Interview with Professor Alice Roberts

Not only does she share my intense dislike of the acronym STEM and my strong belief in human cooperation but she is also Britain’s number one Anatomy Goddess, a mum and a female Indiana Jones! Read our interesting interview with Professor Alice Roberts in our Inspirational Women section!

An Evening With Alice Roberts: Digging Into Britain’s Past touring UK theatres this month and February

Seriously? A mum, a Professor, a broadcaster, a writer, a scientist?? It is difficult to be a mum as it is, without hopping around the world in search of fossils, making Anatomy programmes and Digging for Britain! This woman seems to be doing it all. We just had to find out more about her! Professor Alice Roberts in her own words.

BW:  We, as you might imagine, have many questions. I must say I struggled a bit to narrow this conversation to a single thread and this is because you seem to have so many different personalities at the same time. Just as I settled on thinking of you as a medical doctor, University professor and Anatomy Goddess I realized you really are more of an anthropologist, and a female Indiana Jones. I would quite like you to tell us first who is Professor Alice Roberts to Alice Roberts?

AR: I do like being described as “Anatomy Goddess” – thank you! Like every woman, I have many different sides to me! I’m a university academic, an author and a broadcaster. It’s a balancing act, of course, but many of the things I do overlap or complement each other. My medical training and experience still informs my approach to science and society – I’m ultimately interested in how science and technology can be used, with a strong dose of wisdom, to make the world a better place. As a medic originally, it also never occurred to me that university academics shouldn’t  talk to the wider public – that just seemed to me to be a natural facet of an academic job. I think that was perhaps an odd attitude to have in the late 90’s – but over the last couple of decades, it’s thankfully become more widely recognised and accepted. Now we’re seeing ‘public engagement’ as not just a ‘nice to have’ but much more – a moral responsibility, even, for universities. Part of my job at the University of Birmingham involves working out ways of supporting our academics to have meaningful dialogues with people outside the the university.

In terms of my writing and broadcast career, I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to follow my passion and write and talk about anatomy, embryology, evolution and human culture through time. Filming and writing complement each other really well. But there is something else of course, because I also have a family. As a freelancer, I’m constantly wary of how much time I’m away from home, and trying to get that balance right for all of us in the family. Writing keeps me at home more while filming for television inevitably involves spending some time away on location. I love doing both, but have to get the balance right.

Professor Alice Roberts photo University of Birmingham

BW:Many women will be reading this and getting inspired. How have you become this exciting personality? What was the path?

AR: I’m actually a failed surgeon! That’s what I set out to become – but in the end, I only did it for a year. This is, of course, a little tongue in cheek, as the side-step into an academic career was a very positive one for me – I was drawn into it, rather than forced out of medicine. So this would-be surgeon became a clinical anatomist – teaching medical students anatomy, and doing research on human skeletons. Then one day, my husband Dave – who was a field archaeologist – had a conversation with a friend who was trying to find expert to look at some of the skeletons dug up on the Channel 4 series, Time Team. He was able to recommend a friendly local osteologist – and the rest is history. I didn’t seek out the broadcasting career – it found me – but I’m very glad it did. I’ve been to some amazing places, met so many interesting people, and I love sharing these stories with such a wide audience.

BW:     The STEM world has undergone many changes over the past decade and female representation has  changed dramatically. You have been voted second most influential STEM woman on Twitter (congratulations!). Would you say at the beginning you felt supported and encouraged as a woman in STEM?

AR: Thank you very much. But I must say that I absolutely hate the acronym ‘STEM’! It’s used so widely now in education, but I think it’s usually not fit for purpose – in some cases, it’s too broad, and in others – too narrow.

In the strictest sense, ‘STEM’ doesn’t include medicine, which is weird. But even if medicine is included, why don’t we just say ‘science-based subjects’ instead of using an unwieldy acronym?

And here’s an example of where it’s too broad: people often talk about a dearth of women in ‘STEM’ areas of study and careers. But there’s a very high proportion of women compared with men in areas like psychology and biology – where we should be concerned that young men are being somehow turned off these subjects. On the other hand, there’s a low proportion of women studying and working in physics and engineering. So I think we should ditch the term ‘STEM’ and use the more specific – and accessible – terms used to describe science subjects if we really want to identify and address the issues.

