Review: Niall McCann gives the Burt Memorial Lecture


Niall McCann: Adventurer. Biologist. Explorer. I was delighted that this committee of this year’s Biology Society managed to secure Niall McCann as the speaker at the annual Burt Memorial talk, held last night. Stephen McKelvie opened the night by addressing the audience and welcoming members of David Burt’s family. Burt’s association with the University of St Andrews was long standing – he served as student, teacher, and researcher, and as an associate of Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Burt’s influence was widely felt. As the Founder and lifelong supporter of the Biology Society, the annual talk held in his name is a wonderful way to celebrate his memory.

Niall - Sammi McKeeNiall’s talk, entitled ‘My Family and Other Animals’ was immediately endearing and heartfelt, as he began by introducing us – rather intimately, as a result of a certain photograph of his father! – to the people who had encouraged him to embrace the world of biology. Born into an adventure-seeking, animal loving, and academically driven family, Niall talked us through his earliest memories, including a fantastic divulgence into the first time he captured a snake in the forests of Australia – aged 15! Having travelled extensively by the time he finished with secondary school, Niall soon realised the responsibilities faced for those wishing to devote a lifetime to the conservation of animals and their surroundings. He has worked relentlessly to attempt to understand human-animal conflicts, conserve large areas of pristine national rainforests, and revoke illegal and controversial schemes which would otherwise have gone unchallenged. His approach is simple: things can happen and things can change – you just need to be willing to shout very loudly, approach the right people, and make a sensible argument.

Niall spoke with passion about his career: he managed to make the audience laugh one minute and recoil in horror the next (think close up photographs of nasty blistered feet…). His tales of rowing the Atlantic, climbing in Yosemite with his younger brother Finn, skiing across Greenland, wrestling anacondas, and slack lining at 3000 feet were remarkable- and he is already making plans to climb Everest next year. A real performer, Niall kept us on the edges of our seats for the entirety of his 1 hour 45 minute lecture, and was rewarded with a rapturous applause at the end.

Niall was gracious enough to spend the evening in the pub after his talk, where a small group of eager fans latched on to his every word, engaged in some wonderfully scientific banter, and demanded more tales from his life as an adventurer, biologist, and explorer. Upon sneakily twitter-stalking the man this morning, I believe he somewhat enjoyed his time here (the rumours are true – Niall turned down a place studying Zoology at St Andrews in favour of Bristol. Perhaps I’m sensing an ever-so-slight hint of regret…?):

“Great to meet so many inspirational young scientists here in St Andrews last night, the world is in dire need of more people like you!” (follow Niall on Twitter)

Niall Burt Memorial1(Niall with several members of the Biology Society, and with the daughter of David Burt)

Photo credit (photo of Niall): Sammi McKee



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