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Teesside High School (1997-2004), Stokesley Sixth Form College (2004-2006), University of Oxford (2006-2009, 2010-present), Oxford Brookes University (2009-2010)
BA (Hons) Biological Sciences, PGCE (Primary education)
Just been a student!
DPhil student at the University of Oxford in the Zoology & Engineering Departments
I’m a student funded by the Leverhulme Trust
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love talking to people about what I do and why I think it is interesting. Especially why spiders are awesome!
I work with the biological material silk, working with the animals that produce it and testing the material using engineering methods (such as shooting the silk).
I study silks, which are the protein fibres produced by spiders to make their webs. Silk is also produced by the Chinese mulberry silkmoth, where the caterpillar uses silk to make a cocoon to protect itself when it changes into a moth. This is the silk which is used in clothes.
I live and work in Oxford, where I’m based at the Zoology Department (animal biology, see picture below of view from office). I love animals so much; I also have two rabbits at home, which I train to do tricks (work in progress!).
My main experiments focus on how silks (including spider silks) respond to being hit with fast-moving projectiles. To do this, I take high-speed photos of silk as it is being hit by a bullet fired from a gas gun. I work with both physics and biology, using methods from physics to look at these biological materials.
These experiments tell me more about how spider silks are suited to catching high speed prey with their webs.
I love animals the most, but who wouldn’t like working with bullets fired at over 400 meters per second? The spiders also look really cool! This is a golden orb weaver (see below):
My Typical Day
There is no typical day!
I have such a varied time as a scientist that I have no typical day! When I have time on the gas gun or the lasers to do experiments, then I’m working getting data full time. I also spend a lot of time working with silkwoms (see picture below). The rest of the time I am analysing data, reading what other people have done with silk or spiders, or writing reports or presentations! My time is also flexible, which suits me as I get bored of doing the same thing over and over again. I also have control over which experiments I do, so I keep things varied and interesting and moving forward!
What I'd do with the prize money
Develop lesson plans for schools on the wonders of spiders.
So many people are scared of spiders. This doesn’t mean that people can’t learn how amazing they are! From what I’ve seen from schools where I have taught spider biology, even the arachnophobes (people who are scared of spiders) enjoyed learning about what spiders do.
For example, did you know that if you scale up a spider’s web so that the fibres are 5cm across, the web would stop a Boeing 747 jet at full speed?
A bird got trapped in one of our spider’s webs by accident and was completely immobilised (see below)!
Spiders are nature’s best engineers and a lot of science can be learned from studying them, as well as being really interesting!
The money + my enthusiasm for spiders + my teaching experience = lesson plans of different lengths available for schools. I would have these accessible for downloads from the University website. Plus any teachers that liked the lessons could pass the plans around to colleagues. I will also approach a local Science activity group, Science Oxford and share some of my ideas. In collaboration with Science Oxford, the money provided from this competition would go directly towards developing ideas with them into a useable format for their school visits.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Grumpy when hungry.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Get people interested in spiders!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Florence and the Machine.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Theme park days.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
The ability to know where things are; the ability to talk to animals; health and happiness for those I love.
Tell us a joke.
Why did the spider buy a computer? Because she wanted a website (sorry).