Biological Sciences

George McGavin

Dr George McGavin studied BSc Zoology at the University of Edinburgh from 1971 to 1975. He went on to do a PhD in entomology at Imperial College, London, and to teach and research at The University of Oxford, before becoming a TV presenter and public speaker on Zoology and public engagement with science. We caught up with George between filming commitments.

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

What made you chose to study Zoology at The University of Edinburgh?

I found my time at Edinburgh hugely influential and satisfying. The whole atmosphere at Edinburgh was so welcoming and comfortable.
Dr George McGavin

It wasn’t so much of a choice as it was just what you did then. You went to the University in your local town in those days. In hindsight I would like to have gone away to University, but as it was I don’t think my parents would have let me get away with that. I’ve always been a huge enthusiast of the great outdoors and all kinds of animal life and biology, so studying biology seemed like the natural choice to me. 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 at Edinburgh was so welcoming and comfortable.

What are your favourite memories from your time at The University of Edinburgh?

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.
Dr George McGavin

Mostly 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.

George McGavin

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.

What did you learn during your time at Edinburgh that you still use regularly nowadays?

Edinburgh is definitely where the process of rigorous scientific inquiry was ingrained into me. It’s all about asking the right questions.
Dr George McGavin

Edinburgh is definitely where the process of rigorous scientific inquiry was ingrained into me. It’s all about asking the right questions.

I find it perplexing that the default degree for people who don’t know what to do is arts or humanities. All of the big problems that the world will be facing in the next few years have a basis in biological sciences so it’s hugely important that we have enough people with the skills and knowledge to work on solving these problems. Biology is such an important area for humanity that everyone should at least have the knowledge which allows them to have an opinion on the big issues.

When did insects become your main passion? Was that something you picked up at Edinburgh?

I guess it was in 2nd year of University that I saw the light regarding insects and their importance. I suddenly realised that the world was mostly made up of six-legged things and they had a huge impact on the environment around them and us. On field trips to the west coast a lot of the other students were searching endlessly for big animals like otters and eagles - I suddenly realised I could be doing incredibly interesting work on ants by barely looking further than my own boots.

You have quite a few insects named after you already. How does that come about?

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!
Dr George McGavin

Yes, I do, and it’s a great experience to have people name something after you. 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!

Do you have any advice for current biology students at Edinburgh?

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!

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a number of things at the moment. 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.