Dr Dara Stanley (@darastanley) is an ecologist at National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway, who specialises in plants and their interactions with bees and other pollinating insects. In addition to research and teaching she has always been fascinated with science communication; for example she is a founder of “biodiversity in our lives” who produced a series of “biodiversity beermats” linking biodiversity to drinks in pubs! Dara completed her PhD at Trinity College Dublin, and subsequently worked in the United Kingdom and South Africa before taking up her current role as a lecturer in NUI Galway. She is co-organising the Galway Soapbox Science event with Dr Jessamyn Fairfield (a physicist at NUI Galway) on Saturday 15th July 2017 at Spanish Arch in Galway city (@soapboxscigal).
Please can you tell us about your career to date and what made you want to become a ecologist?
I have always been fascinated by nature and the environment. I grew up in the Dublin Mountains, and my mum always says I was interested in birds and trees when my brother was interested in tractors! When I finished school I initially studied music for a year (I’m a flute and violin player) before deciding that I really wanted to study science. I find ecology fascinating; the complexities of living organisms and how they interact with each other raises so many questions, and has such huge implications for all the things we need as humans – clean air, water and food. I found a special love for bees (bumblebees are one of the cutest things around, right?) and the intricate relationships they have with flowers, and pursued my PhD in human impacts on plants and pollinators at Trinity College in Dublin. I then moved to Royal Holloway University of London in the UK for a postdoc position, where I worked under the UK Insect Pollinator Initiative investigating the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bumblebees. Subsequently, I moved to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, where I worked on the role of honeybees as pollinators in a biodiversity hotspot. Going to work and having to chase zebra and wildebeest away from eating parts of your experiment is certainly a bit of fun!
For those readers without a scientific background, what does your role at NUI Galway involve on a day to day basis?
At NUI Galway, I’m a lecturer in Plant Ecology. My job entails two main components, research and teaching. I lead a research group that investigates how plants interact with their pollinators, the implications this has for crop production, and how we as humans are affecting these interactions. We use both lab and field techniques to answer our experimental questions. At the same time I also lecture students pursuing a degree in science, or more specifically in Botany, and supervise PhD students. As well as research and teaching, academics are also involved in numerous other things, from public engagement and consultation, to management, finance, HR…I never thought a job could encompass so many different aspects, and it makes your day really varied!
Please can you tell us about Soapbox Science in Galway?
I love the ideas behind Soapbox Science, and when I moved to Galway last year thought it would be the perfect place for an event! Galway is also home to NUI Galway, but also to the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, the Marine Institute, and a host of scientific industries. Therefore there are lots of scientists about, but people around the city may not come in contact with them very often. Galway has a really lively cultural and street performance scene, and the city centre is always full of people going about their daily business, so it seemed like a great spot for Soapbox Science. Luckily Dr Jessamyn Fairfield (a physicist also at NUI Galway) was also interested in Soapbox Science and so we decided to organise the event together. Jessamyn is also a comedian and has loads of experience in science communication and outreach, so it’s great to be able to put our heads together in organising the event!
How will you be preparing?
So far we’ve recruited 12 enthusiastic volunteer female scientists from Galway to speak at the event. We’ve also organised our location, and are currently organising our speaker training event.
Why are outreach events like Soapbox Science so important?
Outreach events like Soapbox Science are so important as it is crucial that everyone understands and appreciates science. Science is so important in so many aspects of our lives, and in particular when it comes to governance and decision making. We increasingly need evidence based policies and decisions, and science can provide this. And of course so much science is also publically funded, so there is also a duty to make it accessible to everyone.
Many science outreach events are things that people have to actively choose to attend; for example a science exhibition, or Bright Club Galway – a science comedy night organised by Jessamyn. These are great events, but what I really like about Soapbox Science is that it brings science to a public place specifically to target people that are going about their daily business and have not actively chosen to engage with a scientist. The second think I like thing about Soapbox is that the scientists who are on show are women. We all have unconscious biases, from our upbringing, entertainment or the media, and as a result many people associate scientists with being old men in white coats. Soapbox science highlights and showcases female scientists, in the hope that by showcasing women we can break down some of our inherent unconscious biases around gender in STEMM.
How male dominated is your area of specialism and how are initiatives like Athena SWAN helping to breakdown gender stereotypes?
My immediate discipline of Botany at NUI Galway is actually 100% female! In the early career stages of Natural Sciences there is often quite level playing field in terms of gender, and at NUI Galway 37% of academic staff in this area are female. However, when you go towards the more senior levels this balance begins to shift. For example, in STEMM at NUI Galway only 11% of professors are female. I think initiatives like Athena SWAN are very important to firstly make us aware of gender issues, and secondly to try and put in place policies and initiatives that can be inclusive and beneficial for everyone.
What is coming up next for you and NUI Galway?
NUI Galway is currently preparing a submission for an Athena SWAN bronze award. Indeed, some major Irish funding agencies have stated that universities must have this award by 2019 in order to be eligible for funding, so now there’s a real incentive to get there! For me, right now I’m focussing on writing some grants to fund my research, and on correcting student exams. Most of my field research happens during the summer months, so I’m also looking forward to getting out and doing some science in the beautiful field sites in the west of Ireland where we are doing some of experiments!