My first week at Cambridge

I’m writing this 12 hours through what I’m hoping is a 24 hour sickness bug. Such is the way of freshers at a new institution – only this fresher’s flu includes a stomach bug as well as the usual multitude of cold symptoms. Woo! There’s no science in here to read, just the ramblings about my life here in Cambridge so far.

But moving on. I’ve started at Darwin College, a postgraduate only part of the University of Cambridge. There seems to be high science and engineering demographic, with a few arts students thrown in too. It’s a good mix, a large difference from the RVC where everyone is following the same discipline. The people seem friendly, the city is busy but in a different way to London. My accommodation here is so-so, the room is a good size but the but the building is loud and all of the water delivery pipes seem to run just behind my bed. I’ll get used to it. There’s no freezer in the kitchen. That’s my largest issue, since I’m used to cooking meals large enough for six and freezing portions down. Again, I’ll get used to it.

Moving on again! The department I shall be studying in for the next few years is amazing. The Earth Science School here is so incredibly friendly, everyone looks out for each other and is willing to share words of advice. I’ve got a great bunch of people to share an office with. The department meets for tea/coffee and lunch as a mass collective throughout the day, offering regular work breaks and opportunities to discuss current studies with people of many disciplines. I’m the only new paleo PhD in the school, surrounded by climatologists and geologists, but that doesn’t seem to be a barrier to meeting people which is fantastic. I also bumped into an old school friend who’s just started a Masters in the department!

I’m so far loving the whole experience here. Early next week I’m meeting with my supervisor, David Norman, to discuss where to head with my studies. The meeting was supposed to happen today, but illness struck and hence, regrettably, it had to be postponed.

More science-y posts are to follow. Maintaining this blog more regularly is something I’m aiming for this year, so please watch out for that.

Thanks for reading.


Degree status: 100%

So the last few months have been somewhere between busy and very busy on the busy-ness scale. And today it officially finished.

The last few months involved writing my dissertation on my cat work along with exam revision and sitting. A chaotic end to my degree, requiring lots of time management and focus. It’s all been worth it though.

I’m thrilled to have been awarded a First Class Honours degree in Bioveterinary Science, and in doing so have confirmed my place as a fully funded PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge studying the evolution of bipedality in dinosaurs. This will incorporate a lot of my current (growing) functional morphology knowledge and biomechanics, and I’ll develop skills in paleoscience which I can’t wait for.

Hopefully I’ll be looking to get my cat work written up and published over the summer, so findings will be available there when that is done. I will say I was very pleased with how the work went, and cats are cool.


In light of my surprise degree classification I’m now going to celebrate and waste away the day.



PS: In future I hope this blog will be a bit more active, particularly once my PhD starts. I had wanted to investigate the effects Brexit may have on British Science, but that ship has sailed already, and isn’t such a hot topic anymore. Maybe next time I’ll be quicker to the party.

Recent goings on…

Quick update about how things have been going on over the last couple of months!

There’s been two trips to the Cat Survival Trust in Hertfordshire, a rehoming and breeding sanctuary for big and small cats. For a summary of how well data collection went there, see this article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic. It summarises some of the aims of my current research nicely, as well as painting me as a true cat whisperer (something I can’t seem to shake now).

More recently was an overnight stay near the Wildlife Heritage Foundation (find them here) to study their cats. This was a far more successful trip, and despite not having many photographs myself due to working the equipment, I can point you to Andrew Cuff’s post about our time away. In all, it was an incredible two days working up close with Cheetahs, a huge 200+kg African Lion, a feisty Fishing Cat (who was the star of the show) and more.

I’ve got plenty of data to analyse over the coming months, before writing up around May time for my dissertation!

In other news, I have an interview at the University of Cambridge next week for an awesome PhD programme studying the evolution of bipedality, so prep for that has been the past week or so’s bedtime reading. Here’s to a good interview, to say I’m nervous would be an understatement..!

Until next time, hopefully I’ll have some good news to share, and maybe some sneaky peeks at how the data is looking!

2016 has arrived

And with it comes another step on the adventure.

Data analysis for my third year project is well underway, with additional collection happening this month! This presents opportunities to get up close and personal with some awesome felid species across two feline sanctuaries in south westerly England.

Current data is looking great, hopefully we can get some more active cats this month to get some variation in the data set – cheetahs and tigers are fans of walking and not much else it seems.

The constant search for PhD studentships continues, fingers crossed January will bring some new projects that tweak my fancy, which will mean more applications to be made.

In the meantime, I’ve got another module starting this Monday, investigating different animal and cellular models that can be used for disease. A little outside my usual area of interest, but it seemed the most interesting option outside of the locomotion module.

I’ll end this short update here, there’s bound to be more #SICB2016 tweets to catch up on by now – so much cool science to read about!

The new year: new research, new things to learn, new things to do

New. Lots of “new” going on at the moment. It’s fantastic.

I’ve recently started my new Comparative Animal Locomotion module at the RVC, and it’s been really interesting so far. A lot of what has been covered so far is old hat, but it’s reinforcing to re-cover and re-learn things I haven’t thought about for a while. We’re just about getting into new things, for instance, scaling finally clicked! Felt like a bit of a eureka moment, and is incredibly simple once the mental approach is sorted out. Did you know that cat bone diameter scales isometrically?

I also started my new lab project for the year: felids, gait transitions and kinematics for now. New challenges (more new things!) present themselves with this project. Due to the nature of studying big cats, there’s some obvious claw and tooth shaped dangers presented. As such, calculating true measurements from the data I have will be different to the way I’ve done it previously, but certainly achievable accurately. It appears tigers don’t trust force plates, and will try to avoid walking on them at all costs – scaredy cats! More on this to come in a future post, hopefully with a few gifs showing the true nature of these oversized moggies.

