Dr. Josh A. Firth
Senior Associate - Data Science & Biological Systems
Scientist - Research Fellow Oxford University
[Collaboration network - click for full image]
Behaviour & Social Networks; Health & Psychiatry; Ecology & Evolution
Behaviour & Social Networks
How behaviour shapes social networks and govern social processes
Why do individuals differ in their behaviour, relationships, and social network positions?
How do behaviours and social networks shape individuals lives, health and fitness?
What are the consequences of social connections for disease transmission and the spread of new behaviours?
Health & Psychiatry
Identifying what indicators, and what influences, health and mental wellbeing
How does behaviour (e.g. social & physical activity, internet usage, nutrition) influence mental health?
Why do psychiatric conditions persist & can technological advances help mitigate them?
Which simple measures can we use to best indicate complex conditions?
Ecology & Evolution
Ecological and evolutionary consequences of individual behaviour in natural populations
How does natural selection shape the traits and behaviours of individuals in wild populations?
What influences selection and what are the consequences?
How does demography interact with environmental factors and individual behaviour?
Research systems, approaches, data, and people
health, mental wellbeing, physical activity
As the medical sciences meet with the era of Big Data and tracking technologies, various opportunities to exist to gain an understanding of how individual behaviour relates to health across diverse contexts. In collaboration with biomedical researchers and psychiatrists, I work on various analytical and conceptual lines of research including implementing big datasets to assess contagious disease control, human health (particularly in relation to activity patterns and mental wellbeing), and the consequences of technology usage. These collaborations with the practitioners and researchers working in these areas have fortunately led to realised impact in terms of (i) informing the UK response to the COVID-19 pandemic, (ii) contributing to the design of physical heath interventions for people with mental illness, (iii) the development of new tools for measuring activity of people in relation to mental health, and (iv) use in training health professions e.g. through featuring in clinical training textbooks and as part of clinician training courses.
microbiome, ageing, conservation
Using different systems is beneficial for making specialised insights (i.e. answering questions that specific systems are well suited to), and also for making generalised insights (i.e. by finding common patterns). I'm currently involved in various systems, such as (1) using open-access human tracking data for predicting how diseases may spread and designing bespoke intervention procedures to control them (working particularly with Lewis Spurgin & Adam Kucharski), (2) A long-term study of red deer population based on the isle of rum for understanding how environmental and individual factors shapes social networks (working particularly with Greg Albery & Dan Nussey) (3) A wild mouse population in Oxford provides a system for examining how individuals' microbiome is shaped by social behaviour (working with Sarah Knowles, Aura Raulo & Tim Coulson). (3) Peruvian local fisheries are particularly relevant to conservation, and allow examination of how positive behaviours can spread through social networks (working with Will Arlidge & E.J. Milner-Gulland).
emergent processes, simulation models, internet
The virtual world, and its interface with the real world, is a useful tool for understanding the underpinnings of behaviour and emergent consequences. I am particularly interested in: (1) Using computer simulations of individual-level behaviour to create social systems and assess the meaning of individuals' network positions, how systems can evolve, and how social processes (e.g. contagions) can act on them. (2) Taking empirical data and applying 'null models' to determine which specific components of the real-world data (e.g. time, space, individual traits) are important in shaping the observed patterns. (3) Putting real organisms into virtual worlds to examine how simple rules directly shape real-world behaviour. (4) Understanding how humans respond to virtual settings, particularly in how the online-world may change social interaction patterns, and the consequences of this.
Natural Avian Populations
social relationships, behaviour, ecology
The long-term study of wild birds at Wytham Woods, Oxford, provides an ideal model system for examining social behaviour in natural populations. In particular, the great tit population has been monitored since the 1940's, meaning some individuals today can be traced back 35 generations. This long-term pedigree enables detailed examination of how natural selection may act to shape traits, and how individuals' traits are shaped by genetics and environmental effects. Radio-Frequency Identification tracking of these birds began in 2007, meaning data detailing the winter flocking behaviour of over 10,000 individuals now provides large-scale observational information on their social behaviour. Finally, through developing RFID devices which interact with individuals in real-time, I also use experiments to manipulate social associations between individuals to test the consequences of sociality.
