The ants say 'hi'. (At least, I think that's what they're saying.)
2007-2010: Oxford University; 2011-present: Princeton University
BA in Biological Sciences (Oxford); MSc in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (Princeton)
PhD student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love watching collective animal behaviour – that is, animals moving together in swarms such as flocks of birds, schools of fish and colonies of insects.
I study how individual animals like ants can create huge swarms that move and make decisions together.
I’m interested in how simple individual actions, like a bird changing direction in flight, or a wildebeest moving across a plain, scale up to very complex group behaviour like flocking, or stampedes. Starling flocks are a good example of a huge group of animals that almost looks as though it’s behaving as a single animal. (A flock like this is known as a ‘murmuration’ of starlings – one of my favourite words!)
(Watch the very cool video of these birds here)
Studying one individual animal is very different from studying hundreds or thousands of animals together. (And humans are no exception – a huge crowd at a football stadium behaves very differently from people by themselves.)
I use colonies of ants to study these ideas. All the ants in a colony work on jobs such as cleaning the nest, looking after the queen ant or leaving the nest to find food. However, there is no single ant telling the rest what to do. Each ant goes about its work without being instructed or knowing what other ants are doing. So how does a colony of ants organize itself, if nobody’s in charge?
I study the behaviour of individual ants, and the behaviour of the whole colony together to look at how this organization works.
My Typical Day
My typical day is a combination of giving fashion accessories (well, bar codes) to ants and working on the computer
At the moment, a typical morning involves gluing about one hundred tiny bar codes onto the backs of about one hundred ants. Everything has to be done under a microscope using miniature tools made from matchsticks and wire. By the end of tagging, the colony looks like this:
(The cream-coloured blobs without any bar codes are the eggs. The ants spend most of their time looking after the eggs and the queen.)
In the afternoon I film the ants working in the nest and finding food outside the nest. I use a computer program to track the ants as they move around, using these bar codes. (Without the computer program to do this, I would have to follow every ant individually by eye, which would take a very long time indeed. With the computer program, I can track one hundred ants running around for eight hours in only a few minutes.)
Then I use maths to describe and explain the patterns of behaviour inside the nest. In particular, I want to know how ants communicate with each other inside the nest, and what they’re saying. These particular ants talk to each other by touching antennae, as you can see in the photo just to the right.
What I'd do with the prize money
Set up a science website for students – written by students!
Nothing helps you understand science better than explaining it to other people. If I won, I would use the money to set up and publicize a website where students could get their work published online. In other words, an online science magazine, but written by students rather than professional journalists. I think this would be a really great way to start an online community of students interested in science, and give you a taste experience of what it’s like to explain scientific ideas in writing.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Bad at interviews?
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Before I started my PhD, I studied ‘golden orb weavers’ – large, biting spiders about the size of your palm. Once, I built a giant spinning wheel out of Lego to reel their silk. We used the silk to make a rope (only a few millimetres thick) that could lift two German TV presenters out of a lake. (You can see the TV show here: http://www.wdr.de/tv/kopfball/sendungsbeitraege/2010/1212/. They do the lifting at the very end.)
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Watching David Attenborough documentaries and, er, Jurassic Park gave me a sense of wonder about the natural world. Reading Denis Noble’s ‘The Music of Life’ as a teenager inspired me to study Biology at university. Following a swarm of bees made me want to work on collective behaviour.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I didn’t always get on with all my teachers. One told me I was argumentative and I replied “NO I’M NOT”.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
The Rolling Stones
What's your favourite food?
Banoffee pie. It contains *almost* all the major food groups.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Ride across Mongolia on horseback
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. Have a conversation with an ant. Studying animal behaviour is difficult because you never really know what animals are *trying* to do, you can only look at what animals *actually* do and work backwards. It would be extremely helpful to get a few hints from the ants themselves. 2. Own a canoe. I’d use it to get to work. In style. 3. See a murmuration of starlings firsthand. I haven’t yet!
Tell us a joke.
What cheese do you use to get a bear out of a cave? Camembert. ..