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Department of Zoology


Emily Hillan

Vertebrate Palaeontology Group

I am an MPhil student in the Vertebrate Palaeontology Group, working with Dr Jason Head. My research relates to the evolution of the rib cages of lizards and snakes. Historically, snakes were thought to have evolved from limbed ancestors by a reduction in complexity of the developmental patterning of their head-to-tail axis. Recent research has shown that this is not the case and that snakes retain distinct morphological regions along their axial skeleton. I am investigating the changes in regionalisation of the ribcages of snakes and their relatives to answer questions about how vertebrate skeletons change in the transition from limbed to limbless forms.

I joined as a graduate student after completing my undergraduate degree within the Department of Zoology. I enjoyed a hugely positive experience conducting my final year project in the Gillis Lab, so when it came to choosing where to continue my development as a researcher I knew from experience that I would have access to a wide range of world-class resources here in Cambridge. Research in the department covers a diversity of fields and through seminars, coffee mornings, and happy hours, you are able to broaden your knowledge and interests.

Students have access to the Museum of Zoology which houses an amazing collection of specimens. Due to the many collaborations faculty members have established, you are also able to draw on a wealth of experience from academics outside of your own department and even your own University. For example, I have worked closely with researchers in the Cambridge Department of Earth Sciences and utilise specimens from the Natural History Museum in London and Herpetology Collection at the Florida Museum of Natural History.


Being part of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Cambridge and via partnership with external organisations such as the Babraham Institute, students in the Department of Zoology have access to many courses that enrich your academic experience. I have attended courses on scientific methodology, writing, and figure design, and frequently draw on the skills gained in the statistics courses. Perhaps the most valuable resource I have access to is the other students in my group. Throughout my time in the department I have found it to be a consistently welcoming, friendly, and supportive environment where you feel comfortable exploring your own abilities and ideas.


Charles Emogor

Conservation Science Group

I moved to the UK from Nigeria for an MSc at the University of Oxford, after which, I enrolled for a PhD on pangolin ecology and conservation at the University of Cambridge. Before my postgraduate studies, I worked on Cross River gorilla conservation in the Cross River rainforest and with communities surrounding this Nigerian landscape. Despite pangolins being evolutionarily unique animals, they are one of the world’s most illegally traded wild species. There is also limited information about their ecology and the dynamics of their illegal trade, and this is hampering efforts to save them from further decline. My PhD research supervised by Professor Andrew Balmford centres on understanding the ecology of the white-bellied pangolin and characterizing human pressure on pangolin populations in and around Nigeria’s Cross River National Park. The goal of my research is to improve scientific knowledge about pangolins and ultimately provide information for evidence-based pangolin interventions.

Cambridge’s Department of Zoology is a vibrant and stimulating academic space, with supportive professionals from different fields in conservation. As a postgrad, you could easily find experts in other areas who are willing to help you succeed in your studies. Additionally, by being part of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, the department offers an incredible opportunity for students to increase their professional network and possibly collaborate with practitioners from top conservation organisations. The Department of Zoology also provides numerous financial supports for fieldwork in the form of start-up or supplementary funds for students who have cost-intensive field projects. I have benefited from some of these grants.

I also find Zoology to be a culturally safe space. For example, during the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement, the department, including some research groups actively engaged in anti-racism discussions, proposing reforms for more diversity and cultural integration. There are also numerous training opportunities within the department and in the central university to help students excel in their work. Training courses are not limited to research areas but include broader areas such as public engagement and time management. In addition to the department, you can receive technical, academic, and financial support from your college. Cambridge colleges provide a great social environment for meeting new people. It is a fantastic fun space. Cambridge’s Department of Zoology is a superb academic environment to be affiliated with, and I believe you would have an amazing time studying in this 155 years old institution.


Aleksandra Marconi

Morphological Evolution Group

I am in the third year of my PhD in the Morphological Evolution Group, working with Dr Emília Santos on evolution and development of East African cichlid fishes.

