Nesta’s ‘Tipping Point Prize’

I’m delighted to say that I’ve won first place in Nesta’s ‘Tipping Point Prize’! This was an essay competition, where entrants had to make a case for why a certain technology will ‘come of age’ (pass a tipping point) in the next ten years and have a significant impact on society. I wrote about swarm robotics, my own area of research, and why its time has come.

I’m very happy (and a little surprised!) to have come first place, but I do believe that swarm robotics is both a fascinating area of research and also a technology that has the potential to make a big improvement to human living standards. I’m indebted to the editor of the series, Sumit Paul-Choudhury, who did a brilliant job of taking my draft(s) and greatly enhancing their clarity and style.

The announcement can be read here. 

My winning essay can be read here.

Nesta also produced this illustration, which sums up the ideas of bio-inspiration and self-organisation beautifully:

Let me know what you think – send me a Tweet / email.

I’ve found this prize to be a great encouragement to my writing, so watch this space!

What can ants teach us about management? (!)

On Tuesday evening, the BBC Ideas website published a short, 3 minute film “Five things ants can teach us about management”, by Big Deal Films. I was interviewed for this back in June and I’m really pleased with the result! As the caption to the film puts it, “They may be tiny, but us humans could learn a thing or two from ants.”

I hope to participate in a few more of these shorts, it’s great to reach a wide audience! As of writing, 2 days since publication, the film already has 40k views.


Primary school visit

Today I spoke to around 15  children (aged 8-10) at St John’s Primary School, Clifton, about how engineers look to animals for inspiration, with a talk title ‘Animals and robots in groups’. I did a Kilobot demonstration showing synchronisation of lights like fireflies, as well as showing a Sphero robot. The school is entering a ‘Tech Factor’ competition to win some robotics kits (Lego WeDo).

I really enjoyed talking to younger students as they are full of enthusiasm and questions! Will try and find more opportunities to visit local primary schools.

Proceedings B paper on animal personality

Really pleased to announce that I have a paper out today in the Royal Society’s Proceedings B. This is the main result of my 2017 postdoc in the USA, working with Noa Pinter-Wollman and Jonathan Pruitt, two great biologists. More details on the paper itself are on the papers page. Getting there was really hard work: I was handed a large dataset by Noa and asked to investigate it. So it was a long process of familiarisation, choosing the right statistical methodology, learning it, applying it correctly, and interpreting the results appropriately. I had never even used R before I got to the States (MATLAB is what I know best). In the end though it was worthwhile: a very intriguing finding that links personality development to the spiders’ social environment, over internal factors like genetics. This could have widespread relevance to the study of personality development – including, I wonder, even human beings? Psychology is something I have a great interest in, and it makes me wonder how much our personality is shaped by our familial and school relationships. My intuition for humans is that genetics is more important, perhaps more of a 50/50 thing, than for these spiders. But it should go to show that personality is more or less fluid depending on the animal collective in question!

New paper on lateralization

Today we finally publish some data that we collected back in summer 2015: an investigation of ant eye asymmetry (ommatidia count) and lateralization (turning bias). We found that ants who turned left in a branching maze tended to have slightly better vision (sampling resolution – more ommatidia) in their right eye, and vice versa.

For more details, check out this press release by UoB, and here’s the full paper, freely accessible on Scientific Reports 🙂


ASAB Easter conference

I had a wonderful time last week at The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB)’s Easter conference, which was hosted by biologists at the University of Plymouth. I presented some of my work on social spiders at UCLA, which should be published within the next month or two.

ASAB put on some very useful workshops, including how to write grant applications for small research projects, and the increasingly popular idea of ‘CV of failures’ – talking about times where research did not go to plan, or proposals were rejected. I was most impressed by how friendly and enthusiastic the animal behaviour scientists were at the conference, and so I decided to join! I am now a Member of ASAB. 🙂

Website rebooted

This website has existed as a free WordPress site for a while (probably a couple of years) but I hadn’t the time to add content and keep it up to date. Now I have my own postdoctoral fellowship, and I am expected to spend some time on Public Engagement activities, I think it’s worthwhile keeping a public face to my research up-to-date. To that end, I have rebooted the website with a proper URL,, and I hope to present a web page that is interesting and informative for the casual reader.

Revisions x4!

I have been learning the hard way about one central part of academic life: after papers are rejected, you shouldn’t give up on them! I submitted 4 papers at the beginning of 2018, and 3 of them were resubmissions after prior rejection in 2017, either ‘desk rejection’ from leading journals, or rejection following review. Now all 4 are in the ‘revise and resubmit’ stage and I am very happy that their final publication is in sight! In the case of papers that did receive peer review, I have done my best to revise my manuscripts on the basis of the comments, which has indeed improved their quality even though they were unsuccessful at that journal. I think the moral of the story is, don’t take rejection personally, it’s the bread and butter of the scientific process, where your ideas are tested by fire, and hopefully something more refined comes through in the end. Now, I just have to get on with those revisions…

Back to Bristol

I was delighted to receive an EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellowship, which I interviewed for in September 2017. This gives me funding to move back to Bristol, a city and university I love, to develop my PhD research for 2 years in a new context. For me, that means taking insights from collective animal behaviour (e.g. ant colonies) into the engineering of swarm robotic systems. I will be working with Dr Sabine Hauert, with a base in Bristol’s Engineering Mathematics Department, specifically the excellent Collective Dynamics Group there. I will be testing out my ideas in the Kilobot platform (1000 robot swarm) at one of Europe’s leading robotics laboratories, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.