Dr Sarah Collins is an associate professor of animal behaviour and welfare at Plymouth University where she has worked for the past 10 years. Her work focuses on communication, especially bird songs. In this interview she shares a bit more about her work, how she got to this position, and some of the challenges of working with animals.
How would you describe your work to a 10yr old?
I study how animals communicate with each other. When we hear a bird singing we may think the sound is lovely, but what does another bird think of that song? It is usually a male singing and the song is telling other birds to keep away from their home, or they are trying to attract a female bird to come and build a nest and to raise chicks together. Some males sing songs that are more attractive to female birds. Females seem to particularly like songs with lots of different notes, or that are sung perfectly (no mistakes in the notes). We also know that some songs are better at keeping other rival male birds away from their territory, songs that are good at keeping rivals away usually are loud, and repetitive. We don’t know yet exactly why males find these types of songs so scary, but we think it may be because males singing loud repetitive songs are showing they are ready for a fight, if the rival tries to come any closer. I really enjoy my work, as it means I spend a lot of time outside recording bird songs and watching them interact, and luckily birds do not like to sing in the rain.
Why did you choose this as a profession?
I was always interesting in animals, and would spend hours watching an ants nest, or a colony of sea birds. I originally wanted to be a vet, but watching wildlife TV shows made me want to travel. It was always my ambition to go to the Ngorogoro crater. So I chose Zoology at Bristol, but luckily for me, you could do a degree in Psychology and Zoology as a joint honours, so after arriving I chose that programme rather than straight Zoology. I really enjoyed my undergraduate degree, you got the best of both subjects. At the end of my degree I was more interested in mammals than birds. However, I then applied for a PhD at Oxford with Professor John Krebs on birds, was successful, and since then have worked mainly on birds, researching mate choice and communication. I am very glad I did end up working on birds, I find them endlessly fascinating and incredible. AND I also got to visit the Ngorogoro crater while on field work for my PHD, and it was even more amazing than I thought it would be.
Scientific research is full of challenges; can you share some of your biggest challenges, and how you overcame them?
I think for me the biggest challenge has always been when you have designed an amazing experiment but then it just does not work, because the animals do not behave! In my PhD I was studying mate choice in cordon bleu finches, and they just would not choose, they went to sleep, or fed instead of being interested in mating. A few females did react to the males, and some then the male would do his amazing song and dance routine (they jump up and down while singing, and waving a frond of grass in their beak up and down). So in the end I had to abandon my experiments on cordon bleu finches, and move onto zebra finches, who are much better behaved in the lab. So my PhD thesis ended up with only one chapters on cordon bleus! However, years later, a PhD student of mine, Tabitha Luddem, worked on those little blue finches and we managed to make the experiments work and finally published a couple of papers on them– the secret was keeping them in aviaries!
How would you define success as a scientific researcher for you personally?
I don’t think I ever really think about success, doing research is constantly solving puzzles. So for me each time you set out to answer a question, that is the amazing thing, and whether you find a simple answer or have to do more studies, it is all good. I just enjoy the puzzle solving and finding out why animals do what they do. Interestingly, one of your previous scientists was John Griffin, and I was one of his lecturers at Nottingham, and also overlapped while he was at Plymouth doing his PhD. Seeing people you have taught at undergraduate level develop into great scientists is one of the nicest things of all (not that his success is anything to do with me, but it is just fantastic to see the new generation of scientists developing).
What excites you about your current projects?
I have recently been looking at acoustic communication as a tool in conservation and welfare, applying sound analysis to applied situations. I find that very exciting, for example can assess chick emotions from their calls? Or investigate whether reintroduction has effects on song variety in cirl buntings? Collaborating with people in different areas is also really interesting, and leads you to new ways of researching. I would say I am an old dog learning new tricks.
What advice, that has impacted your career, would you like to share with any scientists reading this?
I am not sure I am a good person to give advice, as I feel I have been lucky to end up where I am, rather than having planned. I would say always take opportunities, whether that is to travel, or to collaborate. It can lead to exciting new adventures. Also I think I would advise someone to keep going and keep trying even when things are not working….
If another scientist wanted to collaborate with you, what is the best way for them to connect with you?
Through my email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Many thanks to Sarah for sharing her experiences with us. I think it’s brilliant that she gets to see the development of Dr John Griffin through my blog, as he was the first person I interviewed. Hopefully this serves as an opportunity for them to reconnect.
Sarah isn’t the first person I’ve interviewed to point out the benefits of collaborating and to encourage seizing opportunities to collaborate and travel whenever you get the chance. And I’m sure she won’t be the last! The challenges with the cordon bleu finches highlight Sarah’s other point of advice – keep going, even when things are not working.
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this. If you liked it I would appreciate you sharing it on your favourite social media sites, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments. If you’re a researcher and would like to be interviewed, or you know someone who you think should be interviewed then send me an email at email@example.com or reach out to me on twitter @DMcCormack91