She's worth it

An award for women in science will allow scientist Nathalie Seddon to juggle family life with globetrotting research interests

July 16, 2009

Having spent a lot of time observing the reproductive patterns of birds in remote tropical regions, Nathalie Seddon hopes a recent fellowship will give her the flexibility to work and create a family of her own.

Dr Seddon has won a £15,000 L'Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science fellowship, which she intends to use to further her ambitions to lead a research team and scale back the amount of time she spends working in the field.

The evolutionary ecologist, who is a Royal Society university research fellow in the department of zoology at the University of Oxford, said she "enjoyed fantastic flexibility" to "pursue the questions that I am most interested in" - in particular the lives of antbirds in the foothills of the Andes.

But she also wants to settle down and said it was unfeasible to "spend months and months in the middle of the Amazon wading through swamp forests".

She said the funding would allow her to "have a family and keep a hand in with science".

Dr Seddon is interested in understanding the "processes that are responsible for generating the astonishing diversity of life that we find in the natural world". Her focus is on song, which she said is vital in the life of birds, as it is used to attract mates and defend resources and territory.

"After 32 million years of independent evolution, most species of bird are still able to reproduce with other members of their own genus," she said. "What is keeping them apart isn't genetic complication but pre-mating signals such as song or colour."

A change in the structure of such signals can result in the formation of a new species, she added.

The questions that Dr Seddon is currently interested in are not ones that can be easily answered in the field. She is therefore keen to establish a captive population of antbirds for carefully controlled experimental work.

The £15,000 award is "the perfect sum of money to do that", she said, adding that the "novel" and "risky" nature of such a project meant that it was unlikely to win initial funding from the research councils.

Her award will be used to build aviaries and begin preliminary experiments at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, as well as funding her travel. Dr Seddon hopes to spend long periods working there during the summer.

She said that meeting other fellowship winners had been inspiring and "makes one want to go off and be a role model for young female scientists".

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