Driven by curiosity

Neil Metcalfe is Professor of Behavioural Ecology in the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine. He is a Clarivate Analytics Global Highly Cited Researcher for 2018, one of ten Glasgow researchers recognised as being in the top 1% for citations in their academic field.

Tell us a bit about your career this far.

I've been at Glasgow for most of my career, having arrived here to do my PhD in 1981 and, after seven years as a postdoc, I was fortunate enough to get a lectureship in 1992, and was made a professor in 2001.

What is the focus of your research, and what inspires you?

I started out as a behavioural ecologist, but latterly I have become more interdisciplinary, incorporating physiological and cellular biology in order to understand mechanisms as well as functions. I’m interested in the causes and consequences of variation amongst individual members of the same species, and their capacity to respond to environmental change. I am especially interested in how animals generate energy, and how they optimise their use of resources. I mostly work on fish, particularly salmon and trout, but also collaborate in work on other vertebrates.

Most of my research is curiosity-driven rather than applied, hopefully adding to our knowledge and understanding of the natural world. What matters is whether the research is novel, robust, innovative and honest. Some of my work does have practical applications; for example, we are investigating how the fact that parent salmon generally die and decay after spawning influences their offspring: their dead bodies fertilise the streams and boosts the food supply for the next generation. The extent of this may be very important to healthy salmon populations. What matters is whether the research is novel, robust, innovative and honest.

What drives you to do this research?

I like the various challenges: coming up with a new idea, crafting it into a plausible grant application, persuading good people to collaborate with me, then writing up the end result into a scientific paper that has answered an interesting question that was worth posing.

How do you feel about being featured in the Highly Cited list?

Embarrassed and flattered.

Tell us about the research that you have been highly cited for.

I am interested in understanding how environmental conditions experienced in early life influences the fate of animals. To do this, I have tried to take approaches developed in the biomedical field and apply them in the field of ecology. Examples are studying oxidative stress, telomere dynamics, metabolism and mitochondrial function in animals such as salmon or trout. Much hard work in developing the protocols has already been done by others working on, say, heart disease in humans, but we use them in a completely different context to reveal something interesting about the constraints and selection pressures faced by wild animals.

What keeps you at Glasgow?

I love it here. I have great colleagues and I enjoy working with them. My Institute has a very supportive atmosphere: people are genuinely wanting to help (rather than compete with) one another. That collegiality is very important to me. I also enjoy engaging in social activities with students and colleagues, including making music together!

What’s next?

I would love to know why some individual animals have mitochondria that are only half as efficient as others – how has natural selection not weeded them out? There must be benefits to offset this obvious (and very significant) cost, but we don’t really understand why this variation persists.