BW: As an academic you are clearly interested in our human journey and how we fitted into and changed our environment. You wrote several books. In your latest book Tamed you write about how we humans have changed other species in aid of our own survival. Tell us a bit more about this particular book.

AR: Tamed is about the origin of domesticated species – including dogs, horses, cattle, chickens, as well as wheat, rice, potatoes, maize and apples – and humans too. Domestication provides great examples of speeded-up evolution, where humans – through selective breeding – exert a really strong influence over how particular characteristics emerge in populations of animals and plants. Dogs are a particularly great example: they’re all descended from the European grey wolf, yet there’s an astonishing range of diversity amongst hundreds of the breeds in existence today – all produced by selective breeding. So domesticated species can help us understand how evolution works, but their stories through time – and the way they’ve become so intertwined with human history – are also fascinating. Thinking about the histories of all those species also inevitably makes us wonder about what happens next – about the future of farming, and how we balance our human needs with the need to preserve wildlife and wilderness – I wrote a bit about those challenges in the final chapter.

BW: Do you think we as humans have lost touch with nature? Do you think we really feel as though we were ‘expelled from Paradise’ and no longer view ourselves as part of nature, but as ‘tamers of nature’? Do you think this is seriously impacting us, our health, our mental health and our treatment of the planet?

AR: I think we’ve spent far too long thinking of ourselves as separate from the rest of Nature. We’re part of it – that’s what biology tells us. We’re not the pinnacle of evolution, just another twig on the great tree of life on earth. But we are special too – special in the huge impact we have on other species, and special because we’re conscious of those effects. I think that consciousness brings with it moral responsibility. And indeed, we won’t survive as a species unless we work out a way to limit our impacts on climate and biodiversity. We need to stop trying to tame the rest of nature, and to fight it – we need to work with it.

Photo by Andrew Yarme

BW: We noted you were tasked with designing a ‘new improved human’ with Roger Highfield. Your new, improved version of yourself looked amazing, all together with a mobile phone in your hand. It is a very interesting looking woman. Those ears are the stuff of legends! Tell us a bit more about this.

AR: Roger said he’d listened to me moaning about the flaws and glitches that evolution had left us with – and so he’d decided to challenge me to improve the human body! This was a dream project for me – doing some really detailed anatomy and working with amazing artists to produce an idea of what a ‘perfect human’ could look like! It’s very subjective – I wanted big ears to offset age-related hearing loss, a marsupial pouch to make childbirth a lot easier (though did have to lose my breasts as the new me would have had mammary glands down in the pouch, not up on the chest!) and I also went for the legs of a real runner, with knees and ankles pulled up high, rather like an ostrich. The end product was a physical sculpture of the re-designed me – and although I’d sent artist Scott Eaton my wish-list of adjustments, I didn’t see the sculpture until we unveiled it at the science museum, and I think I may have screamed!

BW: We found the idea of human’s origins being traced in the journey of an embryo as suggested in your book The incredible unlikeliness of Being fascinating. Every time a woman gets pregnant this is re-playing to an extent as if some ancient , human recording machine is tracking over millennia. Please tell us about this. As women we find this idea empowering, as it implies we could be the ‘keepers’ of this essential information.What does this might suggest about women’s relationship with life on the planet?

AR: I wrote that book when I was pregnant and then looking after my second baby – my son. I was frustrated that many pregnancy books skip over embryological development – and there are so many great stories to tell about how a single egg proliferates and develops into a whole, functioning human body – how the voicebox develops out of what would have been gills in our fish ancestors; how the heart forms as a folded tube; how limbs start off as small buds… and I wanted to tell them all. Evolution and embryology are closely intertwined – because any changes in structure and function of a body have to come about through changes in development. And embryos bear more traces of common ancestry with other animals than our adult bodies do. At five weeks after conception, you have things which look like gills in the neck, a yolk sac (as though you were going to be laid in an egg) and a tail! So you find connections with other animals by studying embryology, but I also felt the connection with ancestors very strongly when I had my children. I felt like I was more than an individual – I was a link in the chain of life. I think some people think that science can diminish our sense of wonder – but for me, it just makes it more wondrous – having a baby is a biological miracle.

BW: In your BBC series and book ‘The incredible Human Journey ‘you state that we have colonised the World in the space of 60,000 years, which really is an incredibly short period of time. What is in your opinion the single human characteristic which has most contributed to our species’ success?

