Snail-loving BBC Radio 4 amateur scientist of the year

Posted 29th October 2010 by Ruth Brooks

Ruth Brooks

Ruth Brooks is the winner of BBC Radio 4's competition 'So you want to be a scientist'. Over 1,300 people appled for the chance for non-scientists to turn their ideas into real life experiments. Ruth, 69, from Totnes in Devon, took the award after carrying out experiments to discover the homing distance of common garden snails.

My father was a psychiatrist – but he hated science and loved languages. My mother was an artist. At school we had to choose: physics or art, chemistry or cooking. I was abysmally bad at maths: I think my brain was frozen and it didn’t thaw out till much later. I took the route of art and cookery – afternoons off making jam tarts!

ruth_b_and_child.jpgBut a seed was planted. One of the books we had was about Marie Curie. It was called Radium Woman, and it told how she worked night and day with pitch-blend – gross stuff – even when she had a baby. Her curiosity, dedication and purpose made a huge impression on me.

I did a general degree, then a secretarial course, and after a series of temporary jobs I retrained as a teacher.

I found that hard. Eventually I got married, had a child, and moved into teaching one-to-one which I loved. In retirement, I’ve written a book about my experiences as a tutor – its called Nine Lives and currently in the process of publication.

I got into snails three years ago. I love gardening, and I wanted to write about my feelings for my garden. I began a journey from being horrible to snails to treating them well and I started to write a fantasy book for children about snails homing.

Then the call for ideas from amateur scientists came up for ‘Material World’. This was my chance to learn more – I wanted to get my snail facts right. There were lots of anecdotes about snails finding their way back to their original garden even after they’ve been moved quite a distance. But no evidence.  So I entered the competition - and I won!

It’s been one of the happiest summers of my life. I’ve been out in the fresh air with my hands in the soil. I’ve had support from an expert. And most of all I focused on one thing. I have always had a scattered approach to things, but for a scientific experiment you have to plan things in advance. Usually I just do things without preparing. This made me think ahead.

The BBC gave me Dave Hodgson as a mentor. He is a quantitative ecologist. He took my ideas on board though he didn’t think homing was likely, and he helped me construct the experiments and datasets. He made me feel like a scientist. Weruth_b_snail_exp.jpg got people to put nail varnish on the back of snails and swap them with a neighbour. Dave was very surprised when the evidence showed that snails return to their home garden! I also had help from Michelle, the producer of Material World at the BBC, who helped me use Facebook as part of the competition and gave me other support. I really enjoyed the new media side of it, as people sent in so many wonderful snail stories.

Now I want to do more experiments. We only looked at homing over short distances, up to 30 meters. I’d like to experiment further, and if possible with only one variable at a time: obstacles such as roads, large buildings and predators can all get in the way for a snail trying to return, and this has to be taken into account. I think my story shows its never too late to be a scientist!


Ruth Wilson:

1st November 2010

Hi Ruth,

Welcome to the UKRC blog. It's a thrill to have you - I have enjoyed the Material World competition enormously.

Do you now wish you'd had a career in science? And do you find yourself getting intrigued by any other creepy crawlies?

Ruth Brooks:

1st November 2010

Thanks so much for being my first questionner!

I too enjoyed the Material World competition all the way through to the finish. Even if I hadn't won, it would have been a fantastic experience. It did make me realize that, if I had my time again, I would have chosen Ecology, Earth Sciences, Environmental Studies as a subject at Degree Level. The problem was, back in the early 1960's, those degrees weren't around, and certainly not as A Level subjects.

I know that I'm happiest when I'm outdoors, so Field Studies would have suited me fine. I've just come in from my garden, snail hunting as well as pruning and digging, and the time just flies!


Ruth Brooks:

1st November 2010

Hi again, Ruth.

Re: the creepy-crawlies!

I think that what's happened, because of the snail experiments and poking around so much in the earth, is that I've become aware of other creatures that I wouldn't normally have noticed. And once that happens, one starts to observe them more closely.
Another outcome is a new reluctance to harm them by digging 'roughshod' over their habitat. I'd always respected worms and ladybirds, but am finding this respect is beginning to extend to almost all creepies - except slugs!



3rd November 2010

Awwww poor slugs! Isn't it funny how something that was once a negative aspect in your life has now provided such positive aspects. The snail it appears has managed to change your perception of it from an annoying creepy crawly to an amazing insect with unlimited boundaries for learning and understanding.
I love your story and its so lovely for you to share it with us. Have you been asked to share it in schools? I think it would be a great story to share with young minds who are going to have to make a decision about their future!

