Dr Zoe Popper,
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International Women’s Day 2017: “Diversity makes my job enjoyable”

For International Women’s Day 2017, we asked plant biologist Dr Zoë Popper to write about a typical day in her working life. Here, she reflects on the importance of diversity in her job.

A typical day?

Dr Zoe Popper,
Dr Zoë Popper, lecturer and plant biologist at NUI Galway.

I suspect that no one really has a typical day, but something that makes my job enjoyable (but this blog post difficult to write) is its diversity. For example, today I started my day with (re)advertising a seminar that Botany and Plant Science will host this evening, and marking second year undergraduate laboratory assignments, after which I gave a lecture. I then met with each of my research students to discuss their experiments, freeze-dried some samples I collected at low-tide last Sunday, and carried out some tasks related to a paper I am currently handling for Annals of Botany.

However, each day is very different and might include working on a manuscript, ordering chemicals for the lab, writing a grant proposal, preparing materials for an undergraduate lab, presenting at a conference, meeting industry partners, or being involved in outreach projects such as Fascination of Plants Day.

Research inspiration
Research inspiration: Cell walls, plants and algae, environment and evolution.

The unifying theme is really that I am fascinated by plants and algae, and how they interact and adapt to their environment. More specifically, I am interested in the carbohydrate-rich cell walls that surround plant and algal cells, and how their properties influence plant physiology, biomechanics, etc. Although I have always been interested in plants, my interests in evolution and in cell walls were stimulated and supported as an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, and later by my PhD and postdoctoral supervisors, and by my colleagues and collaborators. Recent research in my lab and in collaboration with Professor Kirsten Krause at the University of Tromsø has investigated how the cell wall composition of parasitic plants enables them to infect their hosts (Olsen et al. 2016; Pielach et al. 2014).

Dr Popper's career path.
Dr Popper’s career path.

Like most people that are interested in a subject, I want to share my interest with others; as a lecturer this is mainly through teaching and outreach (recently including Twitter @BPSNUIGalway). I teach a range of modules focussed on plant interactions, plant and algal cells, physiology, evolution and diversity. I enjoy teaching and have been supported by the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning to learn and apply new techniques and technologies. I also try to use examples in lectures and practical classes that my students will (hopefully) find interesting and relevant. For example, the interactions between parasitic plants and their hosts can be beneficial for biodiversity (e.g. Rhinanthus helps maintain species-rich grassland) but may be detrimental for agriculture (e.g. Cuscuta and Striga lead to loss of crop yield). Each year, several undergraduate students carry out projects in my lab. I discuss project ideas with the students and aim to find something that they will be interested in. It is great to see students become excited by their research! Last year one of the student projects led to a successful collaborative grant application with industry, and an excellent undergraduate student being able to continue her research at postgraduate level.

I enjoy most aspects of my job and am stimulated by many of the teaching and research challenges. However, reflecting on International Women’s Day I am also aware, from my own and others experiences, that female academics face many challenges. Equality is a highly complex issue and one that tends to be oversimplified. It is good to see the initiatives that raise awareness (e.g. Soapbox Science Galway). It is important that equality and diversity are being discussed more openly, increasingly understood and addressed, and policies challenged and changed. This will facilitate a more inclusive, dynamic and innovative environment for the future.

Zoë Popper

Dr Popper is a Lecturer above the bar (Botany and Plant Science) at NUI Galway, and handling editor for Annals of Botany and BMC Plant Biology.

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