Before joining the Department of Zoology for my PhD, I did a summer placement with Dr Èlia Benito-Gutierrez as a part of Amgen Scholars programme, working on the evolution and development of the nervous system in a primitive chordate, amphioxus. That enormously positive experience had convinced me that Zoology would be a great place to continue my studies at the postgraduate level. Luckily, I was then accepted into the 1+3 Wellcome Trust PhD Programme in Developmental Mechanisms and returned to the department for two rotation projects, further strengthening my earlier conviction and eventually leading up to starting my PhD with Dr Santos.

Our group is interested in understanding how variation in the DNA translates into organismal diversity and what patterns and molecular mechanisms underlie the evolution of morphological traits. In the last 5 million years, since humans began to diverge from chimps, more than 1,500 species of cichlids have evolved in the Great African Rift Lakes: Malawi, Victoria and Tanganyika. Despite their close relatedness, these fishes show remarkable variation in size and shape of the body, craniofacial morphology, pigmentation patterns, behaviour, and many other traits.  My work focuses on the evolution and development of cichlid body pigmentation patterns, specifically by studying the mature, pigment-bearing cells, or chromatophores, as well as their developmental precursors present in the embryo, the neural crest cells, in several species of Lake Malawi cichlids. My aim is to explore how changes at the level of the genome, gene regulatory networks, and developmental mechanisms during embryogenesis can affect morphological evolution of the neural crest-derived features and generate natural phenotypic diversity.

What appealed to me most about the department a few years ago, and remains true to this day, is the exceptionally friendly and supportive environment, both at the academic and social levels. Although we study a wide range of organisms, from butterflies and burying beetles, through little skates to cichlid fishes, it is very easy to discuss problems and exchange ideas with people from diverse fields and at different stages of a scientific career. Outside the department, all students belong to one of the colleges, which are essentially a ‘home-away-from-home’, providing accommodation, opportunities for social life and pastoral care. Cambridge is a unique and vibrant city, with lots of activities, from sport (e.g. charity runs which I regularly participate in) to arts (such as Shakespeare festival in the summer) and science (e.g. Cambridge Science Festival). If I were to choose again a place to do my PhD, I would have no doubt chosen the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University.


Tom Jameson

Vertebrate Palaeontology Group

I started my PhD in 2019 as part of the Vertebrate Palaeontology Group, led by Dr Jason Head. My research takes a conservation paleobiology approach, using the past to inform future conservation interventions. Specifically, I am investigating the conservation paleobiology of large reptiles to predict their responses to climate change and assess their suitability for reintroduction and rewilding programs.

I am primarily using the monitor lizards (Komodo dragons and their relatives) as my study system, investigating their ecologies in the past, present, and future. Throughout the Old World tropics many monitor lizards are keystone species, providing important ecosystem services. Despite their ecological importance the ranges of many monitor lizard species have shrunk dramatically since the Pleistocene, causing potentially negative knock-on effects for associated ecosystems. Furthermore, many monitor lizard species are potentially threatened with extinction due to climate change, leading to further ecological damage. My research seeks to quantify the relationships between monitor lizard diversity and environmental factors, examine changes in monitor lizard communities over deep and shallow time, and forecast future changes in diversity and distributions. I will then use this data to develop conservation interventions to limit extinctions and restore ecosystem functionality. My work is highly multidisciplinary, utilizing methods from across the fields of palaeontology, ecology, and conservation science.

The Department of Zoology has been an excellent environment in which to develop my project. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of my work it has been necessary to collaborate with other academics. The open and friendly atmosphere of the department has made this easy, facilitating co-supervision from other group leaders and allowing me to drop in on other researchers for casual chats to develop ideas.

The partnerships within the Zoology Department are also one of its great strengths. My lab is based within the University Museum of Zoology, not only is this an exciting work environment but it also offers opportunities to utilize a world-class natural history collection and be involved in collection management and public outreach. Similarly, the association of the Zoology Department with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative puts the HQs of many of the World’s leading conservation organizations just down the corridor. This brings with it fantastic access to world-leading experts and resources in developing projects and learning new skills.

