Final day :-(
University of St Andrews – 2002-06 and 2007-10. Barton Court Grammar School – 1994- 2001
PhD in evolutionary biology. BSc (Hons) in zoology
2011-13 – Outreach and Education Officer at The Physiological Society. Mar to Jun 2011 – Volunteer at Sense About Science
Postdoctoral researcher at the ‘Living Links Research Centre’ in Edinburgh Zoo
University of St Andrews
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love working with animals, watching them solve complicated puzzles (or working out why they have failed). Working with chimps and monkeys is a huge honour.
I investigate the behaviour of our closest living relatives – apes and monkeys.
I am interested in how animals behave and how they learn new things. Just like you or me, animals learn new things, like which foods they can eat, who they should be friends with (or avoid) and what is safe to play with (and what is dangerous).
I have worked with apes, monkeys, lemurs and children in zoos and sanctuaries (and nursery schools) around the world researching when they learn new things, how they learn this information and if they pass their knowledge onto others. We know humans are really good at learning and teaching, but how good are monkeys? Well, sometimes they’re really good and sometimes they aren’t. I am interested in finding out why!
When I am doing research, I give the monkeys or apes a puzzle to solve and I video how they do it. If they solve it, they find some food. I then spend a lot of time carefully watching the videos to find out how they have learned.
My Typical Day
Coffee, emails, coffee, research, lunch, research, emails, trying to work out what that day’s data actually means.
I work in a research centre in the middle of Edinburgh Zoo, so I walk to my office past flamingoes, Chinese mountain goats and chimpanzees. My office looks out into the monkey enclosures, where our capuchins and squirrel monkeys live. Usually the first thing that I do is put the kettle on and make some coffee – you need to be wide awake when you’re working with animals.
We have two research sessions each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The great thing about working at the zoo is that the visitors can see everything that we’re doing. If I am doing research, I need to set up the puzzle that the monkeys have to solve and the video cameras to record it. The monkeys really love our puzzles, because they get some food and another thing to play with (they’re usually very curious).
When I am not doing research, I am usually watching back the videos and recording what happened. I am really lucky that my job also involves chatting with zoo visitors, so I often pop up into the visitor areas to answer questions that people have about the research that’s going on.
What I'd do with the prize money
It would go towards my show about chimp behaviour and human rights.
Should chimpanzees have human rights? Can a chimp do a human wrong? We know that chimps are highly intelligent and very sociable animals, but should they have human rights? Some people have argued that they should. However, if they were given human rights, could they also be guilty of crimes (just like humans)?
In my show (which will be at the Edinburgh Festival and British Science Festival) an imaginary chimp is on trial for murdering one of his friends (occasionally in the wild chimps do kill one another in fights). Like in a real courtroom, we will have ‘expert witnesses’ who will talk about whether it is possible for a chimp to commit a crime. At the end the audience gets to be the jury and vote whether they think our imaginary chimp is guilty or not.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Usually laid back
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I got to help a chimp called Joey paint a picture, which still hangs on my wall.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
A couple of books have really inspired me. ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell inspired me as a kid and ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond inspired me as a student.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I was a bit of a goody two shoes, but I did sometimes get in trouble for talking too much. I’d get moved to a different table and just talk to them instead!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe working in a zoo or museum, or maybe something completely different, like a lawyer or civil servant.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Umm… that’s tricky and depends on my mood. Maybe really good Mexican food.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I did a gorge swing in Zambia – basically jumping off a cliff attached to a rope. It was terrifying, but I got a huge buzz from it afterwards.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. To visit chimps in the wild and see them in their natural habitat. 2. To have a successful and fulfilling scientific career. However, I would drop science instantly to become: 3. a cricket correspondent, following the England cricket team around the world!
Tell us a joke.
The other night I dreamt I wrote Lord Of The Rings… I was Tolkien in my sleep. (I think that joke was told first by Tim Vine, so all credit to him for it!)