Catherine Sheard standing in a vegetated area with a pond behind her. Photo provided by Catherine Sheard
Catherine Sheard standing in a vegetated area with a pond behind her. Photo provided by Catherine Sheard

Catherine is an evolutionary biologist currently employed by a palaeontology department in an attempt to convince fossil folks that living animals are Cool and Relevant. She mostly researches birds but also studies — *deep breath* — mammals, spiders, fish, and human languages.

1 Are you an early bird or night owl?

Night owl

2 Are you pro- or anti-pun?

Anti-pun

3 Do you have any pets?

No

4 Do you have any science-themed home decor?

There are a fair number of bird-themed items around my flat, yes.

5 Do you prefer cooking or baking?

Both

6 Do you prefer sweet or savory?

Both

7 Do you speak any other languages?

I love languages; I actually got into evolutionary biology via evolutionary linguistics. I speak or read a bunch of European languages, mostly quite badly, plus Indonesian, Kiswahili, very basic tourist Japanese, and a very tiny smattering of some non-Pama-Nyungan Australian languages.

8 If you could switch professions, what would you do?

Fiction writer (assuming I could make a living out of it, which is doubtful)

9 If you could switch science fields, what field would you want to work in?

Linguistics

10 If you got a plane ticket right now, where would it go?

New Zealand

11 If you had one superpower, what would it be?

Taking plastic and CO2 and turning it into, I don’t know, ecologically-appropriate primary forest or something.

12 Is there anything you strongly recommend we watch and/or read and/or listen to?

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson.
And if you’re into dramatic fiction podcasts, I’d also recommend Steal The Stars and Passenger List.

13 It’s your day off. What do you want to do?

Sleep, if I can. The night owl / early bird question is a little unfair for me, because I am a PERMANENTLY EXHAUSTED PIGEON with incredibly severe insomnia, and I tend to crash hard on the weekends.

14 What are three things you can’t live without?

A good balance of quiet time and social contact, vegetables, and modern medicine.

15 What beverage gives you life?

Coffee

16 What book did you read in school that positively shaped you?

Argh, this is hard. Can I cheat and use a book from undergrad? I took a class in Middle English poetry, and one of the things we read was Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (which is actually fake ME, don’t @ me). The intricacy and beauty of this just blew my mind.

17 What did you want to be when you grew up?

A mathematician

18 What drives you and keeps you going?

Maps. Seriously. Biogeographic patterns absolutely fascinate me. Why are there so many birds over here but so few over there? Why do the birds over here look and act like this but the birds over there look and act like that?
Also, I really enjoy teaching. I find really rewarding the look on a student’s face when a particular concept finally clicks or hearing one of my research students get really excited about their work.

19 What got you excited in science?

I’ve always liked birds, but I had never considered biology as a career — I didn’t even take a biology class in high school. My undergrad had distribution requirements, though, so for my science credit I took ornithology, and at one point that professor turned to me and said ‘hey, you’re really good at this, you should take more bio classes next year’. Turns out you can use math to study birds, and biological evolution is pretty similar to linguistic evolution, WHO KNEW?!

20 What excites you about science now?

There is SO MUCH we don’t know. So much! But for a few of these open questions, I have the data, the computational tools, and the theoretical background necessary to find out the (or at least ‘an’) answer. How cool is that?

21 What is a guilty pleasure of yours?

Marvel superheroes

22 What is a secret talent of yours?

I give really good travel recommendations

23 What is your favorite game?

D&D. (Though shout-out to Wingspan, which is as great as everyone says.)

24 What is the last book you read?

I re-read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine — it’s really good!

25 What is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received?

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that over the years I’ve had a number of senior people, mostly women, willing to sit down with me and talk me through difficult situations, including some who barely knew me and had zero obligation towards the situation. Instead of highlighting one specific piece of advice, I’d just like to acknowledge how fantastic that level of support and mentorship has been.

