Writing


I am a freelance science writer with over 8 years experience. I have worked in a variety of formats including print and online journalism, blogging, webcopy and medical writing. I have communicated complex scientific ideas to children and adults of all ages, medical professionals, scientists, policy-makers, and corporate stakeholders. I am particularly interested in evolution, genetics, ecology and conservation topics, which is also where my scientific expertise lies.

Please feel free to email me with enquires about freelance writing or editing work.
Member Button linking to the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) - an association of science writers, journalists, broadcasters and science-based communications professionals - many of whom are available for freelance work

Clippings

How the Tasmanian devil has responded to infectious cancers

21/03/17

The name "Tasmanian devil" may bring up images of cartoon tornados and scattered debris. The Warner Brothers character Taz was portrayed as dim-witted, destructive and wacky. But real Tasmanian devils are anything but. "They all have very unique personalities," says Abram Tompkins, supervisor at captive breeding facility Devil Ark in New South Wales, Australia. "They're not the feisty, ferocious animals that most people perceive them as. Most devils are actually quite timid, yet curious." The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is an endangered marsupial found only on the Tasmanian Islands off the south-east coast of Australia. It may grow to only 8kg, but t...

Woolly mammoths suffered genomic meltdown

15/02/17

Before going extinct, the last mammoths accumulated harmful genetic mutations that may have altered their behaviour and appearance. Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) disappeared from North America and Siberia 10,000 years ago, but small groups survived on islands until about 4,000 years ago. Rebekah Rogers and Montgomery Slatkin at the University of California, Berkeley, compared published genome sequences from a Siberian mainland specimen dated to 45,000 years ago, when mammoths numbered more than 12,000. The other is a 4,300-year-old specimen from Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, which had a population of just 300 ind....

Alien species are accelerating their march across the globe

15/02/17

Invasive species, from feral pigs to Japanese knotweed, can devastate ecosystems. They damage crops, clog rivers, and cost farmers and homeowners billions of dollars to control each year. People aren’t the only ones suffering: The invaders have been linked to the decline of some four in every 10 endangered or threatened species in the United States. Now, the first-ever look at just how quickly these species have spread reveals more bad news: Since 1800, the rate at which alien species have been reported around the world has skyrocketed, with almost 40% of them discovered since 1970. “There are no signs of a slowdown [except for mammals and fish], and we ha...

Penis bone evolved out of competition for mates

14/12/16

Our monogamous lifestyle may explain why humans, unlike many other mammals, lack a penis bone. The bone, called a baculum, rests at the end of the penis and is thought to provide structural support and prolong copulation. Matilda Brindle and Christopher Opie at University College London analysed the size of bacula in nearly 2,000 species of mammals, including primates and carnivores. They found that species that copulate for longer tended to have longer bacula. So did animals that have more than one mate or seasonal-breeding patterns, which lead to intense competition between sperm from different males after mating. Their results show that the baculum fir...

First evidence that wild mammals benefit from bigger brains

14/12/16

We pride ourselves on our big brains, but when it comes to figuring out whether people or other animals with particularly big brains do better than others, the evidence has been lacking. Now, for the first time, a study in red deer is showing that bigger brained mammals tend to be more successful in the wild, and that brain size is a heritable trait that they can pass on to their offspring. Corina Logan from the University of Cambridge and her team have looked at the skulls of 1314 red deer (Cervus elaphus) from the Isle of Rum. The complete life histories of the deer are well known thanks to the Isle of Rum Red Deer Project, which has been collecting data on the island...

A dam shame: the plight of the Mekong giant catfish

30/11/16

Humanity rarely seems to get very excited about conserving fish species, maybe because they are largely invisible to us land-dwelling creatures — except when they arrive on a dinner plate. But if any fish is deserving of a spot on the Almost Famous Asia list of threatened animals, it is the Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas). P. gigas is the world’s largest freshwater fish, with the biggest individuals weighing in at a remarkable 650 pounds (300 kilograms) and reaching up to 10 feet (3 meters) in length. They are found throughout the length of Southeast Asia’s Mekong River, and their health is inextricably linked to the health of the river itself. Sa...

The natural world is falling silent

11/11/16

You can hear the climate changing. As the world warms, the soundtrack of the ocean is shifting. In 2015, a US team of scientists and engineers reported that the loudest sound in some waters now comes from millions of tiny bubbles, which are released by melting glaciers and icebergs. In the fjords of Alaska and Antarctica, the average noise level is now over 100 decibels – louder than any ocean environment recorded before. This is just one example of how Earth's natural soundscape is changing irreversibly, and human activity is driving the process. Our natural spaces are now polluted with human-made noises. As we change forests into farms and drive species to ex...

