There are more changes afoot at FluffySciences! Because after six very happy years with SRUC it’s time for me to move on …


Yes today was, technically, my last working day at SRUC. On Monday I start a new role as a research fellow in veterinary education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

I’m really excited to be starting this new role. It’s a group I know well and whose work I’ve often admired, so it’s a delight to be working with them more closely. And it’s a subject I’ve been interested in for some time. But of course it’s sad to be leaving SRUC and my lovely colleagues. While we’ll still work together it’s a strange thing to be leaving a group who I’ve been working with for longer than I was in high school!

You hear a lot of horror stories as a PhD student about unsupportive and unhelpful groups. I feel like I owe it to everyone to talk about the other side of the coin. When you’re lucky enough to work with a supportive group they can help you achieve so much. They listened to me ramble about definitions of animal personality for years and their feedback was always honest and constructive. They gave me opportunities to work on MOOCs and learning objects and so many interesting little bits and pieces of research. And of course they took me to amazing conferences all around the world and bought me beer and cups of tea and cakes whenever we were all out together.

So it has been a pleasure and a privilege, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next chapter of my research career brings. FluffySciences will continue, probably with a little bit of a shift in focus, but it will remain a blog obsessed with proving that even the soft, fluffy sciences like educational science are thorough and evidence based. Keep an eye out for my application to the Higher Education Academy Fellowships, I’ll be working through Edinburgh’s programme to get there and I’ll mirror all the self-reflective work as examples on here. And of course the book will still be under development.

Goodbye, SRUC, I will always be grateful.

Sunday Obits

I am full of a chesty cold and have spent the weekend falling from sick bed to sick bed around the flat, with Athena following dutifully in my wake to cuddle and occasionally lick me back to full health. So I’ve been reading a lot of internet articles.

There’s a fascinating blog on Jezebel about how a writer felt after the death of his cat Kellog. A paper I wrote looking at how people remember dead pets online will soon be available in Anthrozoos. The nature of the internet means that that paper is already slightly outdated, with this kind of response now more often captured in social media rather than online pet obituaries as it was only a few years ago.

Add it to the list of things to investigate one day .  . .

Chronicles of Athena – Lockout 2016

There I was, happily trotting off to the cinema to see ‘Spotlight’, when I heard an almighty yowl behind me.

Edinburgh tenements have a common stairwell, colloquially known as the ‘close’, with an exterior door at the bottom. I was at the bottom of my close, two neighbours had just passed me on the way up, when Athena decided to make her unhappiness known. Oh dear, I thought to myself, while my neighbours gave me an odd look. Athena has always been vocal and does call out to me when she hears me speaking in the close, but I always have a sneaking worry about separation anxiety.

Nothing to be done now, I think, and keep on going. Three and a half hours later I return, and funnily enough I don’t hear Athena calling out to me at the usual spot (where I think she must know the sound of my step on the stair).

No, because Athena is sitting huddled on the doormat outside my flat’s front door. And when she sees me she howls again.

Poor little Athena slipped out right on my heels when I left for the cinema and spent the better part of four hours in the close feeling miserable. We’ve now fed her plenty of treats (and she’s been tweeting about the experience . . . somehow). All is well.

But if Athena had been a different type of cat, one who’d decided to explore further, or was less sure of the close that she’s explored before, who knows what would have happened? Thankfully, she’s microchipped. It’s so important for responsible pet ownership for your animals to be traceable.

If you’re in the UK the RSPCA has a guide here. And for the US, the AVMA has their guide here.

Speak to your vets about keeping your pets traceable, make sure your records are always up to date, and double check your doors on the way out. Or your cat tweeting threats of negligence might just be the least of your worries . . .


Sorry Athena – will get right on that bacon for you.

Digital Pawprint

Our office conversations are usually pretty fascinating (if I do say so myself) but this week we’ve been really been outdoing ourselves in the animal welfare corridor of the vet school.

What rights do people have over their pet’s image?

Our conversation was, as so many of the best conversations are, the result of some interesting coincidences. Our new e-Learning developer at the vet school was the genesis of Edinburgh University’s ‘Digital Footprint‘ campaign, designed to help staff and students manage their awareness of their online presence. We’ve been thinking about this a lot ourselves as we build more and more e-resources (with our YouTube channels too!).

When we take footage of an animal for educational purposes, we get the owner’s consent. But a lot of the animals we record are strays, who hopefully will go on to become somebody’s pet after they get adopted. We also sometimes ‘misrepresent’, in the loosest sense of the word, what might be happening in a piece of footage.

For example, I have a great piece of footage of Athena scratching my hand, seemingly without warning. I use it to accompany lectures/resources of cat aggression. What this piece of footage doesn’t show is that we had been playing boisterously for a few minutes prior to the scratch and I knew full well what was going to happen. I also don’t show much of her reaction afterwards, where she immediately stops her playing and starts a whole host of affiliative behaviours that is a cat’s version of apologising when it knows it’s stepped over the line. The behaviour isn’t really aggression at all, just one component of Athena’s full behavioural repertoire, the same way that if I swear at my friends it isn’t really ‘aggression’ so much as part of our friendship. But I fully believe that as an educator, the clip I show makes my overall message stronger and a facsimile of the behaviour in question is far better than a visual-less description.