AR: I think that the key to our success as a species is our sociability and collaboration. Our deep history shows that we are very, very good at cooperating with each other – and that should give us grounds for optimism about the future, I think.

BW: We are still evolving. Some people are suggesting this is our only way to survival at present as we have damaged our environment, perhaps beyond repair. What do you think might be our evolutionary future? What do you think we might evolve into?’ Homo Futuris ‘ would be who?

AR: I don’t think we will survive unless we work out – quickly – how to live sustainably on this planet. There is no future for any species which comprehensively trashes its environment, its home.

BW: Tell us a bit about your travels and work for BBC. There are just too many to mention here. There seems to be a mixture of history, anthropology and science.

AR: Yes – I’ve ranged across subjects from medicine – drawing on my training and my expertise as a clinical anatomist – through to history and archaeology – areas that I’m closely allied to as a biological anthropologist. I’m particularly interested in how archaeology can give us insights into the ways our prehistoric ancestors lived – as they didn’t leave us with any written records.

BW: Is there anything we should be looking out for on the BBC currently?

AR: I’m making a series about the archaeology being uncovered by the ambitious excavations taking place along the HS2 route, which should translate into television programmes some time in 2020. We produced the seventh series of Digging for Britain on BBC Four in 2018, so I very much hope I’ll be back with series 8 in 2019!

And on Channel 4, expect another series of Britain’s Most Historic Towns this spring!

BW: Your message that learning is forever (and not just for University years) is a great one. You have also mentioned that this learning is not just in an academic setting and that in fact academic findings have to come from real life and people. Your entire carrier is based on this. Where or from whom do you feel you have learned the most?

AR: I can’t pick out one person. I’ve learned lots from many different people, some of whom I’ve never met – but I have read their books or watched their television programmes. I was inspired by David Attenborough as a child – I still am! I loved reading books about evolutionary biology by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. At Bristol University, I learned the basics of palaeoanthropology from Kate Robson-Brown at Bristol University – and she also supervised my PhD; Juliet Rogers and Louise Loe taught me how to analyse skeletons and identify signs of disease. And this is the briefest list! I’m still learning…

BW: We loved the Christmas lectures. We had some 11 year olds a bit surprised by the ‘genetic’ relatives. Rightly so they felt a bit short changed by not inheriting some super powers the relatives had. Are there many opportunities for young people to see your lectures?

AR: Well, the Ri Christmas Lectures will be on their website in perpetuity – or at least as long as the human species exists on earth. And I do lots of lecture tours as well as visiting festivals. And I also take part every year in a series of science talks for schools called ‘GCSE Science Live’.

BW: Talking about this, you are going on a tour this week. Can you tell us where people can come to see you?

AR: Yes: London-Oxford-Lichfield-Hereford-Guildford-Yeovil-York-Loughborough-Bury St Edmunds-Leeds-Morecambe-Newcastle-Keswick-Musselburgh-Chesterfield! See my website, for links to buy tickets.

BW: Are you preparing another book?

AR: Several!

BW: We need some advice. If there is a single piece of information you could  share with parents to help them to inspire and motivate their daughters to go into science what would it be? What is the best thing about it?

AR: I love science, but we also need artists, musicians, historians, politicians, journalists, teachers, makers, carers in society. This is another reason I’m sometimes dismayed by the ‘STEM’ agenda – which sometimes seems to be motivated by a need to fill particular jobs rather than a desire to nurture children and help them develop their own, individual talents. And, of course, science should be for everyone, not just those who choose to make it their career.

Having said all that, I think it’s important to dismantle any barriers around science subjects. Physics and engineering might be seen as ‘masculine’ subjects – but of course this is just a purely social construct – these subjects have no gender. Role models can be very helpful with dismantling those stereotypes and attitudes.

Another barrier might be that science seems intimidating. But if you can do science projects at home, it suddenly seems much more accessible – and fun. I love Alom Shaha’s videos and books about doing experiments with kids.

BW: Last but very important. In short, does Science has all the answers?

AR: To what? No, it doesn’t – but it is a very useful tool.

BW: Alice thank you for taking time to talk to us. Is there anything else you wish to say to our readers?

AR: Have a great 2019! And if you have any other questions – tweet me! @thealiceroberts

Catch Alice in An Evening With Alice Roberts: Digging Into Britain’s Past touring UK theatres this month and February
BW: And we are about to review some of Alice’s books. Watch this space!
Interview by Billie Krstovic
Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *