Somervale School 1997-2003, University of St. Andrews 2003-2007, Exeter University 2007-2008, University College London 2009-2014
MA(Hons) Psychology, MSc Animal Behaviour, PhD Biological Anthropology
I have done everything from waitressing, shop work, admin jobs and handing out leaflets in the street to fund my degrees! Since graduating I have worked for UCL Museums and ZSL London Zoo.
Freelance science communicator & primatologist
While writing up research from my fieldwork, I am working as a freelance science communicator, talking about primatology and producing science events:
Favourite thing to do in my job: Making a new discovery – analysing results can be difficult but it’s all worth it when find out something new.
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 600 species of primate, but no others can communicate like we can. Why is this?
I studied 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 was part of my PhD at University College London. Having finished the project, I am now writing and giving talks about primate communication! https://showofftalentfactory.wordpress.com/portfolio/suzanne-harvey/
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.
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 prize 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
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Getting the chance to live and work abroad. Watching animals in the wild and working with them in zoos have both been amazing experiences.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Reading Frans de Waal's book 'The Ape and the Sushi Master' was the first time I realised how fascinating a career in primatology could be
What was your favourite subject at school?
Biology, but also English Literature. I think arts and science mix well.
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 at school?
Not a lot, I was the quiet type!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
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.
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 :)
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!