Dr Simon Townsend

After graduating from Oxford in 2005, Simon has since followed an impressive career in acadmia. Read more about his career journey here:

Why did you choose biology at Oxford?

I was always interested in Biology at school, but was particularly fascinated by animal behavior. I got the chance to visit Oxford on an open day in the first year of my A levels and immediately fell in love with the town. After a little follow-up research into the Biology course I realised it offered the perfect mix of providing a broad grounding in biology with the potential to specialize later on – giving me the opportunity to pursue my interests in animal behavior

What did you enjoy most about your degree?

The breadth of modules and topics you get to study, from cell biology and genetics to paleobiology, marine biology, evolutionary theory, mathematical modelling of infectious disease, and spatial navigation in animals. The fact that you also get to discuss all of these topics, and more, with world experts in the field within the tutorial system was an amazing (weekly) opportunity!

What was your final project on?

I spent 2 months over the summer of my second year in Uganda studying the social behavior of wild adolescent male chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest. Little did I know at the time that this trip would set me down the career path leading to where I am today…

What skill sets did you gain during your degree that have equipped you for where you are today?

I think the tutorial system at Oxford really encourages you to think independently and to not be afraid to question ideas if you don’t agree. I also think the broad yet thorough training you get in biology has been invaluable for me as I have moved between disciplines (from biology to psychology to linguistics).

What did you do after Oxford? 

After graduating I started a PhD on chimpanzee vocal behavior at the University of St Andrews. Moving into a Psychology Department with a strong evolutionary focus, I got exposure to the field of evolutionary and comparative psychology and how studying our primate relatives can shed important light on the origins of uniquely human traits (such as language). In 2008 I took up a post-doc position at the University of Zurich to work on meerkat vocal communication and cognition at the Kalahari Meerkat Project in South Africa where I spent over a year doing fieldwork. Over the next 7 years I was fortunate enough to be able to establish my own independent Comparative Communication and Cognition group in the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich. In 2015, I then returned to the UK as an Assistant Professor in Language and Learning, in the Department of Psychology, University of Warwick.

What do you currently do, and what do you enjoy most about it?

In the last year, I have returned to Switzerland to take up a Research Professorship in the Department of Comparative Linguistics at the University of Zurich, but I also still hold an Associate Professorship at the University of Warwick. In Zurich, I lead the Comparative Communication and Cognition group which aims to better understand the similarities and differences between human language and animal vocal communication systems. I’m very lucky that the majority of my time can be devoted to research (we work on a wide variety of species from great apes (chimps and mountain gorillas in Uganda, bonobos in DRC) to social carnivores (dwarf mongooses in South Africa, wolves in Austria) and birds (pied babblers in South Africa and chestnut-crowned babblers in Australia), but with my position at Warwick I still get to engage in teaching, which I very much enjoy.

What advice do you have for prospective students looking to apply for biology at Oxford?

Invest time researching the course and what it offers but also the various colleges given you will be spending your three years based there.

Get in touch with Simon:

University of Zurich research group 

University of Warwick profile