Time Travel with Weird and Wacky Organisms: a Peek into an Evolutionary Biologist’s World

Author:  Niamh Higgins

Institution:  Dublin City University, Ireland


JYI recently sat down with the vivacious Irish evolutionary biologist Dr. Mary O’Connell to talk about her work, her recent expedition to Peru and what traits undergraduates need to succeed in this field. 

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”  - Theodosius Dobzhansky

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” - Theodosius Dobzhansky

Dr. Mary O’Connell is currently a principle investigator and senior lecturer at Dublin City University (DCU), who will shortly take up a new research focussed position at the University of Leeds as a “250 Great Minds university academic fellow”. Her research involves many interesting creatures and some serious travel- time travel, that is. From her Irish lab, Dr. O’Connell and her research team use genomics to wind back the evolutionary clock to unlock secrets about life on our planet.

Why is the naked mole rat cancer resistant? What makes a polar bear a polar bear? How did the first complex cell come about? These are some of the evolutionary questions that Dr. O’Connell is excited by.

Her research focuses on the patterns and processes of evolution and molecular evolutionary theory. “Many organisms out there have evolved to their ecological niche with traits that are extremely interesting for us as humans to understand” Dr. O’Connell explained. “Take for example the bowhead whale; they live for over 200 years, have large bodies and yet they don’t suffer from age and cell division related diseases like cancer”.

How are they such graceful agers? “In collaboration with colleagues at Liverpool University, we identified a number of gene mutations in Bowhead whales associated with longevity and cell division” Dr. O’Connell stated. These findings could prove crucial to our understanding of human cancer, aging and disease.

So how does one become an evolutionary biologist, or rather a genomic detective?

Early exposure to science coupled with a curious mind is what set this principle investigator down her career path. “I’ve had an interest in science since I could speak,” Dr. O’Connell confessed  “My mother was driven demented with questions about how stuff works, once I was old enough to understand what science was –that quest for knowledge, understanding and truth – I knew it was for me!”

Her two passions in school were art and science, and she points out that to be successful in research one must be both analytical and creative. “You need to be insightful and creative in your ideas. You also have to be resilient so that when you put your ideas forward to ask for funding or other scientists for their opinions, that you can handle what comes back! In science, like in life it's good to get things wrong, because that's how we learn." For undergraduates; Dr. O’Connell stressed the importance of using summers at university wisely to explore different career options-gain skills and to hone personal interests.

During her undergraduate biotechnology degree, she became captivated by the area of bioinformatics and went on to complete her PhD in comparative genomics. “I was exposed to this weird and wonderful thing called bioinformatics. I thought wow, now we’re talkin’, this is something that’s really cutting edge. It was a melting pot of everything I was interested in; evolution, zoology, biology, systematics and mathematics.”

Dr. O’Connell appreciates that being able to communicate well an essential skill for a successful career. "I see communication as being absolutely key, whether with undergraduate students through lecturing, or with one another through peer reviewed publications and conferences. And now more so than ever we’re communicating with the public."

Earlier this year, Dr. O’Connell gave a TEDx talk at DCU and strongly feels that events like this are important to engage the wider community and the public. "I think that it is good for scientists to take some responsibility in trying to communicate the process of research, how science works – the trial and error - and the dynamic and exciting nature of science in a way that is accessible and sensible so they can engage actively and voluntarily in science."

Now, Dr. O’Connell divides her time equally between teaching, research and administration in DCU. While her research is computationally intense, (90% is dry bench biology) she has included a small wet-bench component in her work for years. Traditionally, Dr. O’Connell analyzed already-sequenced genomes, but times are changing. “Now I have been lucky enough to become involved in actually collecting the samples- I can complete the picture from organism to discovery, rather than just starting with the genome,” Dr. O’Connell stated.

Collecting these samples sometimes entails hunting down elusive species. This year, Dr. O’Connell ventured into the lush Peruvian rainforest with Dr. Chris Creevey on a two week expedition to collect poison arrow frogs with the lead on the project and Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow Dr. Karen Siu Ting.

Living in a hut immersed in the noisy Amazon has certainly left its mark on the researcher.  “It was fantastic and challenging and it absolutely blew my mind,” Dr. O’Connell confided. “For the first time in a long time I actually felt like a research biologist again.”

“It’s made me more aware of the fact that my research is certainly very closely related to conservation biology in a way that I probably hadn’t fully appreciated; how delicate our biosphere is and how dependent everything is on everything else. It was a really fascinating and eye-opening place.”

Right now we are living in the middle of the 6th mass extinction event on our planet. “This time the extinctions are a direct result of our influence on the environment”. Dr. O’Connell thinks that "by doing this kind of research we can predict what species are most likely to survive into the future and which ones are most at risk, this type of research is all about understanding the past so we can make better predictions for our future”.

She points out how we must see the big picture and think globally. "Nothing that any of us biologists are researching works in isolation. So if you really want to succeed you have to think broader; you advance your science quicker”.

When she’s not off in exotic lands hunting down obscure organisms Dr. O’Connell can be found in her lab or classroom. A lot of work goes into creating great lectures, and she estimated that just one hour of lecture takes about eight hours to prepare! Science is more like a vocation to Dr. O’Connell, whose job doesn’t finish at 5pm.

“I don’t “do science” Monday to Friday 9-5, I am a scientist 100% of the time every day of my life. It’s my work but it’s my passion and my hobby as well,” Dr. O’Connell explained. While the job requires many sacrifices, it does afford her academic freedom.

“There’s nobody telling me that it’s not ok to work on polar bears, that they’re not an Irish problem or that my research must stop because it won’t make a product or money. At the end of the day science is not and should not be solely about making money” Dr. O’Connell said. “My contribution is in understanding the relationship between the DNA locked up in every cell of every living thing; it is about how that DNA governs what the phenotype of an organism is and how all that fits together to make an organism fit for its environment”

Dr. O’Connell recalls a quote from Edward O. Wilson which summarises her research; “For every species a question and for every question a species.”

“For every species there’s a question, there’s a funny behaviour or a funny life history trait or a disease that they can provide answers to, and for every question you can think of in biology there is an organism that can help you answer that question,” Dr. O’Connell elaborated. “This is why it’s important that we study all organisms and that there are people that research moss and periwinkles and molluscs and bow head whales”

Dr. O’Connell’s final advice to undergraduates is to “question everything and do something constructive, interesting, [from day one]…volunteer in a hospital, in a lab somewhere, to get some experience. It will help you make informed decisions and will help you see science and research as it really is”.