Julie Dunne began life as an accountant for a construction company. She took to science as a mature student, and now, in her 50s, she is in her third year of her PhD in biomolecular archaeology at the University of Bristol. She is using molecular and isotopic analyses of absorbed food residues from 7000 year old ceramics from the Libyan Sahara to identify the inception of dairying practices in Africa.Her most recent research was published in Nature. Julie tells Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-organiser, why she took a career change and how it’s never too late to follow your dreams.
SS: Hi Julie, you have taken a rather unconventional route to where you are now, having had a previous life as an accountant before diving into science as a mature student. You are an inspiration to those people who are lamenting that they didn’t study science! Tell us a little about how you landed in science.
JD: I took an undergraduate degree and then a Masters in Archaeological Science as a mature student. I’m now 52 and in my third year of a PhD in the Organic Geochemistry Unit at the University of Bristol. Being able to follow my passion, and share that with others, has enriched my life enormously.
SS: As you know, Soapbox Science is not just about science communication, it’s also about raising the profile of women in science, and changing the game for the next generation of scientists to achieve a better gender balance. How do you think the scientific culture could be improved, to help achieve this change?
JD: In terms of ideas to change the scientific culture, I suspect that there may be improvements in communication between men and women that could help men understand the limitations women often have to work under, the adjustments and compromises they have to make, often on a daily basis, to get to positions that come much easier to a man. Conversely, there are areas where perhaps women may learn from men in terms of promoting themselves and their own work. I think this communication could partly be improved by more interdisciplinary collaboration on research projects (I would apply this to both science and the arts and humanities). Often scientists remain in their own ‘bubble’ of research groups with little interaction with other people/disciplines and I think it could be useful in many respects for men and women of different disciplines to collaborate on multi-disciplinary projects. This would promote more understanding and also certainly benefit research through the application of different perspectives from varying disciplines.
SS: We are really excited to have you as one of our Soapbox Science Speakers this year. We think the public will be really excited to hear about cutting edge research at the interface of science and humanities. But what made you decide to take on Soapbox Science?
JD: When I first heard about Soapbox Science I was immediately fascinated by the concept that I would be able to share my research with the public. As a biomolecular archaeologist, which involves using analytical chemistry techniques applied to archaeological artifacts to answer questions about how people lived in the past, I am constantly enthralled by what scientific techniques can tell us about the day to day lives of prehistoric people. I thoroughly enjoy communicating my science to others and am really excited to be able to share this as I have always found that, like myself, the public remain endlessly fascinated by how our ancestors lived.
I think Soapbox Science is a great idea because it brings interesting science, carried out by women, to the public in an extremely accessible and informal format. In my case, I love the idea that people will share my passion and enthusiasm for how science can answer questions about how people lived in the past. I also believe that these sorts of events will raise the profile of careers in science for women, show young girls and women that science can be for them, and that it is fun and interesting at the same time.
SS: Did your unconventional route into science in anyway influence your decision to apply to be a Soapbox Science speaker?
JD: Absolutely. I think Soapbox Science is a great way to demonstrate to anyone who has a passion for science yet are not working in a related field, that it is always possible to change career and become involved in science.
Come and witness Julie Dunne’s passion for science on 5th July 2013, Gabriel’s Wharf SouthBank, London, where she will be talking about: “Milking it – how small molecules from ancient pots tell us when humans first started dairying”. Julie’s participation in Soapbox Science is made possible thanks to sponsorship of L’Oreal For Women in Science and the Zoological Society of London.