Dr. Regan Early is a Lecturer in Conservation Biology at the University of Exeter. She studies the effect of human activity on wildlife all around the world. Come and see her in Exeter on the 11th of June where she will talk about The Great Climate Change Race!
SS: Regain, how did you get to your current position?
RE: A mix of working far more hours than is healthy, having some good scientific ideas, being thick-skinned enough to ignore those who told me that they weren’t good ideas, and having some really wonderful mentors and colleagues who were convinced I could have a career in academia
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
RE: I always wanted to understand how things worked, and go exploring and discover things. But there’s no doubt that I wouldn’t have become a scientist if it wasn’t for a whole load of people helping me out. I don’t come from the kind of background where it’s normal to want to grow up to be a scientist. My parents don’t have a University education, in fact my mum left school at 14. But if I wanted to be a scientist they were damn well going to help me be a scientist. They got me science kits for Christmas and stayed up late reading the instructions on things they had never done before. They sent me off to the bottom of the garden, with mini-beast books, a magnifying glass and collecting tray. They carted me off to science day camps during the school holidays. My primary school head teacher, Mr Gibbons, used to come and give my class in promptu talks about things like atoms. I doubt his talks were in the national curriculum but they were so fascinating I made my friends play ‘nuclear fission’ with me in the playground for days afterwards (it wasn’t much more sophisticated than running around and crashing into each other, but hey). And science fiction played a massive role, not least because I actually got to read about or see women being scientists, like Dana Scully in the X-Files, Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, or Ellie Arroway in Contact.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
RE: I work a lot on invasive species. Humans have transported thousands of species around the world, and many of these species have established populations where we’ve taken them. Some examples of these in the UK are horse chestnut trees, rabbits, and pheasants. It’s generally expected that these species will continue to inhabit the same kind of environments when they are introduced, as they do where they are native. I was studying these species and I was really surprised to find that the opposite were true. Many plants, birds, and mammals that have been transported around the world end up living in places with climate that is completely different to their native range. What’s really strange is that the species that seem to thrive most in unexpected places, are the species that are really rare in their native range. It’s as if you went abroad on holiday and did something totally out of character. My 60-year old parents went to visit my sister in New Zealand, and the next thing I know they’re calling me to tell me they’ve Bungy-jumped off the Auckland Harbour bridge. Or think of the famous British tourist. A Ryanair flight to Benidorm seems capable of turning the most shy and retiring Brit into a rampant force of nature, carousing bawdily into the small hours. That’s what has happened to the species I study. At home they’re all meek and unassuming, and you hardly ever notice them, but abroad they get into all sorts of places you’d never expect. I’m still trying to figure out why this happens.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
RE: After many years of short term post-doc contracts and living in fear that I wouldn’t have my contract renewed, I secured the coveted position of ‘lecturer’. Now I think it’s time I got to spend more time doing the parts of science I adore. Standing on a street corner, declaring to the world why science is brilliant, playing science games with kids, and maybe even raising awareness of how we can help wildlife survive climate change sounds like the best possible thing to do on a Saturday afternoon. It would be great if I could inspire someone to become a scientist. But it would be just as brilliant to remind the general public that science is for them, just as much as it’s for people in labs. Scientific discovery depends on the public being willing to pay for it, and progress depends on the public understanding and accepting new discoveries. Soapbox Science sounds like a great way to support that.
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?
RE: The government-imposed requirement that every few years all University research in the UK is judged on its merit and societal impact against a set of narrow, political, and poorly thought out criteria. Oh, and we don’t get to find out what those criteria are until after our research is judged. This is the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF). I believe passionately in doing research that changes the world. The REF is just a completely pointless way of making sure that happens. It actively discourages scientists to write papers that review the state of the art in a field, or to publish the results of research that didn’t work out. Much of the research in the past that has gone on to be enormously influential wouldn’t be scored highly in the REF today.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
RE: Don’t forget what freedom there is in academia. Many people will try to tell you what research to do, how to play the career game, or that your ideas aren’t good enough. Listen to them as little as possible, and try to find out something that you think is really interesting.