This month EPWS gives the floor to Prof. Yvonne Buckley. She is Professor at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, at the Chair of Zoology and is Head of Discipline of Zoology in this institution.
EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?
As a child I was always interested in animals and plants, I have a clear memory of collecting flies in a jar and my mum wanting to know what I wanted the flies for – I explained that I wanted to see how long they would live for. She did not approve and made me set them free, but I did get as many pets as I wanted so was surrounded by animals through my childhood. I recently did some work on the lifespans and life histories of hundreds of animal species so I finally managed to get somewhere with that question!
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
I am an ecologist, which means I work on where plants and animals live on the planet, why they live there and how they persist or go extinct. This work is important because we rely on nature to provide us with food, health and wellbeing, clean water and many other essential services. Without healthy, functional ecosystems we couldn’t survive on this planet. We are currently seeing huge changes in the diversity of life on the plant through human actions such as soil degradation, deforestation, poaching, over-fishing and pollution. Through overuse of the earth’s resources we are undermining the sustainability of human life. The study of ecology is essential for finding solutions to the challenges that currently face humanity.
I work on finding sustainable nature-based solutions to global challenges through the understanding of fundamental ecological processes that determine where biodiversity occurs and how it is maintained. I am particularly interested in how we can maintain and enhance nature, in order to help us achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and to help us reduce the impact of the climate change which is currently inevitable. Humans have never lived through such rapid and intense changes in earth systems and we need to ensure that our landscapes and seascapes will continue to provide us with life support systems through this uncertain future.
EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of?
Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?
I get the most satisfaction in my career from seeing the PhD students and post-docs that I mentor achieving things they hadn’t thought possible before coming to my lab. I get joy from seeing their skills and problem-solving skills develop over the months and years that they work with me. This can be hard work (for all of us!) but seeing them change and improve the way they work and write is the best part of my job. One of my first PhD students was recently promoted to full Professor and I got tremendous satisfaction knowing that our work together helped her to get to that position.
My greatest success as a teacher is managing to engage initially reluctant biology undergraduates with the essential quantitative skills they need to interpret the data on the natural world around them. As an ecologist I am used to dealing with complex and hyper variable systems, without skills in statistics, computer coding and mathematics we would just be describing local patterns rather than being able to get to the processes and mechanisms that drive those patterns. Once students understand that quantitative skills and tools are needed to answer the interesting biological questions they want to ask they readily pick up statistics and modelling.
EPWS:In which country/countries have you been doing research?
I have published papers on plants or animals and ecosystems from my work in several countries including: Mexico, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. I currently work with databases that contain data from all over the world so I can now vicariously travel the planet through my data analysis: I coordinate a network of over 50 ecologists in 70 sites from 17 countries around the world that collect data on plant population dynamics and I’m immensely proud of the data that are being submitted from all my collaborators in these different sites. I’m lucky to get to work with international colleagues from so many different places.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
I have some really exciting papers to finish off on the shapes of European plant ranges and how they vary in space, the effects of human land-use on plant occurrence and abundance, the effects of climate and environment on plant population persistence and how human action changes the genetic diversity of plant populations. I have a couple of PhD students due to finish their theses over the next 9 months and am looking forward to seeing them graduate. I manage the Zoology department at Trinity College Dublin and we have a big renovation project to provide new research facilities so I will be working with architects and engineers to ensure that this is progressed. I am planning some study leave that starts in June 2020 and I’m looking forward to writing up some of my research and starting up some new exciting projects. No two days are ever the same!
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
I am very aware that I have had a privileged route through academia, with access to the best universities in the world and the honour of working with brilliant male and female mentors and peers. Despite these advantages I always felt somewhat on the “outside”, which may be due to both my gender and my non-traditional background (I am from rural Ireland and went to university at Oxford and Imperial College Dublin). I remember reading about gender differences in grant success when I was finishing my undergraduate degree and found this very disheartening. I have experienced gender inequality in difficult meetings, interactions and experiences but have been lucky not to have experienced any strong overt barriers. I definitely benefitted from kind and generous female mentors who have taken me under their wing, given me good advice and who, through their successes, have shown me what is possible.
What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?
In my field of ecology there is gender equity at postgraduate and post-doc levels but I see early career female ecologists dropping out of the academic track after the post-doc phase. I see this in low ratios of women applying for Assistant Professor positions in my own unit as well as in other universities where I serve on appointment boards. Quite often there is a 60:40 or higher ratio of male to female applicants for even junior academic positions. This observation holds across Europe and Australia. This worries me as it shows that there is a “leaky pipeline” at work and we need to do more to ensure that good female post-docs get the resources and confidence they need to proceed through to academics positions.
Where I work now at Trinity College Dublin we have a really strong cohort of women who are at the most senior level of Professor (Chair), which is unusual in the field and across the university. I greatly appreciate this cohort effect and think that we can do a lot to ensure a supportive and facilitative culture where we work.
I have benefitted in my career from generous maternity leave provisions in Australia where I received 6 months of fully paid leave for each of my two children as well as the ability to return to work part-time. I benefit from flexible working arrangements at my current position and also benefit from the normalization of caring responsibilities across all staff, male and female. It is not unusual for any member of staff to have to work from home or leave early to look after a family member needing care.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
I have always been very active in promoting networking opportunities between women scientists. As a PhD student at Imperial College London I set up a “Women’s lunch” to enable women students, postdocs and staff to meet with visiting women seminar speakers. I try to ensure that I provide opportunities for women I work with to network with each other. These social networks are important for building trust and networks that enable us to help and support each other.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
I would definitely choose to be a scientist and I don’t think I would make any changes to my career path. I have been incredibly fortunate in that my choices and the serendipitous opportunities I have been lucky enough to get have worked out. Perhaps one piece of advice I would give my younger self is to stop and smell the roses a bit more. I was very driven as an early career researcher, probably related to an inferiority complex, now that I am in my ideal job I’d tell myself to take it a bit easier and have more fun! I’m a fundamentally optimistic and pragmatic person so I’m pretty sure that I’d ben happy working in a range of different situations.
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
There are so many ways that you can use science to contribute to a better world, that’s what drives me. Science can be a collaborative and sociable endeavor that also enables you to work deeply on difficult problems with like-minded people. Science has enabled me to travel and see the world, meet amazing people and have experiences that most people don’t get to experience. I love it!