When you were at school, and you had to choose between physics or art, chemistry or cooking did you find there was a gender divide in who chose what? Did this influence your choice?

Best of luck with your future projects... you never know, the slugs might get some action next?!

Jo Brodie:

3rd November 2010

Good work on the snails, although they're not my favourite creature!

I wonder if the next phase might involve radio-/electronically tagging them and see how far they'll travel and what route they'll take.

Also, if two snails are on a potted plant in someone's gardens and the pots plus snails are swapped... will the snails notice that their global position has changed, despite being on the same plant, and will they feel they same impetus to migrate back?

Finally, what cues might they be using to find their way home, and are they moving only at certain times of day?

Ruth Brooks:

3rd November 2010

Hi Pollyanna,

Thank you so much for your comments and questions. No, I haven't been asked to share my personal story. But, following the very successful pilot Homing Experiment carried out at my local school by year, I'm hoping that the lesson plan for this can be 'rolled out' nationally, next year. The children at St. John's really loved doing it and engaged enthusiastically in a whole range of cross-curricular activities: Maths, Biology, Geography (including map-reading),as well as learning the scientific process of setting out the experiment clearly in their notebooks and following it through.

I went to an all-girls' school, so, in my choice of subjects to study, there was no gender divide. It was more a question of the cleverest girls - usually those who where good at Maths and/or top of the league-table of exam results - chose Physics and Chemistry. I'm sure the gender divide would have been starkly obvious in a mixed school!

I don't believe snails have 'unlimited boundaries' for learning - that's going too far! But I do believe they have more intelligence than we've previously believed. They have a simple brain, true - but a brain nevertheless, with neural connections. They respond to certain stimulae and to different conditions and circumstances. How much of this is instinctive behaviour is inclear. I would love to do more experiments on this subject alone!

Re: the slugs. Until someone finds a reliable and inexpensive way of marking them, they are still safe!

Best wishes, Ruth.

Ruth Brooks:

3rd November 2010

Just to add that the School experiment was carried out by Year 4!

Ruth Brooks:

3rd November 2010

Hi Jo,

I would love to electronically tag my snails! It would save hours and hours of watching them to see where they go, and how far. I agree, this would be a much more scientific way of trying to discover homing distance - and also to monitor movements of snail populations between different locations. The problem is that it would be horrendously expensive (see my comment above re. the slugs)! But if there's anyone out there with an inventive mind who would like to work on this........?

Your question about the flower pots really set me pondering. I would imagine the snails would be stay quite happily in their pots, even in a different garden, because this to them would be their home, provided the plant in the pot was to their liking, and that it didn't dry up or die. I think this would make an excellent experiment, with 'controls' i.e. snails not in pots. Fancy trying it out yourself next spring, and letting me know how you get on (on the Facebook page)?

The cues they use to find their way back, (as far as I've discovered for myself), seem to be predominantly their sense of smell, which is their most strongly developed sense. They do of course smell their food; and I've noticed that they're attracted to the smell of earth. But I also think they have some sort of kinaesthetic/topographical memory through their skins, which somehow registers the terrain they've passed through, e.g.gravel or earth. This in itself is a fascinating area for more research!
Re. your last question - they are much more active after dusk and in early morning. This would correlate with cooler, damper conditions which the snails need to maintain their mucus supply. It could also be that there are fewer humans about!
Best wishes, Ruth.


5th November 2010

Hi Ruth, you mentioned that the story of Marie Curie made a huge impression on you. Stories like hers can be very inspiring. Do you have or have you had other role models or mentors that have influenced your career and your interests?

Ruth Brooks:

6th November 2010

Hi Rachel - Wow! - your question really set me thinking.

Looking back to my early years, my mentors, parents and friends - all rolled into one package - have been my books, through the characters and message they contained. The heroes and heroines therein provided my role-models, and to some extent guided my thinking, my behaviour, and my philosophy of life.

