Case Study: James Walker

Case Study: James Walker

James studied Biology at Oxford for his undergraduate degree and quickly became fascinated by animal biology, in particular biomechanics and sensory ecology. He developed an interest in bioinspired engineering and the application of biological systems to robotics. Although the undergraduate course was less quantitative than James would have liked, he was able to develop his modelling and stats skills through a research project on load lifting in flies. The project led him to consider research as a possible option for after his degree and he got additional experience working at Cambridge University with the Computational Biology and Genetics lab exploring proteome mapping in fruit flies. James decided to apply to the Interdisciplinary Biosciences DTP as it allowed him to jump straight into doctoral research without doing a master’s degree and offered greater flexibility than other PhD routes.

The first year of the DTP allowed James to develop a number of skills relevant to his research interests with a term of taught courses in statistics, programming, scientific computing and image analysis. James then undertook two 3 month projects in the Zoology department at Oxford, the first with the Silk group and the second with the Animal Flight research group. This is one of the real benefits of the DTP as you don’t have to commit to a project or research group until you have experienced working there. In the Silk group he explored how spiders compensate for leg loss during locomotion investigated the applications to soft robotics and attended a soft robotics workshop in Rome. In the Animal Flight group he studied guidance and short range navigation in pigeons exploring how they compensate for cross winds during flight.

James then chose to continue the rest of his doctoral research with the Animal Flight group working on visual guidance in birds. This research involves attaching video cameras, GPS devices and other sensors to free flying pigeons and peregrine falcons and analysing the information that they use to guide their flight trajectories. Insights from this research, and the work done by the Animal Flight group more generally, have the potential to aid the development of guidance algorithms in unmanned aircraft (drones) allowing them to avoid obstacles, compensate for wind or land on a perch autonomously.

At Oxford, James has become very involved in public engagement and science communication and regularly volunteers for access events for school children through after school clubs and by giving talks on his research. This is something that the DTC encourages and offers plenty of training and support for. The DTC also give training in teaching and James has taking on undergraduate tutorials in Sensory Ecology and Animal Cognition.

The BBSRC DTP course requires students to undertake a 3 month professional internship at some point during their PhD. James chose to do his at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in London, Parliament’s in house source of impartial balanced advice on current research. His main task was to produce a policy briefing on new plant breeding techniques, such as genome editing, and the regulatory options for the UK post-Brexit. The internship taught James a lot about how science feeds into policy and helped to develop his writing skills outside of an academic context. This offers an interesting career option should he wish to go down this route.