Notes from the henhouse: mansplaining chickens?

For my PhD, started earlier this year, I am studying the behaviour of chickens. Chickens are easily the most populous bird on the planet, as about 50 billion of them live on farms worldwide: an ideal study population, with lots of data easily accessible. What’s more, because chicken eggs and meat form part of the diet of so many people, and because they’re much cheaper and more environmentally friendly to raise than many other animals, a detailed understanding of chicken behaviour can only be a good thing from a food security point of view, perhaps giving insights to keep them healthier and happier. Our species has such a significant relationship with these birds; shouldn’t we get to know them?

Much like the relationship between dogs and wolves, the chickens we are familiar with were domesticated thousands of years ago from a species called red junglefowl, which lives in the forests of Southeast Asia. Significantly smaller, more agile and active than their farmyard cousins, their behaviour is thought to be more ‘natural’ since they haven’t been extensively bred by humans.  Continue reading

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Who are you calling a caveman?

This article features in the inaugral issue of The Oxford Scientist (formerly Bang! Magazine).

Our species, Homo sapiens, weren’t always the only humans. Around the world, fossil evidence provides tantalising hints of half a dozen or so human species that may have coexisted with our own. The best known of these is Homo neanderthalensis: the Neanderthals.  Continue reading

Genetics of Bird Migration

A few months ago, as part of a short training course in bioinformatics, I took part in a project looking into the genetics of bird migration. Bird migration is a really fascinating phenomenon, with many species travelling huge distances in astonishing feats of endurance- for instance, arctic terns fly up to 90,000km from pole to pole and back again every year. There is a lot that scientists don’t yet understand about how and why some birds do this, such as how they instinctively know which route to take, and why some species migrate while others do not.

I wrote a blog post about it for Microsoft, which you can read here (although, disclaimer: they have formatted it slightly weirdly- captions not my own- and the blog is written to their specifications, with lots of talk about how we made use of their cloud computing service, Azure).

Bang! talks to… Angela Saini

This is an interview I conducted for the November 2017 issue of Bang!, Oxford’s premiere student-run science magazine, of which I was editor this term. Check out the magazine’s website here.

Angela Saini is a science journalist and author. Her first book, Geek Nation, selected as an Independent book of the year, explored India’s rich scientific history and its future as an emerging scientific superpower.

Here, Ellen Pasternack asks about her most recent book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, published in 2017. Inferior reviews centuries of scientific thought on the female sex from a modern day feminist perspective, with a healthy open-minded scepticism and a journalist’s sharp eye for detail. Accessible and wide ranging, this book is sure to provoke discussion among scientists and non-scientists alike. Continue reading

Jane Goodall: A significant shaper of modern-day thought

Jane Goodall is well known as a jungle-dwelling, animal loving eccentric. In this piece for Bluestocking I argue that she deserves more reconition as somebody who has made many paradigm-shifting contributions to science.

Bluestocking Oxford

By Ellen Pasternack

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“Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” This was the response of acclaimed palaeontologist Louis Leakey to Jane Goodall’s astonishing observation in 1960 of chimpanzees manufacturing tools, in the form of stems stripped of leaves, and using them to extract termites from nests. With this discovery, the adage ‘man the toolmaker’ as a watertight expression of humankind’s uniqueness was instantly punctured.

Chimpanzee tool manufacture was not the only one of Goodall’s discoveries to send shockwaves through the anthropological and zoological communities. Over decades spent studying the chimp community at Gombe, Tanzania, Goodall was the first to observe very unexpected behaviours, such as meat eating and warfare, as well as recognising that chimps have a complex social structure, form close bonds, experience emotions and have unique personalities. In doing so she utterly transformed our understanding of this previously little-studied species, and challenged long-held…

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Book review: Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

I wrote this review for Phenotype, Oxford University’s journal of biochemistry, to be published in an issue on the theme of neurobiology. You can view the original printed article here.

That women’s brains are different from men’s is often treated as common knowledge. Confidently proclaimed by respected academics, the tabloid media, an avalanche of self-help books, and ‘that guy’ in every psychology seminar, one could easily be forgiven for assuming this is established scientific fact. Separate but equal: men have evolved to be better at maths, creating Great Art, and thinking rationally, while women excel in other areas, like helping people and tidying up. You can’t argue with science, and that’s what the science says.

Continue reading

Bang! talks to… Sally Le Page

This is an interview I conducted for the February 2017 issue of Bang!, Oxford’s premiere student-run science magazine, of which I was editor this term. Check out the magazine’s website here, or read the rest of the magazine online for free here.

Sally Le Page is a DPhil student in the Zoology department at Oxford. She has a very popular science channel on YouTube called Shed Science, and has also been widely involved in science communication in the ‘real’ world. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal. Bang! gets to know her.  Continue reading

Bigger babies? So what?

An abridged version of this article was published last month in Cherwell, the Oxford University student newspaper. You can read that version here.

In October 2016 a research paper prompted widespread news reports that caesarean sections are affecting human evolution by causing the size of newborns to increase. Larger babies which, in the past, would have died from obstructed labour, are now able to survive. The alleles—gene variants—that cause this obstructive ‘fetopelvic disproportion’ (FPD) are no longer selected against and are, it is claimed, becoming more prevalent in the human population. However, the story was massively over-hyped, as the researchers did not find solid evidence that this is actually happening.

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Top 10 Popular Science Books 2016

I read a lot of popular science; this is a list of the 10 popular science books that I most enjoyed in 2016, in order. Click on each item to read a review, or scroll down to read them all. Apologies for the slightly clunky format of this post- I wanted to do it differently, but frustratingly that requires a paid version of WordPress, which I’m not willing to get.

1. Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, Randolph M Nesse and George C Williams, 1995.

2. Cuckoo, Nick Davies, 2015.

3. The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould, 1981.

4. Why Is Sex Fun? Jared Diamond, 1997.

5. Headstrong: 52 Women who Changed Science- and the World, Rachel Swaby, 2015.

6. The Triumph of Seeds, Thor Hanson, 2015.

7. The Birth of The Pill, Jonathan Eig, 2014.

8. Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, Michael Brooks, 2011.

9. The Drunkard’s Walk, Leonard Mlodinow, 2008.

10. Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, Tim Marshall, 2015.

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Survival of the catchiest: Languages are an interesting context in which to look at evolution.

Natural selection happens because of a very simple self-evident fact: when something creates a copy of itself, there are then more of those things. If a particular trait makes an organism more successful, say, keen eyesight helping an eagle to spot prey, then it will likely be able to produce a brood of similarly eagle-eyed chicks. By contrast, its more myopic counterparts are more likely to have starved to death and not left behind offspring with this unlucky trait. Through this mechanism, the genes encoding keen-sightedness will become more common in the eagle population over time. This change in relative frequency of heritable characteristics is what evolution is.

The gradual change of languages over time is also a form of evolution. Continue reading