Siobhan O’Brien is a lecturer in the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of Liverpool. She leads a lab group that is trying to understand how microbes cooperate and compete with each other and how they evolve to be helpful, harmful or even spiteful!
In your opinion, what is the biggest myth about STEM careers? You don’t need to be a solitary bookworm to be a professor! Professors come in all shapes and sizes, some extrovert and some introvert. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. You can be yourself and be a professor!
Do you believe that there is enough being done to encourage girls to study STEM and pursue STEM careers? You can’t be what you can’t see, so I think initiatives like Smart Futures are doing a great job showing young girls that female scientists are out there! However, at university level the situation changes. The current academic lifestyle (short-term contracts, often in multiple countries) is often seen as incompatible with starting a family, and this unfortunately does tend to drive early drop-out rates in females versus males. I moved from Dublin – Cornwall – York – Zurich – Berlin – Liverpool in nine years, chasing the academic dream of a permanent lecturing position. By the time I reached Liverpool, I was socially exhausted and never wanted to move again! I was lucky to have a partner who was very patient and we had a baby last year (when I secured a long-term job!). I don’t think enough is being done to retain women – but it could be easily rectified with more funding for long-term positions.
Describe an interesting day in your current position. I normally start work at 8am as I have a small baby and like to finish up early! I like to do two hours of uninterrupted, focused writing first thing in the morning – this could be a new scientific paper I’m trying to publish, a book chapter or a review article. Afterwards, I log into zoom for a quick coffee and catch up with my lovely colleagues, before checking in with my lab group for our weekly meeting. Here, one of us would give a short talk about our research project and we usually discuss new papers or conference talks. In the afternoon, I might meet other scientists to discuss ongoing projects (e.g. I am currently helping with a project to design a new artificial cystic fibrosis lung environment we can evolve microbes in), before spending 1-2 hours preparing a lecture on microbial ecology.
What do you love about your current role? Firstly, the variety! I am never bored. In a given week I can be found doing experiments in the lab, analysing data, writing scientific papers, applying for big research grants, presenting our work at a conference, giving lectures, marking assignments…the list is endless. I also love the flexibility – I have the complete freedom to choose the topics I want to study and experiments I want to do. So, even when the hours are long and the work is tough, I am 100% passionate about everything I am doing.
Do you ever get to travel abroad for work? All the time! I normally attend conferences multiple times a year. Over the last few years I’ve attended conferences in Canada, Portugal, India, France, Finland, Switzerland and The Netherlands. I was really looking forward to a conference in Cape Town in August 2020 but this was postponed due to Covid19. As an academic scientist you also have a lot of freedom to visit different labs around the world to carry out research.
Is your current job, and the work of the wider team, making a difference in the world? We are showing that microbes are not solitary, but actually interact with each other. They can protect each other from the harmful effects of antibiotics or pesticides, but can also encourage each other to produce toxins – not great for you when they are infecting your body! My lab is showing that to really understand how microbes shape the world around us, we need to consider their social interactions. There’s a big drive at the moment for developing new microbiome targeted therapies, so our research will be really important for how we approach this.
What do you hope to achieve in the next year in your current position? I have a couple of scientific papers I’d like to finish and get published.
Did you complete any sort of placement or internship during your studies? If so, did it prepare you for what you do now? I spent a few months volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa during university as I was studying zoology. I wouldn’t say it was particularly relevant now though!
Name one thing on your bucket list. I’d like to cycle from Geneva to Zürich, with lots of time on the way for lake swimming.
What television series are you currently watching? Money Heist, it’s so cheesy I love it.
What living person do you most admire, and why? I had a wonderful secondary school science teacher who made everything sound so interesting and simple. I always think of her when I design lessons for my students.