Publications, Seminars, Professional Activities, Grants, & Media Coverage
Selected Recent Publications:
(Click here for full list of publications)
Recent Seminars & Other Activities:
10 Invited Seminars (~60minute talk, and research visit - from 2016-Present) including: Imperial College London, Oxford University, Edinburgh University, Leeds University, Sheffield University, Cork University, Exeter University, Bristol University.
8 International Conferences (~15-20minute talk – from 2013-Present) including: ISBE Minneapolis USA (2018), ISBE Exeter UK (2016), IEC Cairns AUS (2015), ISBE New York (2014).
PhD Supervision: DPhil project supervision & DPhil Skills workshops (Oxford - 2019-Present)
SPI-M Member: Reporting to SAGE and providing advice to the Department of Health and Social Care and wider UK government (2020-Present)
Undergraduate Teaching: Lectures, project supervision, and tutorials (Oxford - 2015-Present)
Governing Body Member: Merton College (Oxford - 2017-2020)
Reviewer: Reviewed >80 Manuscripts for top journals, including Nature, Science, etc, & grants totalling >$3.3mil
Guest Writer: The Conversation, Nature Blog, Academic Life Histories (2015-Present)
Outreach activities: Primary School, A Levels & Public Lectures (2015-Present)
Lead Organiser: Oxford BES Series (2020), OXBER Conservation Behaviour Meeting (Berlin - 2019 June), Royal Society Hooke Scientific Meeting (London - 2022 Apr)
Project Leader: Modelling Collective Behaviour Workshop (Brooklyn, NYC - 2019 June)
Editor: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Series B (Guest Editor - 2022), eLife (Guest Editor), Avian Biology Research (2018-2019)
Active Society Memberships: European Cooperation in Science and Technology (e-COST expert), International Society for Behavioural Ecology, Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour, International Society for Conservation Biology, Conservation Culturomics Working Group,
Past Society Memberships: Evolution, American Society of Naturalists, Comparative Cognition Society
Recent Grants & Awards:
Royal Society Hooke Scientific Meeting (PI) - Jul 2020
OXBER Seed Grant (Co-I) - Aug 2019
NERC Standard Grant (Co-I) - Apr 2019
BBSRC Discovery Fellowship Award (PI) - Mar 2019
Merton College Junior Research Fellowship (PI) - Oct 2017
EGI Research Fellowship (PI) - May 2016
MPLS Exceptional DPhil Acknowledgement - May 2016
Selected Recent Media Coverage:
News & Events
Last Updated: 15/07/2020
15 Jul 2021: Social inheritance in the wild
We wrote a perspective on the importance of new findings elucidating social network inheritance in the wild, and reflections on how this process can influence contagions, culture, cooperation & competition over time. The paper is now published in Science and available here and press coverage here.
17 Mar 2021: Social transmission of microbiota in the wild
Following a large and long-term collaborative effort (led by Aura Raulo & Sarah Knowles), our new paper about the social spread of microbiome is released today. The research uses a heavily studied wild mouse social system to show that an individual's position in their social network predicts the diversity of their microbiome, and also that social bonds shape the similarity of individuals microbiome to one another. The paper is available here and press release is also available here.
14 Feb 2021: Red deer social networks
Our new paper released today in Ecology Letters uses INLA & SNA to understand the spatial and behavioural drivers of sociality in a long-term study population of wild red deer. The paper can be accessed here and the first author's (Greg Albery) website is available here. We're now continuing to work on this study system to understand how ageing influences social behaviour in natural populations.
16 Dec: Analysing the social spread of behaviour
Our new preprint which provides a new method of analysing behavioural contagions is now online here. We hope that this approach will be useful for researchers aiming to understand how behaviours spread on social networks, and which social learning rules might be important for shaping complex contagions.
28 Sept: Spatial and social network analysis in disease ecology
Led by Greg Albery, our new review (now published in Journal of Animal Ecology) outlines how current understanding of the ecology of disease in natural systems can benefit through more research which simultaneously combines spatial analyses with social network approaches, Link to the paper here.
07 Aug: Using a real-world network to model localized COVID-19 control strategies
Our paper (previously published as a preprint) is now published in Nature Medicine. We used real-world contact data to simulate expected COVID19 outbreaks, and then simultaneously simulated different non-pharmaceutical interventions to test how these might control COVID19 spread. You can check out the final paper here and a shiny app related to it here.
