I have a Joint Honours bachelors degree in Marine Biology and Zoology (2000-2003), and a masters in Ecology (2004) from the University of Wales, Bangor. I then moved to Sweden to do a phd in Animal Ecology at the University of Gothenburg (2006-2010).
PhD in Animal Ecology.
I have worked at the University of Applied Psychology in Lisbon as a lab technician (2004-2005), at Kristineberg Marine Station in Sweden as a field assistant (2005), at the University of Gothenburg as a post doctoral researcher (2011), at the University of Zurich as a postdoc (2011-2016), and I am now based at the University of Bristol on a 3-year contract.
I’ve just started a postdoc to study the effects of out-group conflict on within-group social behaviour in a social fish species from Lake Tanganyika.
University of Bristol
Favourite thing to do in my job: My absolute favourite thing to do in science is field work. Nothing compares to being outdoors, surrounded by nature, observing animals do their thing.
I love going “adventuring”: travelling, visiting beautiful places, experiencing new things, discovering new cultures and tasting new foods.
I don’t really have a place I call home. I was born in Portugal but I have lived over half of my life in other countries. As a child, I moved to China with my family for a couple of years before returning to Portugal to finish high school. When I was 17 I moved to North Wales to follow my dream of studying marine biology, and then decided to stay a while longer to do a masters in ecology. Ironically, this decision took me back to Lisbon temporarily to do my masters thesis on freshwater fish. A couple of years later I found myself moving to Gothenburg in Sweden to do a phd on pipefish (cousins to seahorses, it’s the fathers and not the mothers who get pregnant) after which I moved to Switzerland to do a post doc on meerkat behaviour and communication. During my time in Switzerland I also got to spend 18 months in South Africa at the Kalahari Meerkat Project (google it, t’s worth it!). Last month I moved to Bristol to start a new project on conflict and social behaviour in African freshwater fish and I’m very excited about it.
My life and work experience so far really exemplifies what a career in academia entails: we need to move cities and countries to get the experience and the knowledge we need to become better at what we do, and this is also what is expected from us, by universities and funding agencies, until one day we land a permanent position somewhere.
My boyfriend is also a biologist. Although he is Welsh, he lives in Perth, Western Australia… and we met in South Africa 5 years ago. We don’t get to spend as much time together as we’d like to, of course, but we do get to travel a lot together, which we both love. We are both following our professional dreams, while trying to achieve our goal to find a way to live and work in the same city. We’ll get there one day!
I just started a project to look at how out-group conflict affects within-group interactions, using a social fish species as a model.
I’m a behavioural ecologist, which is to say that I study how animals behave in response to ecological pressures (from other animals or the weather, etc) from an evolutionary perspective. Because the species I study clearly still exist, they have mostly successful (adaptive) responses to the environmental pressures they experience, otherwise they would have gone extinct. This is not to say that they behave effortlessly or that they display the best behavior possible all the time. Decisions, behaviours and actions, all have pros and cons, benefits and costs, plus often animals are restricted in their options. For example, I found that my pipefish females prefer to mate with large males because they are better fathers. The babies brooded by large fathers are bigger, they grow faster and they are better at avoiding predators. Great! However, once a male becomes pregnant, he cannot received any more eggs until the ones in his pouch are fully developed and ready to leave. This means that females run out of good quality, especially large males to mate with. What they are left with are the smaller males, which are younger and not as good parents. So what is a female to do? If they do not mate with the small males, autumn make come before they have a chance to find and mate with a large male. If they do mate with a small male, their babies won’t be as good quality as if she had mated with a large male. Well it turns out that mating with a small male is better than not mating at all for pipefish females, BUT, they have a trick up their sleeves. When females mate with small males they add extra protein into the eggs so that their babies have more nutrients to grow and develop, making up for the worse quality of the small fathers.
Throughout my career I have studied parent-offspring conflict, sibling competition, mate competition (when what is best for one sex is not what is best for the other sex, as in my example above), conflict between dominant and subordinate meerkats, and also how hormones affect behavior and communication in animals. For example, when I have to stand up and give a talk, my stress hormones go up as I start feeling very nervous and I my voice trembles a bit. If you’re listening to me, you can hear in my voice that I’m nervous. This is part of what I studied in meerkats, when they are stressed, can other group member “tell” that they are stressed from their vocalisations? And if so, does this knowledge affect their own behavior and vocalisations? It’s been very difficult but at the same time a lot of fun to do these studies and hopefully, my findings will help us understand animal vocalisations better.
In Bristol, I am going to study how out-group conflict affect within-group behaviour. For example, if you’re part of a football or rugby team you probably play matches against other teams on the weekends. Your team is your “within-group”, and the other team is the “out-group”. How do you and your teammates behave towards each other after the games when you win? And when you lose? Is it all the same? Or do behave differently? This is what I will study using a fish species from Lake Tanganyika in Africa, that are very social and live in small groups. But for now, I’m still setting up the room where the fish are going to live.
