No more chats. And just 2 hours to vote for your favourite scientist to win. Did I inspire you? Do I deserve your vote?
1991-1997 Glynne Primary School, Kingswinford, West Midlands; 1997-2002 Summerhill School, Kingswinford, West Midlands; 2002-2004 King Edward VI 6th Form College, Stourbridge, West Midlands
2004-2008 Masters Degree in Earth Sciences, University of Oxford; 2008-2012 PhD in Palaeobiology and Astrobiology, University of Oxford
BBC Science: TV Online and Radio; Freelance popular science writing; Bar work in Oxford and West Midlands
Researching and teaching palaeobiology and astrobiology, and freelance popular science writing.
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, and…. myself
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love to think about what extra-terrestrial creatures might be like – how they may have evolved differently on other planets that are different to Earth. Doing this means looking into space as well as on Earth, and it is great to talk to other scientists and bring all their ideas together. Many heads are better than one in science!
I look at fossils of some of the earliest creatures on Earth, and predict how and where we might find life in space.
The first creatures – bacteria – appeared on Earth about 3500 million years ago. I look at the fossils that they left behind, and by tracing how they changed over time, work out how they evolved into amoebas, animals and eventually, us.
To find these rare and special early fossils, I go out to Scotland, Canada and even Australia to find rocks of the right age. I hammer off chunks and ship them home to be sliced paper thin. In the lab, I look at them at extremely high magnification with a microscope, to find bacterial cells fossilised before they had chance to rot away.
Once I know what these bacteria fossils look like and how to find them in the rocks on our own planet, I can begin to look for them on planets and moons in the solar system. There may be nothing living now on Mars or on Titan, so I spend the rest of my time working out ways to tell if there ever was… How can we find fossil aliens, and where is the best place to look?
My Typical Day
Every day is different! May include: collecting rocks, teaching, finding fossils, reading, measuring, maths, drawing…
Pretty much every day in my job is different, especially in the summer where I could be travelling to look for new fossils in exciting new locations. At the moment though, I have lots of fossils to keep me occupied.
I usually get up around 8am and read the science news and check we haven’t found aliens, before cycling into work. I might spend a couple of hours on the microscope or electron microscope, taking photographs and recording my fossils. I teach evolution, geology or astrobiology to undergraduate university students for a couple of hours a day too, either as classes or in small groups.
At lunchtime and on breaks, I will catch up with twitter and the blogs I follow, to make sure we haven’t found aliens yet.
I try to spend time writing up my results so that they can be published, but that can be really hard to do without getting distracted. I usually end up writing something like a blog post or a magazine article that doesn’t have all the jargon in it.
I suppose I work quite hard, and often don’t finish work until late in the evening. But it is always flexible, and when I don’t need to use the microscope, I can work at home or in a café. There’s usually plenty of time for meeting with other scientists to chat about our results or our ideas.
In the evenings I go to dance practice, or do something arty to contrast with my sciencey day. Maybe even make a giant spiral evolution cake… See the making-of video here (I’m filming so you don’t get to see me!):
What I'd do with the prize money
I would use it to bring cool palaeontology other sciences right to your fingertips and to your classroom
I would use the I’maScientist money to make it easier for you to find out about the weird and cool bits of evolution, fossils, and life in space.
Part of it would be spent on creating an attractive, easy-to-use and interactive website that will allow you to find out about weird and wonderful fossils through all of time, and meet the real scientists from all over the world who work on them. Want to know what a trilobite ate, or what a NASA scientist does? A few clicks and it could all be at your fingertips.
The rest of the money would take this one step further and bring the scientists to you, funding a travelling science showcase with some of the best and most dynamic scientists in the UK to visit schools and colleges up and down the country. Hear about super cool superconductors from top physicists, or about the origin of life from chemists playing God, from the comfort of your own classroom.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Eccentric, Talkative, and Ambitious
What's the best thing you've ever done in your career?
Butterfly catching in Madagascar
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I got in trouble a lot for being too noisy. I would ask questions of the teacher, of my classmates, or just generally chatter about the subject (or boys!).
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I’ll listen to anything, from Glenn Miller to Ed Sheeran. I listen to a lot of folk rock at the moment though.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Zip-lined through a cloud forest in Costa Rica
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1, To fly through the thick atmosphere of Titan with a pair of cardboard wings. 2, To be able to work as a full time scientist communicator, learning all sorts of new things and telling people about them. 3, To communicate with a distant (friendly!) intelligent alien civilisation.
Tell us a joke.
A man walks into a bar and says to the bartender: “Give me ten times the number of drinks everybody in here is drinking.” The bartender replies, “Now that is an order of magnitude.”