Photo:

Freya Harrison

Me and my work

I’m an evolutionary biologist: I try to explain why cooperative behaviours are so common in nature.

If animals have to compete with each other to survive and reproduce, and if genes are ‘selfish’ in promoting their own reproduction, why do we see so many examples of cooperative or altruistic behaviour?

 

Wherever we look in the tree of life we see individuals apparently suffering a personal cost in order to benefit others – from people donating bone marrow, to meerkat ‘helpers’ bringing up another animal’s pups instead of breeding themselves, to bacterial cells committing ‘suicide attacks’ in order to kill competing cells from other species.

 

Understanding how and why organisms cooperate can help us to understand  a lot about animal behaviour and biodiversity and also about human behaviour – understanding cooperation is key to understanding why we act the way we do and why we have such problems cooperating over important things like climate change.  Understanding cooperation in bacteria also has practical significance, because a lot of pathogenic bacteria rely on cooperative behaviours to live inside their hosts, so it’s often cooperation among bacterial cells thameans they make us ill.

 

I test theories about the evolution of cooperation using three systems.  First, I use behavioural experiments in humans and other animals to see when and how individuals choose to be selfish or selfless.  Second, I grow large populations of bacteria in the lab and watch how they evolve over hundreds of generations.  Some people have compared this approach to having a time machine and being able to watch life evolve over thousands or millions of years.  Last but not least, I’ve recently started using computer simulations to ask some new questions about the evolution of societies.  In my work, I collaborate a lot with other biologists, a psychologist and some social scientists.

My Typical Day

There is no typical day for me at the moment, which I love!

I always start with a coffee and an email check – on a Thursday morning I also get tables of contents for scientific journals emailed to me, so I’ll do some reading and keep up with what’s new.  If I’m expecting students to turn up for a tutorial, I’ll mark their work.  If I’m working on  a lab project then I’ll head into the lab and spend time moving small amount of liquid from one tube to another,  making growth media for my bacteria and counting colonies on agar plates.  On a computer simulation day I’ll sit at my desk with a huge mug of coffee and listen to music while I programme or analyse data.  On a day when I’m working on a human experiment, I could be meeting participants, setting up an online survey, analysing data, writing ethical approval forms or even shifting furniture around to set up for a ‘live’ experiment.  Then there are my favourite  days, which are the ones where I’ve finished an experiment, analysed the data and can spend a day or two writing it up for submission to a journal – it’s great to see the finished article coming together.

What I'd do with the money

I would donate it to the Oxford natural history museum to fund outreach and education events.

Oxford University has several museums and collections, and the museums service does a fantastic job of running free outreach and education events for families, schools, A-level students and the general public.  I’ve helped out at the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the History of Science and the Botanic Garden and had great fun doing everything from helping small children make model trilobites to chairing a debating sessiononbio-ethics for sixth formers.  There are a small number of hardworking paid staff who organise and tun these events, plus a large pool of volunteers who help to make sure things run smoothly and who give their time in return for tea & biscuits, as well as receiving valuable experience in science communication and education.  I’m sure £500 would be really useful to the museums to help buy materials for an event or cover travel expenses for visits to schools and community centres.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Always wears purple

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Favourite singer – Johnny Cash. Favourite band (for today, anyway) – Rammstein.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

My favourite hobby is historical combat and reenactment. There’s just something about wearing chain mail and charging down a hill with a sword, screaming insults at your friends before you hack each other to ‘death’ that makes me very happy.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

My first wish would be for 20:20 vision, because without glasses or contact lenses the world is one massive blur. My second wish would be to have my own research group, with a couple of PhD students and post-docs to work with me. For my final wish I’d want to own a piece of land in the countryside, where my other half and I could keep some livestock and build our own Viking long hall for fighting and feasting with our friends.

What did you want to be after you left school?

Until I was 16 I wanted to study politics and work in the music industry. Then when I started doing A-level Environmental Science I realised that what I really, really wanted to be was a scientist. So I picked up an extra A-level in Biology and the rest is history.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

I was told to stop talking a lot.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to travel abroad to visit new countries and meet new people. But the thing that gives me most pleasure and the biggest sense of achievement is the teaching I’ve done. I teach statistics to undergraduate students and those moments when I see the subject matter ‘click’ and the students start understanding and gaining confidence is amazing.

Tell us a joke.

How many evolutionary biologists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but it takes eight million years.