Men & women both make excellent scientists: Meet Emily Messer

emilyDr Emily Messer (@emilyjemesser) completed her PhD in social learning and social behaviour of brown tufted capuchin and common squirrel monkeys at the University of St Andrews. After completing her PhD she stayed on at the University of St Andrews to study conformity and later causal understanding, executive functions, and working memory in non-human primates and humans. She joined Heriot Watt University in 2015 as a Research Associate studying the social influences of prosociality. Emily will be standing on one of our soapboxes this Sunday in Glasgow, to talk about “Wild Medicine: Animals use self-­medication to prevent infection and disease”


SS: Emily, how did you get to your current position?

EM: Since childhood, I was interested in science and would even do my own experiments with my reluctant sisters! I was a fan of biology and studying animals in particular. Growing up I would spend ages watching animals; I remember being particularly fascinated by the life cycle of frogs in the pond outside. Studying Biology for my undergraduate at Dundee University, it was there where my passion for animal behaviour really started to flourish. Later I became especially fascinated by the behaviour of primates and their social lives. It was then no surprise that I went on to do my PhD with Professor Andrew Whiten at the University of St Andrews where I studied social learning and behaviour in capuchin and squirrel monkeys. After spending four years observing these monkeys in RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, (fascinated by social interactions and learning), I began working with the less hairy apes, young children as a post-doc studying prosociality in children at Heriot-Watt University.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

EM: Growing up with two sisters, cat’s always around, and at least one boxer dog in the house; as a rule, we spent lots of time outside and this helped me develop a love of nature. My parents are strong advocates of education but left me to decide independently what direction I should go in. Having such a strong support from my family, always enjoying exploring new areas, and having such a love for Biology and learning from a young age, it was then no surprise that I ended up in a career in science.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?

EM: I get to spend my days watching animals (including humans) interacting and learning, sharing in some of their behaviours and lives. Although my job can be pretty much summed up as “people (or indeed animal) watching”, basically what that means is I observe animal natural behaviours or introduce new problems for them to solve and watch what they do. Then I get the joy of telling others all about the animals and their remarkable behaviours.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

EM: I love science and studying behaviours, though I also believe science communication is an essential part of being a scientist and I’m excited to be a part of that. When I found out about the event I thought it was an excellent way of taking science to the wider public. I think Soapbox Science will provide an excellent platform for girls and indeed boys too, to see that science is a massive discipline that both of the sexes can be part of.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?

EM: Adventure


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

EM: If I could change one thing about the scientific culture right now it would be to show that men and women both make excellent scientists. In doing this I would hope that individuals who are passionate about going for a career in science can do so, and that the science that is done, can be accessed by the wider public more freely.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

EM: Be passionate. Science is fun and whether you are male or female shouldn’t matter to how you do your science. At the end of the day if you have real passion for your topic and communicating it to others; you have an exciting career ahead of you.

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