Tinbergen Society

The Tinbergen Society is the society of biologists here at Merton College. Named after renowned ethologist and Merton College alumnus, Niko Tinbergen, the society meets for lectures, social events, to discuss biology, and to celebrate the subject. Members include all Merton undergraduate, post-graduate and Fellow zoologists and phytologists.
Tinbergen Lectureships

The society regularly invites eminent figures in the biosciences to give lectures at Merton College to the society and the general public. The Society President and members decide who to invite to lectureships, and once a year in Hilary Term the society hosts its Annual Lecture, followed by a black-tie banquet in college for society members and the lecturer.

Past lectureship awards:

  • [upcoming] Dr Nessa Carey (February 2020 – Annual Lecture)
  • [upcoming] Professor Christl Donnelly FRS FMedSci CBE (January 2020)
  • Professor EJ Milner-Gulland (November 2019)
  • Professor Lord Krebs Kt FRS FMedSci (May 2019)
  • Professor Richard Fortey FRS FRSL (January 2019 – Annual Lecture)
  • Professor Sir John Gurdon FRS FMedSci MAE (April 2018)
  • Professor Nick Davies FRS (February 2018 – Annual Lecture)
  • Dr Penelope Watt (February 2017 – Annual Lecture)
2018/19

The Tinbergen Society has had another action-packed year. Our Welcome Tea kicked things off in Michaelmas, introducing the freshers to current undergraduate and graduate society members in an informal setting with plenty of tea and biscuits. We swiftly followed this up with our annual bird-watching trip to Otmoor – a local RSPB reserve – to observe the starling murmurations alongside many other birds on the way there and back. This was topped off with a pint or two, a nice pub meal and a lot of bird-themed chat.

The Tinbergen Black Tie Dinner started Hilary term in style. Our lecture this year was dedicated to Niko Tinbergen, former Merton Fellow, to mark 30 years since his passing. Professor Richard Fortey FRS FRSL thrilled us all with tales of his adventures in academia with his talk ‘From Svalbard trilobites to plate tectonics: a lifetime in palaeontology’ before joining current students and tutors to eat and speak in more detail about science communications and the joys and perils of academia.

We were lucky enough to have a second, more informal talk, from Visiting Biodiversity Fellow Megan Cromp later in the term. This time focusing on the development of her app Key Conservation – a tool designed to connect conservationists around the world and link researchers with different skill sets. This was, as always seems to be the way for biologists, followed by a pint and a good chat in the College bar.

Professor John Krebs FRS and members of the Tinbergen Society
Professor John Krebs FRS and members of the Tinbergen Society


Then, in Trinity term, the Tinbergen Society managed to sell out the TS Eliot Theatre for the second time in a year. This time for an informative and engaging talk from Professor John Krebs FRS on Brexit and its impact on our environment followed by a drinks reception in the foyer. The rest of the term was filled with relaxing get-togethers – picnics, pub trips, formals and nature walks – in an effort to relax the students facing exams. The nature walks were especially exciting as they saw Merton biologists finally going outside not just to watch birds but to see what moths we could trap outside the sports pavilion. We were not disappointed as among a great variety of moths we managed to catch two poplar hawk-moths.

It’s been a very busy year for the Tinbergen Society and I wish my successor, Christian Kirk (2018), luck in running the society next year. My best wishes also go to all the students who have graduated this year – I hope you find everything you want in the future.

Natalie King (2017)
Tinbergen Society President 2018-19

2017-18
Members of the Tinbergen Society with Nobel Laureate Professor Sir John Gurdon
Members of the Tinbergen Society with Nobel Laureate Professor Sir John Gurdon


My inaugural act as President was to rename the Biology Society the Tinbergen Society, on the 30th anniversary of the death of former Fellow Niko Tinbergen, the ‘founding father of ethology’. The Society has gone from strength to strength this year, organising a range of socials and talks, promoting a friendly atmosphere where students can ask for advice as well as cohesion between undergraduate and postgraduate biologists.

Michaelmas term involved welcoming the biology and biochemistry freshers at the Welcome Tea, with older students keen to share their experience over tea and biscuits. Later in the term, the Society visited Otmoor RSPB for a birdwatching trip; birdwatching seems to have become quite the recurring theme in our socials, which is understandable given the research interests of many of our Fellows and postgraduates. The trip was a great success (despite Tim, our director of studies, again failing to spot a bittern as it sailed by in front of us) and concluded with dinner in the local pub, the Abingdon Arms. We also enjoyed a talk from our visiting Biodiversity Fellow Caleb Ofori, whose current research revolves around amphibian conservation in West Africa.

