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Not bad science

Not bad science

New discoveries in animal behavior and cognition

An Introduction

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I remember a moment I had in high school where a friend of mine told me that she was going to become an animal behaviour scientist. I had a feeling of shock at the notion that this was actually a job. Growing up as many of us did watching David Attenborough reveal the wonders of animal behaviour, it had never occurred to me that that there might be scientists behind the scenes, spending years collecting data on a question that Sir David would then reveal in a single sentence, in his succinct, mellifluous manner.

Even though I had other interests as a teenager (forensic entomology being one, which was probably a worrying period for my parents as I worked my way through a number of books with pictures of dead bodies covered in insects on them), I could never escape my burning interest in how animals behaved the way they do. I read all six books on animal behaviour in the school library and was hungry for more. When the time came to leave high school, I chose to study Zoology at university. I remember my first day exploring the biology library and being just ecstatic with excitement: rows and rows of behaviour books. The librarian had a slightly amused but knowing look on her face as I stacked up the (maximum of eight) books to take out, including ‘The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms’. I'm sure she had seen the wide-eyed keen look on many keen students before me.

My first assignment as a student was to visit Edinburgh zoo and answer questions on the animals: their anatomy, physiology, evolution and behaviour. Like the shock I had felt at high school, I couldn't believe that this was really an assignment, it felt like way too much fun. Over the course of my time at university, I took a number of classes on animal behaviour and absolutely loved them. As my best friend was becoming increasingly bored of my sickening enthusiasm, I decided I needed to communicate elsewhere, and this was perhaps what prompted me into starting to write science articles for the public. In 2008 I won 2nd prize in the UK Daily Telegraph Science Writer’s award. Part of the prize was to have lunch with the judges at the Royal Society in London, which included David Attenborough. Without wanting to start gushing (as I of course did on that day), it was amazing to finally meet the man who had been my original inspiration to study animal behaviour. Thankfully I imagine that he was used to meeting border-line crazed fans and was extremely kind and attentive to my nervous ramblings and attempts at jokes. I sat next to him at lunch (there is a chance I had attached myself like a limpet to him by this point) and heard some amusing stories from him, and shared my plans for the PhD I was soon to start.

Myself (3rd from right) with the other winners and judges of the Daily Telegraph Award.

Over the course of my PhD in animal cognition (which I will go into in more detail in my next article), I continued doing bits and pieces of writing. Mostly, I have discussed recent findings in the fields of animal behaviour and cognition (a vague terms that I use to include perception, learning, memory, decision-making). I named my blog ‘Not Bad Science’ partly because I’m a Brit, and as a result love my understatements, but mostly as a tribute to one of my favourite science blogs: Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’. While he criticises bad science, and pulls apart flawed experiments, I wanted to celebrate the most exciting novel findings I came across, especially in behaviour experiments that hadn’t seem to make it into the mainstream media. All around the world people are working on thousands of different questions, all related to how animals behave the way they do, using thousands of different species (as well as other techniques) to answer these questions. I am aiming to do my best to convey just a bit of this (not bad) science to others.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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