I was drawn to protagonists who, in their childhoods, had survived some kind of emotional, material, or sensory deprivation - or worse. Those, who by sheer courage, transcended circumstances which would, for normal people,have been unbearable. I read 'The Diary of Anne Frank' when I was thirteen, and it made a huge impression on me. Similarly the story of Helen Keller, a girl who was deaf and dumb. On a lighter note, the 'Hilda' books by Phillis Garrard. 'Hilda's Adventures' is about a girl growing up in New Zealand. She was thoughtful and dreamy like I was - but also feisty and resourceful, which I was not! (No-one seems to have heard of these books now). And 'Anne of Green Gables.' These two stories provided role- models, too. They showed a lesser, yet significant, kind of courage: the courage to make the very best of childhood circumstances that were less than ideal.

And that seems to be the pattern as I became an adult. I chose books which featured heroes or heroines who'd performed extraordinary acts or courage, or feats of endurance. To mention just a few: Scott of the Antarctic, Franklin's epic journey through the N.W. passage, the Kon-Tiki expedition....and a more modern heroine - Claire Francis's story of her solo sailing voyage.

Of course, I knew that never, in a million years, could I hope to emulate them, so they were hardly role-models. Yet somehow they inspired, shook me out of myself and my comfort zone: challenged me to re-invent myself in some way.

My actual, recent, real-life mentors have been those dear people who believed in me, and didn't mock my dreams and aspirations. For example, my writing guru, Katy,who guided my first steps as a writer; and of course my Material World Science Mentor, Dave Hodgson, who patiently explained the scientific process without making me feel a complete idiot!

Ruth Brooks:

6th November 2010

A note to Jo Brodie:

Hi Jo, your question about snails in potted plants being swapped between neighbours' gardens was so brilliant, that I wanted to post it on my Facebook page, for others to ponder. But I thought I'd better ask you first. You're very welcome to post it yourself. Best wishes, Ruth.

Jo Brodie:

7th November 2010

Hello - I'd be very happy for you to post the question on Facebook, thanks :)

I agree that nail varnish is cheaper and simpler than radiofrequency (or some other technology) ID tags though!


11th November 2010

Do you intend to publish your results in a scientific paper?

Ruth Brooks:

11th November 2010

Hi James,

Thanks for your question. The prize for winning the BBC Material World 'So you want to be a Scientist' competition is having the honour of publishing in a scientific journal. Which particular one has not been decided yet. And any article will be a joint submission with my mentor Dave Hodgson. The important thing to emphasize is that this research is just at the very beginning stage. More experiments are needed to confirm snails' homing instint at distances beyond 30 metres. This then becomes more difficult, as, in natural environmental conditions, the greater the distance, the more variables there are to contend with: for example, buildings, roads, walls, streams - the list is almost endless! Ideally, I would like to set up a series of experiments, introducing only one variable at a time. But this would involve a large experimental area, and a lot of committed experimentors on site! Just now, any experiments of any kind have had to be put on hold, due to lack of Helix aspersas which are all sealed up in their epighragms,hiding until the winter is over. Best wishes, Ruth.


13th November 2010

Hi Ruth
I think it's great what you've done and a real inspiration for people who are thinking of changing direction and getting into new things later in life.
Good luck with your further research on snails and with whatever you do next.

Ruth Brooks:

14th November 2010

Hi Lucy,

Thanks for your kind remarks. When I first entered the MW competition, my sole aim was to find out the homing instinct of snails! But as the summer of experiments progressed, I became aware of other benefits of this research - to my own well-being. I felt alert, engaged. I couldn't wait to get out of bed in the morning to check up on the latest experiment! And I realized that the implications of all this are much wider than I'd anticipated.

Recently, I listened to a Radio 4 programme in which three middle-aged people were featured. They'd all changed direction in later life and found it valuable experience. But these were all career, occupational or business moves, with earning power! And of course this is very admirable, as they were taking a lot of risks. But I'd like to hear of people who are even older - in their sixties, seventies, or eighties, who have taken on a new challenge. And the point is, this doesn't have to involve being paid for it! What about following up research that doesn't involve a monetary reward? Science is a wonderful area for research - there are so many different fields: psychology, mental health, botany, zoology, ecology.....the list is endless! And we've all heard of spectacular discoveries by amateurs, particularly in the field of astronomy. And one way to begin all this is by volunteering. For example, the National Trust has Field Study days and holidays. This is definitely on my To Do list.
Regarding further snail research, this will definitely happen next spring. In the meantime, my children's book, Super-Snails Homing, is currently with an agent, so wish me luck!
All this proves that a change of direction can lead anywhere! Best wishes, Ruth.

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