The undisputed highlight of the year was the Hilary term black-tie dinner and accompanying lecture, which this year was given by behavioural ecologist Professor Nick Davies. For the first time this annual lecture was opened up to the public, rather than just members of the Tinbergen Society – it was encouraging to see the interest generated by the talk, which quickly saw the TS Eliot Theatre sold out. Professor Davies gave an informative and entertaining talk on cuckoos and their hosts, which was followed by a drinks reception in the New Common Room and dinner in the Senior Common Room. It was fascinating to hear about Professor Davies’ experiences birdwatching around Oxford during his graduate years, while we ate an ingenious meal of quails’ eggs laid out in the form of a cuckoo’s nest by the chef.

Trinity term began with another talk in the TS Eliot Theatre, this time given by Nobel Laureate Professor Sir John Gurdon (Christ Church, 1952), known for his pioneering work on cloning and nuclear transfer. Aside from continuous computer malfunctions the lecture was superb, and was again delivered to a packed theatre.

Professor Tim Guilford’s annual barbeque provided an excellent distraction from exams for the first years, punctuated both with light comic relief in the form of food once again being dropped (and the unfortunate individual having to eat it off the floor) and deep chat lasting long into the night. It was good to catch up with our esteemed Director of Studies after his sabbatical year, and to hear about his unfortunate paragliding adventures.

Serving as the President of the Tinbergen Society has been an extremely rewarding experience this year and I hope that my successor finds it as enjoyable as I have.

Thomas Miller (2016)
Tinbergen Society President 2017-18

2016-17
Henry Grub (2016) discovers a slow worm
Henry Grub (2016) discovers a slow worm


Throughout the year the Merton Biology Society has been a source of enthusiasm, friendship and entertainment for those studying biological sciences at Merton. Students get to know each other well, enabling ideas and advice to be shared freely, be that about the best spots for bird-watching or the optimal pub crawl route. 

The year began with our Welcome Tea where our biology freshers were told what they could expect from their first year, and were sold ancient second-hand textbooks. A discombobulating selection of teas helped calm the nerves of newcomers. In Michaelmas, we enjoyed a social at the White Rabbit, which was also attended by Merton biology graduates undertaking further study in Oxford. Because of the College parenting system many of them are great-grandparents. They don’t like being reminded of that! The term ended with an informal talk by visiting Biodiversity Fellow Hans Ngoteya, who enlightened us about the challenges faced by conservation ecologists, particularly while working with communities in Tanzania that border national parks.

Hilary Term offers the highlight of the year – the Merton Biology Society Black Tie Dinner. Our guest lecturer, Dr Penelope Watt from the University of Sheffield, talked about the personality traits of guppies, their heritability and implications for guppy evolution. This was followed by a drinks reception in the New Common Room where the main topic of conversation was the closure of the Tinbergen Building (named after Nobel Prize-winner Nikolaas Tinbergen, former Fellow of Merton), displacing the Zoology and Experimental Psychology departments. The response across the University has been superb and undergraduate teaching hardly disrupted.

Hilary Term saw a Merton Biology Society trip to Port Meadow, which was particularly enjoyed by our bird-watchers, one of whom is famed for having mistaken a rugby ball for a lesser black-backed gull. It was apparently far away. We have petitioned for funding for new binoculars from College on his behalf. Visiting Biodiversity Fellow Divya Narain delivered a talk on the interface between biodiversity, sustainability and business. During the term Dr Craig Maclean, Merton’s Associate Professor of Evolutionary Biology, took paternity leave. We wish him all the best.

The pressure of exam season in Trinity Term was partly relieved by Professor Tim Guilford’s (Director of Studies) annual BBQ, at which a tremendous number of sausages were consumed. Ahead, the summer for Merton biologists looks exciting. Two second years will be studying homing pigeon navigation and plant development; others will travel to Borneo to study tropical rainforest ecology, and Regensburg, to study ant foraging decisions. The first years are going to Islay to investigate the source of chough parasite infections; one will be undertaking a 12-week research project in Cambridge; another volunteering at the Natural History Museum identifying species of ammonite.

It’s been a great pleasure to serve as Merton College Biology Society President this year. I am pleased to pass on the responsibility to Thomas Miller (2016), who I am sure will do a stellar job and certainly not mistake a rugby ball for a lesser black-backed gull.

Victor Ajuwon (2015)
Biology Society President 2016-17