Professor Astrid Wingler, School of BEES
Astrid Wingler, Professor of Plant Biology
College: Science, Engineering & Food Science
School: Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences (BEES)
Research Interests: Effects of environmental conditions on plant metabolism and development
IRIS profile: http://research.ucc.ie/profiles/D026/astridwingler
What first attracted you to your academic discipline?
I am a curious person and have always been interested in finding out more about how the world around us works. I was therefore drawn to studying science, in particular living organisms. From a young age, I was interested in biology, at first mainly in animals, but I was also inspired by a (female) biology teacher, who took us out in the field to look at plants. As a university student, I realised what complex organisms plants are (I was and still am mainly fascinated by the complexity of plant metabolism), and that they are much easier to study than animals as they stay where you put/found them. I also find it very comforting to grow plants for my work, and it's an even greater pleasure to observe them in their natural habitat.
How were you drawn to your current research interests?
I am particularly intrigued by how plants manage to survive despite being stuck in one place and being exposed to large changes in environmental conditions. The fact that we cannot easily see them "behave" made me even more curious to find out how plants perceive their environment and how they cope by adjusting metabolism, growth and development. To investigate this, we need to study the ecology, evolution, genetics, physiology and biochemistry of plants, so my research covers quite a lot of different aspects and there is something new to learn every day.
What professional achievements do you consider particularly rewarding?
Securing my first academic post was very rewarding, but looking back at my career so far, it's lots of smaller achievements combined that make being an academic enjoyable. This includes making a new scientific discovery, having an interesting idea, getting a paper published, securing funding, getting positive feedback from students, helping a young scientist or colleague develop their career, or even finishing an administrative task to a high standard. Being an academic is a very diverse job, so it's possible to achieve something, even if not everything is always going according to plan.
Have you had professional role models? What impact did they have on you?
I have met many very impressive scientists, and it's sometimes difficult not to be intimidated by other people's achievements. I generally find people inspirational who dare to address big scientific questions and have new, exciting ideas, but without being arrogant. I don't have an individual role model, but more of a pick'n'mix approach, as I think we all need to find our own individual way, not just in academia but also in life in general. Life is not all about career achievements, and even if I were the most sucessful scientist I could possibly be, that on its own wouldn't make me happy.
What aspects of your work do you find most rewarding?
I enjoy writing scientific papers; it's very rewarding to be able to integrate new findings with what was previously known to develop new ideas and theories on how plants function. I also enjoy the editorial roles I have for journals, in particular when I can help authors improve their articles before publication. But the most rewarding aspect of my job is when students, who struggled at some point, manage to complete their degree. Knowing that I may have helped them as best as I could to get through university is hugely satisfying.
Any details you wish to share about how being female has impacted upon your career (positively or negatively)?
For a long time, it did not occur to me at all that being a woman may have an impact on my career, and overall I feel that I have been treated fairly. However, I have become more aware of situations where, even if there is no open sexism, women are expected to behave in a certain way and do certain jobs (such as admin tasks) that men do not necessarily want to do because they do not further their career. Fortunately, at UCC administrative contributions are recognised to be important and considered in academic career progression, so the gender balance for admin roles is better than in other places.
Academic careers present specific challenges in achieving balance, whether between research, teaching and administration, or in work/life balance. What advice might you give a student/younger colleague/your 18-year old self?
I don't think there can be continued success in academia without hard work, but excessive work is no recipe for a sustainable career or a fulfilled life. I get some of my best ideas when I'm not working and just let my mind drift, e.g. while running or cycling. And sometimes, it's important to switch down completely, which is easier said than done. It's also vital not to get bogged down in little tasks and forget about the bigger picture. I sometimes ask myself what drives me as an academic and then try to set aside time to tackle bigger, more important, and often more satisfying tasks. The advice I would give my younger colleague (or my younger self) is not to be too shy and to ask for what you want. In academia, there isn't necessarily someone else who's looking after you, so you have to learn to be a bit pushy to get what you need.