An interview with a genetic scientist

Girl leaning against statue

Aoife McLysaght is a Senior Lecturer in Genetics who studied at Trinity College Dublin and now works in the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at the University of Dublin. She is involved in research into molecular evolution and has also produced a number of publications and is involved with promoting science to the general public.


What did you study at the higher education level?

“I studied Natural Science at Trinity College Dublin, eventually specialising in Genetics.”

Why did you choose this course and institution?“I chose Trinity College because of its academic reputation, but also because I thought I’d have lots of fun there (I was 17 when I made the decision – parties were an important consideration!)”

Did you always want to be involved in genetics?“From my mid-teens I realised that I’d like to study science in university. I wasn’t sure that I’d like Genetics specifically, but I did really enjoy the Genetics we learned in school. I particularly liked how logical Mendel’s pea experiments were. It still amazes me that he revealed the core principles of inheritance and genes even before we knew what genes were or what they were made of, and without the use of a microscope – he deduced it logically.”

During your study, what skills did you learn that have helped you in your career?“Principally, I learned how to analyse and interpret data and to examine the robustness of claims made by others. I also got practice in oral presentation. Both of these have proved to be essential (and sometimes fun!)”

What does your job involve and how did you get into this area of work?“My main work is lecturing and supervising students and also conducting research into molecular evolution. I got into this by progressing through the different research positions within the university system – first doing a PhD, then postdoctoral research and eventually being appointed to a lectureship position, where I also had the responsibility of establishing and running a research group.”

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?“Every day is different (that’s what keeps it interesting). Some days are all meetings, others lectures and lecture preparation, other days are reading and writing, others are preparing for or giving talks or public demonstrations of science.”

What do you most enjoy about 
your job?“The two favourite aspects of my job are the thrill of making a discovery and realising that you are the first in the world to know this new finding, and communicating with the public. Communicating science has become one of my great passions.”

What have been the highlights of your career so far?“The highlight of my career has possibly been being the first to discover completely novel human specific genes. That was very exciting and made the news all over the world.”

What other experience have you had?“I have had various academic jobs at different levels, from a summer job in a lab in Dublin, to a postdoctoral research position in the University of California.”

What are your plans for the future?I want to continue to make interesting and surprising discoveries in genetics, but I also want to get more involved in communicating science to the general public – I’ve always been a chatterbox, now I can put that to good use!”

What skills do you think are most necessary for your job?“Apart from the obvious technical skills, I think creativity and original thinking are the most important skills - this surprises many people who don’t work in science because it is not generally perceived as a creative discipline, but the ability to see new and surprising explanations for your data and experiments requires imagination.”

What advice can you give to students wanting to follow the same career?“Use your own initiative as much as possible. Investigate and explore ideas and then you are more likely to make interesting and unexpected discoveries.”

Written by Aoife McLysaght (2011)
Senior Lecturer in Genetics