Positive People: 5 minutes with…

Dr Cait Newport, Marine Biologist
Oxford University

1.  What is your research about?

I study how fish use vision to understand the world around them. Fish are pretty cool because their brain is really small relative to their body size, and yet we are finding more and more that they can lead really complex and rich lives. My current research focuses on how fish recognize three-dimensional objects, how they use these objects to navigate, and what they do when they can’t see these objects anymore.

Dr Cait Newport

2.  What or who inspired you to choose this career?

I have always loved animals and I think I just always knew that I wanted to live my life surrounded by them and hopefully find ways to communicate with animals. My research involves training fish to do all sorts of task, and so in some ways, I am able to communicate with them. While I wouldn’t say that any one person inspired me, I would say that a lot of people along the way have given me important tools that I needed to become a scientist.

3.  What is the coolest thing you discovered in your research?

Science rarely results in a single discovery that changes everything, but instead is about a whole lot of little bits of information that can be pieced together to solve a bigger problem. If my research were a 1000 piece puzzle, I would say I have found about 3 pieces so far, maybe less. But the story I can see just from those 3 pieces is pretty cool.

I have found that fish can learn to tell two human faces apart. They can also use their previous knowledge about where an object is most likely to be if objects become too difficult to tell apart just by looking at them. However, I have also found that fish don’t think quite like humans as they struggle with learning more abstract concepts. For example, fish can learn to pick out one star shape from a whole bunch of squares, or a blue circle from a whole bunch of red ones, but they can’t learn the general rule of finding one image that is different from all the others.   

4.  What challenges have you faced in your job and how did you overcome them?

What most people don’t know is that science is 95% failure and 5% success. We are trying to learn new things all the time and there is no protocol for how to test it and there are often no obvious answers. I think the biggest challenge is learning how to fail and pick yourself back up again and try again. Teaching this skill to children not only helps them in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, but it is also just a generally useful life skill.

5.  In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers for girls in your industry?

For me there have been many barriers to becoming a scientist. In school, the challenge was that girls are not expected to become scientists or engineers and are therefore often not given the same opportunities or support. When I was in high school, I won every building competition from racing cars to making a device that kept an egg safe when dropped from a building. Despite this, not once did a teacher suggest I might consider becoming an engineer! During my undergraduate degree, I worked in a lab group and undertook my first real research project. While my supervisor had no problem learning the male students’ names, he had no idea who I was or where my desk was. I was actually given an ‘office’ in a broom cupboard four floors above where the rest of the group was. At the end of the project, he wrote in my assessment that I should have spent more time at the lab. Little did he know, I slept many nights in my broom cupboard office because I had worked all night and didn’t have the energy to walk home. Were it not for the tremendous help I received from female scientists in that group, I would not have completed my project or learned as much as I did. As I continued my research career, first as a research assistant and then as a graduate student, I was repeatedly ignored and underestimated and therefore not offered as many opportunities. Every single step of my career was earned through dogged determination. While I am sure my experience has helped me to become a stronger person, it is ridiculous that women have to work so much harder to become scientists and that they still do not receive equal pay for the work that they do.

6. Finally, what advice would you give to future female scientists?

The best advice I can give is that we all work to break the cycle. Parents must truly believe their girls can be Nobel Prize winners. Teachers must recognize the potential of female students and offer them similar opportunities that they offer males. And girls need to believe they are just as smart as boys and that math, programming and science are not any more difficult for girls than for boys.

For more information about Dr Newport and her research, visit www.caitnewport.com