One woman’s scientific journey: Professor Aoife McLysaght

This International Women’s Week, Professor Aoife McLysaght shared her story

This International Women’s Week we celebrated the women around us and challenge the issues which still cause gender inequality in our world. As a Genetics student I have the privilege of being in a department which is led by a woman. That woman is Professor Aoife McLysaght. Her research focuses primarily on molecular evolution. As well as being Head of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics here in Trinity, she is an editor on the journals Molecular Evolution and Biology, and Cell Reports. She has also presented scientific ideas on platforms ranging from The Royal Institute, to TEDx, the Science Gallery and even the Rubberbandits Guide to Biology.

She stands out because, for now, she is outnumbered by male colleagues in the upper positions of Trinity’s academia. She is also one of only two female professors in Trinity’s Genetics department, accompanied by Professor Jane Farrar. But forgetting gender for a minute, Aoife would still stand out among a group of academics. She’s funny, enthusiastic, honest, and doesn’t subscribe to putting a social barrier between lecturers and students. A Google search of Aoife might inform you that she was Trinity’s youngest ever professor, but she tells me that this is not true. The still formidably impressive truth is that she returned from a post-doctoral position in California to take up a professorship in Trinity aged 27. I met Aoife to find out more about her story in life and science.

Growing up

I had to ask if there were any experiences in Aoife’s childhood that might have destined her for a glittering career in science. She insisted her childhood wasn’t anything other than normal, she didn’t collect bugs, and didn’t get any Christmas science kits. What did she want to be when she grew up? She said that she wasn’t aware she could have been a scientist. “Nothing in particular, but maybe a hairdresser.”  Did she have anyone she idolised as she was growing up? A resolute YES! Teenage Aoife was big into politics (she still is) and Mary Robinson was elected when she was in school. She told me she loved everything she stood for. Having a prolific female figure campaigning for equality issues including women’s rights left a lasting impression with Aoife, so much so that she made sure to be in a PhD ceremony where Mary Robinson was handing out the awards. Crucially, Aoife told me she was fortunate to have parents that gave her freedom to shape her own future. This is summed up well by a piece of advice her mother gave her: “Do what you are interested in and the job will follow.” So she entered a general science degree in Trinity having enjoyed science in school, with a slight whim that she might like genetics.

Academic career

After graduating with a Bachelor in Genetics, Aoife undertook a PhD in the lab of internationally renowned Trinity researcher Kenneth Wolfe. When attending conferences people were always interested in finding out how she got into his lab. The reply might have been “a rigorous interview process,” but apparently the opportunity came through an evening in Kennedy’s pub. This process was a few pints in the company of staff and students from the genetics department, resulting in Ken asking something along the lines of “so, do you want to do a PhD?” Skip forward to collecting her Ph.D. from Mary Robinson and Aoife then headed across the pond to California for a postdoctoral position in the University of California. She says she really enjoyed being out there and took advantage of her time there to do some travelling, spending lots of time in national parks. She would get through loads of work in one week and then would show her results to her supervisor and tell them she was heading off to Hawaii the next week. While she enjoyed her time in California she found aspects of American lifestyle fake, such as not being able to sit on the grass to eat your lunch due to all the pesticides sprayed on the lawns, or homeless people being lifted and dropped across county lines. So when the opportunity arose for a teaching position in Trinity, Aoife applied and was successful. She has been here in Trinity since, teaching, researching, and leading. She is a renowned researcher in her field having been published in the journals Nature, Nature Genetics, Bioinformatics, Genome Research, PNAS and Yeast. She has also received two significant awards – the European Research Council Starting Researcher Award and the President of Ireland Young Researcher’s Award Science Foundation Ireland.

Feminism and science

Feminism in different guises is rooted within Aoife’s story. She says Kenneth Wolfe and her Californian supervisor were both feminists and supported the movement for women’s equality. This is perhaps not luck, but a result of Aoife’s own investigation in ensuring she was working with the right supervisors. Supervisors who would support her, respect her, and challenge her intelligence. She told me of a contrasting academic she encountered. This man collaborated with her Californian supervisor so they worked together indirectly. He sent Aoife an email asking her to complete a list of humdrum tasks that he needed done, but that wasn’t her job to do. She sent a blunt and direct reply explaining that she would not be doing these and that he shouldn’t have asked her, headed off to lunch thinking “What have I done!” But the academic was desperate to apologise for his mistake and for insulting her intelligence. Thankfully she tells me Trinity has been a good place to work and the Genetics department is relaxed. She says there is a fine line between encouragement and pressure, but here in the Genetics department she has never felt pressure from colleagues to get grants or awards. Kenneth Wolfe’s example of keeping regular hours including picking and dropping off his kids to school was one that has influenced Aoife’s attitude to work. She guards her time off and works only when she is in the office – she tried to take work home after having her first child, but gave up on that when she was carrying it all back unfinished the next day. According to Aoife, Trinity is also a good employer for mothers, they top-up the standard maternity pay to full pay. She also told me about having a department meeting in her office with her baby asleep on her lap as people came in, with some people not noticing the baby and then getting a fright when they woke up as the meeting finished!

According to Aoife, science does need feminism, in her words “the problem isn’t going to fix itself”. There are things which we can change such as interview processes which are typically short and intense and favour people who can sell themselves well, something which can mean more women lose out. Many application processes for positions which can last decades, also only focus on the candidates last three years, which again is a disadvantage for women who may have taken time out to start a family. So Aoife suggests widening the criteria to find people who will continue to be good academics for the next 20-30 years by looking further back than just three years. Her advice for anyone going into research science is to choose your supervisors well, get to know them beforehand and decide what your red-flags are when looking to work with someone.

And for young women looking to start a career in science? “Just go for it and don’t doubt yourself!”

Maeve McCann

Maeve McCann is a former Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News.