My current job
I am currently studying for a PhD looking into insect protective colouration, receiver psychology and the computational neuroscience of avian vision. My PhD is great because it allows me to combine a huge range of subject areas from visual psychology to behavioural and evolutionary biology. I study bird vision, including the differences between bird and human vision in terms of the perception of both colour and pattern. Birds have four types of cone in their retina, (including a UV sensitive cone), whereas humans have three. This means birds perceive ultraviolet wavelengths and probably can also see many more hues of colour. We can never reproduce exactly how birds perceive the world in a way humans can see, but we can get a good idea of how the world might look like to them and the differences between bird vision and human vision. We can use equipment to measure how light is reflected from objects and we have a good understanding of the mechanics of how a birds eye works so it is possible to model how an object is likely to been seen. Bird vision is an interesting system in its own right but I am also using bird vision as a model to investigate how insects use colour and pattern to avoid being eaten.
I use a variety of techniques including computational and mathematical models, calibrating cameras to allow me to collect information about colour reflection that I can use to model how birds might see their prey. I have been working on many types of camouflage, but am particularly interested in eyespots and disruptive colouration, where patches of colour are used to break up the shape of the body. Fieldwork on insect camouflage using artificial moths allows me to investigate how different types of camouflage are detected by birds. We have found moths with certain patterns of disruptive colouring survive longer than others and this can be related back to how the birds visual system works.
It is great to be able to think about things no-one has ever worked on extensively and to find out things that have not been discovered before. I also enjoy understanding more about these subject areas and learning new techniques. It can quite difficult to organise the many different projects I am working on at once, as well as combining it with the other aspects of a PhD, such as demonstrating in undergraduate student practicals. Aside from all the general knowledge I have learnt in my degrees, I have learnt so many new techniques. I love what I do. It does not feel like a job since it’s doing something I really enjoy and getting money for doing that is an added bonus.
How I got here
I have been interested in natural history and wildlife since I was very young. It was a natural development to go on to study it at A-level and then as a degree. I went straight to university after my A-levels and I tended to do the things that people often do in their gap years in the summers during my degree. This included 7 weeks working with the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece on Crete, including surveying beaches for turtle activity and giving talks to the public. The following year I spent three months as an intern for the American Bear Association, on a wildlife reserve in Minnesota. The bears there were wild, but were habituated to humans so you could study them without disturbing them. I always enjoyed behavioural and evolutionary topics most during my degree. I became very interested in the history of life and how life has evolved on the planet as well as how evolution shapes the behaviour of animals today. So it was a natural progression on to studying behavioural ecology.
When I have finished my PhD I would like to carry on in research. Ultimately I would like to get a full-time position working in research. I am interested in carrying on investigating in my subject area because there is so much to be understood about insect protective colouration. At the moment I would like to develop more methods of studying adaptive colouration in animals using computer modelling, developing some of the work I have been doing in my PhD.
I think you have to be passionate about what you are studying, if you are not then it’s a lot of work to put in for something you are not interested in. But if you are interested in it, then it’s well worth it!