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Biologist’s career rooted in the wonders of Bermuda

When Olivia Judson was five years old she went snorkelling for the first time. She liked it so much she wore the snorkel to bed.

Today she is an evolutionary biologist, former New York Times columnist and author of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice for All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex.

She will give the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institutes' (BUEI) latest citizen scientist lecture on Tuesday. Although she grew up abroad, she has strong family ties to Bermuda. Her great grandfather was Col Hubert Mann who was a key figure in the British military in Bermuda during the Second World War.

“When I was a kid I used to come and stay in Bermuda,” she said. “My great aunt had all the books by Jacques Cousteau. There was one about octopus and squid. I read it when I was six or seven years old. I was absolutely fascinated. I thought they were the most amazing animals. Then I saw one while snorkelling near the Causeway. I was so excited I leaped out of the water. The first two people I saw who were total strangers received a half-hour lecture on the habits of the octopus. I always loved being in the ocean.”

Her first book is a funny natural history romp through the mating habits of the planet's creatures. She has a doctorate from Oxford University in England.

“My PhD thesis was on ancient asexuality which is how to live for millions of years without sex,” she said. “That turns out to be very difficult in evolutionary terms. Asexuality develops often, but goes extinct, often. I was looking at the exceptions to this rule.”

After university she worked as a journalist for The Economist magazine, writing articles about biology. Later, she had a regular column in the New York Times. She quit to write her first book.

“I thought ‘I am a journalist, I write at this speed, I can be done in six months',” she said. “It actually took me four years. I was really pleased with how it turned out. I stuck to it because I was suffering from the delusion that in about six weeks I would be done. I kept not taking a vacation because I thought I would be done in six weeks.”

She eventually moved from London to the south of France and rented a hotel room.

“It turned out it was cheaper to rent a hotel room in the south of France then to rent a flat in London,” she said. “I thought I would stay for six weeks and I ended up staying for six months. Then I ran out of money and a friend loaned me his house for a year.”

Her most recent work includes a piece on cassowary birds in the Australian rainforest in this month's issue of National Geographic magazine.

“They are really interesting birds,” she said. “The article starts with me investigating cassowary dung. They leave these huge piles of dung full of seeds. It smells like fermenting fruit. The smell is unexpected but not revolting.”

Miss Judson said her aim is to get people interested in the wonders of nature. “I think it is a great shame that very few people really appreciate how extraordinary other organisms are and how they share the planet with us.”

She is currently working on another book, which she will talk about at the BUEI lecture.

“The lecture title is The Planet Makers,” she said. “I am interested in the extent to which the planet has been made by living organisms. I am looking at the extent to which every living organism is a manifestation of the Earth. Sometimes I tell people I am writing a history of the planet, but it's not really.”

Lecture organiser Jack Ward said the intent of the citizen scientist lecture series is to encourage Bermudians to consider the potential of participating at some level in science.

“You do not have to be a scientist,” Mr Ward said. “There are all kinds of ways that people have contributed significantly to science. If we can encourage people to participate we can break down that bit of a barrier, the mystique that you have to become a professional scientist to contribute.”

The lecture will be on September 24 (Tuesday) at the BUEI at 7pm. Tickets are $20 for members, $25 for non-members available at the Oceans Gift Shop, or by calling 294-0204.

Citizen Scientist Lecture Series: Lecture organiser Jack Ward and visiting world famous evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson.

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Published September 18, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 17, 2013 at 5:31 pm)

Biologist’s career rooted in the wonders of Bermuda

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