Make the most of the experiences that come your way: Meet Heather Lally

Dr Heather Lally is a lecturer in Freshwater Ecology and Biology at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), Galway, Ireland. Heather’s areas of expertise are micro and macro freshwater algae, aquatic and riparian plants, and aquatic animals in particular macroinvertebrates which are baby insects living under rocks and in crevices in the water. Macroinvertebrates are an essential component of functioning river and lake ecosystems and are important bioindicators of water quality for these systems. Combining knowledge of water chemistry with the presence of certain macroinvertebrates provides a reliable method of determining water quality particularly during pollution events.  Understanding how these plants and animals response in Irish rivers and lakes to different land uses, pollution events and changing climatic patterns is central to her research investigations.

Currently, Heather’s research is investigating a new and emerging freshwater pollutant – Microplastics (small plastics particles). Understanding how these small plastics particles enter freshwater systems, determining where they go and what happens to them, and what impact they may have on the aquatic food web in particular top predators such as otter are key research questions to be addressed.

For her Soapbox Science talk this July in Galway she will be talking about “How do creepy crawlies adapt to living in a watery underworld


SS: How did you get to your current position?

HL: I got to my current position via the typical science route; first completing a BSc in Environmental Science and following that pursuing a PhD in Environmental Science, both at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG). During my PhD, I found my passion for peatlands and their conservation.  However, on completing my PhD I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go, so I took some time out to go travelling. On my return, I took up a postdoctoral position at University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland on riverine riparian conservation and management. This allowed me to redirect away from peatlands to learn about rivers and their riparian zones in more detail. Having such a depth of knowledge and understanding in both wetland and river habitats allowed me to successfully take up my current position as lecturer in Freshwater Ecology and Biology at GMIT.


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

HL: From a very early age, I knew I loved the outdoors and always wanted to be exploring it. When it came to going to secondary school, I had a natural ability for biology and chemistry but when we went on an ecology field trip in my final year at school I really found my calling. It was my first experience of recording vegetation and insects and I loved it.  From then, I knew that I wanted a career in ecology where I could have a job that involved working outdoors and learning more about plants, animals and the habitats they live in. Choosing a BSc in Environmental Science was the perfect match, a great blend of lectures, practicals and field trips. Getting the opportunity to experience the many sampling techniques, learning about the various plants and animals, and seeing them in their habitat inspired me even more to pursue a long term career in science.


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

HL: The most fascinating aspect of my research is having the opportunity to continue delving into new and emerging freshwater pollution issues in Ireland, namely microplastics in freshwater systems. Developing novel and innovative sampling techniques and operating them in the field increases my capacity to think outside the box. There is anticipation of what the results might bring but also a great sense of pride that we are working on freshwater issues that matter to local communities and where the results will make a real policy change at both the national and European level. Adding our experiences from Ireland to that already collated from around the world allows collaboration and contribution to the greater scientific community.

The most fascinating aspect of my work is having the opportunity to now impart my excitement and knowledge of freshwater habitats onto the next generation of undergraduate scientists. I work on the BSc in Freshwater and Marine Biology at GMIT where undergraduates have many opportunities to experience freshwater and marine plants and animals in practicals and on field trips.  Working alongside students who are excited by these experiences, and encouraging and supporting them as they make the next steps towards postgraduate studies or getting professional jobs is very rewarding.


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

HL: I was first attracted to Soapbox Science as firstly it is a great platform for Women in Science to promote their research and work and secondly I saw it as a great opportunity to showcase and share my research interests in freshwater science with the general public, in particular children, at a regional, national and international level. Been awarded the opportunity to participant in this all female, global, public science engagement event affords me the chance to increase my science communication experience and extend my message to a much larger audience.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the event?

HL: Amazing


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

HL: Better work/life balance. The constant treadmill of lecturing, creating lecture notes, correcting continuous assessment, mentoring postgraduates, applying for grants plus other academic duties makes it difficult to fit in time for ourselves, family and friends particularly in the early years of an academic scientist.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a women studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in science?

HL: Go for it. Life is too short not to be doing the research and work you enjoy most. Every career has trials and tribulations which must be overcome and a career in science is no different.  Always follow your gut, make the most of the experiences that come your way even when they seem like veering of the path and enjoy the ride.

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