Dr. Heather J. Lynch, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University, has been named a Laureate for the 2019 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists in the Life Sciences category.
In June, the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences announced the 2019 Blavatnik National Awards Laureates in three disciplines—Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering and Chemistry.
The award includes a US$250,000 unrestricted prize for Lynch’s synthesis of cutting-edge mathematical models, satellite remote sensing plus field biology to understand the spatial and temporal patterns of penguin colonies in Antarctica. With the growing threat of climate change, her research provides insights into the population growth, collapse and possible extinction of various species of penguins and other species on the verge of extinction.
We spoke with her at the annual Blavatnik Science Symposium in New York City in July.
How has being named a Laureate for the Awards personally impacted you so far?
It’s all still quite new, and it’s been really exciting to read everyone’s congratulatory messages. I’ve been really surprised by how many people have heard about the Award and I think that’s a credit to all the outreach that the Blavatnik Family Foundation has done.
And, it’s been nice that people that I know in other contexts—like parents of my daughter’s friends or people in our community—know a little bit more about what it is I actually do every day. They might know that I’m a scientist, and they may know that I study penguins, but beyond that not much more. So, the Award and some of the coverage of the Award has given them a little more information about the kind of research my lab does, which has been nice.
Funding for scientific research is notoriously difficult to get. Why are unrestricted prizes like the Blavatnik Award so valuable in the field of academic research?
Some of the hardest things to fund in my area are the miscellaneous expenses, like some of the travel and some of the sample costs, and the ability to kickstart projects that don’t have a grant or funding but are cutting-edge research work. Unrestricted funding can facilitate project needs that fall between the cracks of other projects but are really important to either the field work that we’re doing, or to move student projects forward, or allow students to travel to conferences that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. With unrestricted funding you don’t need approval or justification to spend the money a certain way. The money is available to spend as the laureate choses.
As you know, this is the first year all three Blavatnik National Awards Laureates are women. Does that fact hold any significance for you?
I think it’s great! While biology has made great strides in diversifying, on the computing side—which is the other half of where I live—it’s still extremely male-dominated and I think it’s nice to see women and their research being recognized.
There are many areas where we’re not even close to parity, so this is a nice opportunity to showcase great science and assert the fact that we need to broaden our definition of what we think of when we think of a scientist.
As a Blavatnik Award honoree you were invited to participate in this invite-only Blavatnik Symposium with some leading scientists across all fields. What are you taking away from this experience?
This kind of an event is all too rare because as a scientist, you go to conferences where you talk to other people who do exactly what you do, and the conferences themselves get more and more specialized.
It’s a real treat to go to an event where you can listen to a talk about quantum computers or chemical biology that ordinarily you’d have no exposure to at all, because I feel like as your career progresses it becomes more and more myopically focused on your own specialty.
And, more often than not, you’re organizing events—which are almost by definition only focused on your own research. So, this is a chance to kind of step back and look at all the different STEM fields and see where people are struggling with common challenges and where there’s common opportunities.
Is it helpful to see how other scientists present complex research into digestible information?
Absolutely, I’ve learned so much both here and last week when I was at National Geographic’s Explorer Festival. Events like these, where you’re exposed to other researchers that are really at the top of their game, are just fantastic. Learning new things—even things like how to structure a narrative, what fonts did they use, how did they tell the story about what they do and the use of animation—has been terrific.
I’m sure there are a lot of other rising scientists who one day would hope to become a Laureate for this Award. Do you have any topline advice to pass down?
I think success in science is a careful balance of being stubborn and being humble. You have to be stubborn enough to keep going, even when everyone tells you that you’re wrong or that what you’re doing is not interesting. At the same time, have a learner’s mindset; you can take constructive criticism and you can pick up new ideas and realize that maybe you don’t always know what the right answer is.
It’s difficult to balance the stubbornness and the humbleness and the openness to new ideas; I often find students that get it wrong and are too heavily weighted towards one way or the other. But eventually you do find that balance and you know when to fight the good fight, and you know when to start all over again.
In the face of climate change, what legacy do you hope to leave behind once your career is completed many years from now?
Penguin science has advanced largely on the basis of a small number of individuals who have been obsessed, as I am, with surveying penguin colonies. It’s a tradition going back to the early 1970s.
As a penguin scientist, I'm so grateful for the care and attention to detail from those old expedition reports, and I really hope that future researchers will look back and appreciate the care I've put into documenting the distribution and abundance of Antarctic penguins.