Democratising science: Meet Emily Lines

EmilyLines_sqEmily Lines is a lecturer at the School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London. Her research interests combine ecology, remote sensing and the terrestrial carbon cycle, with particular emphasis on forest ecology and data assimilation. She is interested in answering questions on the structure and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems, how these vary with environmental conditions and how these will change with climate change. Her approach is strongly mathematical and computational and she is interested in applying novel methods for data analysis. Emily will be standing on one of our soapboxes in Reading, where she’ll talk about “Forecasting the future of forests”. 



SS: Emily, how did you get to your current position?

EL: Even though I now work in a Geography and Environmental Science department, I actually did my undergraduate degree in Mathematics. I took a couple of modules in dynamical systems and became fascinated by complex systems and the concepts used to describe their emergent properties.

Purely by chance I came across an advert for a Master’s course at the University of York designed to attract mathematics graduates to work in the Environmental Sciences, for which I was lucky enough to be funded. That course led me to do an internship at Microsoft Research, who also sponsored my PhD in forest ecology at Cambridge, where I was able to be involved with several different projects, in part because of my unusual background.

Even though I loved working in ecology, I wanted to get experience in a more computational-focussed discipline so I undertook a postdoc at UCL in remote sensing terrestrial vegetation. That led me to my current position as a Lecturer in Environmental Science at Queen Mary, University of London, where I have the freedom to indulge all my varied interests!


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

EL: I took Maths at university because I just loved solving problems, and I always wanted to find a career that I enjoyed but also challenged me every day. I think the first person to actually suggest a research career to me was my undergraduate dissertation supervisor, who was a very inspiring teacher and gave me the confidence to explore the idea.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?

EL: What I find most fascinating is working out how to approach problems. I deal with large datasets and working out how to interpret them to get the information I need is the most exciting part.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

EL: I like the way it democratises science; I’m excited by getting the chance to explain what I do to people I might not otherwise get to interact with.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

EL: Butterflies.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

EL: I think the high pressure that all researchers are under to regularly publish ‘exciting’ results can distort output, producing too many papers that oversell and over-generalise their findings in order to count as high-impact. For me, many of the most interesting papers make small or subtle methodological advances, or carefully answer specific questions, opening the door for new approaches and ideas.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

EL: I would say two things. Firstly, after your PhD, don’t be afraid to change your focus, discipline and/or institution – being exposed to other ways of working is exciting and can propel your career forward.

Secondly, whilst overwhelmingly I’ve had fantastic colleagues and mentors, I’ve also experienced behaviour that was (shall we say) less than professional, and sadly I’ve heard many such stories from other women in science. If you’re being made to feel uncomfortable in your work, be it in the field, lab or office, do something to change the situation, and if the first person you contact doesn’t respond how you want, don’t give up.

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