Can't believe I won! Thanks for all your votes everyone!! Really excited to get started on the new project :)
Favourite Thing: Making a new discovery – analysing results can be difficult but it’s all worth it when find out something new.
Somervale School 1997-2003, University of St. Andrews 2003-2007, Exeter University 2007-2008, University College London 2009-present
I have done everything from waitressing, shop work, admin jobs and handing out leaflets in the street to fund my degrees! Recently I have become an Outreach Lecturer, giving talks to visiting school groups about my research and university life.
PhD student and Student Engager at UCL Museums (talking to museum visitors about my research)
University College London
Me and my work
My research is on the evolution of language, which often involves following baboons around the forest with a microphone…
By studying the meaning of primate vocalisations, we hope to understand how humans evolved to have modern language. Humans are a type of primate, and there are over 200 species of primate, but no others can communicate like we can. Why is this?
I study baboons at Gashaka Gumti National Park in Nigeria, which is an amazing place to live and work. This is the river next to our camp, which we share with all the monkeys in the area:
We are studying the sounds these baboons make, and the behaviour that is linked to these vocalisations. This way we can find out whether there is meaning attached to baboon vocalisations, in a basic form of how we understand words.
This can tell us a lot about how intelligent baboons are – if they understand the meaning of sounds, they could lie or trick others using this skill, just like humans! Chimps have been shown to use different sounds depending on who is nearby, in the same way that we might say different things around friends than we would say around our parents.
All of our baboons have names and can be recognised, so that we know which ones are friends and which ones tend to fight when they’re together. Here is Eggi, a baby at about 2 weeks old. They have a black coat and white face until around 6 months, when they start to change colour:
This research is part of my PhD at University College London, and the work is still going on now. We have thousands of baboon vocalisations to study and hope to know what they mean soon!
My Typical Day
Up early, follow baboons for 6 hours, take a nap, office work, then relax!
On a typical field day, I get up at 4.50am and turn on the power before the rest of camp wakes up at 5. We are very lucky to have solar power, and need it at this time in the morning as it’s still dark! We eat porridge for energy, and leave camp at sunrise which is usually before 6.
From 6-12 we follow the baboons, who are used to having humans nearby and come very close to us. The forest can be difficult to work in, and sometimes climbing is involved as well as trekking!
Each day, we follow a different baboon, so each behaves differently and some keep us busier than others. I work with a volunteer who makes sound recordings of all the vocalisations the baboons make, while I make notes on their behaviour. We also work with local field assistants to avoid getting lost in the forest. This is me, Georgia and Ibrahim at work:
When we return to camp at midday, it’s nap time! Afternoons are usually spent in the office uploading the day’s data. We have a small library of books and DVDs for the evenings, and can get radio signal in camp. There is no internet and no mobile phone signal, so it’s very different from being at home. Usually, we go to bed when it gets dark at around 8.30 ready to be up early the next day. It sounds tough, but only takes a couple of weeks to get used to!
On a day off, we can travel by motorbike through the forest to the nearest village, where we can buy fresh fruit and coke, which makes a nice treat compared to the diet of rice and beans! We can also phone friends and family from town. Three hours on the back of a motorbike can be quite dusty, though…
What I'd do with the money
I’d organise events at UCL and school visits to experiment with human understanding of baboon sounds, and also set up a website so that people can listen to the sounds and vote on what they mean online – I want to know whether you can guess what the baboons are saying!
For the last year I’ve been working in UCL Museums, playing the baboon sounds recorded at our field site to visitors. I’ve noticed that often people can correctly guess what they mean, especially when it’s an infant that’s crying or separated from its mother. Are there some kind of universal sounds that we can all recognise? This would be really interesting when thinking about how language evolved.
I would use the money to buy speakers to play the sounds, and to organise workshops for people to come in and hear them, and guess what they mean. Hopefully it will be fun as well as giving people the chance to get involved in a study and find out the results!
I would also use the money to buy an ipad or similar tablet to keep in the museum, so that people can hear the sounds and do the guessing task on an app when I’m not there. This is an idea I’ve been working on with other museum staff for a while, if you have any ideas to improve it I’d be very happy to hear them!
UPDATE: I’ve enjoyed I’m a Scientist so much over the last 2 weeks that I’d also like to set the baboon language project up as a website! Having seen how successful an online project can be, I think this would be a great way to get people from any location involved, and would make the project much more interesting. So I would use some of the money to set up a website with a whole range of baboon sounds, where people can vote on what they mean and get feedback as to how well they understand the baboons 🙂
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Professional Monkey Watcher
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Guns n Roses, Biffy Clyro, anything a bit loud and energetic.
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Having a birthday party in the jungle while away for fieldwork, complete with a sound system on the beach and dancing in the river :)
What did you want to be after you left school?
A psychologist. Eventually I decided to look at non human behaviour instead…
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Not a lot, I was the quiet type!
What was your favourite subject at school?
Biology, but also English Literature. I think arts and science mix well.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Getting the chance to live and work abroad. Watching animals in the wild is my favourite part of my work.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
My A-Level Psychology teacher was the first person to show me how much fun it is to carry out experiments and make your own discoveries, but like many who study animals, I’m a sucker for David Attenborough and Jurassic Park…
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Probably a journalist. I enjoy writing about science in blogs and articles as well as researching, so am lucky to get a bit of both at the moment.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To finish my PhD on time (September, not long to go!), to work more with museums over the next year, and to be somewhere hot and sunny this summer!
Tell us a joke.
What do you call an exploding monkey? A baBOOM!
This is our camp, with the office in the background on the right. The solar power is to the left, and the other huts are bedrooms.
A lot of work is done in our rooms, and this is mine. We all have beds, desks and shelves just like rooms in universities at home, but here there is a jungle outside the window…
And here’s that birthday party I mentioned earlier! Scientists aren’t perfect, sometimes we tape banners together backwards…
Thanks for reading, I look forward to answering your questions in the next chat session!