Beyond the Department, the wider University offers a host of opportunities for both personal and professional development. An unending stream of postgraduate training courses are on offer to help develop professional skills (I highly recommend the GSLS Biostatistics Initiative). Meanwhile, Colleges offer a friendly atmosphere to indulge in Cambridge’s many traditions and meet with students from the full range of the University’s disciplines, providing an opportunity to broaden perspectives and ideas beyond the Departmental level.


Elise Wilby

Weil Group

I am a second-year PhD student studying Cell and Developmental Biology, working with Dr. Tim Weil. My research focuses on understanding the fundamental biological process of translation. It is vital that ‘where’ and ‘when’ translation of proteins occurs is tightly controlled to prevent disease and ensure the normal development of organisms. My work uses the developing fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) egg and embryo as model systems to understand how translation is controlled through the segregation of mRNA into granules away from the translation machinery preventing aberrant translation.

I completed my final-year undergraduate project in the Zoology Department working on calcium signaling in the Weil Lab. I knew that I wanted to continue working in the Zoology

Department, not only because I had found a supervisor that I worked extremely well with but because the department was such a welcoming and friendly place to study. The department has a wonderful sense of community, achieved through coffee breaks, happy hours, and seminar series that allow students studying different aspects of zoology and more experienced members of staff to engage and exchange ideas with one another regularly.

Despite starting my PhD in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, I have been able to complete a large amount of research, and this wouldn’t have been possible without the support from members of the department, for example, through running virtual training sessions on important equipment, allowing me to continue my research during the pandemic. I have also benefited from the collaboration between the labs in the department, Cambridge community, and beyond meaning experienced post-docs or research assistants are always willing to help me learn new experimental techniques.

I have also taken advantage of the wealth of training sessions provided by experts by both the department and the wider Cambridge community, particularly the departmental statistics course and the literature research skills sessions from the Cambridge University Libraries. The skills I learned from both sessions are put into practice almost every day.

The colleges at Cambridge offer another sense of community alongside the department and provide an unparalleled opportunity to build close-knit bonds with peers from a wide range of disciplines. Cambridge and the Zoology Department are friendly, vibrant, and collaborative places to study, and I would wholeheartedly recommend completing your post-graduate studies in the Zoology Department.  

Christian Drerup

Marine Behavioural Ecology Group

Amazed by the underwater world since my childhood, studying and working with aquatic animals has always been my dream. Driven by this, I first obtained a B.Sc. in Biology, followed by an M.Sc. in Marine Biology. In recent years, I have specialised in the behavioural and visual ecology of invertebrates. While my passion and main research focus lies with cephalopods, I have also been involved in research projects studying fish, crustaceans and even hawkmoths.

I joined the University of Cambridge in October 2020 as a PhD student in the Marine Behavioural Ecology Group. Throughout my PhD, I will investigate how animals adapt their behaviour to sensorily demanding environments. Many animals rely on their visual systems for a wide range of behavioural tasks. However, visual information can be difficult to extract from habitats where other environmental stimuli disrupt visual cues. This so-called ‘visual noise’ can come as a hindrance for certain behaviours such as prey detection, but can also be exploited by animals, for example, through camouflage. Investigating how animals are affected by, and exploit noisy visual environments, therefore, allows us to understand how visual systems, camouflage, and behavioural strategies have evolved in response to perceptual challenges that are imposed on animals by their environment.

My model organism for understanding the effect of visual noise on the behaviour of animals will be cuttlefish. These cephalopods are highly reliant on their visual system for a wide range of behavioural tasks. By conducting different field- and lab-based experiments, I aim to establish the effect of caustic flicker, a ubiquitous visual noise in shallow marine habitats, on the behavioural and visual ecology of cuttlefish in terms of their habitat choice, movement, dynamic camouflage, hunting behaviour and visual processing.

Despite starting my PhD in times of Covid-19, the Department of Zoology has welcomed me warmly and assisted me on both a professional and personal side from day 1. Taking part in the amazing training programmes of both the Department of Zoology and those organised through my NERC DTP scholarship programme have not only helped me in expanding my academic skills, they also showed me what a friendly and supportive learning atmosphere I can expect over the course of my PhD. Being part of the University of Cambridge will allow me to conduct my planned research while receiving training that is at the forefront of behavioural biology.