Alumni Services

George McGavin

Dr George McGavin on how he has gone from a long-term teaching and research career, to becoming a TV presenter and public speaker.

Name Dr George McGavin
Degree Course BSc Zoology
Year of Graduation 1975
George McGavin

Your time at the University

I went to school at Daniel Stewart’s College and biology was always the subject I was most interested in then, so there was no question about what I was going to study. Having said that, I found my time at Edinburgh hugely influential and satisfying. The whole atmosphere was so welcoming and comfortable.

My favourite memories mostly centre around the staff and the atmosphere of top-class scientific enquiry. Right from the start I felt like I was at home.

There were some excellent staff, such as the inspirational Henry Bennet-Clark, who really took me under his wing, and of course Aubrey Manning was the Head of Zoology at the time.

The sad thing was that my parents didn’t really understand what it was like to study science; my siblings studied humanities; so there was no appreciation of the difference between those disciplines. Things were difficult for me and there were times when money was very tight. I never did really find out who did it, but one day in my honours year I found £25 in an envelope on my desk. That money practically saved my career. Without it I could not have concentrated on my revision and might never have got the degree I needed to continue with higher education. I really owe both of my careers, the academia and the TV work, to the programme and the staff at Edinburgh.

I might never have got past the first year as well. Having been top of the biology class and having won every biology prize at school for years it took me a while to realise that I was now just one of many talented biologists. I did well in biology and chemistry, but really didn’t understand the subject or the importance of the introductory physics with mathematics class. I think I got the lowest mark in the year! The staff really hammered home to me that I needed to get through the resit if I was going to progress and with a lot of work over the summer I managed to pass it.

I couldn’t solve an equation with a gun to my head nowadays, but with the encouragement of the staff and some tutoring from a great postgraduate student I managed to learn it for long enough to get through to second year.

Tell us about your Experiences since leaving the University

I never did find out who did it, but one day in my honours year I found £25 in an envelope on my desk. That money practically saved my career.

Dr George McGavin

After Edinburgh, I went on to do a PhD in entomology at Imperial College, London, and then to teach and research at The University of Oxford.

I now have a number of insects named after me which is a great experience. It’s mostly people who you have taught or inspired in some way that name things after you, so it’s incredibly satisfying when it happens. At the moment I have an African ant and planthopper, a South East Asian cockroach and a shield bug from Borneo named after me. I just hope they all outlive me - which is by no means certain in today’s world!

I’m currently working on a number of things. One is a book about what’s likely to happen within the next 100 years if we don’t take any action to tackle the environmental problems that we’re beginning to come up against now. I don’t have to tell you, without meaningful action things don’t look very good!

I’m also working on couple of new TV programmes. One of the great things about my new TV work is that I’m gradually having my horizons widened again after having been an insect specialist for so long. So I’m working on one programme about swarming creatures and the inferences for human society that can be made from this type of behaviour and also a three part series on primates .

It’s very different from my old focus on academia, but I see myself as having been lucky enough to have had two different dream jobs in one lifetime. I owe all of that to the great enthusiasm and professionalism of the teaching staff at Edinburgh. They gave me such an enthusiasm for and delight in the subject of zoology, and that’s something I’ve been trying to pass on all my life - firstly to my students and now to the general public.

Alumni wisdom

Don’t waste any time. You’ll never be as free to immerse yourself in a subject so fully again, so make the most of it.