Dr. Alison Wright
NERC Independent Research Fellow
Department of Animal and Plant Sciences
University of Sheffield
Start Date: January 2017
PhD: Department of Zoology, University of Oxford; supervised by Professor Judith Mank
Postdoc: Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London; supervised by Professor Judith Mank
About the lab:
My lab is based in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, located in the north of England next to the beautiful Peak District. Our faculty has a strong grounding in evolutionary biology and molecular ecology, as well as a really friendly and integrated ethos, so there is lots of opportunity for exciting collaborations! My position is funded by a fellowship from NERC, one of the UK's leading science funding bodies, and includes significant research costs for five years.
About my research
Research in my lab is centered on understanding the genomic and evolutionary processes underpinning sex differences. In particular, we study evolutionary conflicts of interest between males and females and the genomic mechanisms that lead to their resolution. We approach these questions using transcriptomic and genomic data across a number of different species. A large part of our work focuses on sex chromosomes, as they are the only region of the genome to differ between the sexes and are therefore predicted to be hotspots of sexual conflict and sexual dimorphisms.
How have you prepared to be a PI?
I did a lot of research to prepare for the transition from postdoc to PI. I have a number of great mentors who provided valuable tips and advice on what to expect, and the skills that are necessary to succeed. I can really recommend Mohamed Noor’s book You’re hired! Now what? for a step-by-step guide that deals with time management, supervising a research team, and career progression. I was also very lucky to be supervised by Judith Mank, who is not only an outstanding scientist but also a fantastic mentor. Working in her group was a real pleasure and I would like to think that I picked up some valuable skills for how to manage a productive, supportive and enthusiastic research group.
Are you recruiting? If so, how do you/will you choose new lab members?
Definitely, I am always looking to work with people with new skills and ideas. Key things I look for in new lab members are passion, motivation, and creativity, as well as a strong sense of teamwork. There are a number of fantastic graduate schemes available across the University of Sheffield. The department is also very supportive of early career researchers, which is extremely helpful for attracting independent research fellowships for postdocs.
When was your first Evolution Meeting, and how did it affect your career?
My first Evolution meeting was in 2014 in Raleigh, NC and I have attended all but one of the meetings since then. As a PhD student, being able to give a talk in front of this international audience of evolutionary biologists was an invaluable experience. I believe that this opportunity for early career researchers to present their work is one of the major strengths of the Evolution meetings. It was also an excellent chance to meet many scientists in my field for the first time. This meeting is also particularly memorable as we went for a lab breakfast and had iced tea and grits – one of the highlights of the week!
Do you remember your first publication in Evolution?
Yes, the third chapter of my thesis, ‘Independent stratum formation on the avian sex chromosomes reveals inter-chromosomal gene conversion and predominance of purifying selection on the W chromosome’ was my first publication in Evolution. I am very proud of this paper and was extremely honoured to receive the R.A Fisher prize in 2014, which meant that I was able to attend and present my research at the Evolution 2015 meeting in Guarujá, Brazil.
Besides research, how do you promote science?
I think that an important part of our role as scientists is to engage and enthuse members of the public with the research we are doing. Later this year, I am participating in an exciting and novel outreach scheme called Soapbox Science, where I will be presenting my research in a public space and engaging in scientific debate with members of the community. This event is also particularly important as it seeks to actively promote the role of women in science and raise the visibility of women scientists amongst the general public. More generally, the University of Sheffield, and our department in particular, have a number of impressive outreach programs to increase awareness of our research.
Do you have a favorite science podcast or blog?
Yes, several! I am a big fan of two blogs in particular, Dynamic Ecology and The Molecular Ecologist. They are fantastic platforms for broad opinion pieces and syntheses of research areas, but they also cover a range of topics about scientific life that I find especially useful as a new group leader. In particular, the interview series How Molecular Ecologists Work is one of my favourites. It is fascinating to read about the varied working styles and approaches of scientists whose work I really admire. More broadly, the science podcasts from the BBC radio programme In Our Time are a great way to learn something unexpected!
What one piece of advice would you give to a starting graduate student?
Be confident and put yourself forward. In doing so, you create opportunities and develop skills that you will benefit from throughout your career. Present your work at international conferences – they are great opportunities for building your network of potential collaborators and mentors. Apply for prizes and research grants – even if you aren’t successful, you are learning valuable skills that will be essential later in your career. Read lots, think deeply, and most importantly find that area of research that really excites you!
Did you ever have something go wrong in a talk?
Yes, but bizarrely it turned out to be one of my most enjoyable talks so far! In the last year of my PhD, I was attending the 2014 European Meeting of PhD Students in Evolutionary Biology (EMPSEB), which provides an amazing environment for early career researchers to network and present their research. In the middle of my talk, the computer and projector suddenly turned off. Clearly, this usually spells disaster for the remainder of the talk. Luckily, however, several people in the audience already had questions, so I spent the 5 minutes it took the organizers to fix the problem having a very lively and interesting discussion about my research. Thanks to those audience members for helping to save the day!