Professor brings science to life with flair

24 Jan 2014

Aoife McLysaght, professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin

Prof Aoife McLysaght’s star has been rising rapidly in genetic research, and now she gets to hang out with other stars, too. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.

Prof Aoife McLysaght has had a stellar career to date – as a PhD student she was an author on the paper that published and analysed the initial sequence of the human genome, she has since had stacks of publications in high-ranking journals, she was involved in a major discovery about how genes are formed, and she landed a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grant to use evolutionary analysis as a way to find clinically relevant genes.

Oh, and she met actor Hugh Grant. That might sound like a non-sequitur, but it’s not too much of a stretch. Thanks to her passion for genetics and her ability to explain complex concepts with relative ease, McLysaght is becoming recognised as an excellent science communicator. In turn this means appearing alongside the likes of Grant, retired astronaut Chris Hadfield and (retired pop star) Prof Brian Cox at events to celebrate and discuss science.

But first, the genetics. Today, McLysaght is a professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin. That’s where we meet for coffee, it’s where she started her studies as an undergraduate in natural sciences and it’s where she did her PhD.

During that PhD with Prof Ken Wolfe, McLysaght jumped at the chance to be involved in work on the about-to-be-published human genome. “We were looking for evidence of genome duplication, this is what we were working on in the lab at the time,” she recalls. “That was really exciting – we got to look at the data and we wrote parts that ended up in the final paper.”

New genes

From there, McLysaght moved to poxviruses: as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Irvine, she became interested in how genes are gained and lost in these large viral genomes. And when she moved back to Trinity, she switched her focus to how genes are gained and lost in vertebrates (animals with backbones, including humans).

“A little while later, we discovered novel genes in humans, and that was really exciting because we didn’t even expect to find it,” says McLysaght of the Science Foundation Ireland-funded research. “Genes normally arise from other genes by duplication, but we got this result [of de novo genes] and we thought it was an artifact. We tried to exclude the artifact, but we were left with these genes that just wouldn’t go away. So we looked at them more closely and we found other supporting evidence for them – we showed that new genes are continuing to originate, and I’m still really proud of that work.”

Evolutionary lens

Today, she is looking for genes that could be important in clinical conditions, and she’s using molecular evolution to do it. “When you talk about evolution, most people go ‘well, you are looking at history and it is a nice, interesting curiosity but what can it really tell us about today, what does it matter?'” she says. “But by comparing genetics between, say, humans and mice and other species, you can look for the genes that don’t change. Where there has been no change given sufficient opportunity for change, it means something, the change isn’t tolerated.”

For this ERC-funded work, McLysaght is particularly interested in the ‘balance’ of genes that are duplicated, and this has led her to pinpoint genes potentially involved in conditions such as Down syndrome, and autism and schizophrenia.

Festival of Culture co-founders

The Festival of Curiosity co-founders Ellen Byrne and Vincent McCarthy with The BBC Science Club Panel. (Left to right) Dara Ó Briain, Alok Jha, Aoife McLysaght, Ellen Byrne, Emma Teeling, Ian Robertson, Shane Bergin and Vincent McCarthy


But unless you read the major scientific journals with zeal, you are more likely to encounter McLysaght through her public engagement work, which includes talks at schools, TEDx and Ignite, as a guest on The Infinite Monkey Cage and in Brian and Robin’s Compendium of Reason at the Hammersmith Apollo in London last month.

It was at the Apollo gig that McLysaght got to hang out with Grant and Hadfield, among many others, and she played piano with Cox. “It was surreal,” she says. “You really don’t expect that kind of stuff to happen.”

She also brought chromosomes to a wider audience online through several ‘days’ of the Royal Institution’s Advent Calender 2013 video clips. McLysaght spoke about particular chromosomes against the backdrops of Dublin Zoo, the Natural History Museum and the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, using plasticine models to demonstrate what goes on with our DNA: “We wanted something physical, we wanted to be able to move it and break bits off and do recombination, and at some point someone said ‘what about plasticine?'”

Science Gallery opens a door

Yet when McLysaght started out in research, science communication was nowhere on her own road map. “I remember at an interview for a grant they asked me what I thought about scientists doing public engagement,” she recalls. “I said that I thought it was good that somebody does it, but that somebody doesn’t have to be me.”

Then in 2008, Science Gallery opened in Dublin, and McLysaght’s perspective changed. “They asked me to do something, I did it and thought that was fun and then I kept doing it, everything stemmed from that.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication