Loved that one science module/lecture/tutorial, but not sure what to do about it? Phil Leftwich went to a talk at university on the role of sex in evolution and made a career out of it. He’s now an evolutionary sex scientist and once spent an astounding amount of time watching fruit flies get it on.
A lot of people don’t understand why my job is important or interesting, which I think is bonkers! I like to think of myself (in my own odd corner of human ignorance) as chipping away at what we don’t know about the universe, which makes dissecting testicles just as worthy as running the Large Hadron Collider. But, of course, it is in no way more interesting or worthy than being an accountant. Oh dear, I probably sound terrible, but it’s just the last person who made fun of me was an accountant. I don’t have a grudge against all accountants!
I’m a scientist and an academic, currently a post-doctoral researcher, which is when you have a PhD (My PhD thesis was titled, “Male reproductive success and population control in the Mediterranean Fruit Fly” aka “how the diet of a fruit fly affects it, sexually”) and get contracted by a uni to work on a particular project, which will have a fixed term of anywhere from 18 months to four years.
I work on sex selection, because it’s fascinating. Any flashy male ornament (for example, the bright colours on a mallard drake or the antlers of male stags) are signals to females which say ‘yeah I’m really strong and fit and healthy, I have so many resources to spare I can make these flashy colours/this ridiculous headgear’. These ornaments go against natural selection because a male wastes energy producing them and then has to carry them around, potentially attracting predators, but it is outweighed by the potential benefit of having a lot of female interest and producing lots of offspring.
Day to day I go into my lab and carry out experiments, plan other experiments and read research carried out by other people so I know what else is going on. Then I write up my findings and try to get them published in science journals (this is key, your list of publications is the cornerstone of your CV: it tells people how prolific your work has been and if it has had much impact). If I’m very lucky I get let out of the lab to do fieldwork…
It’s a truly international career. A PhD is an internationally recognised qualification, so you can work anywhere in the world. I was recently offered a job in California, but inexplicably chose to stay in Norwich… A few weeks ago I went to the Iceland Phallological Museum and saw a 5ft Walrus penis. That was admittedly just for my own entertainment (I had a great time) but, in terms of fieldwork, I spent seven months in Crete collecting wild fruit flies for experiments (and ended up learning a fair bit of Greek, which was nice). We have lab populations, but they actually evolve differently under artificial lab conditions compared to their wild counterparts, so sometimes it’s good to compare them.
Also, the money’s OK: PhD students get a tax-free stipend of around £13,000 a year. Post-docs can expect a starting salary of £30,000 rising to a maximum of £40,000 over the next 10 years. Professors might start at £50,000.
Biology attracts all sorts - I studied Biology at university, but while I’ve worked with people fresh out of uni, some have been doing other jobs for years. There are ex-teachers, wildlife cameramen, a youth worker… You need some sort of appropriate qualification, but I know someone that did a Geography degree, switched to take a MA in Biology and went on to do a PhD in Migratory birds (if that’s your thing). I didn’t get an MA, but most of the time a Master’s degree puts you ahead of other applicants.
PhDs are very specific, so it has to look really cool to you - you’re signing up for the next four years! While we’re most definitely not all geniuses, we do tend to be nerdishly interested in what we do. Often the best people work very long hours, not only because they put those hours in, but that time represents how interested and invested they are in their work.
Making a difference is a matter of perseverance and luck, i.e. do a lot of work and hope you find something novel! I did publish findings when we found that, when a female mates more than once, male sperm from different males can ‘compete’ inside the female reproductive tract! Weirdly, there is some evidence (but not a lot… yet) that similar things probably happen in humans.
LOVE AN UBER-SPECIFIC ASPECT OF SCIENCE BUT NOT SURE HOW TO GO ABOUT MAKING A CAREER OF IT? PHIL HAS TIPS FOR YOU.
1.Get experience working in a lab before you graduate from uni – not only will it be great on the CV but, most importantly, you’ll find out if you like it! Professors often have opportunities for keen undergrads and, if you’re studying, think about investigating the kind of research that is carried out at your department and whether you can be involved in any way. Universities often offer sandwich courses – ie taking the third year out to work in a lab, join a conservation organisation, etc. – and these are a really good idea. You get experience, it looks good on the CV and you might make some contacts.
2.Talk to professors. I didn’t know what area of Biology I was interested in until I went to that talk so be a bit keen and (a little) pushy, they are human beings and can be approached.
3.You don’t have to have a specialisation in mind before they graduate – once you’ve chosen, you’re not stuck forever. Feel free to follow your interesting modules at uni: if you change your mind later it is often not a problem. The two things you need are a good degree class that shows you have ability, and enthusiasm.
4.Go for what you’re passionate about. Whether that’s sex biology, zombie wasps or migratory birds…
6.Free journals are tricky – it’s a very contentious issue at the moment because science journals are ridiculously expensive. The biggest and best free one is PLoS, but Nature and Science are the two highest impact journals so consider getting a subscription to one of those. Again, if you are at uni your library will have a subscription to most of them.
7.Start reading popular science books – the best ones are often reviewed in places like New Scientist or Nature etc. Nature and Science often have some free web content online. Also free podcasts are good, and some of the big American universities are putting their undergraduate lectures on iTunes, which is great! Also Nature, Science and the Guardian Science Podcasts come out weekly and are usually really good.