In Defence of Fundamental Science
Dr Elaine O’Reilly is Associate Professor in Chemical Biology at University College Dublin. Her scientific career has taken her from her native Dublin via Manchester and Nottingham and back to Dublin, where she leads the O’Reilly Research Group at UCD.
Profile: Dr Elaine O’Reilly Dr Elaine O’Reilly is the founder of the O’Reilly Research Group at University College Dublin which looks primarily on Industrial Biotechnology and specifically, on engineering biocatalysts for a wide range of applications in organic synthesis.
Continuing with the theme of prominent female scientists, Aether caught up with University College Dublin’s Dr Elaine O’Reilly to discuss her career to date, her thoughts on getting more girls and young women into STEM subjects, and her experiences as an Irish national working in the UK at the time of the Brexit vote in 2016.
Can you just tell me a little bit about your career to date, up to the creation of the O’Reilly Research Group at University College Dublin?
I’m very open about the fact that I’m one of these scientists who has never had a plan. I never set out to be an academic at all. I did my degree at University College Dublin, which is very close to where I grew up, and I stayed on there because I fell in love with research.
I did my PhD there, but then just as I finished and started to look for a job, the Irish economy, or the Celtic Tiger as it was known, crashed and I could not get a job anywhere, even for things that I was grossly overqualified for. My search took me to the University of Manchester in 2010, working for a very eminent research group focusing on the research area that I have stayed with; biocatalysis, which is using enzymes to speed up chemical reactions. I knew I loved research and was reasonably good at it, so that inspired me to think that I could carve out my own research area and that took me, four years later, to Manchester Metropolitan University, which is quite a teaching-focused university, before I moved again to the University of Nottingham, where I took up a position as Associate Professor in Chemical Biology. That was in 2015. For family reasons I moved back to University College Dublin in 2019 where I set up and still lead the O’Reilly Research Group.
What is your current focus for research?
I’m a chemist by training, but my research is focused on using enzymes. They are the catalysts that Nature provides us with, and my research is about taking that starting point and doing the chemistry better and in a more sustainable fashion. If you look at the types of molecules available in Nature, some of them are very well-known such as caffeine, nicotine and codeine. If you look at their structures, they are incredibly complex, and Nature is tasked with constructing them from very simple building blocks. Nature uses enzymes to build those molecules, and so our research really focuses on taking those really useful catalysts from Nature and using them to make the molecules we’re interested in in a more sustainable way.
What practical applications do you envisage coming from this research?
I’ll hold my hands up and say that I’m really more interested in the fundamental aspects of research and not so much into the applied. That has sometimes been to my detriment because industry funding and industry partnerships are really important. I have had some very successful partnerships, but actually, our interest is often very fundamental and much more curiosity based.
There are a huge number of groups throughout the world studying in this area. North America and other areas have really strong biocatalysis groups, but Europe is a big breeding ground, and in the UK as well. The subject does have very important practical applications in terms of taking, say, a drug molecule and being able to shorten the synthetic route to it by upwards of five or six steps, simply by putting an enzyme into the synthesis rather than using a chemical approach. It can really shorten the synthesis, save a lot of money, save using lots of solvents and remove the need for high temperatures. All of those are the things associated with environmentally expensive processes.
Elaine with her son, Harry
Elaine and her daughter, Molly
Is the fundamental research approach becoming harder given the EU now wants not only dissemination of research, but also exploitation of that research to show there are practical applications to what you do?
That has been a real problem for the chemical sciences over the past number of years in that there has been this focus on application in every funding grant that I write. You have to justify how this is going to be used in the real world and who you’re going to interact with within industry. It’s not always the case, in my opinion, and in a lot of my colleagues’ opinion, that research has to be directly applicable and industrially applicable. Sometimes those very small steps we develop can lead to massive leaps down the road.
The art of just making molecules has become something that is almost unfundable, but that is starting to change once again because it is through these kinds of techniques that we train our scientists. If you don’t allow blue-sky research, you are probably going to limit the leaps and progressions of the future.
I do think that’s changing a little bit; there are a lot of funding agencies coming out now, both in Ireland and the UK as well as internationally, who are funding more blue-sky research. I think opinions are changing.
