My name is Alan Rice and I’m a molecular evolution researcher. In secondary school, I really liked all aspects of science and I studied Natural Science at Trinity College Dublin. After, I had the opportunity to undertake a Ph.D. researching genetics and evolution there and I’ve just recently moved from the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity, to the University of Bath’s Milner Centre for Evolution. In my job I get to compare genomes of different species, looking for what’s remained the same for millions of years and what’s changed to figure out which bits are important.
Has your opinion of STEM changed since you were a teenager?
Definitely. When I was a teenager, I used to think that scientists knew everything and that answers to questions were black or white, case closed. Now, working in STEM, I find that things are less binary and more changeable. We build up pieces of evidence as a community and try to come to a consensus that accounts for all the facts we have. Sometimes people disagree and sometimes some new solid evidence comes along that radically changes how we think about something. So it’s more exciting than I used to think!
In your opinion what is the biggest myth about STEM careers?
I think the biggest myth is that STEM researchers are stuffy, white men, who wear lab coats all day, and are obnoxious know-it-alls. In reality, people who work in STEM are as diverse as everyone else and are just curious humans who find their research interesting. When not researching we’re making music, performing stand up comedy, playing rugby, knitting, baking, climbing mountains, and doing countless other things!
Do you believe that there is enough being done to encourage girls and minorities to study STEM and pursue STEM careers?
I don’t think there’s enough being done. Even at an early stage in schools, there’s more boys than girls studying science subjects. In universities, the proportion of women studying STEM decreases from undergraduate to postgraduate to lecturer to professor. There’s evidence of gender affecting funding and citation rates and similarly evidence for a bias against researchers from low income countries. LGBTQ+ researchers can feel unsafe revealing their orientation or gender, discouraging them from pursuing a career in STEM. So it’s clear at all levels that we’re failing women and minorities in STEM. Thankfully, on many fronts, work is being done e.g. providing child care at conferences, removing gender identifying information from applications, workplace discrimination policies, etc., but these measures aren’t universal and there’s certainly room for more improvements to be made to ensure STEM is welcoming and inclusive for all.
What do you love about your current role?
I love the thrill of having a research question and trying to answer it in the best way given the data that’s available. You can sometimes expect a particular answer and be surprised by the result! Each is a little mystery to be solved.
What has been your most exciting career moment to date?
Probably being a Walter Fitch finalist at the Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution’s 2014 conference in Puerto Rico. I was very lucky to be one of ten early career researchers to share our work with the whole conference.
Do you ever get to travel abroad for work?
I’ve travelled to interesting conferences all over the world – Chicago, Australia, Japan, and Puerto Rico!
What kind of other experts do you work with on a day to day basis?
In STEM we’re really lucky to work as part of a lab with other people researching their own related projects. We talk about our work together and help each other solve problems and think up new experiments. It’s one big collaboration all the time.
Is your current job, and the work of the wider team, making a difference in the world?
I like to think so! The work we do can have an impact on how we think about disease. Studying molecular evolution helps us understand more about our genomes and more widely biology as a whole. The more we know, the better we understand what happens when things go wrong and disease occurs.
What do you hope to achieve in the next year in your current position?
As I’ve just moved to the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, I’m hoping to gain new experiences, collaborate with new colleagues, and work on exciting new projects!
Do you feel that you fit the stereotypical description of a person in your role?
I probably am pretty stereotypical! I was always interested in chemistry, biology, and physics but as a teenager I tried some computer programming so for a while I considered studying computer science instead at university. Thankfully, the work I do now is all computer based so I get to combine both biology and programming as part of research. It’s really ideal for me.
If a young person told you that they would like to get into your role, what advice would you give them?
I’d tell them to stay curious and follow where that leads. Don’t plan too much either, I never imagined I’d be where I am today, when I was in secondary school.
What do you want to see change in the industry in the next 10 years?
I’d like to see more inclusivity and diversity in STEM and more urgency for that change to take place. We have some research about discrimination and conscious and unconscious biases and their effect on people working in STEM, but I think we need to recognise and wholy appreciate the loss these effects have on people and STEM itself. STEM has never been an equal playing field with no barriers to entry and we need to imagine what it would look like if the people who’ve never had the opportunity to take part, and those who’ve previously been discouraged and forced out, could make the contribution that they deserve. What amazing advances have we missed out on by excluding so many wonderfully curious people? How can we improve the quality of life for people pursuing a STEM career? That’s how the conversation should be framed. In 10 years time I’d like to see a more welcoming industry, one that reaches out to women and minorities and embraces their contribution, with the proper safeguards in place so they feel secure and valued in their careers.
What television series are you currently watching?
I’m currently watching season two of Pose, a show about the ballroom culture scene in New York in the 80s and 90s. It made history as the scripted series with the largest number of transgender actors and has an episode directed and written by a trans woman of colour, another first. It’s not only a great TV series, it’s also authentic to experiences that until now haven’t been given a lot of airtime.