UCL News


Seven questions with Professor Fred Spoor

22 October 2015

This week we put seven questions to Professor Fred Spoor, UCL Cell and Developmental Biology.

Seven questions with Professor Fred Spoor

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am professor of evolutionary anatomy in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology. I joined UCL in 1994 after three years as a lecturer in the anatomy department of the University of Liverpool.

In my research I investigate human evolution, focusing on extinct human relatives that lived in Africa more than a million years ago.

A second area of interest is the inner ear, exploring how it is built in different animal species, and how this relates to its sensory function of hearing and balance. I teach human anatomy to medical students.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

Our recently published study of the original 'Handy man' fossils. These 1.8 million-year-old skull bones were discovered in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania over 50 years ago, but they remained difficult to investigate because of breaks and distortion.

We used state-of-the-art 3D imaging technology to create a virtual computer reconstruction of the fossils, which we subsequently analysed using newly developed statistical methods.

These fossils are particularly important because they define the species Homo habilis, and our study for the first time revealed its true identity, changing our understanding of the human evolutionary lineage.

Tell us about a project you are working on now that is top of you to-do list?

After many years of fieldwork looking for fossils of extinct human relatives in the desert around Lake Turkana (northern Kenya), I am now concentrating on detailed analyses of what has been found so far.

Doing fieldwork is great fun, but with it comes the responsibility to publish descriptions and analyses of everything that was found, and not just the exciting 'headline grabbing' discoveries.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

I don't really have single favourites because there is so much to explore. In music I like a wide range of styles, but my passion is modern jazz and composed music from the late 19th century onwards.

Over the last years I have only occasionally gone to the cinema because I spent most of my time in Germany where films are dubbed. Instead, we've gone through box sets of various series, including Engrenages, one of my favourites.

I currently enjoy reading Peeling the Onion, an autobiography by Guenther Grass.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

I like a robust debate about politics and religion at the dinner table. So among the living I imagine the likes of Ken Clarke, Shirley Williams, Rowan Williams, Tariq Ramadan, and flavour of the month Jeremy Corbyn might well be good fun to have around. And of course my wife (in case she is reading this).

What advice would you give your younger self?

Shave off that unruly hair growing around a rapidly increasing bald patch on top.

What is your favourite and least favourite thing about London?

Favourite: the friendliness of the people and the amazing cultural richness on your doorstep.

Least favourite: the apparent need of pedestrians, fellow cyclists and motorists to concentrate on their mobile phones rather than pay attention to what is going on around them in busy traffic (but that probably happens everywhere).