Michelle Taylor

Great questions this afternoon from Angmering School

Favourite Thing: I really enjoy catching up with the Science News of the week and finding out about all the interesting research going on all over the world.



Mangotsfield Comprehensive School, Bristol 1993, University of Plymouth 2003, University of Exeter 2008


BSc, PhD

Work History:

University of Western Australia University of Exeter

Current Job:

Associate Research Fellow


University of Exeter

Me and my work

I am interested in evolution and behaviour – I study how animals live and reproduce and adapt to the world around them

I like nature. I’m interested in how nature came to look the way it does to us – why do some animals live underwater while others live underground? Why do birds lay eggs and mammals produce live young? Why do insects produce hundreds or even thousands of offspring while elephants produce only a few? These are the types of questions that we ask in evolutionary biology and behavioural ecology. I am also interested in reproductive behaviour – why for instance do some males make a huge effort to build elaborate nests and displays for females to judge, or spend years growing fancy long tails or large antlers? What are females looking for when they judge which males will be the best father for their offspring? How much of their behaviour is due to the genes they have or the environment they are in, and does it change over time?

To answer these sorts of questions I use very simple insects as a ‘model’ to suggest what is happening in nature. Insects such as small fruit flies exist all over the world and in all kinds of different habitats so they are a very good representation of an animal that has to cope with all sorts of different environments. By bringing them into the lab and keeping them in small populations we can examine how behaviour of males and females changes, how their genes are inherited over lots of generations and how they respond to important things like temperature.

My Typical Day

Reading, writing, arithmetic and some social networking!

A typical day for me would include some reading – there are hundreds of scientific papers published every day and it’s important to spend some time each day reading new things and keeping up with what kind of research is happening and where. I never know when I might need to contact someone who is doing some research that I am interested in and ask questions.

A typical day for me will also include some writing – it’s important to publish the results I have found and so I will spend some of my time writing a scientific paper to explain to other scientists what I have found, what it means and how this changes the way we think about our subject. Sometimes I may be working on several different papers at once with many co-authors from different universities, so I have to juggle my time to make sure they all get some of my attention. I also maintain the research group website and blog so I spend some time updating these so that other people not directly connected with my project can see what I’m researching and contact me if needed.

A typical day for me would also include some experimental planning and data analysis – most of my research at the moment is conducted in the laboratory with the help of a research technician. We are currently about half way through a three year project and so we have many experiments running at the moment. I have lots of different results that I need to examine and understand. I am responsible for presenting the data to my colleagues as graphs, tables or charts and for making the first conclusions about the results we have found.

A typical day will also require some time to deal with unexpected events! Nothing is for certain, not even in science, so an experiment may go wrong, a student may need help with their research, I may need to go to a group meeting or talk to someone who is visiting us for the day. I have to allow some time to take care of the things I had not planned on doing that day and change my schedule if necessary.

What I'd do with the money

An open day at our Cornwall campus for anyone who is interested in insects and how to help them in our local landscapes

Insects are an enormously important group of animals. They are extremely interesting to biologists as they can adapt very rapidly to almost any habitat and have done so on a global scale, taking up available niches on land and in freshwater. They are extremely valuable to horticulturalists and farmers as they help to pollinate plants and sustain our food cycle. They are very tasty and a vital food source for many other animals such as birds and mammals. They can even please gardeners and wildlife conservationists by helping to recycle waste, create healthy soils and sustain terrestrial and aquatic landscapes.  If all the insects in our world disappeared tomorrow, we would have some very large gaps to fill. However, they can also transmit disease and destroy resources and become hardy and persistent ‘pests’. Clearly, the more we know about insects in our landscapes, the better.

At the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter we have many people who work on different species of insects, including bees, flies, butterflies, beetles and crickets. We are also surrounded by a rich network of nature reserves, agricultural land, allotments and green spaces. There are many people who live and work in these areas and see insects on their land every day. Whether they would like to encourage bees on their land or prevent pests from destroying their food plants, it’s important to know how best to tackle these issues in case we end up destroying the natural ecology by mistake. For example, there are many alternative ways to reduce pests besides using pesticides that kill more than the species of interest. To understand insects and their effects in the local landscape it is important for researchers such as myself and landowners to talk to each other and swap information. Therefore I would use the prize money from ‘I’m a Scientist’ to hold a friendly open day at the Cornwall Campus where researchers, gardeners, farmers, growers and nature lovers can meet and exchange ideas to help insect ecology in our local landscapes. During this day we will have talks, slideshows and live exhibits in an open and informal space to encourage face-to-face exchanges of ideas.


My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Dedicated, curious, humourous

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Newton Faulkner

What's your favourite food?

Mushroom pate on muffins

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Flown a glider

What did you want to be after you left school?

RAF Pilot

Were you ever in trouble in at school?


What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Publish my first paper

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

National Geographic

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Organic Farmer

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To travel back in time and join Darwin on his Beagle voyage around the world, to see the ‘other side’ of the moon, to see Antarctica

Tell us a joke.

Q: What did one lab rat say to the other? A: “I’ve got my scientist so well trained that every time I push the buzzer, she brings me a snack!”

Other stuff

Work photos:

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