Elspeth Kenny is a behavioural ecology PhD student at the University of Sheffield studying coastal birds. During her undergraduate years she was a country finalist in FameLab and spent a year in Canada studying stickleback populations.
There is that danger that people think, ‘Oh I’m not a scientist. I’m not sciencey. I’m not gonna get it.’
On getting into science
I don’t really have a pinpoint of what got me interested in biology, ah, but I applied…I think I was quite good at school, I had a really good teacher at school, but I knew I was doing the right degree when I read a New Scientist article about nanotubes and I got so excited I gave myself a headache and I had to ring my dad, all the way from France, and just talk about the article because I was so excited about it!
And another moment I realised I really was doing the right degree was when I found out about a piece of research by the University of Sheffield and they found that cuckoos lay their eggs and incubate it inside them for a few days before laying and that’s how they always make sure that their eggs hatches before the other eggs, because they parasitise other bird’s nests. And I just get so excited, and I tell everybody at least five times, so I know I’m definitely on the right degree and doing the right thing.
I haven’t had a specific scientific role model. I think that discussions with various people have helped, like, I had a really good chemistry teacher at school so I decided to take chemistry. And chats with my dad have just sort of increased my interest. And mainly just with everyday people. If I do start spouting out my animal facts in the pub and someone responds with equal enthusiasm that really buoys me on and I find that really inspiring, when you meet everyday people who are also really interested in just finding out more about our crazy world. I think that’s more inspiring than a particular person.
It’s always nice to, you know, see David Attenborough doing his thing and to hear other people talking about a David Attenborough series that they’ve heard about because he really has inspired a lot of people, but I think it’s the day to day interactions of normal people that inspired me to carry on finding out more really cool things.
On finishing an undergraduate degree
I’ve just finished my degree in biology at the University of Sheffield. Although it was biology I concentrated mainly on animals, because that’s the sort of thing I was interested in rather than botany. I think my favourite modules were the history of the philosophy of science, that was really cool, we had to read a lot of popular science books and we had to do a presentation on a certain topic and mine was about communication. So that was really interesting. We were looking at how it’s portrayed and how it has been portrayed in the past and how far it’s come on with the internet and everything now. That was really interesting.
And I also love my animal behaviour modules. The lectures were brilliant. It was just YouTube clips and little factoids about animals; it was just really interesting and I was annoying everybody down the pub with what I’d learnt.
On science communication
I think science communication is incredibly important, definitely, but I have realised there is a limit to it in the same way that other people think that the offside rule is really important for everyone to know in football. I don’t really get that, I don’t really care about it, in the same way that I have learnt to appreciate that some people just don’t like science, they’re just not interested and you can’t shove it down their throat. But, equally, there is that danger of lack of education of science, in that making decisions – making day to day decisions – decisions about your health, about what to eat, about whether to believe what we read in the media and things like that, I think there is a point where people have to have it a bit shoved down their throat in order for them to make the best decisions. Yeah, I think it’s very important and I really enjoy it. I really enjoy talking to people about science.
FameLab has a really good structure in that they help you to see what’s effective. By marking you on content, clarity and charisma they make sure that what you say is correct, not just dramatising something because you’re really interested in it, and that you make it relevant to people. Also they make sure that you explain it in a clear way and that you really engage with people, you really get people interested. So from my point of view, I really like to use humour, I don’t really take myself very seriously and I try to make that come across because there is that danger that people think, ‘Oh I’m not a scientist. I’m not sciencey. I’m not gonna get it’. Whereas if you relate it to, sort of, humorous everyday things I think it’s a really good way of engaging people. And it’s really rewarding as well. When you get a laugh for something that you’re really obsessed about, that’s really nice.
On behavioural ecology
So, behavioural ecology is the study of animal behaviour. I think it’s really important that we move from just knowing and studying what animals do to how that affects us. So by learning how animals interact socially, by learning about their courting and mating rituals, by learning about how they deal with, ah, food fluctuations and their other social behaviour…how that affects their population fluctuations and how climate change and us messing up food distribution and things like that is really important. So making that link between just a little factoid about, ‘Oh, there’s this really crazy animal that does this really crazy thing’, to actually, ‘And that’s why their population is massively decreasing and it’s our fault and we should sort that out’. So making that link between just factoids and what we can do to help animal populations.
I’m starting my PhD in October . I’m really excited. It’s on the ecology and behaviour of guillemots, which are sea coastal birds, and I’m going to be doing my field work on Skomer Island, which is just off of Wales, and I have to learn how to rock climb. So I’m going to be scaling the cliffs and we’re looking at how their social interactions affect their stress and their internal body mechanisms and then how that, in turn, affects their incubation, because the guillemot populations are fluctuating hugely over a 40 year period, that’s been going on and we don’t really know why. It might be something to do with over fishing, in that their food supply is massively fluctuating. It might also be something to do with climate change in that, obviously, by the sea temperatures are all over the place. So it’s a mixture of looking back, using 40 years of data, and asking some questions about why their populations are fluctuating so much and also looking at how their social interactions affect their incubation.
On fixing human problems affecting animal populations
Taking the guillemots, so, over fishing is a really big issue and that is something that we can directly change in our day to day lives by eating less fish. Less fish, less meat, and then making sure where we do get our fish from is sustainable and things because, through that, there’s going to be less demand for it so the whole fishing industry will be forced to change, because we’re not going to be eating as much fish as before. And so all those many, many species that rely on eating fish will just be more sustainable. So that’s a simple thing we can do in our everyday lives. Eat less fish. Eat more veg.
On future discoveries
That we could make as a species? Well, just personally, I would really like to find a new species and name it after something. Not necessarily me, just somebody, I think that would be really cool.