Interview with 2020 HBES Lifetime Career Award Winner David Perrett by Carlota Batres


David Perrett is a professor at the University of St Andrews and the winner of the 2020 Lifetime Career Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution, which he will receive at the next HBES conference. Carlota Batres, an assistant professor at Franklin and Marshall College and one of Dave’s former PhD students, interviewed him for HBES.



Carlota: Can you tell us how your academic journey started?

Dave: As a kid I grew up in the country in a house between two sloping fields. A small stream ran through the garden and churned up stones full of fossils (shells and trilobites) which I found captivating. My brother pitched a disused aeroplane nose cone (somehow acquired by my father) over the stream so I could sit inside and study life in the mud (e.g., bloodworms and what ate them). This gave me a head start in thinking about evolution and ecology (though those words were not in my head). In my teens, I had inspirational biology and chemistry teachers and took to being a swot.



Carlota: Out of your 300+ publications, which project has been the most fun for you and why?

Dave: Transforming faces lets you to poke fun at villains, politicians and friends, all in the name of science. A newspaper cheered us with the heading “Boffins help Thatcher’s image fade away” when we morphed the prime minister to a challenger.


Carlota: Rumor has it you are retiring. Is this true? If so, what will you miss the most and what are you most looking forward to?

Dave: I am now on a 20% contract but still work most days. I already miss the privilege of planning experiments and analysing experimental data with smart researchers. Exploring data hot off the press is like opening a present, you might guess at what’s going to be inside but the reality of what you find is always more interesting. The young brains that came through the lab invariably brought humour and curiosity, making the work environment happy and stimulating. I tried to keep in mind that the process of science should be enjoyable and is more important than any result. Our lab was open plan which meant I could drift from one colleague to another and disturb all; the proximity and atmosphere kept us all on our toes.

I now look forward to leisurely breakfasts watching garden visitors (predominantly birds). They come each with their own schedule and tricks: squabbling greenfinches, blackcap bullies and feisty robins.


Carlota: You change your hair color often, and many times have several different colors at once (e.g., purple, green, blue). Is there a method to when and what colors you dye your hair?

Dave: There several drivers of colour use. At northern latitudes you need something to cheer you through the long grey months. The coloured appearance of my wife, Anne, and myself also helped mutual recognition (I am fairly face blind). Initially a change in colour would justify new additions to our wardrobe.

The academic system embraces eccentricity so I treated appearance as a kind of handicap; if people took me seriously despite how I looked then what I was doing must be OK. It is a mark of independence or stupidity, or both. I have encountered disapproval only 2 or 3 times (e.g., looking for a place to stay in Niagara Falls, a door was closed in my face). I think people are often amused, so if our eyes meet there is a positive expression to react to.


Carlota: Can you tell us about your unique exercise and eating routines?

Dave: Hmm! An earlier me loved to run most days and explore wherever I was (i.e. get vaguely or actually lost). The best times were running at Pete Henzi and Louise Barrett’s study site in the Karoo semi desert among giraffes and antelope, hoping that 4 of the big 5 would take no notice of me. Running kept me warm at -24°C, when snow lined my eyebrows and an icicle hung from my nose, and running cooled me while lapping small sweaty tropical islands.

I rationalised that the exercise needed fuel so took to eating 4-5 meals a day. Vinet Coetzee taught me about 2nd breakfast during her PhD in the lab. Since then I have disgusted/amused staff in the coffee room eating lentils or cold beans topped with chilli as the perfect mid-morning pick-me-up. Now diet is just entertainment as I eat similarly but have had to stop running through injury.


Carlota: What is something people at HBES would be unlikely to know about you?

Dave: I failed English Language O Level and have been so lucky to have had Anne using her talent and training to check every work word I’ve put my name to. We enjoy flowers and have a garden with special places for poppies (every type from the blousy Shirley to the sacred Himalayan blue). Creepy crawlies are just as important to us, so we use a UV night light to attract moths in our garden and go on fungal forays turning up oddities like a red club fungus that eats insects.