Erin Phillips

How did you first decide to study a Biology-related degree?

Like most biologists, I have loved nature and animals for as long as I can remember, watching documentary after documentary and nagging my parents for a puppy since I could speak (they finally caved when I was 15). At school, I quickly gravitated towards science and maths and found satisfaction in finding solid answers to difficult questions. I knew that I wanted to study animals and was originally pushed towards veterinary medicine, until I realised that I loved animals most in their natural habitats, and wanted to know more about how they interact with their environment and how they came to behave the way they do. Some research (and a lot of David Attenborough) led me to decide on zoology at the age of 13. I have never wavered from it since!

Why did you decide to study at St Andrews?

In the area I grew up in, going to university is not very common, and going to a university as prestigious as St Andrews, even less so. Because of this, I didn't consider that St Andrews could be an option for me until I was in my 5th year of school, when I successfully applied to a Sutton Trust summer school, a programme designed to encourage students from low income backgrounds to attend university. That summer, I spent a fully funded week staying in St Andrews with other 5th year pupils from all across the UK, staying in student accommodation, attending lectures in my chosen subjects (Biology and Chemistry), receiving advice on applying to university and obtaining scholarships, and being mentored by current students who had come through the same programme. From that very first day setting foot in St Andrews, I knew it was the place for me. The town was beautiful, the people were friendly and the teaching was world class, and I couldn't imagine going anywhere else.

What are some of your degree highlights?

The field trip we took to Orielton, Wales in the summer before 3rd year was one of the best weeks of my university career – we got to know our classmates very well and were able to work on independent projects. My partner and I studied a very rare starfish species that can be found no where else in the world but that beach. We found that the species was still going strong and had a lot of fun doing it!

In 3rd year myself and others carried out a project that involved observing ungulates by a waterhole in South Africa via webcam. This was a lot of fun and showed me the importance of technology in biology. I got to brush up on my ungulate identification and saw some amazing things from the comfort of my couch, including elephant calves and wild dogs!

The summer before 4th year I received a Laidlaw internship, a generously funded scholarship that involved carrying out a 10 week project under the supervision. I investigated the effect of prey group shape on predator detection and learned a lot about guiding my own research and motivating myself even when things don't go to plan! I hope to publish this work soon.

What do you do outside class at St Andrews?

I am heavily involved in student representation, sitting on a variety of committees within the Students' Association, and am the current School of Biology President. This has been an incredibly rewarding (and challenging!) role that has allowed me to work closely with both staff and students and really lobby for positive change within the school. It has also made me realise that I really enjoy leadership and like being able to make sure others' voices are heard!

I'm also a student ambassador and am involved in the First Chances programme, an initiative similar to the one that first introduced St Andrews as an option for me, geared at assisting students from low income backgrounds in applying to university. I know first hand how unattainable university can seem for someone from my background, so it has always been important to me to try and demonstrate to these students how beneficial the experience can be, both academically and personally. I have also been secretary for the Blood Donation Society for since my second year, a cause that I am very passionate about.

What did you learn about yourself while at the University of St Andrews?

I have learned that I am much more determined, much more tenacious and far more capable than I ever thought myself to be. My confidence has increased immeasurably and I have found that I enjoy positions of responsibility and challenging myself. University hasn't always been easy as a financially independent student, but I have found myself all the more driven for it, and what with balancing a degree, a job and extra-curriculars, I have become very good at time management! I have also found that my passion for my subject has only intensified over my four years here, and have realised that I would like to pursue a career in academia.

What advice would you give anyone considering a Biology-related degree at St Andrews?

Don't worry if you don't know exactly what area of biology you're interested in, or think you might change your mind down the line – the degree programme is really flexible and you'll learn about things you've never even considered before, so stay open-minded! If you can, be sure to attend a visiting day and come along the Biology presentation – you can meet staff and current students and find out about the modules you can take, and generally get a better sense of what biology at St Andrews is like!

What is your next step?

I'll be studying at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in the US for a year beginning in August on a Robert T Jones Memorial Trust Scholarship! I am hoping to take classes mainly in statistics and data analysis but also behavioural biology, and take full advantage of the excellent primate psychology facility they have there.

name: Erin Phillips
degree: Zoology BSc

erin phillips