Dr. Eleanor O’Brien is an evolutionary biologist, interested in the genetic factors that enable populations to adapt to new environments. This is important for understanding why species live where they do, and for predicting whether species and populations will be able to evolve in response to environmental changes such as climate change. She is currently a Research Associate at the University of Bath. Catch her in Exeter on the 11th of June!
SS: Eleanor, how did you get to your current position?
EO’B: I did a PhD in evolutionary biology at the University of Western Australia, in which I studied local adaptation in Western Australian forest tree species, and considered how we can use this information to decide where to collect seeds to maximise the success of mine site restoration. I continued working on similar topics for a couple of years after finishing my PhD, before moving to the UK to take up a postdoc position at the University of Bristol. It was there that I began working on the evolution of species’ range margins in tropical rainforest insects, and developed my skills in quantitative genetics. That led to my current position at the University of Bath, where I am working on the evolutionary genetics of growth and development in mice. As you can see from this history, I have worked with a very diverse range of different organisms, but with a unifying theme of trying to understand how evolution works, and the factors that prevent or facilitate evolution in a population.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
EO’B: I often speak to people who say they knew from a very young age exactly what they wanted to do as a career. I was not one of those people. While I was always interested in the natural world, I had very diverse interests at school and considered a range of different careers. Even once I got to university, I studied as broad a range of subjects as I could. It was a course in genetics and evolution that really inspired me, and convinced me to stay on and do an honours year (the Australian equivalent of a Masters). During that year, I had a supervisor who strongly encouraged me to consider a career in research, for which I am very grateful! Since then, I have been fortunate to have many advisors, mentors and colleagues who have inspired me, and helped me to develop my career in science.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
EO’B: I love the freedom science offers to pursue new and interesting questions. I really enjoy the process of designing experiments, and working out the best way to approach a problem. I have also been fortunate to travel to some wonderful places for fieldwork and conferences, and to meet a lot of interesting people, both scientists and non-scientists.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
EO’B: I have always enjoyed public engagement because I find that when talking about science with people from diverse backgrounds, including children, they often offer unique ideas and perspectives that make me see my research differently. I am also passionate about increasing the profile of women in science, and Soapbox Science offers the perfect combination of the two.
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?
EO’B: I would like to see greater recognition of the value of scientists pursuing big ideas that may take time to develop, rather than judging research on its capacity to have an immediate impact. Historically, some of the most important scientific discoveries arose from many years of work, and have benefited society in ways that could never have been imagined at the outset. A lot of the names we think of when asked to name a famous scientist –Newton, Darwin, Einstein- would probably struggle to get their research funded today.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
EO’B: Don’t waste time worrying about whether you feel you are good enough to be there, and instead focus on doing the research that excites you. All academics (even highly successful ones) have times when they feel unsure of whether they belong, and I think this can sometimes be worse for young female researchers because they see the lack of women in senior positions in science. Finding ways to keep women in science is obviously critical to address this gender imbalance at the top, and while there is no simple solution to this issue, it is important that women at all stages of their scientific careers find the things they love about science.