Tell us a bit about your role?
I'm an evolutionary biologist. I'm interested in sex, but not in the sense that most people would think! I’m interested in gender, sexual dimorphism, sex differences, sex ratios, sexual strategy, so trying to understand how males and females maximise their reproductive success.
I spend a lot of time in the field in exotic countries, looking at bird species and doing tests to determine what the general patterns are which drive male and female behaviour. At the moment we’re working in about 20 countries. We have field projects in Madagascar, Cape Verde, China, Mexico, all over. My colleagues usually joke that I go to a lot of places where there's nice beaches, I wish! We worked in Turkey for four years, with the Mediterranean Sea 100 metres away, and I only had time to go swimming twice!
The second part of my role is teaching. At the moment I have 12 PhD students at Bath or scattered around the world. One is from Luxembourg, one is from Chile, three each are from China and Hungary. I have taught about 31 PhD students throughout my career, and I still have a very close relationship with many of them. It’s especially nice for me now that I'm working with the doctoral students of some of my former PhD students. We are all like a family and I’m the great grandfather!
Name one thing that makes you feel proud to work at the University of Bath?
Every year I take our students to Maio, an island in West Africa. It’s a very safe, friendly and happy place, but some of our students can feel a bit scared because everything is different. One of our current undergraduates went out to Maio recently and in the first week wanted to come home. Then we gave her a project and her perspective completely changed. It’s been really rewarding seeing her come out of her shell and watching her confidence grow. At the Uni our job is to educate the students, train them and help them get good degrees. But we also have a very important role in helping them grow as individuals. I try to do it by parachuting students into a very different environment, out of their comfort zone, but with friends so there's a safety buffer!
What would you most like to achieve while you're at the University?
I have two main objectives. Firstly, science is never completed. There’s always more to learn, so I would like to continue learning as much as I can about animal behaviour and evolution. Secondly, I am trying to train the next generation of biologists who will continue the research, because I strongly believe that the subject I'm exploring is a wonderful thing. I find how animals interact with each other very curious and genuinely stimulating. It has taught me a lot, but there’s still so much more to discover.
What piece of advice would you like to give to a student?
You need to be very driven. I recently visited Oxford and I was wondering how I would have coped as a young fellow, as it's a very competitive system. If your ideas don’t fit in the mainstream and if you aren’t an aggressive, competitive person, you can easily be silenced.
In sports it’s easy. If you are the fastest runner it’s clear that you're right, but science isn't like that. One of my colleagues made this analogy that discovery in science is like a fox hunt. You have a large number of dogs trying to chase the fox, but the problem is we don't know where the fox is, so we're running after the dog that barks loudest. I'm glad that I'm not one of those who follow the pack. I try to play my own game and occasionally I find some good things.
What was your first job?
I was so useless as a non-academic! One of my friends tried to make me a salesman. This was a long time ago in Hungary when a salesman made about ten times more money than an academic. He tried to train me to sell window blinds and the trick was to get people to buy things they don't need. I just couldn’t do it!
If you could start your own dream business, what would it be?
I am already doing this through my work as a conservationist. For a long time I have been passionate about protecting animals. We all know about climate change and mass extinction, which is largely caused by humans. Unfortunately, we can't stop it, but we can help, and we can slow it down. Whilst most conservation biologists just write research papers, I wanted to do something in the field with practical outcomes, so about ten years ago I established an NGO in Cape Verde called ‘Maio Biodiversity Foundation’ with help from the University. We now have a range of community programmes that protect whales, sharks, turtles etc., and our NGO is used as a template of a successful grassroot organisation in West Africa.
It’s been incredibly rewarding, not just in terms of helping the animals and nature, but also the impact on the local community. I was walking home one evening in Maio, and suddenly somebody in a pickup truck stopped and said “Dr Tamas you don't know me but thank you for giving my brother a job. This is his first job, and he's just so happy.” I still have no idea who he was. This is on an island where there are very few jobs and many people have very little money. I also have a great team, and a great team can achieve a lot. Our NGO started with zero, and now we turnover half a million. Look us up on Facebook!
Where is your favourite holiday destination and why?
Our best family holiday was in Botswana, we went on a safari in Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park. It was just fab. The four of us rented a Toyota Hilux – you need a 4 x 4 there and not in Bath city centre(!) – and we slept in a tent in the wild: an elephant chased us, we had lions coming very close, lots of crazy things! It was a wonderful feeling to see a landscape dominated by animals and not by humans.
Do you have a favourite book or album?
My favourite band is Deep Purple. I occasionally listen to new metal and house and all these childish things, although in my humble opinion, these newish bands do not compare a jot to Led Zeppelin, or Deep Purple or even The Rolling Stones. These guys were great, they are my heroes. They did not produce fancy shows nor used gimmickry: they just played fantastic music. I also occasionally enjoy a bit of classical and there are also some Hungarian rock bands that I love.
My favourite books include the popular science books by Jared Diamond, a smart and thoughtful American ecologist, historian and anthropologist who writes about evolution, ecology and human society. His latest book is about upheaval and how societies solve problems and cope with stressful situations. Spoiler alert: societies struggle a lot and may not solve them well!
If you could meet anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would it be?
My personal hero is E. O. Wilson. He's now very old and he’s made some mistakes, but he's still the greatest living biologist and contributed so much to four different biological fields. I have actually met him several times at Harvard. One of my friends showed me this quote “A great man makes everybody feel small, but a really great man makes everybody feel great.” That is E. O. Wilson.
If you could have a superpower what would you have?
I would save all the species on the planet. Not just the charismatic species, but also the tiny little creepy crawlies. Maybe not Malaria, or the bug I have at the moment, I'm not sure I’d save that!
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Buckle your safety belt: I’m a sheep breeder. A few years ago, I decided with my wife to buy a farm in Hungary. Once we retire, we hope to move there. We have one hundred wonderful sheep inside the National Park. I currently have somebody looking after them, because I don't know much about sheep! I got into it because I love nature and I knew that where I retired had to be close to nature. One of my friends showed me a ram and the rest is history. The breed is called ‘Racka’, from Asia. They’re black with huge horns: they are all in one flock, unlike breeds that like to munch grass on their own! It’s just for fun. It’s an expensive hobby, I'm losing money on it!
Tell us your favourite joke.
I don’t have a favourite joke, but I do have a favourite Hungarian saying.
It’s common that when companies (or countries) start falling apart due to bad leadership the solutions often hit the poor people rather than the rich. For example, if a company tries to solve its internal problems by firing their janitors first.
The Hungarian folk observation captures this by saying that “Fish start rotting from the head, but cleaning starts at the tail”.
In Hungarian: “Fejétől büzlik a hal de a farkától kezdik pucolni”