Irish Centre for High-End Computing (summer internship 2013), University of Aberdeen (PhD student & demonstrator 2013-2018), Trinity College Dublin (Post-Doc: Right now!)
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Trinity College Dublin
Favourite thing to do in my job: I have two: 1. Share exciting new discoveries! 2. Have lightbulb moments that either open up new areas of knowledge to me, or give me new research ideas!
I am a researcher and Trinity College Dublin interested in genetics and evolutionary history
I compare genomes (all of an organisms DNA) from different species to understand evolutionary relationships between species as well as to identify genetic events associated with the evolution of new biological traits
Evolutionary relationships: I am deeply interested in the evolutionary relationships between species. Especially in improving our understanding of relationships between major animal groups, as well as better understanding the deepest branches in the tree of life. This relies on finding interesting animals to build phylogenetic trees with, as well as developing better mathematical models that can more accurately reconstruct species relationships, and our evolutionary history. This type of genome analysis can also be combined with fossils to date the speciation events along a phylogenetic tree in geological time. Gaining this type of understanding of species relationships allows us to map important genetic events, and the emergence of new traits (e.g. having arms and legs instead of fins), onto an evolutionary time frame. During my career so far, I have used DNA from sharks, skates, and rays to better understand their evolutionary history, as well as from our most distant animal relatives to better understand animal origins.
Gene and Genome Duplication: Genes are the key to generating proteins and the functioning of our bodies. Sometimes genes are duplicated, and this can provide the material needed for either disease or for new adaptations to evolve! In my work I have shown that a partial duplication of a gene involved in helping antibodies fight pathogens provided mammals with a way to clean up haemoglobin accidentally released from damaged red blood cells, which otherwise could cause severe kidney damage and infections. Genome duplication results in the doubling of all of organisms DNA, similarly to gene duplications this can lead to better adaptation to the environment (it has played an important role in the evolution of many plants and animals), or can be involved in disease (recent studies suggest many cancers have undergone genome duplications).
Evolution of immunity: During my PhD I mainly focused on understanding the evolution of the immune system. To do this I used sharks and their genomes (including catsharks; which made an appearance in the lectures!), as these are our most distant relatives to also use antibodies to defend themselves from pathogens. I also searched genomes of many weird invertebrates like sponges and comb jellies (which look a bit like jellyfish but are completely different) to better understand what kind of immune systems the very first animals had well over 500 million years ago.
My Typical Day
I am completely reliant on one constant companion in this; my computer. My average day involves reading the latest research in my field, designing new experiments, writing code, analysing data (and getting data ready to analyse; which is often the most time consuming), writing up results and making pretty images to explain them, interacting with lab members (in person), and collaborators from other countries (by email).
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
strangely relaxed perfectionist
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Using a video game to teach four year olds about how pollution endangers sharks. But I have to admit that the thing I have enjoyed best is definitely playing with baby sharks!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
David Attenborough, Jurassic Park... and maybe science at school...
What was your favourite subject at school?
Art, then maths, then technical graphics, then chemistry, then biology (and I still like biology...at least on the good days!)
What did you want to be after you left school?
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really. Not for anything serious anyway!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
This changes over time and based on my current mood! At the minute its Opeth!
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Maybe fire walking (its hard to think of any one thing). It's not very exciting while you are doing it, but the build up is tense and it looks cool!
Tell us a joke.
What did the buffalo say when his grown up son was leaving home? Bison!!!