Aoife Mc Lysaght

One of the things I personally love most about knitting is that it has allowed me to make connections with so many women all over the world: women who are brilliant, super-talented professionals, women who are highly-specialised experts in their chosen fields…and who also happen to be mad for knitting. One such woman is Aoife Mc Lysaght, professor of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin. I get a wee thrill every time I see Aoife share a KDD project, and I’m so happy to introduce this enormously wise and truly generous scientist to you today as our next contemporary bluestocking.

Professor Aoife Mc Lysaght. Courtesy Tom Honan.

Hi Aoife! We are completely thrilled to have you join us on the KDD blog as part of our contemporary bluestockings series!

I am thrilled and excited to be asked to do this. I’m a bit of a KDD fan girl, which may become evident below …

Can you start by telling our readers a bit about your scientific background, and your current field of research?

I work in an area of genetics called comparative genomics, which is essentially focussed on looking at the total DNA sequence (genome) of various different species and comparing them in order to learn about the general and universal processes of evolution as well as the special biology of those species. Over the years I have worked on various animal, plant, fungus and virus genomes, but lately I’m mostly focussed on vertebrates, including humans. Our work is all computational – we have the genomic data as large computer files and we write code to analyse them and uncover patterns and test hypotheses. I’m especially interested in how new genes evolve – primarily in the mechanisms of gene duplication (genetic copy-and-paste) and origination de novo (from scratch). By studying these processes we have uncovered evolutionary signatures that are useful in identifying human disease genes. We were also the first ones to discover completely new human genes, that don’t exist in any other organisms, not even chimpanzees.

Academic science is happily far more inclusive now than it once was, but molecular biology and genetics are certainly still fields in which senior positions are dominated by men, and in which stories like yours are perhaps still relatively unusual. I wonder what your advice would be to a young woman, just starting out at university, and considering a career in scientific research?

When I was starting out in science I was completely unaware that there was a problem in terms of the representation of women in science (I should rephrase that … I was not consciously aware of it. My subconscious picked up all the same prejudices as everyone else). I think the fact that I didn’t know that any problem existed gave me a kind of fearlessness. I didn’t expect anyone to ever treat me differently than anyone else, and I reacted promptly at any sign of unfairness. So, I would hope that anyone coming into the career now would not focus too much on the inequalities and have confidence that they will be recognised for their talents, while also being ready to defend their interests when necessary. (Things really have changed and are changing).

Another important piece of advice is to identify good allies. I got lucky in that I managed to find very supportive people throughout my career who were really encouraging and helpful at various important stages. I would advise anyone to surround themselves with Good People and ignore any others. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice, because there are people out there who are really good and willing mentors. More than once I made the mistake of not asking for help – perhaps thinking I would be a nuisance if I did. It turned out that the people I might have asked would have only been more than happy to give me advice. It made a huge difference to me to have moral support, practical support, and plain old-fashioned kindness, and I don’t think I’m unique in that. The good people are there, and they will help you if you ask.

Also, if you are lucky like me and manage to get ahead, do everything you can to help those earlier in their career … try to make things better for those who follow. I have been working within my own university and also within a large academic society in my field to put in place better structures and practices to make the career more accessible for everyone. I get huge satisfaction from doing this. I have a general philosophy in life to leave things better than I found them.

Aoife on stage at the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures, 2019

You are a brilliant communicator, committed to making science visible, accessible and engaging for more general audiences in Ireland, the UK and beyond.  Can you tell us about some of the fun stuff in which you’ve been involved, as you take genetics to the public?

The most fun was probably when I went to a music festival called Electric Picnic for the first time and I gave a short talk about genetics and evolution that I entitled “Incest and Bestiality” – a tongue-in-cheek title but which captures the main message of my talk: we are all related to each other and to every other living thing on this planet. Also, ending up “singing” Things Can Only Get Better on the stage at the Hammersmith Apollo with D:Ream, Brian Cox, Dara O Briain and a host of misfits was kind of bonkers fun.

Blaise Smith at work at the Women on Walls group portrait. Irish Times.

You were part of an amazing project a few years ago – Women on Walls – in which you featured in a group portrait of eight women scientists commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy.  Can you tell us more about this project? What was it like having your portrait painted?