26 What is something you’ve always wanted to try but you’ve been too scared to do?

Okay, so, (1) my fear here is totally justified and (2) even if I wasn’t afraid there would be several other insurmountable barriers to me doing this, but I think it would be really neat to go cave-diving.

27 What is the best advice for your 18 year old self?

You’re queer, and it’s okay.

28 What is the best way to de-stress?

I usually try to solve whatever problem is stressing me out, because avoiding it just makes it worse. (Easier said than done, of course.)

29 What is the last thing you watched?

Season 5 of Leverage

30 What is the weirdest thing you’ve had in your bag?

I used to play the bagpipes, and whenever I’d fly with a chanter in my bag, the TSA would always give me grief — I guess they look really weird on airport scanners??

31 What is your favorite animal?

Pandas!

32 What is your favorite book?

Probably The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater.

33 What is your favorite comfort food?

I like pretty much anything that calls itself a dumpling.

34 What is your favorite day of the year?

I’m a pretty big fan of the winter solstice.

35 What is your favorite plant?

Can I be boring and say spruce trees? I know I should say burrawang or something, but I just really like spruce.

36 What is your favorite science fact?

I honestly can’t get over the fact that ~60% of the world’s birds are passerine. Like, I wrote an entire PhD thesis on this, and I’m still totally amazed that this one group has diversified so much.

37 What is your favorite season?

Winter

38 What is your favorite smell?

Fun fact — I lost most of my sense of smell a few years ago, and since then a bunch of my scent memories have faded! I do remember that the Ecuadorian rainforest had a really distinctive smell, though, and I loved my time doing fieldwork there, so let’s say that.

39 What is your favorite sound?

Loon calls echoing over the lake on an otherwise quiet night. Or the first few notes of a white-throated sparrow at dawn.

40 What is your favorite thing about yourself?

If we’re going superficial, I really like my eyes – I have pretty dramatic central heterochromia, so my eyes look different colours depending on the levels of light in the room.

41 What is your favorite word (in any language)?

Can I pick I phrase? I like the Kiswahili saying ‘haraka-haraka haina baraka’, which roughly translates to ‘haste makes waste’ (literally ‘hurry-hurry has no blessing’), but it has EVERYTHING: reduplication, rhyme, an Arabic loanword, a cool verb tense…

42 What is your proudest moment?

Passing my PhD viva

43 What kind of tree would you be?

I’d love to say something badass like ‘acacia’ but honestly the answer’s probably ‘lilac’

44 What’s the best thing about where you live?

Bristol has such a wonderful food scene! Also, the Bristol channel has the second-highest tidal range in the world, up to 15 m, after the Bay of Fundy.

45 Tell us something we probably don’t know.

The British Museum of Natural History at Tring, which holds the second-largest collection of bird study skins in the world, has attracted some colourful characters, including:
1) Walter Rothschild, who drove a zebra-drawn carriage and brought his pet kiwis to Cambridge, who founded what would eventually become the Tring museum, ended up selling 280,000 birds to the American Museum of Natural History to pay off a woman who was blackmailing him.
2) Richard Meinertzhagen, an outlandish fraudster who likely murdered his second wife (Anne Jackson, an ornithologist), stole a bunch of specimens from Tring and elsewhere and then re-deposited them in Tring under false records.
3) Edwin Rist, the subject of the fantastic book The Feather Thief, stole a bunch of priceless birds from Tring so that their feathers could be used in fishing lures, because he wanted money to buy a new flute. He served no jail time, in part thanks to Simon Baron-Cohen, the brother of Sasha Baron-Cohen.

46 Who would you like to see 46 Questions interview next?

Marta Zaher (see their artwork on Twitter @palaeoiris)

47 BONUS: Since some folks have an extra chromosome (a total of 47 not the standard 46), Catherine wanted to celebrate this fact with an additional question.
That question is: Pineapple on pizza, yes or no?
ABSOLUTELY YES. The best pizza.