The other part of my work is on computers. In this work I design new worlds inside my computer and code for little fake animals to live in these worlds. I give the animals a ‘social learning strategy’ which tells the animals when to learn and who to learn from. I then look at how individuals with different strategies survive over generations. All this can take a few seconds or a few months depending on how complex the world I have made really is.
My Typical Day
Go to work, do science, drink tea, do more science…
When I am working with animals my day is very different to days when I am working on the computer. When you are on a computer you need more breaks. You do lots more intense thinking and more learning. Working with animals you will usually know all your procedures and protocols before you begin. On the computer I tend to do a lot more learning as I go.
The days working with the budgies are different. Often the experiments we do are time sensitive so we have to do specific things at specific times. This doesn’t leave much time for breaks but it is worth it to get to work with the birds. This year we have some baby birds so training them and getting to know them is worth missing lunch break once in a while!
I work in an office with 4 other PhD students. They all work on different things, some work with human learners, some with chimpanzees and others with fish and birds. It is a nice environment to work in. We all do the same kind of work but on different species so we can discuss ideas and new papers with eachother. Sometimes it helps to do this with students at the same level as yourself- it helps you to formulate your ideas and avoid sounding silly when the professors ask you about things!
What I'd do with the money
Very difficult. I think I would put it partly towards books and partly towards something a bit more relaxing.
This september I will be writing an article reviewing all of the work in my field since the eighties. This is a massive task and will require a lot of reading. I think I would put part of the money towards the books I will need to read for this. In my lab the PhD students travel around the country to science festivals to talk about our work. The stall (here it is!) is aimed at kids old enough to colour in pictures to young adults who are interested in how we study culture and learning. It would be great to improve the exhibit and pay for some of our travel costs for future exhibits.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Adventurous, ocassionally nervous.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Another tough one. I generally like very chilled out music and my guilty pleasure is 60’s rock.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Travelling around the world is amazing fun. If you don’t speak the language it is twice as scary but twice as fun.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. I wish that I could move all of my best friends around the world with me. I miss them a lot. 2. I wish I had the ability to read academic papers and remember every detail (this would help me so very much!) 3. I wish I could pass my driving test (I keep failing)
What did you want to be after you left school?
Were you ever in trouble at school?
No I was definitely the quiet type…
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I worked in New Caledonia with very clever crows and recently published a paper in a really good journal (That is two things but I am proud of that last one!)
Tell us a joke.
Ok but I only know nerdy ones and you asked for it…. Two atoms are walking down the road, one isn’t concentrating and walks right into the other. They both fall over, one gets up and says ‘oh my! are you ok’ the other says ‘no no I think I’ve lost an electron’ the first says ‘oh my god are you sure’ the other replies ‘yes I’m bloody positive’!…and let that teach you not to ask scientists for jokes.