New kids on the block: Nessa O’Connor

Jessie Dolliver interviews the newest members of Trinity’s research community

Photo by Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

Nessa O’Connor is the Zoology department’s newest lecturer, having moved from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in January of 2017. Dr.O’Connor specializes in all things marine biology, and is particularly interested in the relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning (how stable and healthy an ecosystem is). Dr. O’Connor was based in Queen’s for a full seven years before moving down to Dublin, where the university had their own marine station based on Strangford Lough. A lot of the research O’Connor was supervising, and a lot of her students, are still based in this specialized marine facility. Was it hard to leave all that behind? “Luckily it’s only a couple of hours up the road, so it’s not that big a deal. But to some extent it does feel like starting from scratch down here.”

One of the main projects in the QUB lab that Dr. O’Connor was supervising was seaweed farming and harvesting, with the aim of producing useful products such as third generation biofuels. The set-up of this massive project was completed when Dr.O’Connor was based in QUB. Now she monitors the progress of the research from Dublin. “We grow kelp. Brown seaweed. We would get bumper crops of several tonnes last year, by mixing around the different species,” Dr.O’Connor explained, “We did have the largest crop in the UK or Ireland, probably in Northwest Europe on our last season that just finished.”

The seaweed is grown on 100m ropes, like mussels. After it has reached an appropriate biomass, it is harvested, placed in silos (like hay on farms) and then placed in an anaerobic digester in England. Anaerobic digesters are large containers which use anaerobic bacteria to break down chemicals to more useful products which can be extracted, biogas (methane) in particular. Was this a profitable project? “At the moment we are working with modellers and industrial biochemists to scale up the project and make money from selling the biogas.” One of the main barriers to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is the economic disadvantage that most renewable energies have. As new technologies, they have not yet been developed to the point of being energy-efficient. This will have to change if clean energy is to compete with oil, coal, and gas.

“What may make it [biogas] more feasible is if we start looking at the other properties, the other things we can harvest from the seaweed. You would be, by all means, working to the Circular Economy concept – looking at the different things you can extract at different phases.” This concept of valuing every part of a product, including things normally considered as waste, has grown in popularity in the scientific community in recent years. A new Science Foundation Ireland research institute has been built around the concept – the BEACON Bioeconomy Research Centre.

Dr. O’Connor is enthusiastic that, with the potential for producing renewable energy and creating jobs, seaweed farming should spread and be an accessible practice for people in Ireland. Considering the large coastline Ireland has compared to the size of the country, and the expansive territorial waters we have to our name, seaweed farming should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately very few people do practice seaweed farming, as licenses from the Irish government are notoriously difficult to acquire. “It is so, so slow. There is no one agency you can go to. It has to be seen and signed off on by so many different people. I mean it takes years and years and years, and people cant wait that long to get a business off the ground… Places like France and Norway have been world leaders in this for decades. There is money to be made, and the harvesting rights throughout the West coast of Ireland have been sold off to companies.. To me it doesn’t make sense, when we could grow it ourselves.”

O’Connor is keen that any opportunities for seaweed growth in Ireland are taken. One example is the farming of seaweed in coordination with offshore windfarms, which she believes to be the next likely step of Ireland’s renewable energy industry. “It’s what they call joined up thinking. To me it’s a no-brainer because there are going to be cables that run from the windmills back into land, there’s going to be restricted fishing activity, people won’t be able to trawl around them anyway. So it’s the perfect area to throw some long lines in between, grow some seaweed there as well. Other countries are doing it too – Scotland have just legislated for this.”

The work that Dr. O’Connor is doing on ecosystems is tailored specifically to European laws and directives on biodiversity and environmental conservation. These were the same frameworks she worked under in QUB, but this all may be soon set to change. “They were still in the EU when I was working in Belfast. Technically the research community is still operating as a part of the EU, technically their legislation was still the same. Funding wise – we don’t know yet if the UK will still be eligible to be funding partners with other European Union countries. It will be a big loss if we can no longer collaborate with these people just because of these funding mechanisms in place.”

It is still uncertain to what extent Brexit will affect the science community in the United Kingdom. Places like Norway and Switzerland have remained participants in the main EU funding schemes despite not being in the union, through different agreements. For O’Connor’s colleagues in Belfast who may have been funded by EU schemes, the future is uncertain. “Nobody knows what is going to happen at the moment,” she explains, “Imagine if you were there and your contract was coming to an end. Would you be sticking around to wait to find out, or would you be applying for jobs everywhere? Would you be bothered to build up a team somewhere, where you don’t know if you’re going to access funding? It’s not too different to the US where funding is being cut. It’s a good time to come to Ireland.” Some of O’Connor’s projects couldn’t transfer down to Ireland because they had UK funding.

Currently Dr. O’Connor is working on several large ecosystem modelling projects in Trinity, using a multi-model ensemble approach. Is she enjoying her time here at Trinity? It would seem so. O’Connor said “Honestly, it’s a dynamic place to work. It’s an interesting place to work. There’s funding in the EU, there’s funding nationally, but I had gotten funding in the UK, so it wasn’t about that. There is just a really good attitude in Ireland at the moment.” She also spoke highly of the freedom that Trinity academics have; “I think things have picked up, turned around… and in Trinity if you have a good idea you can run with it. It’s not as hierarchical as in other institutions. You are actually given the freedom to develop an idea and then go do it. It’s great to be somewhere where there is bright young students, where there is an international flavour with everything to do – as we are trying to be world leaders. I’ve worked in other places that are a bit dull and people are very stressed out, and it’s nice to be somewhere where everyone is enjoying what they’re doing.”