My Typical Day
My typical day involves a lot of reading and learning.
My typical day is almost seasonal, depending on the time of the year my days may look very different.
When I run experiments, whether in the field or in the lab, may days are usually very long and I spend most of the time with the animals I study, observing them, collecting data, testing them on different things. After the experiments are done it’s time to move to the office and my desk, and at this point I spend my days in front of the computer, compiling data, analyzing it, and writing up the studies into scientific articles.
In the summers, I try to attend at least one conference. Conferences give me the opportunity to travEl and meet lots of other scientists, to present my experiments to others and share my results, as well as to listen to other researchers’ findings. Being a scientist is all about finding new things, and sharing the knowledge, so we don’t end up reinventing the wheel. This is also why it is so important to read other scientists’ work, so that weeks or months later, you don’t find out that the study you spent so much time and effort planning and doing, has already been done. I am also a very curious person by nature, so to “learn for a living” is something that suits me really well. 🙂
Supervising and teaching students are two other very important tasks in our work lives and two that I really enjoy. Some of my best memories as a biologist have been during teaching, like when I spent 2 weeks on an island in Mozambique with 3 other teachers and 15 Ph.D. students, exploring the different habitats around the island and the animals that inhabit them.
What I'd do with the prize money
If I win I will use the money to visit schools with a friend of mine who has just written a book on how to think like a scientist.
If I’m lucky enough to win this competition, I will invite a friend of mine to visit schools with me. Jamie Samson is one of my best friends, a fantastic biologist, a blogger (check out his website: http://www.forloveofsci.com), and just recently, the author of a book on how to be a scientist! You can find here Jamie’s answer when asked why he decided to write the book: http://www.forloveofsci.com/single-post/2017/02/17/Why-am-I-writing-a-book
Basically, Jamie noticed that there are no science books available in the market that explain how to be a scientist, that is, how to think critically, how to analyse and process information and how to make informed decisions based on data. But the book is much more than just a lesson on how to be a scientist, it is also stuffed with wonderful examples of different reasons why animals and humans are so cool and why it is so great to be a biologist. 😀
I would love to be able to bring Jamie, and his book, to schools and have the opportunity to talk to students about our experiences as behavioural ecologists and about the importance of knowing how to think and behave like a scientist. Because critical thinking is not just important in science class, but in all decisions we make in our lives!
And in case I left you curious about Jamie’s book, here’s a small sample from one of his chapters:
“The chosen ones
Some people find science hard to swallow because it can apparently undermine our significance as a species, and it quite often shows that we are just as remarkable and amazing as all other species on this planet. Examples of this are everywhere, such as the argument that due to the human eye being such a complex and intricate organ it could not possibly have been created by the ‘passive process’ of evolution. I have some bad news for those people, our eyes are not that special. Humans have three photoreceptors, red, green and blue (RGB), big whoop. Some birds have four photoreceptors, the RGB system and an additional ultraviolet (UV) sensitive photo system. Again, not so impressive when you consider the mantis shrimp, a group of crustaceans related to the pistol shrimps you read about earlier. They have 16 photoreceptors, and can see UV, visible and polarised light (visit here to see a video regarding the visual ability of the mantis shrimp compared to us*). They can even detect circularly polarised light (when light rotates in a circular motion), and can perceive depth with just one eye. Try picking up a pencil roughly 0.5m away from you with one eye closed (monocular vision), and then do the same task with both eyes open (binocular vision), can you notice the difference? My intention was not at all meant to undermine our significance, but the fact that you are reading and processing these words highlights that our intellect is unrivalled amongst other creatures of this planet (well most of us). Science allows us to investigate why humans may display certain characteristics such as our moderately good visual system and how these characteristics may have evolved to aid our survival.”
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Honest, thoughtful, happy
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Supervise students and inspire them to become scientists themselves.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Jacques Cousteau and the inimitable and irreplaceable Sir. David Attenborough.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I skipped classes on my birthday when I was 11 (I still went to school because my friends were there) and I was spotted by one of the teachers through the windows in the teachers’ room. They were not happy and neither were my parents when they were told…
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I would be a professional traveller and write reviews for companies like LonelyPlanet.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
The National, the best band that has ever been.
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Teaching on a tropical marine ecosystems course on an island in Mozambique for 2 weeks to 15 phd students. We travelled around the island exploring different habitats and the animals we found in each place.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) to be able to live with my partner, 2) to have a permanent job, 3) always have funding for my research.
Tell us a joke.
Lionel Messi is the best football player in the world. ;-)