Nobody can really tell you what a flower is

17/09/16

Flower is one of the earliest words we learn, and a fundamental part of our every day lives. Flowers may be the most common form of nature we encounter on a day-to-day basis, and yet when we try, they are surprisingly hard to define. We posted the question on the BBC Earth Facebook page to see if any of our readers had the answer. A flower, says Kevin Drucas, is an adaptation that "was so successful that over the last 200+ million years they radiated, speciated, climbed up into trees, cliffs, hid beneath snow ... even battled pathogenic fungi and insects", adding, "one could say flowers have conquered every habitat on Earth". Other people felt a more spiritual relation...

Asteroid mining will come too late to save our planet

17/08/16

Around the world, ecosystems are being destroyed at a rate unprecedented in the Earth's history. Species are going extinct, habitats are being disrupted, and unique aspects of nature are disappearing before our very eyes. The cause, as we all know, is humankind - and our insatiable appetite for metals, oil, and other resources. But what if there was an alternative to digging these resources out of the ground? Enter asteroid mining  - a hypothetical industry where resources are harvested from asteroids, moons, and even small planets, rather than the ground below our feet. By harvesting resources in space we could halt some of the most environmentally damaging practic...

Bile trade threatens the World's smallest bear

01/08/16

Asia's Sun bear, nicknamed the "honey bear" is a keystone species, but illegal trafficking for traditional medicine and habitat loss are putting the species at risk. The Malayan Sun bear may not be the most famous animal in Southeast Asia, but it is undoubtedly one of the most endearing - though its charm hasn't served to protect it. These gentle, inquisitive residents of the Asian mainland, Sumatra and Borneo, are threatened by poaching for traditional medicine. They're also fast losing their tropical forest habitat to agricultural expansion for oil palm plantations and other crops. Currently listed as Vulnerable to Extinction by the International Union for Conservati...

Why we should let raging wildfires burn

25/07/16

Our relationship with fire has always been a complicated, love-hate affair. Fire brings warmth, safety, clean drinking water and cooked food, and may have fast-tracked the expansion of humans out of Africa. But fire is also an unruly beast, bringing with it the threat of devastation and death. Wildfires can be hugely destructive, and threaten the safety and property of people living in fire-prone regions. It seems obvious to most people that wildfires need to be prevented and extinguished, at all costs. And they are: today, 98% of all fires in the US are successfully extinguished. But the more money we invest into stopping wildfires, the worse they seem to get. Year...

Software diagnoses lung diseases over the phone

10/05/16

A piece of software that can measure lung function over the phone could help diagnose people with lung diseases in developing nations. A paper about SpiroCall explains how the system takes the place of a spirometer, a tool used to monitor conditions such as asthma and cystic fibrosis. SpiroCall consists of an automated call-in service that records the user breathing into a phone, and a computer that analyses the recording to estimate lung function. Professional spirometers can cost up to US$5,000 each, making them too expensive for healthcare services with constrained budgets or for use in emergency situations. Provided that hospitals have computers t...

The squirrel that survives being frozen

11/03/16

Most animals hate the cold. When winter comes around many species burrow underground to hibernate or migrate to lower latitudes where conditions are warmer. But a few strange creatures do the opposite. They actually embrace the freezing conditions. We are still unravelling the mysteries of these amazing animals that freeze. For one species in particular, doing so could prove significant. Several scientists are trying to work out how the Arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) became the only known warm-blooded mammal to be able to tolerate subzero body temperatures. Solving the mystery cou...

Lyme disese-carrying ticks are now in half of all U.S. counties

18/01/16

The ticks that transmit Lyme disease, a debilitating flulike illness caused by Borrelia bacteria, are spreading rapidly across the United States. A new study shows just how rapidly. Over the past 20 years, the two species known to spread the disease to humans have together advanced into half of all the counties in the United States. Lyme disease cases have tripled in the United States over the last 2 decades, making it the most commonly reported vector-borne disease in the Northern Hemisphere. The disease now affects around 300,000 Americans each year. If diagnosed early - a rash commonly app...

Ocean plastic piling up fast

17/12/15

Up to 240,000 tonnes of plastic particles are polluting the world's oceans - at least three times more than previous estimates. Each year, 5 million to 13 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the sea, where it slowly degrades into microplastic particles that threaten marine ecosystems. Erik van Sebille at Imperial College London and his colleagues analysed 40 years of data on plastic collected from surface-trawling plankton nets - more information than in previous studies. By combining those data with sophisticated ocean-circulation models, they estimated that the oceans contain 93,000 - 236,000 tonnes of micropla...

