He’s been a Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at UEA for just over a year. But you may also have seen Ben Garrod teaching orphaned chimps the life skills they should have learned from their mothers on the BBC2 series Baby Chimp Rescue.
We caught up with UEA’s best known TV presenter, writer and author to find out about what he’s currently working on, his love for Norfolk, what inspires him to teach our undergraduate biology students, how studying at UEA can be a springboard for anything, and why it’s absolutely fine to not have a life plan.
What’s your favourite thing about UEA?
“It’s a springboard to anywhere and yet it’s so local in so many ways. Around 25 per cent of our students are from the local area (Norfolk and Suffolk) but 100 per cent of our students can end up anywhere.
“We really focus on empowering anyone that comes here but also giving an opportunity to local students, so if you want to focus on Norfolk and the surrounding area, UEA endorses and celebrates that. Alternatively, if you want to do the exact opposite and come from the other side of planet and then work on something that is literally out of this world, then we accommodate that too.
“At UEA, the sky isn’t the limit anymore.”
As well as being a lecturer here at UEA, you’re a TV presenter and writer. Is this what you envisaged your career to be like?
“No! We put a lot of focus on defined career paths at school and college: ‘what’s your plan?’ they always ask. In reality, not all careers and research have that very clear linear progression.
“For something like biology you can end up doing anything - from taking fish into space to investigating how their biology changes, right through to trapping whale snot to look at virus transmission. I had no idea I would end up working with chimps, gorillas and orangutans and doing my PhD in the Caribbean.
“That’s my big take home message for students and anyone really - not having a plan is not a problem.”
How do you fit lecturing into your busy schedule?
“It’s not easy. The wonderful thing about UEA is that it’s very accommodating to different academics in different ways. Luckily I have just finished a block of teaching for a first-year undergraduate module and I fitted in what I would normally do over six or seven weeks. It’s been lovely.
“Next week I will be back to Bristol for some BBC meetings. I have three main parts of my life: teaching, TV work and writing my books. So far it’s working really well."
How do you switch from lecturer to presenter to writer?
“It’s all the same in one respect because it’s all about sharing knowledge and that’s what I love. I’ve just taught 150 students, I’ve had as many as 8.5 million viewers on TV and my books are in 20 different countries. Each of those is sharing science with a different audience.
“I have to tailor what I do for each audience but there is always a central thread. I love the challenge of it, it keeps me and my content fresh.”
Of all the places you’ve travelled, where has been your favourite?
“I always come back to Norfolk, there is nowhere in the world I like more than this county.
“The other home in my heart is Uganda, I love that country. I’ve spent a long time living and working out there with chimps and other species. It’s so different but it offers the same homely feel – if I had to move anywhere it would be there.”
What are you working on now, and what should we look out for?
“There is a lot of cool stuff I can’t talk about just yet. But for now, I’ve got an audible series coming out in the summer called ‘A Grown-up Guide to Oceans’. It’s for any adults who are interested in oceans but aren’t necessarily academics and it’s a new addition to the series I’m doing – people may have already listened to ‘A Grown-Up Guide to Dinosaurs’ that came out last year.
“At the moment, I am writing eight books for kids about extinction and why we lose species, which is a really important topic right now. They’ll be coming out throughout the year and into early 2021.”
If you’re intrigued to find out more about Prof Garrod’s work, make sure you check out the upcoming ‘Ask Ben Anything’ video being released on UEA’s channels later this month.
And you can catch up on Baby Chimp Rescue, which sees Ben visit the Desmond family and their 21 orphaned chimps, on BBC IPlayer.