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Prof Aoife McLysaght

Aoife McLysaght is an Associate Professor of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, where she has taught since 2003. She was a member of the international consortium that published the first draft of the human genome sequence in 2001, was the first to discover novel human-specific genes in 2009, and has made many significant contributions to our understanding of the human genome as well as the genomes of other animals, plants and viruses.

There’s so much to learn and there’s so much still to come.

On getting interested in science

I got interested in science gradually, I suppose, I didn’t have one  moment where I discovered I was interested in science.  I liked a lot of things, I still like a lot of things, I think science is just where I, ah, I have a natural curiosity for science and I had a really good teacher in school.  I think a lot of people can trace their interest back to a really good teacher but I liked a lot of things and I still do so I don’t see myself as single minded, but I think it was just I enjoy solving puzzles and that, as a sort of general thing, and it kind of seemed to suit me, so I think that’s it.

In terms of people to look up to, I didn’t really.  One thing I – when I was younger, one thing was that I didn’t really know that you could be a scientist and so I suppose there’s the value of role models.  I knew I liked science but my imagination only stretched as far as working in a hospital lab, and thought, well, there must be science in a hospital lab and I didn’t imagine there was such a job as being a scientist and it was only actually after I went to university, I kind of said, ‘Well, I’ll figure it out later’, was kind of the approach.  And after I went to university and I saw that it was possible then I had, well, also I had a really good teacher in school, but had really good professors in university who were really good and really encouraging and I suppose, not just, not just one person but many people who were really very encouraging.  

On the joy in science

I think Feynman put it best when he said pleasure of figuring things out, or finding things out rather, um, this, there’s a buzz in the fact that when you do an experiment you are the first one to know the answer and that is, so that’s a really fun part of it and that’s a fun part for the people who do it.  But if you think of a comparison with, say, other cultural activities like music and art you don’t have to actually be a practitioner to enjoy it and that’s where I think science communication is really important and things like the Godless shows and all of these things that bring science to an audience in the same way that music can be brought to an audience and art can be brought to an audience.  You’ve got the people who make it and you’ve got the people who enjoy it as a much wider group and I think that’s really important because, I think, I view science as a really important cultural activity even for people who aren’t directly doing it and so I just think it’s great to be able to do that.  

On the rising popularity of science

So, science has become popular and I am completely amazed, I don’t know how it happened!  Ah, I think it’s really great, I think it’s really important, I think it doesn’t matter hugely that not every science programme that there’s ever going to be is going to mention every caveat and every experiment and every detail because you can’t digest detail in that way anyway.  Science is about discovering, simplifying and simplifying general principles.  When you’re trying to do science, what you’re trying to do is to simplify things down into a way that you can understand and in communicating science, what you’re trying to do is deliver things in an interesting and simplified, but not simple, way.  And not a dumb way and it still has the information and it still has the ideas and so I think science can only benefit from more people being interested in it, more people recognising the value of it and I think this popularity, this current popularity of science, wherever it has come from, is a wonderful thing.  And I’m personally enjoying it!  I never imagined that starting studying science in school I’d one day be doing something in theatres in London!  It’s not an obvious career move.  So it’s loads of fun there too.

I don’t think it being popular makes it easier to attack.  I think maybe it’s a, being popular it’s just a, maybe a popular target as well but I also think the more popular science is the more a general audience will understand what science is and will see through false arguments against it so, um, no, I don’t think popularity is a threat at all.

On appreciating all discoveries

So, there are headline grabbing moments in science like there are in everything.  So we had the Mars landing, the Higgs Boson, and these are big moments, but there are a lot of things, there are a lot of smaller discoveries that are continuously being made, or big discoveries that take us a while to realise how big they are and how important they are and, um, I do think it’s important that science communication is used to show the incremental nature as well.  So that it’s not always big moments where we all sit around and go, ‘Wow, did you just see that?!’  One example that I think is interesting is the Nobel Prize this year, the Nobel Prize for Medicine, went, or shared by two people, for showing that adult cells in a body can effectively be reprogrammed to act like immature cells.  So, like cells from an embryo.  And one of the people who got the prize, he did his work in the ’60s I think, the other one did his work, I think, six years ago and so it takes a while to realise how these things fit together and how important they are and this is opening up huge opportunities in medicine and regenerative medicine and for making better transplants and these sorts of things, but it took a lot of work to get there.  Two people get honoured with the prize but really there’s so many people and so much work over the years and I think there’s so much to be learned and there’s so much still to come and I think it’s great if people can realise that.

On the importance of being interested

But it’s not something I would ever want to force down somebody’s throat.  I think if somebody genuinely isn’t interested that’s fine by me. I think it is very interesting and I think if people gave it a chance most people would find it interesting and engaging, there’s so much to, and, I think I find it important in the sense that I think when we have arguments and discussions, public discussions, sometimes about important things like climate change, about maybe vaccinations and, you know, medical decisions, that you can understand how it is that we collect information, how it is that we make decisions scientifically, and if you are used to listening to that kind of argument then you are probably going to be a bit better informed when it comes to a new argument about a new current debate.  So I think just the way of thinking, the way of rationalising, the way of weighing up evidence, I think that’s an important thought process and I think by, in science communication, by exposing people to this, even indirectly, like as an observer, saying, look, this is the way we did it, this is the way we figured it out, we went down some wrong avenues, took us a hill to figure out it was a wrong avenue and then suddenly we found this and we said, well, that’s gotta be wrong, um, just understanding how you do this, I think that’s important and valuable in general for people who, people need to make decisions all the time, take advice and weigh things up, so I think it’s just a great way of thinking.

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