Pint of Spiders… With Robots

The end of May saw the arrival of the 3-day Pint of Science festival, which I was proud to present at this year! For those of you who don’t know it, each Pint of Science event features a couple of scientists talking about their awesome research, usually in a pub function room, to the general public. Tickets are super cheap and it’s after work so people are keen for a pint while hearing about and seeing some interesting science – making it incredibly accessible to everyone!

This year it was in 21 cities across the UK, and in 12 countries across the globe. I was part of the London events, in the Tech Me Out section. My talk was first up on the first night – and it was sold out, so no pressure…

For me, it was the first time I’d spoken about my research in depth to a completely general public audience – so preparing it was a new challenge! It was also the longest talk I’ve given to date, at around 25 minutes. As I was in the Tech section, I decided to begin with the cool robot stuff! Showing loads of videos of robots running around really calmed my nerves, and the audience seemed to like it too. Videos are always great in a talk!

I then showed lots of robot fail videos to highlight the fact that although today’s robots are great, they’re not always that great…


Then that got me into talking about how we can learn from the way animals move, and especially spiders – and onto my work (which is detailed in a previous post).

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Pint of Science. The audience were great, and asked lots of interesting questions at the end, which is always a good sign! There was beer, there was science, there was a super interesting speaker after me talking about using tech to improve athletic performance – what more could you want?!

Lucy Orr of Ars Tecnhica did a nice write-up of my talk (thank you!) and some nice people tweeted some nice stuff:

All in all, it was a brilliant experience, and one I can highly recommend to all researchers and scientists out there. A relaxed atmosphere, a great team of volunteers (big thanks to Agata Nyga, Fabio Tommasini & Francesca Solmi of UCL for organising the event I spoke at!) and science in a pub. Perfect.

Also a big thanks to Mendeley, who sponsored the Tech Me Out event. They gave us some cool free stuff and they featured a summary of my talk on their blog.

On Recording a Podcast

Most people spend wintery Sunday evenings snuggled on the sofa in front of the telly, with a cup of tea clutched in their hands, trying to squeeze the last drops out of the weekend. But this weekend I, along with three other PhD students across the country, were instead huddled around our microphones. I was recording my first ever podcast episode!

Mendel’s Finches is a science and society podcast run by a few PhD students across the University of London, and they kindly asked if I’d like to be a guest for an episode all about biomechanics! I was to be joined by fellow PhD student Alex Evans, who does cool research on the biomechanics of bird flight at the University of Leeds, and has a rather good blog that can be found here. We’d actually met previously, at last year’s SEB conference, and had a good chinwag about all things blogging, Twitter, and science communication.

I managed to borrow a mic from Bethan, one of the Mendel’s Finches regulars, and after a few technical issues (sorry again, guys…) I could finally hear Alex, Matt and Lawrence. We were ready to begin chatting about birds, spiders and robots!

I won’t give away too much about what we discussed (you’ll have to listen when the episode is out!), but Alex and I chatted about our respective research, we talked about why some people are scared of spiders, and there was a lot of chat about bio-inspired robots. We love robots! (Sadly Alex realised afterwards that we’d totally missed the opportunity to discuss the return of BBC’s Robot Wars. I think we should do another episode.)

We actually wound up talking a bit about some of the stuff I post on here; imposter syndrome, loneliness in PhDs, and the mental health issues in academia. Once again it struck me how important it is to actually talk about and acknowledge these things.*

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my recording experience. There’s something so natural about audio, just four scientists chatting away excitedly about our research. I’m lucky enough to have been on a few science communication training courses that have involved some radio and interview practice, but they were a long while ago, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it!

Thanks to the guys at Mendel’s Finches for a great alternative way to spend a rainy Sunday evening. I will post the episode on here once it’s been released! In the meantime, have a listen to their other episodes and get in touch with them on the links below:

Mendel’s Finches can be found on Twitter; they have a blog; and all their episodes are on SoundCloud.

*If you’re interested to read some of my posts about the difficulties in PhDs, you can find them here, and here. Here is some information about imposter syndrome. Feel free to reach out to me via this blog, my Twitter, or my email if you’re struggling and want to chat. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Spiders and Lego

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, or read my previous blog post, you’ll know that this week I’ve been playing with Lego!

The reason (as if you need a reason to play with Lego!) is this. As part of my next experiments with wolf spiders, I want to look at how leg loss affects their ability to move over obstacles and rough terrain. In their natural habitat, after all, they have to negotiate obstacles like leaves, twigs and stones, all the time – including immediately after they’ve lost a leg due to predation, or getting stuck.

I’m interested in how, or if, losing legs changes their movement over rough terrain. Will their speed decrease? Will there be any obvious changes in the way they negotiate obstacles? Does this change depending on which legs are lost? These are all questions I’d like to be able to answer. This is really interesting biologically, but also has real applications to things like legged robotics – we can potentially adapt our current legged robots to be able to cope with rough terrain after legs have been damaged or lost, like spiders can.

So, that’s the reasoning behind my playing with Lego! Now for the fun pictures!

I started off with a load of colourful Lego…


Firstly I built a big rough terrain arena with varying heights of Lego brick. I wanted to see how high the spiders could climb!

Big Lego arena

The little wolfies seemed to like the Lego!

Thought I’d lost this little guy for a while. Turns out he’s just good at hide & seek!

I then tried out a Lego rough terrain ‘runway’ on a narrower baseplate. This had walls down the side so (in theory) the spider would have to run the length of the runway.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 14.34.01

After these tests, I discovered that normal Lego bricks are a bit too high for my wolf spiders. They can climb one, but to climb two stacked on top of each other, they either need a step up, or for it to be along one of the edge walls.

So, after scouring the internet for smaller alternatives to Lego (Nanoblocks and Loz Blocks) and chatting to people, I realised I could just try using the ‘plates’ that you get in a Lego kit. So my next step was to rebuild my rough terrain runway using various numbers of plates stacked on top of each other to get a variety of heights.

2015-05-13 16.58.09

Success! This was much better. The spiders can climb plates stacked up to 3 high without much trouble. They can even do 4 at a push!

Then I got playing with my hand lens to make giant spiders through the Perspex, and I decided it was time to call it a day.

2015-05-13 17.00.31My bit of the lab ended up being quite a mess! (Can you see the little spider at the front of my arena?!)

2015-05-13 17.04.26

So, my Lego experiment conclusions: Lego is awesome, and I want to play with it all day!! But seriously, it was a good testing afternoon. I’ve ordered a load of 2×2 Lego plates in white (so they contrast with the dark spider, making it easier to track them on the high-speed videos I’ll take!), so once they arrive I can construct a rough terrain arena of random heights!

Now, I’ve just got to go clear all this Lego away…

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like: Hunting for Wolfies