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] Professor Rosie Woodroffe (October 2023)
  • Professor Dame Linda Partridge FRS FRSE FMedSci (March 2023 - Annual Lecture)
  • Professor Nick Lane (Hilary 2022 – Annual Lecture)
  • Dr Nessa Carey (February 2020 – Annual Lecture)
  • 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)

The Tinbergen Society has had a successful year following a relative drought of activity due to Covid the previous year. As this year’s president, I made it my goal to revive the traditions that last year’s freshers, including me, had missed.

Our first major event was the Michaelmas Otmoor Nature Reserve trip, returning with an impressive turnout. While there were some transport difficulties, the trip was a success. For many attendees including myself, it was the first time they had seen a starling murmuration, a truly mesmerising experience. It was cold, and the heavens opened towards the end, but we dried out and warmed up over a delightful festive-themed dinner in the nearby Abingdon Arms pub. The trip was an excellent chance for staff, graduates and undergraduates to get outdoors and appreciate the natural world beyond the context of teaching or research. The second major event came in Hilary term, with a talk on the origins of life from the biochemist and award-winning writer Nick Lane of University College London. A passionate, captivating and brilliant speaker, Nick Lane attracted major attention and tickets sold out within days of the event’s announcement. For Tinbergen Society members, this was followed by a drinks reception and formal dinner.

That evening was a celebration for the Tinbergen Society’s return to form, and its revolution. The society now includes all Mertonians whose work relates to biology. Also, anyone from within the Society, rather than just the freshers, can now run for next year’s presidency. Expect continued activity from the Tinbergen Society next year and beyond.

Max Flagg (2020)
Tinbergen Society President 2021-22 


This year has been a difficult yet interesting one for the Tinbergen Society.

Unfortunately, the government coronavirus restrictions have greatly limited our ability to run our usual activities this year, such as the annual trip to Otmoor nature reserve to observe starling murmurations. Fortunately, many students have had the opportunity to learn and develop the skill of bird ringing this year, an essential ability for any individual who wishes to study bird behaviour and distribution. As this skill is not often taught by the department, the opportunity to develop outside of teaching with postdoctoral researchers is something we are all grateful for and have very much enjoyed.

In addition to these opportunities, one of our second-year undergraduates, Alexander Tchernev (2019), has become the Vice President for the Oxford Society of Ageing and Longevity, a newly-founded group focusing on ageing from a biological, social, economic and treatment perspective. The society has hosted numerous interesting talks throughout this year. In Michaelmas term, Aubrey de Grey gave a talk on recent developments in rejuvenation biotechnology and their applications in combating Covid-19. Also in Michaelmas term, Sebastian Brunemeier and David Wood gave excellent talks on investing in longevity biotech and on the ethics of anti-ageing, respectively. The talk by David Wood incorporated real-world socioeconomic impacts and truly showed how science can affect society. In Hilary term, Sebastian Brunemeier was back for an enlightening talk on brain ageing, and Dr Andrew Steele gave an overview talk on longevity, both of which served as reminders of the advancements and impacts of anti-ageing technology.

Despite the limitations, the society’s members have been active and engaged, and we are all looking forward to next year as restrictions are hopefully lifted.

Hope Clutterbuck (2019)
Tinbergen Society President 2020-21


Although cut short, it has been an exciting year for Merton’s Tinbergen Society.

We started off the year with an inspiring talk by Professor EJ Milner-Gulland on 7 November. The presentation was titled ‘An optimistic vision for a sustainable, wild and socially just future’ in which Professor Milner-Gulland spoke about three inspirational conservation case studies and implored a view of ‘conservation optimism’ – a more positive view of conservation, rather than the bleak dogma we often hear. Additionally, since we were heading into Merton’s 40-year celebration of women in the College, we ended the talk by discussing Professor Milner-Gulland’s experience as a woman in academia.

We continued our events this year with our annual trip to see the starling murmurations at Otmoor nature reserve, on 27 November 2019. It was utterly brilliant to see the large group displays the starlings perform at that time of year, which some of us had never seen before. Seeing and experiencing nature is a vital part of being a biologist, and so there was a large turnout from across the JCR and MCR community, allowing us to form stronger inter-year bonds within the Merton biology community. After we had watched the starlings, we walked to a nearby pub to get some dinner. Although the oven wasn’t working, it was a lot of fun and we all look forward to the possibility of going again next year.

In Hilary, Professor Christl Donnelly, Professor of Statistical Epidemiology at Imperial College London, gave an incredibly fascinating talk about badger culling and bovine TB on 31 January. We learnt a lot about the different considerations and effects that different methodologies of badger culling have on the numbers of badgers and rates of bovine tuberculosis across the country. At the end of the presentation, during the Q&A, there were some provocative questions asked by anti-badger culling activists which Professor Donnelly responded to. Watching this interaction was a wonderful reminder of how science doesn’t just exist in a bubble and often has real-world political implications and controversies.

Our second talk in Hilary was given by Dr Nessa Carey on 10 February. This lecture was titled ‘Hacking the code of life’ and discussed the history and current ethical, social and political implications of the recent gene editing technology CRISPR: from the possibility of superhumans, to the recent illegal experimentation on twins by He Jiankui. This talk showed the complex issues surrounding modern science and its wider effects on society and the environment, which are essential concepts to consider as a biologist. After the talk the members of the Tinbergen Society, along with Dr Carey, attended our annual Tinbergen Society dinner. This was a lot of fun for everyone and allowed us to get to know Dr Carey and interact with many people we don’t see very often. As always, the food was delicious! We then concluded the night with some cheese and wine in the MCR, which was a lovely end to a great day. The society, unfortunately, did not hold any events in Trinity term due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, this year we have had an amazing series of events and we are all looking forward to what we will be able to do next year.

Christian Kirk (2018)
Tinbergen Society President 2019-20


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

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

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