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Professor Alice Roberts

Alice Roberts is a clinical anatomist with a PhD in paleopathology and the Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham.  As well as being the author of a number of best-selling popular science books, Alice is perhaps best known for presenting a wide range of science documentaries for the BBC including ‘The Incredible Human Journey’ and ‘Ice Age Giants’.

I’ve always been very interested in bones.  It’s very strange.

On becoming interested in science

I was always interested in biology, definitely, and I remember, I don’t know who bought it for me, but I remember having a microscope when I was quite little.  I think I was probably at primary school when I had this microscope – I must’ve been – and I was absolutely fascinated by what you could see down it.  I mean, the fact that there was all this invisible world: a world that was not visible to the naked eye but when you put the slides underneath the microscope you could see all this wonderful detail.  So I remember really clearly looking at bees’ wings and looking at butterfly wings and looking at bits of onion skin and all sorts of different things.  And also drawing it all.  I’ve always loved drawing and I remember drawing it all, and I found recently some of my drawings from when I was younger of these weird and wonderful things under the microscope, so,  yeah, I think that probably really kind of grabbed hold of me.  

And I remember being really interested in anatomy.  I had a wonderful book written by Jonathan Miller and David Pelham, which was a pop up anatomy book which was absolutely beautiful so I think that’s what possibly got me hooked on anatomy.  And I’ve always been very interested in bones.  It’s very strange.  It’s not morbid, it’s just fascinating, this internal structure of the body as well.

On becoming an anatomist

I initially trained as a medic, as a doctor, and I actually practiced a bit as well as a doctor in South Wales, and I did what I thought was going to be a six month job at Bristol University teaching anatomy to medical students, which is actually quite a reasonable thing for a young aspiring surgeon to do because it helps you really consolidate and learn your anatomy very well.  While I was there I fell back in love with anatomy.  It had been a favourite subject studying medicine originally and then there was a bit of serendipity in that a job came up and I thought, I might stick around for another six months, maybe another year, as an anatomist before I go off and do surgery.  And then I kind of got stuck there for eleven years!  So I became an academic, but in a good way, you know, I was nicely derailed out of one career into another and I ended up doing research in anatomy and doing a PhD looking at similarities and differences between human anatomy and the anatomy of other apes, specifically looking at a particular disease around the shoulder as well to see if that told me anything about the way that we use our shoulders compared to other apes.

On working in paleopathology

Yeah, it’s really interesting when you’re looking at something like paleopathology, for instance, which is the study of disease in ancient remains – usually ancient human remains – and I think there’s very different things you get as a person from looking at those bones in the lab.  On the one hand, what you’re trying to do is create a report, usually for an archaeologist who has dug a particular site and they want to know more about the people who were living at that particular time, ah, so you’re sort of treating, I suppose, all of the skeletons you’re looking at as a whole and as a sample of a population and then you’re also interested in how that maps onto the bigger picture, so more of a kind of epidemiological approach where you’re kind of saying, ‘OK, what was going on across the whole British population at this point in time?  Are my skeletons representative of people right across the UK?’  The levels of infection they’re getting, the arthritis they’re getting, all of that sort of thing.  The quality of life that they had, in a way, because you’re looking at health versus disease.

But then what you’ve also got, when you’ve got a skeleton laid on the table in front of you, it was a person.  It was an individual person.  So you’re getting this incredible insight into somebody’s life and somebody’s death, so, yeah, it works on lots of different levels, doesn’t it?  The more kind of scientific end of it I would say is the kind of epidemiological end where you’re trying to look at whole populations but then there is this intensely personal aspect as well. 

On current research and work

At the moment I’m working on a new book on evolutionary anatomy, which is kind of my endless fascination, and there’s always more to find out.  So I’m really enjoying writing it, ah, because I suppose on the one hand it’s tapping into my own expertise but it’s also kind of taking me on this journey of discovery as well.

It’s a book about how a single egg develops into a person and it’s a book about also how a human body has appeared, or  the human body, I suppose, has evolved over millions of years, um, and lots of tinkering to produce what we’ve got today.  So it’s a bit of evolution, a bit of embryology, but kind of looking at your own body, hopefully in a slightly different way.  Looking at your hand and actually thinking about why it is the shape it is, why it moves in the way it does and what’s unique about this hand compared to, for instance, a chimpanzee hand.

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