Kevin O'Dell

Favourite Thing: To do something that no one has ever done before



Mellow Lane School Hayes (1973-80), Nottingham University (1980-83), Sheffield University (1983-86)


BSc Genetics (Nottingham), PhD Behaviour Genetics (Sheffield)

Work History:

Oxford University (1986-89)

Current Job:

Senior Lecturer in Genetics


University of Glasgow (since 1989)

Me and my work

Understanding how genes affect behaviour

No doubt you already realise that you, and I, look as we do due to some combination of the genes we inherit from our parents and the environment we live in. By environment we mean any experience you’ve had since you were conceived. So you are a product of what you eat, how much exercise you do, what germs you’ve been exposed to and even the weather.

But what about behaviour? It’s logical to think that the kind of person you are is influenced by family, friends, school and things like TV, the internet and other social media, and any other experience you’ve had. But how do genes influence behaviour? Indeed, do genes affect behaviour?

Let’s think of a very simple behaviour, running 100 metres as fast as you can. Are you born fast (genetic) or is it all about the right training regime and opportunities (environment)? Given that so may of the fastest men and women on earth are from one small country, Jamaica, we might think that genes play a significant role.

As humans are very difficult to study, my research uses an organism that has well understood genetics and interesting behaviours. Specifically the research question I ask is “How do fruit flies know what sex they are?”

My Typical Day

A mixture of research, teaching and public engagement

Fortunately there is no such thing as a typical day! I run the genetics degree at the University of Glasgow, so if it’s term time I’m likely to beĀ  teaching or perhaps talking to students about their work, or at this time of the year grading exam papers.

At other times of the year, especially the summer, I can undertake experiments asking the question “How do fruit flies know what sex they are?” Male and female fruit flies are born knowing precisely which sex they are, and can perform the whole repertoire of sex-specific behaviours even if they’ve never met another fly so never had the opportunity to learn how to behave. We use a wide variety of molecular genetic techniques to modify the genes of a fly to investigate which genes are involved in sex-specific behaviour. This allows us to generate flies that are part male and part female and investgate how they behave. For example how will a fly that is male behave if the smell processing part of ‘his’ brain is feminised? In a broader sense this helps us understand the genetic basis of wiring a brain.

At other times I work with a very talented group of people at Time-Tastical Productions. Together we produce Comedy Science shows such as Zombie Science that are targetted at teenagers. To date over 32,000 people have seen our show. Incidentally, that explains the picture above.

What I'd do with the money

Develop the Great Teddy Bear Challenge

Over the years I’ve taken the idea of ‘Genes and Behaviour’ to the Glasgow Science Festival and elsewhere. I call it ‘Blame Your Parents’ as they have provided all the genes, and most of the environment that has made you who you are. So if I won the money I hope the organisers of ‘I’m a scientist…’ would let me do something else.

I’d like to make some parachutes for Teddy Bears, or other assorted fluffy animals, that we could use in a live experiment at science festivals and other events. We could ask the public to bring their favourite fluffy toy, calculate the weight and height of said toy, and then hurl the parachute-wearing teddy from a tall building. The question is which teddy will parachute the furthest and why? I see this as a way of introducing people to statistics. Of course each teddy will receive a certificate commending their bravery.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

enthusiastic approachable persevering

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Ed Sheeran

What's your favourite food?

Anything chinese

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Play Joe the policeman in The Runway Theatre Production of ‘Lend Me a Tenor’

What did you want to be after you left school?

A Medical doctor

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

I’ve managed to keep that quiet for many years, and am not about to reveal that now

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Once I’ve finished writing my book, it’ll be having finished writing my book

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

My Biology teacher Ms Grounds

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I think volcanos are fascinating, so possibly visiting or photographing them

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Tell us a joke.

Knock knock. Who’s there? Interrupting Cow. Interrupting Co……..? Moo.

Other stuff

Work photos: