Julia Cooke is a Lecturer in Ecology at the Open University, Milton Keynes. She is a plant functional biologist, who enjoys fieldwork – from counting thousands of seedlings in outback Australia, to collecting leaves in savannas to making measurements from the top of a gum tree in a canopy crane. She is the author of an Australian picture book, My Little World, about natural history from a child’s perspective. Here she explains that asking questions about nature during her rural childhood and the mentors she worked with on high school projects inspired and kick-started her science career. The discovery of new, extraordinary plant strategies is what really blows her hair back! Julia will be on her soapbox in Milton Keynes on Saturday the 9th of July 2016 talking about “Ingenious Plant Survival Strategies”
SS: Julia, how did you get to your current position?
JC: After I completed a BA/BSc(Hons) at the Australian National University I took 6 months off to travel before taking a position as a Research Assistant at Macquarie University. This transitioned into a PhD on a topic of my own development (plant silicon). Following my PhD I did three very different one-year post-docs at three universities while teaching undergraduate and Masters units, before securing a lecturing position at The Open University. My research has always focused on plant ecology and included fieldwork whenever possible.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
JC: I grew up on rural property in South Australia where learning about and understanding the natural world was part of play and important part of the livelihood of our farming neighbours. My parents interests in ecology and physics (Dad is a biologist and Mum worked in medical imaging) were a big influence as I asked lots of questions and they would either know the answer or help me find out. Turning these interests into a career was facilitated by two school projects where I worked with established scientists either through my own initiative or as part of formal programs. These scientists were my first mentors.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
JC: Plants have evolved over millions of years into the extraordinary diversity present today. Plants have evolved complex interactions with their environment, competition with other plants and relationships with animals. I love exploring the intricate strategies that plants have developed, particularly when the strategy is not what I was expecting and I have to change the way I was thinking. I enjoy the mental gymnastics and my admiration for plants increases all the time!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
JC: Soapbox Science offers a wonderful opportunity to build a UK network, promote women in science and share science with the community, all at the same time. As a recent arrival in the UK (I joined The Open University a year ago), I’m keen to get to know more researchers here. Outreach is critical in both changing the perceptions of women in science and making science accessible and useful to everyone. Sometimes people think of science as hard or difficult to understand, but often it is just the newness of the concept not its complexity that confronts people. Everyone is curious about how the world around them works, and I like the challenge of finding ways to explain things in an accessible way.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
JC: I would change policy in all journals to make the peer review process double blind, making good science rather than big names the focus of publications, and help to reduce gender bias.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
JC: Find multiple mentors. I’ve really benefited from having a series of mentors – researchers who I admire, who are happy to chat and act as my champion, who can advise, guide and inspire me! Diversity in mentors can really help – male and female, inside and outside science, with and without children, early career and towards the end of their career. I hope I can pay forward their kindness as a mentor to others.