Infrared movies capture hummingbirds shedding heat in flight

15/12/15

Hummingbirds are impressive flyers, managing 12 meters and 50 wingbeats per second. But all that flapping could put them in danger of overheating. Research published online today in Royal Society Open Science shows that they use their unfeathered regions, particularly their feet and eyes, to regulate body temperature during flight. Scientists used infrared thermal imaging to measure heat dissipation from calliope hummingbirds (Selasphorus calliope) flying in a wind tunnel. They identified hotspots under the wings, on the feet, and around the eyes, which were at least 8°C warmer than the rest of the body...

One amazing substance allowed life to thrive on land

05/12/15

Mud. Muck. Dirt. Although we have plenty of words for it, we rarely give soil a second thought. But without soil, we would certainly be dead. Soil is crucial to almost every aspect of life on land, from water storage and filtration to climate regulation, flood prevention, nutrient cycling and decomposition. The dirt beneath our feet is also an exceptionally high source of biodiversity: some estimates suggest that at least one quarter of all species live in or on the soil. And we are still discovering its treasures: in January 2015, scientists announced that the first new antibiotic in 30 years had been found in soil bacteria...

Complex effects of pesticides on bees

26/11/15

Honeybee colonies could be compensating for the harmful effects of certain pesticides by producing more workers, at least in the short term. Some European countries banned neonicotinoid pesticides in 2013, but this remains controversial because field studies have failed to confirm the adverse effects reported for bees in the lab. Mickaël Henry at the French National Institute of Agricultural Research in Avignon and his colleagues positioned honeybee colonies in farmers' fields so that they were exposed to varying levels of the pesticide thiamethoxam. The team radio-tagged and monitored nearly 7,000 bees...

Polarized light as a secret signal

19/11/15

Some crustaceans can detect polarized light, using it as a covert signal that is invisible to predators. Yakir Luc Gagnon at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, found that the bodies of mantis shrimps (Gonodactylaceus falcatus; pictured) reflect a distinctive pattern of circular polarization (pictured in red) that is visible only to other shrimps. When presented with different burrows in the laboratory, mantis shrimps avoided or delayed entering those that were lit with circularly polarized light compared with those under unpolarized light. This suggests that the shrimps use polarized light cues to sense wheth...

DNA clusters help yeast in hard times

07/10/15

Starving yeast cells reorganize their chromosomes into dense clusters in a way that might slow the ageing process. Angela Taddei from the Curie Institute in Paris used cell imaging and molecular-genetics techniques to visualize the 3D organization of chromosomes inside cells of baker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). The team found that starving yeast arrange their chromosomes so that their telomeres - long stretches of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that shorten with ageing - are tightly packed together in the centre of the cell's nucleus. The rearrangement is triggered by free radicals produced by the cell as it gradually exhausts the avai...

Crops farmed by leafcutter ants show signs of domestication

11/09/15

Leafcutter ants in the rainforests of South America beat us to the invention of farming by some 50 million years. Now it seems that their fungus crop has undergone the same genetic changes as human crops. As people selectively bred new crop plants, they often inadvertently made changes to their genomes. Wheat, bananas, tobacco and strawberries are all polyploid - meaning they have three or more copies of each chromosome rather than the usual two. Now, a team at Copenhagen University have discovered that leafcutter ant crops are the same. Pepijn Kooij and colleagues compared the fungus farmed by leafcutter ants with fungus kept by their less-specialised relati....

Ants have group-level personalities

28/08/15

If you stuck to Aesop's fables, you might think of all ants as the ancient storyteller described them - industrious, hard-working, and always preparing for a rainy day. But not every ant has the same personality, according to a new study. Some colonies are full of adventurous risk-takers, whereas others are less aggressive about foraging for food and exploring the great outdoors. Researchers say that these group "personality types" are linked to food-collecting strategies, and they could alter our understanding of how social insects behave. Personality - consistent patterns of individual behavior - was once considered a uniquely human trait. But studies since the 1990s....

Sneaky Sex is Good for Mongooses

17/07/15

True love knows no obstacles, even if the obstacle in question is a pack of angry mongooses. New research reveals that female mongooses take enormous risks to be with their perfect partner. They choose to mate with males from rival groups, even though that could get them embroiled in lethal fights. Banded mongooses, much like their more famous cousins the meerkats, live together in large packs in the grasslands of Africa. They are small mammals, feeding on insects, spiders and occasionally snakes. They work together in groups to raise pups and care for elderly pack members. Scientists have been studying banded mongooses in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uga...

