Growing up on a tiny island on the Great Barrier Reef, it’s hardly surprising that Alexander Vail is deeply curious – and hugely passionate – about the natural world.
From the age of four, Vail has lived on remote Lizard Island, a 7 km2 speck of coral-fringed granite 270 km north of the Australian city of Cairns, where his parents – both biologists – run the Lizard Island Research Station.
“There were no other kids on the island, so I was the only person under the age of 20 for most of the time I lived there,” Vail says.
Instead of other children his own age, Vail was surrounded by the visiting scientists attracted to the research station thanks to the Lizard Island’s protected and near-pristine coral reef.
“Researchers come from all over the world to do their fieldwork, working on everything from worms and corals to sharks and whales. Apart from occasional visits from my cousins, it was just me and the biologists, which was just fine with me,” he says.
With no school on the island, Vail was taught via Australia’s School of the Air, a pioneering programme that has educated children throughout outback Australia since the 1960s using HF radio.
“Cairns School of the Air was almost like a real school, except instead of classrooms teachers would sit in soundproof radio rooms and talk to their classes of kids who all had their own two-way radio in their house.”
“The teacher would ask us questions over the radio and we would have to call in our names first to be the ones allowed to answer. It seems quite unusual talking about it now, but it felt completely normal while I was doing it. I loved my years of School of the Air – it’s a fantastic educational system,” Vail remembers.
At 13, wanting to mix with other teenagers, he moved to a boarding school in Sydney. “At Barker College in Hornsby I got the opportunity to take part in all the sports I’d never had chance to play before, but I didn’t enjoy having to wear a blazer and shoes every day!”
After leaving school, Vail moved back to Queensland and James Cook University to study Zoology and Marine Biology, the subjects that have fascinated him since childhood. “Most of my friends are biologists and the marine environment is where I’m most at home,” he admits.
If Lizard Island instilled in Vail a desire to study the natural world, volunteering on several African wildlife research projects during his time as an undergraduate exposed him to human poverty and its impact on other species.
“Seeing how tough life is for many people in developing countries was one of the most important things I learned while volunteering in Africa. It’s made me want to improve the lives of those less fortunate than myself,” Vail says.
When he arrives in Cambridge to begin his PhD this autumn, Vail will join Dr Andrea Manica’s research group in the Department of Zoology, where he’ll examine the fascinating cooperative hunting behaviour that occurs between fish called groupers and moray eels.
Morays and groupers have different but complementary ways of hunting, with groupers cruising just above coral reefs and grabbing fish that emerge from their cover and morays using their bendy bodies to squeeze through crevices in the reef and catch hiding fish.
If a moray and grouper hunt together, the grouper will often chase some of its prey into reef crevices where the moray can catch and eat them, and the moray will scare fish it is unable to catch out of their hiding places, making them easier prey for the grouper.
“One of the questions I am most interested in is whether groupers select particular moray individuals to hunt with, and I’ll be building model morays to test my theories either in the Red Sea or back at Lizard Island,” Vail explains.
During his time at Cambridge, he wants to combine research with public outreach work, he says, “bringing science and nature to the public, which is one of my key goals … I’ll just need to work on my David Attenborough voice a bit.”
And he’s keen to forge close links with fellow Gates scholars.
“Being part of the Gates community is a massive extra bonus. Not only will I be able to associate with like-minded people from the Department of Zoology, but I will also be able to get to know Gates scholars. Even though most of us will be studying completely different topics, many of us will have similar ideals. I think that some of the greatest things come about through collaboration across disciplines, and being a Gates scholar will provide me with an invaluable network to help me – and others – do this.”