Space invaders: Investigating the species taking over the world

14 Dec 2022

Prof Frances Lucy. Image: James Connolly

Prof Frances Lucy has spent her career researching how invasive species impact the environment. Now, she has moved into the policy space so others can understand too.

In October, Prof Frances Lucy received an honorary doctorate from Mid Sweden University for her outstanding achievements in science.

Head of the department of environmental science at Atlantic Technological University (ATU) Sligo, Lucy is an internationally recognised researcher in the field of invasive species.

An invasive species is a non-native organism, such as an insect or a plant, that begins to spread or expand from the site of its original introduction and can cause harm to the environment.

Examples of invasive species in Ireland include the noble false widow spider, which has venom that is 230 times more potent than other European species, and Japanese knotweed, which can reach as tall as three metres and cut off light from other plants.

“Invasion science is quite new in aquatic systems in Ireland. We really only noticed it becoming a problem in the very late 20th century,” Lucy told

“What led me into it was really the invasion of the zebra mussel into the Shannon River system. I became very interested to see how would a new organism that could filter a litre of water a day each when they’re only the size of your fingernail – and there are billions of them – how does that impact on the natural habitat and on the other species.”

Lucy then got a small-scale grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to look at the zebra mussel population of Lough Key in Co Roscommon to see how it impacted the native swan and duck mussels.

“We saw an extraordinary explosion in the population over a period of two or three years,” she said. “The reeds were covered and they looked like corn on the cob. There was up to 5kg per metre squared.”

From there, Lucy started building national and international connections and headed to the International Conference for Aquatic Invasive Species. She then played a role in bringing that conference to Ireland in 2003, by which stage other species such as the African curly pondweed were starting to show up in lakes.

‘Environmental science, to me, is the world around us and everybody is invested in it’

What was perhaps most interesting from speaking to Lucy about how it all started was that her interest in the zebra mussel was sparked from reading a tiny article in a newsletter that she said was probably no bigger than a shop receipt.

“I went, ‘Gosh, that’s really interesting, I think I definitely want to study that.’ So that was how it all started, just a kind of a hunch and then you pounce on something and it becomes big,” she said.

“Over the years then I’ve had quite a few PhD students working on Asian clam, on zebra mussel, on controlling the Nuttall’s pondweed and Lough Arrow. It’s very gratifying to bring in younger people and have them involved.

“You’re just a player for a short period of time starting off. You do something because it interests you, and then it interests other people and that’s what it’s all about, really.”

Pushing research into policy

Outside of her research, Lucy is also a member of the advisory committee of the EPA and chair of Inland Fisheries Ireland.

“I’m at the stage of my career now where unfortunately I’m doing less standing in the water or in boats, which is what I really like to do. I’m more in the space of actually trying to push the research into the policy space.”

Lucy, along with a few others, recently finished a European project on communication and understanding of invasive species in collaboration with the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

“We involved many stakeholders all across Europe, public sector [and] industry, looking at the pathways of spread so that they could understand and communicate trying to prevent the spread of invasive species in Europe,” she said.

“We were working with the pet trade, we were working with recreational anglers, we were working with people who are involved in soil and soil transport because that’s a really important medium for spread invasive species. Aquatic ornamentals, so people who are selling and have ponds in their gardens, where they’re introducing different plants.

“The final pathway of spread that we were looking at was in the forest. So, forestry is a big one, because people go hiking and they go in in their big boots and they may bring seeds.”

In her role with the Irish EPA, Lucy works with a small group of people who look at the work that the environmental agency is doing and its strategic plan, and feed into that.

What environmental science really is

Lucy said one of the common misunderstandings around the work of environmental scientists is how it differs from being an environmentalist.

“Obviously, everybody has the right to get involved in advocacy and there are many excellent people working in the advocacy space, but that’s not the space that I work in as an environmental scientist,” she explained.

While environmentalism can include anyone who cares about the environment and demands change for the better, environmental scientists specifically study the environment using scientific methods.

But aside from conflating those two terms, Lucy said the term environmental science can still seem daunting to young people and even discourage them from studying it until they better understand what it is.

She said this becomes apparent at events like science open days at the university. “I think they feel a sense of relief and become very enthusiastic when they see the environmental science set up and they say, ‘Oh my god, this is microbiology. I know about this.’

“At a very basic level, I suppose, people still think of chemistry sets and they think it’s something very nerdy that they could never do. So, we’re very keen to say to people, if you’re doing geography at school, that is fantastic because that’s a science really, and biology, that’s about the environment,” she said.

“Environmental science, to me, is the world around us and everybody is invested in it.”

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic