Where are they now? Professor Adam Hart
Dr Adam Hart with the rest of the Sheffield alumni team for University Challenge(PhD Animal & Plant Sciences 2002)

This Christmas sees alumnus and science presenter Professor Adam Hart (PhD Animal & Plant Sciences 2002) captain a Sheffield University team as Jeremy Paxman asks the questions in a Christmas-themed University Challenge for distinguished alumni. Also in Sheffield’s team are architect Ruth Reed (BA Architecture 1978), football columnist Sid Lowe (BA History & Spanish 1998) and Nicci Gerrard (MPhil English Literature 1986), the thriller writer better known as Nicci French.

Tune into BBC Two on Monday 28 December at 8pm to watch our team face Aberdeen in the penultimate first-round match as both teams fight for a place in the semi finals. In the meantime, why not check out our Q&A with Adam about his time at Sheffield, his scientific and media career, his latest book and his University Challenge experience.

Why did you decide to study Zoology at Cambridge?

I grew up in Brixham in South Devon and I was always surrounded by nature. I also had two scientists as parents so Zoology just seemed an obvious choice. I went to a state school with a limited track record in getting students into Oxbridge. But I must have done well enough at the interview, despite criticising some well-known photomicrographs that were actually taken by the guy interviewing me…oops!

The Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge lets you pick and choose to a certain extent so I also studied geology, ecology, cell biology, maths and empirical psychology. I’ve found this varied academic background extraordinarily useful over the years.

What first attracted you to do your PhD at Sheffield?

In all honesty it was an accident of circumstance. My girlfriend at the time lived in Sheffield and it was cheaper to live there than Cambridge! I was applying for PhDs whilst earning some money to go to Central America for a few months. I got offered a number of PhDs in various places, mostly on social behaviour in birds, but then I started as a lab assistant working on honeybees and hornets at the Tapton Experimental Gardens with Francis Ratnieks (now at the University of Sussex). I realised pretty quickly that I could answer some very interesting questions using insects and that they were a far more useable system than birds. Big sample sizes, easy manipulations and you don’t need to freeze your backside off before dawn somewhere to catch them! Luckily, Francis had some funding and a great project in mind so pretty soon I was starting a PhD in Sheffield.

What was your first impression of Sheffield?

I loved the place from the start. I liked the fact it was a big city but each area had a clear identity and felt manageable, like a small town. I enjoyed the proximity to the Peak District and I also liked the diversity and number of pubs. But mostly I was stunned by the size of the portions in takeaways.

What are your best memories of your time here?

I ended up in Sheffield for seven years, during which I met my wife and some of my closest friends, so there’s a lot of great memories. Probably my best memory though will be stumbling out of the Princess Royal in Crookes at 5am after one of their famous lock-ins on the evening I met my wife. Not the classiest “getting together story” to be fair!

Is there anything you particularly miss about Sheffield?

I miss the parks, the vibe of a big city and the diversity of places to go and things to do. However, with three daughters under five years old my days of lock-ins and exploring new bars and restaurants are long gone. I am just glad that I made the most of Sheffield when I was there.

Could you tell us a bit about your doctoral work here in Sheffield?

I was studying work organisation in bees and ants. Mostly I was looking at something called task partitioning, which is when a “job” in the nest (like foraging) is broken down by the workers within the nest into a number of sub-tasks that are linked by a transfer of material.

I was lucky in that some of the best examples to investigate had the good sense of being in Panama, Mexico and Brazil, so I spent a reasonable proportion of my PhD abroad. For five consecutive years I spent the January-March period somewhere warm so I only rarely experienced the icy grip of the Sheffield winter.

Could you briefly tell us what your current work involves, both in terms of your academic research and your media career and latest book?

My role is really a mix of teaching, research and science communication in all its many guises. I still keep my hand in with ants and I have a number of postgrads working on some thermal biology questions with leafcutting ants.

My research has diversified since leaving Sheffield though and I’ve published on a range of topics, including recently a paper on Venus fly traps, which is a long way from ants and bees. I think I crave variety. I teach diversity, animal behaviour and behavioural ecology and I’m also lucky to get to call two weeks teaching ecology in a South African game reserve “work”.

My science communication work is also varied and, by using citizen science (I work closely with the Royal Society of Biology on a number of different citizen science campaigns), I’ve been able to combine research and science communication in a very time-efficient way. I’ve made two documentaries for the BBC and I’m just working on my 13th documentary for Radio 4.

Like my last documentary in September on trophy hunting, this one will once again take me to South Africa to investigate a controversial wildlife conservation story. Radio is great fun and lets me explore so many different areas of science – de-extinction, tree diseases, swarm robots, gut bacteria…In fact the documentary I made on gut bacteria was what spurred me on to write my first popular-science book, The Life of Poo, which is all about our complex relationship with bacteria.

How important do you think it is to communicate science effectively to the public?

In a word: very. Many people talk about how the public fund science so they have a right to know what “science” does but I don’t agree with that as a primary reason. In my opinion, the primary reason is that science is the greatest tool at our disposal for understanding how the world works and for making it a better place. Science isn’t some side-line activity – it is our future and the more that people understand about it the better it will be in the long run. We spend vast sums on money on things like sport and the arts and yet science has to beg at the table for even the most basic scraps of funding. It’s certainly time for science to sell itself better and communicating what we do and its importance are crucial parts of that sales job.

What are your personal career highlights?

Digging out a full size nest of leafcutting ants in the forests of Trinidad for the documentary 'Life on Planet Ant' and then, almost miraculously, finding the queen amongst the 2 million plus rather angry ants is certainly up there. That, and watching the first sunset of the field course in South Africa with a cold beer, a highlight I recreate every May.

What are your aims for the future?

I would certainly like to write more books and carry on making more radio science documentaries. It would also be fun to do more TV and there are always plans and proposals in the mix. However, like a white Christmas, it’s lovely when it happens but you don’t sit at the Grindstone at Crookes on Christmas Eve with a sledge in your hand waiting for it. I’d also like to spend more time in the lab with my leafcutting ants.

What advice would you give to current Sheffield students?

Say yes to (virtually) everything – so many opportunities I have had have come because I got involved with anything and everything that came my way. That builds up experience and a network of contacts. You never know where that powerful combination can take you.

Could you tell us about your University Challenge experience (without giving the result away!)?

It was an interesting experience…it’s not like watching it on the TV that’s for sure! Everyone had at least one brain freeze and you have to be like lightening on that buzzer. Jeremy Paxman was lovely though and we were well looked after. Sadly, that’s all I can say at the moment!

Thank you Adam, and the best of luck to you and the rest of the University of Sheffield alumni team!

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