After working at a zoo and studying Zoology, Gigi Hennessy is currently a working toward a PhD in Bee conservation in the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex. She is taking part in Soapbox Science Brighton on 2nd June 11am-2pm with her talk “Gone with the wind. How bees respond to changes in wind speed”. We are grateful to the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour for sponsoring Gigi.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place- and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part?
GH: I really like the idea of taking science out of the lab and making it an easily accessible and interactive experience that everyone can enjoy. There is so much stigma around what a scientist looks like/what they do and I think Soapbox is a really good way of showing people that isn’t the case. I am so enthusiastic about my research (bee conservation and behaviour) and Soapbox gives me an opportunity to talk to people about it in an informal and fun setting. I also think it’s such a good way to show girls that they can achieve anything and that science isn’t just a boys club.
SS: Tell us about your career pathway
GH: After leaving school I decided I didn’t want to go to University right away and took a gap year. I didn’t always know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I did know I wanted to work with animals in some way. I worked at a Veterinary clinic during this time, as well as volunteering at London Zoo and an animal rehabilitation centre in Namibia. I then went on to study Zoology at the University of Leeds. Here I decided that a career in science researching either animal behaviour or conservation was what I wanted, and that a PhD is what I needed to achieve this. I went on to complete a Master in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology at the University of Exeter. After four years as a student I decided I needed another break. I worked for a brief while as a technician with DEFRA and then got a far more exciting job as a Zoo keeper/presenter at Chessington Zoo. Here I helped start up their native conservation centre and ran surveys and taught workshops in the neighbouring woods. After working here for almost a year I knew I wanted to get back into real science and applied for my PhD here at Sussex University where I now work under the supervision of Francis Ratnieks and Dave Goulson studying bee foraging behaviour and conservation.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
GH: I have the rather obvious inspiration of David Attenborough, who kind of introduced me into the world of Zoology and how you can study animal behaviour for a living! I was also inspired to study Zoology by some of the work by Konrad Lorenz. The person who kept me going however was my Mum. When I thought about giving up and getting a more stable, higher paying career, she was one of the few people who told me to go for what I wanted and not give in to pressure from other people.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
GH: An aspect of my research which I really love is seeing honeybees in their hive. We have an observation hive in our lab and you could sit and watch the bees all day and see so many different behaviours. These range from the queen laying eggs, workers fanning to keep the hive at a nice temperature or if you’re lucky a forager communicating through the waggle dance.
SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?
GH: One of the aspects of my research is studying how weather influences bee foraging. For this I have had to start reading quite a few geography and meteorology journals to help me try and understand aspects of the weather a little better!
SS: What 3 attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team work, etc) what did you pick these?
GH: I think creativity is an important one. For one of my projects I had to make flowers for bees to forage on and I had to be quite creative in how I made these. It’s also important as being creative allows you to think outside the box when you have a problem or when something goes wrong, which is quite common!
Passion for your subject. If you really love what you’re doing/studying it makes everything so much easier. Doing a PhD isn’t easy, and like I said above things often go wrong, but loving your subject will help you deal with issues.
Being organised is the final attribute which I think is important. Being a PhD student, you have to manage your own time and your projects. You supervisor is there to help but can’t always be there to hold your hand. This means it helps if you’re on top of your workload, knowing where you are in each project and what you have left to do.
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
GH: Something that I really don’t like is when researchers are unwilling to share their work. Collaboration is so important, not just in science, and when you’re working to try and achieve the same goal why not share data. If everyone is recognised for the contribution I personally don’t see an issue. I’ve witnessed quite a few researchers not sharing their work with others and it makes achieving a goal so much unnecessarily harder.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female student considering pursuing a career in academia?
GH: Get involved in research at your University as much as possible. Even if you’re not sure what area you think you’re most interested in try and get a taste of them all. Ask your lecturers if they need any summer help, experience is the best thing you can have. I would also say be confident in what you do. It’s so easy to think you don’t know anything or to underappreciate how much you really understand but try not to do that as confidence makes such a difference to how people see and respect you. Above all be enthusiastic, lecturers will really appreciate a student who gets involved and asks questions, it will get you noticed.
SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?
GH: Go for it! So many kids (myself included) are terrified of pursing a scientific career because they’re worried they won’t be good enough at maths or just generally ‘science brained enough’. That’s a load of rubbish! Science is so diverse, if you’re bad at one thing you may find you’re amazing at another. There is no other career where you’ll have two people in the same office where one is computing complicated genetics and another going scuba diving to collect data on shark behaviour. I always think of the saying, the difference between doing science and just messing about is that with science you write things down.