Researcher and science communicator
University of Essex. Plymouth University
BSc (Hons.), MSc (Distinction), PhD
Universites: Lapland, Plymouth, Oxford, Reading, Nottingham, Essex.
Affiliated Senior Researcher - University of Lapland; Associate Lecturer - University of Plymouth
Favourite thing to do in my job: Get people excited about complicated things!
I am a researcher and science communicator
My current research revolves around the effects that climate change might have on the Arctic. I am writing computer programs that will help those managing (for example) skiing and tourism industries to make decisions.
This is just a small part of a huge EU funded research project that looks at all aspects of arctic life called Blue Action which involves people from all over the world.
Science Communication has always formed a large part of my scientific life. I am a regular at science festivals, science cafes; I have developed projects with the Ri, the Wellcome Trust, various museums, the British Council, the Edinburgh Festival; and I work with students of all ages as ‘Scientist In Residence’ at a large school in Plymouth.
My PhD was in computational neuroscience. It’s amazing how we use the stuff we get from our eyes and ears to make sense of the world and nobody is really sure about how we do it. My thesis involved building computer models of how we hear, and how we learn to hear.
My Typical Day
I read a lot of papers, write notes on what I am going to do for my various projects, meet with and talk to my colleagues (including a lot of skype), and write and test computer code. I travel a lot, this involves a good deal of planning and preparing talks, demonstrations and workshops.
The long answer is: that there is no such thing as a typical day, sorry!
I do spend a lot of my time reading. Other people’s results and opinions are an essential part of research, even if you disagree with everything they say. I also like to read what people are doing way outside my own area. Many researchers fall in to the trap of only reading what they think is directly important to them, and they miss loads of great ideas that would make their work better.
Writing computer code is a creative process that I have always enjoyed. Playing with ideas, making them work, building models from data, seeing how it all fits together in many different ways – it is like a vast (in effect infinite) intellectual construction kit where the design of each piece, and the way all the pieces fit together, is at your fingertips and the results are satisfying and beautiful to look at.
What I'd do with the prize money
I have two great new ideas for science roadshow events: a role play game that demonstrates how brains work using members of the audience as neurons, and a working model of a nuclear chain reaction! The prize would be enough for me to buy the stuff to set these up and take them to schools and science festivals.
Outside of the lab I regularly give public presentations and do a sort of science `busking’. This is part of a bigger effort that is sometimes called public engagement (this event is part of the same big picture) which I think is very important. I have been working on few ideas.
The picture shows me at the Cheltenham Science Festival showing how protein molecules can stick together to make cheese to an audience of under tens!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, serious, careful.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I think my day job is great, I hope you will ask me lots of questions and learn more about it, but getting out of the lab and getting everybody interested and curious about the world, about the universe, is a rush! Last year I was a ‘warm up act’ for the Halle Orchestra on the last night of the Cheltenham Music Festival – not the usual science crowd! I shared the stage with a friend of mine who is a violin maker and we talked about science and musical instruments – the physics of sound, the biology of wood, the chemistry of glue, and all sorts of stuff. We had the whole audience gluing bits of wood together, doing listening experiments, and generally getting involved and asking questions. It was great :-)
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Only minor stuff. My school had a purpose built music department with sound-proof practice rooms. Occasionally (!) I took my guitar to the music block and locked myself in rather than go to lessons. I was caught in the end of course.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I don’t have one at the moment. I listen to a lot of great tracks by different people. My friends are always recommending great stuff for me to listen to. OK – I will say `Mumford and Sons’ because they are relatively new and have impressed me recently.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Kayaking the Nantahala River in North Carolina – great rapids!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I would want to be smarter, more energetic, and less serious.
Tell us a joke.
A polar bear walks in to a bar and says “A pint of bitter and … … … … … … … … a packet of crisps please”. The guy who is serving asks him “Why the big pause?” “Because I’m a polar bear!”