From your own experiences as a prominent female scientist, do you think more can be done to get girls and young women into STEM subjects?
We’re doing a lot at the moment, but there are not many female chemistry academics, and at all of the universities I have been in, I’ve always been in a real minority. But there has also never been a university that I’ve worked in, where I felt we weren’t doing everything we could to encourage more females into academia.
We don’t really have a problem at the undergraduate level; there are plenty of females studying chemistry, but that tapers off as you move up. At PhD level it is still fairly even across Ireland and the UK, at least as you get to postdoc level, then as you get to an academic post, it falls off a cliff. At senior academic post level, the statistics become extremely unpleasant to look at.
Inspiring more females to enter academia is a little bit like the success of England’s Lionesses in football this summer. Suddenly you have these wonderful female role models, and the media are doing a super job at the moment of talking up their achievements, putting female sport right at the centre of our minds. People, children, don’t know something is there until they see it.
It’s exactly the same for our female undergraduate students in that until they see that I’m not just a teacher but that I’m also a researcher, how can they aspire to do that as well? It is taking time, but we are doing everything we can and we’re going absolutely in the right direction.
However, one thing that we have to do a little better in academia, is understand that female scientists with a family, and all the responsibility that goes with it, cannot be measured against their male colleagues. Not all female scientists choose to have a family, and many are equivalent in their ambitions and capabilities to their male colleagues, but in academia, right across the UK and Ireland, when it comes to promotion applications, we are not at all separated. It simply isn’t considered and there is no space that lets you talk about your role as a mother and what other responsibilities you have to deal with.
If you’re trying to increase the number of females that you have, clearly there’s a problem. It is absolutely about trying to balance a family and being expected to get millions of pounds or euros of funding in every year, write papers, be on all the committees and teach to the best level. It’s almost impossible and there is no space anywhere to recognise that. Until we do that, we will never get a balance at the top level.
It isn’t the only issue; not every female scientist has children and yet they still don’t make it to the top. There are lots of issues at play here, but this is one I’m very conscious of because I have two young children and I’ve seen the effects that has had on my career and yet I’m still compared to my male colleagues. I’ve struggled with this for so long; is it my employer’s job to look at my personal circumstances? You might say no, but if you want more females in those roles and you want them promoted, you have to look at that.
It’s one area where we have not sat down properly as an academic community and thought, how are we going to deal with it. But we are getting better, and I would say that I have more positive thoughts on it than I do negative ones.
The O’Reilly Research Group at University College Dublin
What are your thoughts on the continued uncertainty over the UK’s involvement in the EU research programmes such as Horizon Europe?
It has been a massive problem for people. I’m Irish and it really crushed me when the Brexit vote came in. I was living in Nottingham, and I finally realised the decision of the British people was to leave Europe. I actually felt devastated. A lot of my European colleagues living in Britain at the time will say very openly that all of a sudden, they felt very unwelcome. A huge number of very well-known and often very young scientists from around Europe have now left the UK. There’s been a real exodus of talent and skill from the UK, and that means Ireland and other European countries, have actually benefitted from that.
I do hope that the UK will find a path to ensure that they stay competitive for European funding and stay involved in it. Otherwise, they will not be able to attract the very best people unless they come up with their own absolutely wonderful EU-style funding scheme that rivals the likes of the very prestigious ERC, for instance. They need to, because I certainly know a lot of my friends and colleagues have left the UK, or at least are considering it strongly because they don’t feel like they have as many opportunities anymore.
As an Irish person, I think I felt a little bit more welcome because our countries have a special relationship in a lot of ways. I don’t think I felt as much of a hit as some of my other European colleagues. But to a lot of my colleagues, European funding and what Europe has to offer, is massively important to them.
My own reason for moving back to Dublin actually had nothing to do with Brexit. I was expecting my second child and I didn’t have a good family support network around me in Nottingham. I felt that if I moved back to Dublin, that was going to make my life easier and make my career easier to negotiate.
But if you ask a lot of the people leaving the UK at the moment, they will answer differently and they will tell you that it absolutely is Brexit related.
Dr Elaine O’Reilly / The O’Reilly Research Group / University College Dublin / www.oreillyresearchgroup.com