Endless forms most wonderful with Tom Houslay

TomHouslayThis week we are delighted to bring you Dr Tom Houslay/@tomhouslay, Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, UK. Tom studied computer science as an undergraduate, but became interested in bioinformatics. His interests then turned to population genetics, looking at variation and evolution in populations over time. We asked Tom our usual set of questions and here he is in his own words.

 

Originally, I kind of fell into working in science because of the influence of my dad, who is a biochemist. I actually studied computer science at university, but he told me about the need for people with computing skills in his field – I then studied for an MSc in Bioinformatics and worked in that field for several years, but mostly supporting other people’s research. Having decided that I wanted to be able to do my own research, I started thinking about what really interested and motivated me – to cut a long story short (which I possibly should have done earlier), after a lot of meetings with various people then I was lucky enough to score myself a PhD place in a great lab doing evolutionary biology research!

 

I have always been fascinated by the natural world, but it was only in later years that I started reading popular science books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, David Quammen, Matt Ridley, as well as blogs by Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and Gwen Pearson… I started to think about the extraordinary diversity and just plain weirdness that surrounds us, and the processes driving this. It’s amazing to think how much we have learned since Darwin and Wallace, and how much we still don’t know!

 

Broadly, I am interested in explaining individual variation: why do we see so much diversity in life histories, behaviours, and morphology, even within a species? During my PhD, I focused on how individuals allocate their resources to different traits – everything has to be ‘built’ using resources (even behaviours), and any given individual has only a finite amount. Think of those computer games where you have a certain number of points to create your character – you can’t maximise everything, and instead you have to ‘trade-off’ being good at one thing for being bad at another (or just be average at everything). What affects how many of these points an individual has, and how they allocate them? I am now working on what is loosely termed ‘personality’ research – do

Tom with Darwin's finches!

Tom with Darwin’s finches!

individuals differ consistently from one another in their behaviours? Do they have ‘suites’ of behaviours such that we can place them on an axis of boldness, aggressiveness, or ‘coping style’? And do individuals change their behaviours in a predictable way when their environment changes? I am now working on what is loosely termed ‘personality’ research – do individuals differ consistently from one another in their behaviours? Do they have ‘suites’ of behaviours such that we can place them on an axis of boldness, aggressiveness, or ‘coping style’? And do individuals change their behaviours in a predictable way when their environment changes? I am also interested in how hormones correlate with behaviours, and finding out how much an individual’s genes contribute to their personality.

 

Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?

That’s a good question! One of the ‘big questions’ I’m interested in is the evolution of ageing, and how this is influenced by individual trade-off resolution (for example, between reproduction and lifespan). On a more specific level, my ‘personality’ work could lead to using behaviours to predict which individuals are particularly susceptible to having bad responses to stressful conditions. Mostly, though, I think it’s interesting to consider how much diversity there is within species, not just between them: why hasn’t selection made us all the same?

 

I co-host a podcast call ‘Breaking Bio': every week we invite a different scientist (or science communicator) on, and interview them about their work. What do they do, and why is it cool? We’ve had some great people on, and it’s been fun to chat with scientists from a variety of different fields. Perhaps less interestingly, I also teach (alongside my old PhD supervisor) a statistics workshop twice a year – it’s aimed at ecologists and evolutionary biologists, and we get them from the basics up to pretty complex analyses in the space of 5 days. It’s tough going, but it’s on the banks of Loch Lomond in Scotland so the scenery definitely helps!

 

Hobbies and Interests: I am a keen wildlife photographer, and I tend to focus (hmm) on macrophotography – meaning that I have a great fondness for insects and spiders! The trade-off that I regularly have to resolve on days out is equipment-based – enough gear to be flexible about what I can take photos of, but also still be able to carry it…

 

Ideal Day Off: A long hike in a nature reserve with my wife – seeing lots of cool animals, having a picnic, and somehow avoiding OTHER PEOPLE! Followed by an evening of eating delicious Mexican food and drinking fancy beer. Oh, and also receiving an email telling me that my paper has been accepted as-is so I don’t have to do any changes at all. That can happen, right??

Please welcome Tom Houslay/@tomhouslay to Real Scientists! 

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