I can do this because I fully understand the implications of what I’m saying and what it means to pair that with an image of Athena. Can an owner do the same? For example, if we recorded a dog in the vet clinic and then were later to use that image to imply the dog was in pain (when in fact we know its pain was well managed and these behaviours actually have another cause), has the owner been able to give full, informed consent for this? The answer is ‘no’, and it makes our job really difficult as we try to find images that we have full control over. Which is why you see our animals more than any others in our MOOCs and videos.

It becomes even more complicated when we use images of animals in shelters. They will go on to become somebody’s pet, we hope. Can we use those images when their new owner has never consented? Worse, could we possibly damage a new pet-owner relationship by showing the animal out of context? If somebody watches one of our videos and sees their new dog being the poster child for ‘aggressive dogs’, will they immediately return their new dog? From a risk management point of view, while the risk severity of this is high, the likelihood of the risk is small. It still preys on our minds though. Our best practice is to seek informed consent, and we’re looking at improving this process as we talk with our MOOC team for super secret future projects that just happen to need lots of footage of cats and dogs . . .

But this argument is not just academic. You may have seen the article in the Guardian where the winners of a Thomas Cook selfie competition were contacted by the owners of the horse who featured in their selfie. The horse is performing a Flehmen’s Response (not ‘sticking its tongue out’ as the article claims), but the owners say they trained the horse to do this. While the owners may not be able to control their horse’s image while it is in a public place, do they have the intellectual property rights to the act of training their horse at all?

To go for another example, if I was to relinquish Athena (perhaps because she had jumped on my bladder one last time on a lazy Sunday morning), and one of her future owners then capitalised on her ability to carry out a conversation, could I claim the intellectual property rights as I was the one who had trained her to do that?

Of course there’s another argument, and that is that the animals themselves own their images. Certainly Wikipedia has been contending that the IP of this particular image belongs to no one, as the photographer is the macaque itself! Animal Rights groups, of course, disagree. (Check out my post ‘Value‘ if you want more chat about the ethics of animal use).

Finally, if I am aware of all of this, and the contention of ownership over image, and I post it on my blog anyway . . .

Monkey takes selfie

By Self-portrait by the depicted Macaca nigra female. See article. [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons


. . . have I just lost all my ethical street cred?

Being LGBT In The Field

The always funny and amazing Evopropinquitous has written an amazing post on what it’s like to be gay and working as an academic in the field. A must read for everyone.

My own negligible contribution comes from a field trip I’d taken when one of our colleagues was gay, which was illegal in this particular country. We were a large group and so he was never without a woman in the clubs etc to fend off any unwanted questions but he was befriended by a very brave, relatively openly gay local which made our trip leaders a little nervous. I’m not sure how I’d deal with that situation now if I was in their shoes.

In the animal fields we should be very sensitive to people saying they’re not comfortable in the field, no matter what the reason, and it’s not cowardice to refuse to go or to come home early.

The Seabird Ecologists

One of my much loved friends from the undergraduate days, Lucy, has decided to stay another winter on Bird Island, where she occasionally posts amazing pictures of the wildlife down there to make me feel exceptionally jealous as I fight with various university IT systems.

One of her new team members has started a great wee blog: so if you love the wild side, I suggest you check it out! (And check out Lucy’s lovely new hairdo . . .)

Meanwhile, me and Athena will curl up under a fluffy blanket and watch some magpies outside the window. It’s more our style!

Animal Academia

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian criticising London Zoo for offering an unpaid job with an MSc as part of the requirements.

Unpaid work crops up repeatedly in academia, sometimes in terms of “pay your dues”, or “gaining valuable experience”. But I think it’s particularly prevalent in the animal sciences for a number of reasons, one of which being the huge number of people in the field, the cost of running animal projects, and the scarcity of available funding.

There are two other reasons I think unpaid work occurs so often in the animal sciences. First, there is a terrible assumption of class that pervades academia. Most of the ‘old guard’ have come from traditional animal-owning backgrounds. Their families can support them on unpaid volunteer work. If you need to bring money in to the house, then you cannot gain that experience. Whose CV is stronger? Well I remember scoffing when, late in my undergrad, a more privileged student had never written a CV before. And I remember how much more detailed hers was than mine.

And I worry that the feminisation of the animal sciences opens up the unpaid internship bias too. See Oschenfield 2014 and Constance 1996. As a field that is getting more attractive to women, but also has people saying that money is too tight to offer pay, we are going to see more and more of these unpaid jobs cropping up.

Would I say to one of my students “Don’t apply?” I’m not sure if I would. I did my own time, paid my own unpaid dues. They were immensely valuable to my career. No, I think this needs to be tackled from the top. Which is why I have an Athena Swan meeting tomorrow to prep for . . .

Augmented Reality Teaching


OK Glass

I got a chance to use Google glass today in brief interlude between filming a super secret (a new YouTube series, not a secret at all) project. It was amazing!

The digital education office had put some clinical skills videos on the Glass and I could immediately see the applicability of augmented reality in teaching. While practicing a technique, students would be able to immediately see the reference material.

I was also amazed at how unobtrusive Glass was, when a colleague appeared at the door I was able to focus on her immediately and completely forgot about watching my personal screen. The audio is delivered via bone conduction speakers making for clear sound that’s not disruptive to those around you.

Yes it’s definitely still early days. The headpiece got quite hot when I was wearing it and I imagine you would get a headache using it for extended periods of time, but no doubt in my mind this is how we’ll be teaching in five-ten years.

Also it’s so Star Trek I could cry for joy