Dr Sinead Collins is a Royal Society University Research Fellow working on experimental evolution at the University of Edinburgh. She currently serves on the Editorial Board of Biology Letters, and here she talks to us about her research.
Tell us a bit about your research.
I’m interested in how large populations of small organisms adapt to complex environmental change. In less abstract terms, I study how marine and freshwater phytoplankton adapt to complex environmental changes such as ocean (or lake) acidification or changes in nutrients (like fertilizer). I use experimental evolution in the lab and field to figure out the basic theory involved, and then head off to collaborate with oceanographers to apply it to marine systems. In my more extreme mad science moments, I make plans for building predictive global ocean models of how primary production in the ocean will evolve. That will take some time, but I still have a few decades of research in me…
What prompted you to work in this field?
I was kidnapped by oceanographers shortly after starting my first research fellowship, and slowly realized that there was this field of “marine microbial experimental evolution” just waiting to happen. I honestly have no idea what prompted me to do it. I saw the possibility and couldn’t resist. I mean, it’s interesting, it’s fun, and I love it. Surely that’s reason enough?
What has been the biggest influence on your career?
Just after I finished my PhD, several established researchers who work on global change biology in the oceans basically pulled me up by my socks, put me in front of big audiences at big conferences, and introduced me around. I was given a Petersen prize to spend time at what was then GEOMAR in Kiel, Germany. The encouragement, crash courses in the basics of marine microbiology, and introductions to new colleagues were invaluable, and the collaborations that have grown out of that are now a favourite part of my work. Marine biology and experimental evolution have historically been fairly distant fields, so building up my research programme has happened with a lot of help from a lot of people. I’ve also been lucky enough to set up a lab with a very good friend, who is now my research assistant. Without her, it would have been a bit rough, I think. If I could think of one thing that would make experimental science better and more efficient, it would be to make research assistant positions permanent.
What are the big challenges still remaining in your field?
I would say that right now, we need a way to link what we can measure easily (variation in DNA sequence) to phenotypic variation, and, more ambitiously, changes in fitness. We’re getting pretty good at explaining evolution once it’s happened, but we’re still at the very beginning of being able to use the characters of contemporary populations to predict if and how they’ll evolve to whatever environmental change we’re interested in.
Why did you join the Biology Letters Editorial Board?
Biology Letters is a great place to read about new ideas, some of which are kind of off the wall, which I love.
What do you do in your spare time?
I make chocolate. While science research is abstract and often feels like a giant pit of failed experiments, failed grants, and papers that need to be rewritten again, at the end of a few hours of making chocolate, I always have chocolate. And if something goes wrong, it gets made into cake. How often in life is the worst-case scenario chocolate cake? I also write incredibly bad novels, read any fiction I can lay hands on, and cycle.