Women in Science: From bird lady to dancing professor

Nicola Clayton 300x248 Women in Science: From bird lady to dancing professor I suppose you could say that my work-life is split in two parts. As the Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University, I run a fairly large research group investigating the development and evolution of intelligence, particularly in members of the crow family (which includes the rooks, ravens, magpies and jays) and young children, though part of my team also study dogs, elephants and adult humans. But when I’m not in the lab, I’m based at the Rambert Dance Company, where I am the company’s first ever Scientist in Residence.

For the last few years, we have been pioneering new procedures to study mental time travel, the ability to reminisce about the past and imagine the future, in jays and young children. This work has been important for our understanding of animal cognition because it challenges the common-held assumption that only humans remember the past and plan for the future.

It also has important implications for human memory and cognition, and how and when these abilities develop in young children.  For example, we have adapted the behavioural tasks we have developed to test whether jays can plan for tomorrow’s breakfast for studies of future planning of dietary choices in obesity.

Together with my husband, Nathan Emery, I have been developing a theory that intelligence evolved independently in apes and in crows. Our current research examines how these birds perform similar cognitive operations to apes, in spite of their much smaller brains and strikingly different neuroarchitecture.

An ape’s brain, like ours, is arranged in layers, whereas the bird brain has a nuclear structure, making it look more like a fruit cake whereas our brain looks more like a six-layered chocolate cake.  This raises many important questions about how animals with such different brains could show such striking similarities in intelligence, as well as how and why these abilities evolved. I’m now extending the comparisons to other species, from elephants in Thailand to dogs in Croatia and young children in Cambridge, but the experiments are all inspired by my fascination with birds.

Ever since childhood I have been intrigued by how their minds work and why they engage in such enchanting and elaborate displays and dances. But my admiration for the birds has also led me into a very different direction, namely collaborating with the Artistic Director of Rambert Dance Company and choreographer, the simply brilliant Mr. Mark Baldwin (who happens to share my passion for birds and dance). Mark and I have been collaborating since 2009, when I started working with him on Comedy of change in honour of Charles Darwin’s bicentenary.

We are currently working on a new choreographic piece, Seven for a secret, never to be told, which will premiere at the Lowry in Salford on September 21st and then tour all over the UK this autumn and winter, including performances at Sadler’s Wells from November 15th until 19th. The title comes from the child’s nursery rhyme about magpies, those clever big-brained crows that are so famous for their use of trickery and deception. It also conveys the magical, mysterious, mischievous and sometimes mercurial world as seen through the eyes of a seven year old child. In short, it’s all about the power of play. So can you guess what the secret is that cannot be told?

Aside from developing ideas that have inspired the movement and produced the overarching themes, Mark and I have been busy observing children’s behaviour, especially how they play, which is so fascinating and inspiring. We’re also writing a book about science and choreography, to capture the whole process of how and why we collaborate together.

At any rate, for me, this is an opportunity of a lifetime: for who would have thought I would have the chance to combine my scientific interests in evolution and cognition with my love of dance and choreography. And watching the birds triggers my passion for both. It’s all about where ideas meet inquiry, and the end result is definitely more than the sum of its parts.

Nicola Clayton is Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge.

She is working with the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme and The Zoological Society of London to encourage more young women to pursue careers in science

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