Fish Learn Fear from Their Role Models

17/07/15

Even fish have role models. In a new study, researchers paired up inexperienced fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas, pictured) with two types of mentors: a minnow raised in an environment free of predators or a minnow raised in a dangerous one simulated by the odors of predatory pike and sturgeon. Fish from dangerous environments were fearful of the smell of both unknown and familiar predators, whereas fish that grew up in safety hid when they smelled a known predator but were curious about new smells. Both types of fish passed on their fears to their protégés: Minnows that spent time with fish raised in dangerous environments we...

The Genetics of Society

01/01/15

Eusocial insects are among the most successful living creatures on Earth. Found in terrestrial ecosystems across the globe (on every continent except Antarctica), the world's ants alone weigh more than all vertebrates put together. Bees are key pollinators of major crops as well as many other ecologically important plants. Termites construct thermoregulating homes that can dominate the landscape, and that are inspiring new energy-efficient skyscraper designs. The organization and collective decision making of eusocial insects is even yielding new insights into human behavior and what it means to be part of a society. But one of the biggest unans...

Nice Flies Don't Finish Last

12/06/14

While it might seem as though our genes are all working together for our own good, some of them are actually rather selfish. Scientists have known about 'selfish genetic elements' for nearly a century, but research to understand their behaviour and effects is ongoing. Recent research in GEE reveals how sexually selected traits are signalling selfish genetic elements (or a lack of them) in the same way they are used to signal male quality and health. Selfish genetic elements are variants (alleles) of genes which, rather than acting to the benefit of the individual, act in their own interest to ensure maximum replication of themselves. One type of selfishness that genes can e...

Eating Insects

21/05/2014

What if I told you I'd found an edible source of protein that is cheap and easy to rear in captivity, releases fewer greenhouse gases in the process and yields a versatile, healthy food containing many of the vitamins and minerals we might usually obtain from meat? If I then told you that potential food source was insects, you'd probably be disgusted. If you grew up in the Western world, that is. For nearly 2 billion people, insects are already on the dinner plate, and have been for centuries. Yet for some reason, in Western cultures insects are often considered less than palatable. If we could somehow shift this perception, however, we could change the world...

Choosing Ecology

06/05/2014

Frequently in the news at the moment is the issue of women in science. Why are there so few women in science, and why does the sex ratio skew heavily in the more senior positions? But as someone who works in science, this just isn't what I see. My field is filled with women, in fact. Subjects like ecology, zoology and conservation have no difficulty in attracting female graduate students and more and more women are moving into senior roles. It's not that the media are lying. There really are more men in science and engineering in general, and it is a real issue. So why are women choosing biology over physics? For me, the choice to study biology was bas...

A Call for Women to get Online

10/11/2012

As a PhD student in 2012, I realize there are many innovations that make my project very different from what it would have been 20 years ago. The radio frequency identification technology I use to track the movement of ants is a relatively recent invention. It has vastly increased the quantity of data obtainable compared to traditional observational methods. Even more dramatic is the impact of DNA sequencing technology, which has transformed the field of behavioural genetics and made possible aspects of my PhD that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. These innovations, along with countless others, have had a huge impact on my PhD. But one innovat...

The Evolution of The Sexes

01/04/2012

Women are from Venus, men are from Mars. Countless films, books, plays and poems have focused on this hyperbole. But why are men and women different? What is the origin of the differences between the sexes? Sex evolved early in the history of life, and has many benefits. Sex helps to increase the spread of new positive mutations, and thereby increase the pace by which species can adapt to their environment. It is also key to removing negative mutations from the population more rapidly, and is thought to provide particular advantages in the evolutionary arms race of host-parasite interactions. Almost all animals have sex, in some sort of way, an...

Frogs Develop Biological Antifreeze

06/02/2010

While most animals will try to avoid freezing at all costs, some species of frog are actively encouraging it. The wood frog (Rana sylvatica) is one of a handful of freeze-tolerant animals with adaptations to cope with freezing for up for 4 weeks. And within hours of defrosting the frogs are back to their usual selves again. Freezing is particularly dangerous to living things because the formation of ice crystals can cause damage to cell membranes. It also draws water out of cells and deprives them of oxygen. Special adaptations in the Wood frog allow it to cope with these stresses. Cryoprotectants are substances which help to reduce the damage caused by freezing, and i...