08 Jul: Royal Society Hooke Scientific Meeting Award
Delighted to hear that the proposal for a Royal Society Hooke Scientific Meeting (submitted back in April) was accepted. The meeting (~300 places) will take place over two days at The Royal Society, London, UK, in 2022, between April - Oct (date TBC due to COVID19 disruption), and it will also have an associated Special Issue in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. So, if you are at all interested in how natural populations can contribute to our understanding of the interplay between ageing and sociality, then please do keep an eye out for updates.
11 Jun: Research in the time of the pandemic
Springer Nature covered our new COVID19 preprint in an interview on their 'The Source' outlet. The interview is titled "Research in the time of a pandemic: How a 2018 BBC documentary helped advance COVID-19 research" and touches on everything from the details of our particular study, to research during this time more generally. The interview can be found here. Thanks to Roza Sakellaropoulou for carrying out this interview.
6 Jun: Red deer preprint on space & sociality online
A new preprint (as a first-result of a very enjoyable collaboration with Greg Albery, Dan Nussey, and others working on the red deer system) is now online here. The manuscript uses INLA to investigate the drivers of sociality, particularly in terms of how different aspects of an individual's spatial activity determine their network position and the relative importance of this.
27 May: COVID19 Preprint now online...
Our new manuscript on predicting the spread of COVID19 in real-world networks and assessing the effectiveness of different interventions is now available here. This work was carried out through the Royal Society RAMP scheme, and in close collaboration with Adam Kucharski, CMMID-COVID19 working group, and joint led with the brilliant Lewis Spurgin. This paper has not yet been peer-reviewed (currently under review in Nature Medicine), but we hope to use this approach to consider how COVID19 spreads in school social networks and the relative effectiveness of proposed school control protocols. You can also find coverage of this first paper here and a shiny app related to it here.
29 Apr: Factors affecting learning performance in the wild - Paper published in Royal Society Open Science...
Led my Michael Reichert and John Quinn, this collaboration used the Wytham Woods bird system and the experimental RFID feeding stations to experimentally assay learning under natural settings, and to determine the factors that affect this. Check out the paper here: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.192107
10 Apr: “iEcology” Review published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution...
It was a real pleasure to be involved with this project! Led by Ivan Jarić, the new paper is a result of a collaboration between researchers from many different groups, and outlines how the internet and associated data can be used for gaining new insights into ecology! Check out the full paper here:
Also, thanks to the Oxford Zoology Department Press Team for posting coverage of this work here:
02 Apr: Rapid Assistance on Modelling the (COVID19) Pandemic
The Royal Society currently has an urgent call out for modellers to volunteer to help with the UK efforts in understanding the COVID19 pandemic and the deadline is *5PM* TODAY. Click here for a direct link to the volunteer form.
I have filled this out with the hopes that my background in modelling social networks and contagions may be of some use to these efforts, and I encourage anyone else with a modelling background to help out where possible
(in case an example form is useful to anyone: here is my completed form).
24 Mar 2020: Website complete!
After years of ignoring advice to create a website immediately, I have now built this website as a base for outlining research topics, detailing activities, and providing contact information - I hope you find it fulfils these aims!
24 Mar 2020: News prior to website creation...
The past month has been dominated by news regarding COVID-19 and the measures taken to reduce spread. It is however encouraging to see on Twitter that lots of rigorous science from a variety of different disciplines is being produced to help in these efforts.
Wishing everyone the very best during these hard times!
Some unrelated (and good news) from my research with collaborators within this past month includes:
-Paper accepted in Trends in Ecology & Evolution: Led by Ivan Jaric, in this review we outline the topic of 'iEcology' and considers how the data available on the internet can be harvested and used for ecology.
-Paper accepted in Royal Society Open Science: Led by Michael Reichert and John Quinn, in this experiment we used the RFID feeders I developed for manipulating avian social structure to instead examine the individual and ecological determinants of spatial learning in birds at Wytham Woods.
-Paper in revision for Journal of Animal Ecology: Led by Greg Albery, this review considers how we can better understand wildlife disease spread through untangling spatial and social processes.
-Paper in revision for Journal of Animal Ecology: In collaboration with Damien Farine, Ben Sheldon, and other members of our team, this synthesis piece brings together the insights made from the Wytham tits social network system, and provides a data package for open usage.
If interested in more details of these submitted manuscripts, or my other manuscripts, please see my CV (below) which I keep updated with all submitted papers.
Contact & CV
Contact me about research opportunities, collaborations, and projects.
Josh A Firth © 2020
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