Some thoughts on ‘I’m a Scientist’.

For the last two weeks I have been taking part in I’m a Scientist: Get me out of here. Now, I know that I am a few years late to the party on this and there has already been plenty written and several awards, but here are my thoughts on the experience.

Firstly, it’s bloomin’ brilliant! As many other people have said before me, it is a fantastic experience. It is great to chat to kids and answer the questions that they really want to ask. Whether this was a question about what my work taught us about the evolution of intelligence or what I do in my spare time, it was great to engage with a group of people who wanted to engage with us. I loved the fact that what we did was break down the term ‘scientist’ and make it real for them. Hopefully they could see that we’re not all in a lab coat, cackling to ourselves as we divide our time up between curing cancer and splitting atoms.

Secondly, I have learned so much. Being asked questions and having to justify my own research (and, to some extent, my life in general) to people with huge curiosity is great. It helped to clarify my own thoughts and it forced me to think about how I think. It has also inspired me to work out how I can do some new projects. For this I am really grateful. The effect, as with any good public engagement project, has certainly not just been one-way.

Thirdly, competition is sometimes a neat driver. I often approach human behaviour wearing the hat of someone who works on its evolution, so for me it is fascinating to see the effect of certain conditions. Humans are very cooperative (when compared to other species), but a heathy dose of competition does us some good sometimes. The fact that there was a gentle competitive element to the event meant that I was definitely spurred on to go the extra mile. The fact that there were four other scientists who were all phenomenally good, also answering questions meant that I was always thinking that I had to be good enough to match them. It is not sufficient to say “I don’t know” to an enquiring mind, I needed to do more (although sometimes that had to be explaining that this wasn’t my area of science and that physics usually boggles my mind as well!).

Fourthly, community is great. As much as I got competitive and wanted to win, I felt a great feeling of camaraderie with my fellow scientists and with the kids that were involved. It was great to see the same names popping up in the chats and asking questions, and it was a real shame when we got to the second week and scientists started ‘disappearing’.

And finally: we really need to think about how evolution is taught and discussed. I worry that there are so many basic misconceptions about how evolution works. Now, many of the school groups that I was talking to were of a younger age group for the event – years 7 and 8 (11-13 year olds), but the issues here were issues that I have seen popping up time and time again. It worries me that there were so many questions such as ‘if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?’. It worries me that this elegant theory that underpins the whole of biology is allowed to be so thoroughly misunderstood. And it worries me because I fear that people are being encouraged to have some sort of blind faith in evolution.

Let me be clear, this is not a criticism of those asking the questions. There are many people who would say that they think that evolution by natural selection is the explanation for the diversity of species on Earth, but when it gets to the nuts-and-bolts, they don’t know the answers. Unfortunately, I think that many of them are too afraid to ask questions about evolutionary theory for fear of being thought stupid. That, somehow, it is better to be ignorant but supporting, than question the mechanisms of evolutionary theory.

Who is to blame for that? Well, us – those of us who study and research evolutionary questions. I fear that shouting at fundamentalist religious fanatics has become such a pastime for certain proponents of evolution, that a dialogue with our friends is viewed as some poor and useless substitute. Cults of personality and metaphors of war have been allowed to distract people from constructive dialogue. We don’t need to batten down the hatches or march into battle, we need to chat and we need to listen.

I know that the points in this post are not new, they have been said elsewhere many times; but I wanted to add my voice to those many people by thanking all at Gallomanor for devising and running I’m a Scientist. It really has been a blast and it has certainly got me thinking.

Living Links

This is just a short post to introduce you to my new place of work (for the next nine months or so). Don’t worry, I haven’t abandoned the post-doc, it is part of it. I am currently Research Coordinator of the Living Links Research Centre in Edinburgh Zoo.

As I pointed out in my last post, my office is now just across the corridor from capuchin and squirrel monkeys. Whilst you may not be able to nose around my office, you can, however, see my ‘lab’. The area in which all of the research is carried out is on display. As visitors walk into the centre, past the monkeys’ outdoor enclosures, they get to see the monkeys’ indoor areas and also the research room. It is here that we carry out our work in full view of the zoo visitors.

The cognitive experiments that go on here are all about finding out about the how our primate cousins think and how they have evolved. Researchers here examine a range of subjects, including problem solving, learning from others, facial recognition and animal welfare. All of it is non-invasive, we do nothing that harms any of our monkeys; they choose whether they come in for the experiments.

The centre also has some great science interpretation, explaining what we’re up to and showing some of the apparatus that has been used in experiments. There is a chance for visitors to see if they can identify individual monkeys, find out about the cognition of different species and the evolution of primates. However, for me, the key really is the fact that when I am doing an experiment, zoo visitors will be watching. They, in turn, will be seeing some scientists going about their daily life and carrying out our experiments. We have nothing (and nowhere) to hide. For me, that’s reassuring.

So, if you’re about in Edinburgh, do pop into the zoo to see us all – researchers and monkeys. If you’re not around, why not have a look at the website.

Happy New Year

On New Year’s Eve, during a dinner party with a bunch of friends, we started discussing New Year Resolutions. One of our number offered his: to concentrate on making the most of this time of his life, not to worry too much about future plans and not allow this time to slip away without appreciating it.

We agreed that it was a fairly good one – something that we should all adopt.

Now, he works in a very different world to me, but it set me thinking. As a postdoc, I am on short-term contracts, I am dependent upon other peoples’ grants and, of course, my future in academia is far from certain. We all know the statistics. There aren’t many jobs, the competition is fierce and we have to work our fingers to the bone to get noticed. Whilst not an inaccurate portrayal, it’s a clichéd narrative.

If you speak to older academics, inevitably they tell you that the bit of their career that they enjoyed most was as an early-career researcher. It was a time when research was the focus; committees, reports for funding bodies and undergraduates were rare distraction.

And let’s be clear, research is pretty cool. We’re being paid to be curious, to investigate things that are fascinating, to push the envelop of human knowledge. This year, I have several embryonic projects that are very exciting. The first of these is taking over (for a few months) as research coordinator at the Living Links at Edinburgh Zoo. It’s a really exciting opportunity. How many other people get an office less than 10 metres away from a monkey enclosure in the middle of a zoo?

So, my resolution is that I am going to stop panicking (for a while at least) about my long-term plans are and enjoy myself. I shall try to grasp the opportunities that are offered to me and make the absolute most of them. I expect it to be hard work, but I also hope that it will be a lot of fun.