Prof Matthew CobbBA, Habilitation, PhD

Professor of Zoology

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Biography

I did a BA in Psychology at the University of Sheffield, and went on to do my PhD there, in Psychology and Genetics, looking at the mating behaviour of seven species of fruitfly. Psychology in those days was as much about animal behaviour as it was about human psychology, and I was lucky enough to be in one of the few places in the UK that studied Drosophila behaviour genetics. I decided to make this my research subject when I was a second year undergraduate, having read an article in New Scientist about the recent discovery of the first learning mutant, dunce.

My first postdoctoral position (1981-1984) was at the Institute of Psychiatry, in London, where I spent my time getting twins drunk. This was interesting, but convinced me that I did not want to do research on human beings.

At the time, UK science was experiencing some interesting times under the Thatcher government, and it was easier to find work abroad than here. In the middle of the great Miners' Strike (1984), I moved to France on a Royal Society Science Exchange Programme. I worked at Gif-sur-Yvette, just south of Paris, with Jean-Marc Jallon and was introduced to chemical communication - the study of how animals communicate with each other using their sense of smell and pheromones. One of Jean-Marc's students, Jean-François Ferveur, became a close friend, and we are still collaborating to this day.

After the end of my Royal Society grant I was a lecturer in Pyschophysiology at the Université Paris-XIII (Villetaneuse) for 18 months, and then was recruited to the French CNRS (1988). I remained in the CNRS, working first in Orsay, then in Paris, until 2002. During this time I began my work on the sense of smell, using Drosophila maggots as my model organism. From 1995-2002 I studied chemical communication in ants, working at the Laboratoire d'Ecologie in Paris.

In 2002 I returned to the UK to take up a post as lecturer at the University of Manchester.

While in Paris I began my work on the history of science, with the encouragement of various historians I met, including Jean Gayon and Michel Morange, whose books I have translated.

In 2002, I returned to the UK, to take up my post here. In 2007 I was named FLS Teacher of the Year and received the University's award for Teaching Excellence.

In 2006 I published The Egg & Sperm Race: The Seventeenth Century Scientists who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth, and in 2008 the Zoological Society of London gave me an award for Communicating Science.

In 2009 the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation gave me their Translation Prize, jointly with Malcom DeBevoise, for our translation of Michel Morange's book Life Explained.

In 2009 I published The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis, a book about the French Resistance in WW2, which won the Anglo-French Society Award, and in 2013 I published Eleven Days in August: The Liberation of Paris, August 1944.

In 2015 I recently published Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code (Profile Books in the UK; Basic Books in the US), which was shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Book Prize.

I am currently writing a book on the history of our ideas about brain and behaviour, also for Profile Books, entitled Thinking Matter. In 2017 I will be writing a book for OUP's Very Short Introduction series, on smell.

Areas of expertise

Biology, Medicine and Health (BMH) Domains

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