It was kind of surreal. In the first place it felt a bit odd to be one of the people selected for the portrait when there are so many other obviously deserving people to be highlighted. But a good few years ago one of my very wonderful mentors (see earlier) told me that there will be times when I get praise when I might feel I don’t deserve it but there will also be times when nobody says anything about something I might feel is praiseworthy – so take it graciously when it happens.

The actual process of sitting for a portrait was fun. It was interesting to see the process of how an artist composes a piece of work and to see the painting emerge. The artist, Blaise Smith, showed us every step along the way, which I really enjoyed. One funny aspect was that he was interviewed by a newspaper after it was announced that he got the commission but before he met any of us who were to be painted. In that interview he mentioned that he might paint us in white lab coats. When we got to speak to him for the first time later that week the first thing we all wanted to say was that a lab coat does not represent us at all. He was inadvertently falling into the stereotypical view of a scientist. In the end he painted us all in our own clothes that we picked for ourselves and we got a wide range of styles – from high heels and a skirt to hiking boots, shorts and a hammer (for breaking rocks when fossil hunting). I love that aspect of the portrait because it shows that there isn’t just one way to be a scientist.

Aoife to the far right in the Women on Walls group portrait. Royal Irish Academy.

At what point in your life did knitting really grab you?

I learned to knit in primary school, which used to be pretty standard in Irish schools (for girls), but almost everything I knitted was a variation on a rectangle, and there were quite a few unfinished scarves in my childhood (I think a scarf is a bit of a boring, long project for a beginner). Then about 10 years ago or so a wool shop called Winnie’s Craft Café opened very close to my house and I eventually felt the urge to try again. I had never followed a pattern before so I had to ask a lot of questions, but thankfully the people in the shop were very patient with me. I remember the distinct pleasure of making a small cardigan for my daughter and the apparently miraculous thing that it came out as it should. Very quickly I happened upon this designer called Kate Davies who seemed to have the most beautiful patterns. Until then it seemed that everything was either fun to knit or nice to wear, but your patterns combined both. I had so much fun knitting them and then wore them with pride afterwards. The first pattern of yours that I knitted was the Hazlehurst scarf, and I still wear it and treasure it. So, even though this sounds like a very fangirl thing to say, it was honestly your patterns that got me totally hooked on knitting.

Aoife’s Hazelhurst

Ha ha, well, I’m very honoured and glad to have enabled your knitting! And so is Ronnie Hazelhurst! Do you still enjoy colourwork? What do you most love to knit?

Yes, fairisle hats, jumpers, mitts, anything … – I just love fairisle knitting. I love seeing the pattern emerge as you knit and I love the specialness of the final product.

Aoife’s Grèis!

You live and work in Dublin – which as well as being one of world’s great cities has one of its best yarn shops – This is Knit. What role has TIK – and the community around it – played in enabling your knitting?

This is Knit is where I discovered the joy, and the importance of good yarn. The staff in that shop are really special because they get to know their customers and they really know and love yarn and knitting. I have gone in there with a pattern that I like and just let them guide me towards the right wool, and other times I’ve just contacted them because I wanted to knit but didn’t have a project lined up. They have never given me a bum steer.

I may also be guilty of deliberately going into the shop for a browse when I am wearing something fresh off the needles because I know they will recognise the hard work in it and give me lots of compliments. Sometimes you just need to be around people who understand.

Aoife in Firth o Forth

Has your relationship to your knitting changed and evolved over the past rather weird and difficult year? And if so, how?

I was pretty obsessed with knitting before so I’m not sure it has changed a whole lot. Except perhaps that previously I would tolerate only a small lag between projects and now I tolerate none at all. I simply *must* have something on the needles. Knitting is my salve, and just about every evening over the last year has ended with me knitting and drinking herbal tea. If I don’t do it, I don’t sleep well.

I definitely know that feeling! Finally, what are you whipping up on your needles right now?

I was very tempted to cast something on just to have a more interesting answer for this question, but the truth is I’m improvising a quite simple jumper with no pattern that I intend to use to throw over dresses etc in the summer evenings once a little chill arrives. I’m using a fuzzy black alpaca-lace yarn and knitting with two sizes of needle to get a nice open drapey effect. Let’s see how it turns out!

Sounds like a great summer knit, Aoife! Thank you so much for being part of our contemporary Bluestocking series! Happy knitting!

Aoife enjoying Christmas, wearing Grèis