Case study: Professor Claire Spottiswoode

Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow (2008-2013)
Evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town

In 2011, evolutionary biologist Professor Claire Spottiswoode and her colleagues solved a 100-year-old conundrum about brood parasite birds like cuckoos and African honeyguides. These birds lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, cheating them into doing the work of bringing up their babies. The parasites manage this by laying eggs that physically mimic the eggs of their host species, but how individual birds within the same parasitic species manage to inherit egg mimicry of different hosts was a much-theorised mystery.

Professor Spottiswoode and her team’s ‘groundbreaking’ field work confirmed that the African Greater Honeyguide has achieved this for millions of years through maternal inheritance of egg mimicry via the female (or W) chromosome in birds.

Based at both the University of Cambridge, and the University of Cape Town, Professor Spottiswoode has received recognition for her research, winning a 2017 Scientific Medal from the Zoological Society of London and a 2017 Bicentenary Medal from the Linnean Society of London for ‘excellent work done by a scientist under the age of 40 years’. In 2012, she was given a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science UK award, and has also received a European Research Council Consolidator Grant.

Professor Spottiswoode told the survey that the DHF ‘has been absolutely crucial to my career’.

She explained: ‘It allowed me the freedom to properly establish my own independent research systems (in the field in Africa) … and to focus almost completely on research for long enough to do things as well as I could: both to start new projects and to see them through to completion (and to think and to write ...). This in turn made it relatively straightforward to be granted subsequent research funding and grow these projects further.’