Finally, PhD application season is here, and I suppose this is the crux of this post, ad something else new to me. I’m currently working on my CV, which is so different to any CV I’ve made in the past. Academic CVs need so much more content in them than the last one I put together, which was for a coffee shop job! I owe a huge thanks to Michelle Reeve and Chris Basu of the Structure and Motion Lab for helping me redraft and refine my CV. Check them out on various social media by clicking their names.

I’ve got my sights set on the PhD I want, now I just have to apply (successfully) and interview (successfully). Things feel very real at the moment, with a lot to juggle between coursework, research, lectures and applications. More PhDs will be advertised soon, so there’s only going to be more to look at. When I look back to two years ago, where I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do with my degree/career, it’s daunting to see how far I’ve come.

So here’s to more productivity, more learning and some success. Until next time, when I hopefully something else new to talk about.

And so the summer ends

Not as extensive a post as last time, and nowhere near as substantial, but here’s some experiences I’ve had, and some musings about the next few weeks as the summer draws to a close.

This week, I helped out a little more on the giraffe project, helping out where I could with data collection for future work.

It was great to experience data collection on such a large scale! Manual work shovelling sand and lifting slabs of wood made me feel right at home, and was a nice refreshment from time spent in the office. The first day was spent setting up for collection: putting force plates into the steel framework underground, wiring up and protecting and burying the plates. Day two and three were spent collecting, the first of which went perfectly. Day three faced some small technical issues, none of which impacted upon the quality of the data, but I’ve come to the conclusion that without some problems you can’t have been doing real science.

Though only a short week helping out, I had a whale of a time. Now I have a few weeks to relax and enjoy time off before class begins. I’ll be spending tome of that time contemplating a few species I may want to study, and might dedicate a post or two to bouncing ideas around. It’s something I need to be considering now that I’m set on doing a PhD after my undergraduate degree.

Thanks for reading, I’ll be sharing my experiences learning new things this term, and may share my analysis of a few papers I should be dissecting in my class’ journal club! Until next time!

My Summer in the SML

I spent this summer, the second of my undergraduate degree, in the Royal Veterinary College’s Structure and Motion Laboratory, as I undertook a BBSRC-funded Summer Research Experience Placement. The purpose of the REP is to give undergrad students a taste of what research would be like as a career. In my case, I was given the fantastic opportunity to study giraffe locomotion. Mentored by Christopher Basu, a PhD student in the SML, and Professor John Hutchinson, my ten-week project began at the start of July.

First things first, I had some ground work to do. All the data had been collected prior to my placement, though I will be joining Chris next week to collect fresh data for his future work. Giraffes were recorded using high speed video cameras walking parallel to the edge of their enclosure, over concealed force-plates measuring ground reaction forces. I was provided with 3 days’ worth of data in raw video format, which needed laborious converting, cropping into individual trials and rating. And so went the first week.

Once the data was in a useable format, I had the process of deciding how to digitise the trials.  This process allows us to extract numerical data that can be analysed from videos by plotting coordinates on individual frames. Using a digitising script I had previous experience of, within the MATLAB suite, seemed like a good idea. Next was deciding where to plot on the giraffe. 15 points were selected, encompassing the head, neck, and the nearside fore- and hind-limb. I created a profile of reference for each giraffe to ensure consistent digitising. 7 weeks later, and with many lessons learned in my digitising method, it was done. 15 strides ready for analysis.

An example of a trial
An example of a trial

This bought about the opportunity for a new challenge: using MATLAB for data analysis. Having never used any language-based software in the past, I was keen to learn what I could in the short time I had left. Due to the relatively small size of my data set, I was able to do a lot of my analysis in Microsoft Excel, but I did learn enough to compose some plots in MATLAB.

Then came statistical analyses, which I view as the necessary evil in all science. Without stats, results are largely useless, but we’ve never seen eye-to-eye. Thankfully, Excel was able to help me again here with handy regression analysis tools.

I can’t share a lot of what I found, due to the data being as-yet unpublished, but here’s a teaser of my findings! The plot below shows how, at any particular speed, the hindlimbs have a longer duty factor (spend a larger percentage of the time on the ground) than the forelimbs. This is interesting because the forelimbs carry most of the weight in giraffes, so one might expect the opposite trend.

A teaser of some of my findings!
A teaser of some of my findings!

So that’s the science covered, which has been the best experience of my academic life. The chance to have my own research project is hopefully just a taste of what to come from the future, but there’s a long way to go yet. However, there’s more I’ve learnt throughout my summer besides just the science. The most striking of which are the importance of both science communication and networking.

If you don’t communicate your science, who is going to know about it? With the dawn of Twitter and other forms of social media, there’s no reason not to shout from the rooftops about your work. Within both the public and scientific communities, there’s so much happening that no one can keep track of it all. Posting a tweet about cool new findings, showcasing your data collection or asking for solutions to your next problem all help to bring awareness to your work. I’ve been working on keeping a Twitter presence throughout my ten weeks, and it helps keep a driving force there during the monotonous groundwork such as digitising.

Another brilliant feature of Twitter is the range of people you can interact with, which brings us onto networking. Learning as many names and faces as possible seems important. Not only because knowing someone’s name when you meet them is polite, but you never know who the next collaborator or contributor is going to be. Oh, and because finding out what other people are working on is so cool! Within the SML alone, there are so many different projects looking such a wide range of species, it’s staggering to try and think about them all.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be starting the third year of my undergrad degree, incorporating another SML project on felids. Stay tuned to the blog, or follow me on Twitter @averageginge for future updates!

I’m Luke, and this summer, I got to be a scientist.