Repton School, Derbyshire (1998-2002); Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge (2003-2006); University of Chicago (2006-2007); University of Edinburgh (2010-2014)
A-levels in English, French, Latin, and Maths; AS level Further Maths; BA (Hons) English; MA Humanities; MSc Evolution of Language & Cognition; PhD Linguistics
Between my undergrad and my PhD I worked for a while in open-access scientific journal publishing with PLOS (the Public Library of Science). I've also been a sub-sub-librarian and possibly the world's worst waitress.
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
University College London
Favourite thing to do in my job: I like that so much of science is about what we don’t know. Most days, there’s at least one moment when I realise I was completely wrong about something!
I’m interested in a lot of things, but especially languages, music, and fantasy & science fiction.
I’m originally from Scotland; I grew up there and in Derbyshire. When I’m not doing research, I write fantasy and science fiction. I also love travelling, learning languages, and playing musical instruments badly.
I look at how we learn what words mean, how we use words to get other people to understand what we want to say, and where the whole idea of words meaning things might have come from in the first place.
I work in language evolution and language development. That means I’m interested in where language comes from, how children learn the language around them, and what these two areas of research can tell us about each other. For the language evolution part, I make up fake languages (we usually call them ‘alien’ languages to make it more fun), teach them to people, and see how they learn them and use them to communicate. For the language development part, I study the kinds of things children say when they’re just learning to talk (which can be fun, as they don’t always make much sense at that stage!)
My Typical Day
Designing and running experiments, analysing data, writing up my results, meeting with colleagues to talk about their work.
Most of my day is spent working in my office, either planning an idea for a new experiment, doing statistical analyses of data I’ve already collected, or writing papers based on the results. If I’m running an experiment, I’ll be sitting outside the booth where my participants are, attempting to do work but spending most of the time worrying the experiment’s stopped working.
My favourite CHRISTMAS LECTURE memory is:
As a kid I loved watching them - I used to wish I could go and see them live!
How does technology threaten your privacy?
As someone who works with personal data (e.g. videos of real people), I know how important it is to tell participants upfront exactly what it will be used for in a way that’s easy to understand. It’s worrying that companies are collecting so much data and hiding what they’re going to do with it in long, complicated terms of service agreements that most people don’t actually read.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Almost always confused
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I really enjoy going to conferences - it’s an amazing experience getting to talk to experts in the field while travelling to places like Berlin, Marseilles, and New Orleans.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
For a long time I didn’t think science was for me — I was into things like languages and stories, which I thought were the opposite of science. Then I did a masters in language evolution and realised that these things can be studied scientifically, just as much as chemistry or physics.
What did you want to be after you left school?
A children’s book author.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Honestly no - my parents were both teachers, so I would never have heard the end of it!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I performed at the Edinburgh Book festival which was amazing, especially getting to go into the magical Authors’ Yurt.
Tell us a joke.
Two muffins are baking in an oven. One says, “Wow, it’s hot in here!” The other one says, “AAAH!! A talking muffin!!”