Interview with Eileen Wall

The newly appointed head of research at Scotland’s Rural College talks of her Irish upbringing and explains how better understanding of agriculture and animal sciences is key to reducing the impact of climate change

May 30, 2019
eileen-wall

Eileen Wall is a professor of integrative livestock genetics at SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College). Her work focuses on the development of breeding tools to improve farming and reduce the impact of climate change, and she recently made headlines for her research into “low-emission cattle”. This year, Professor Wall was appointed the institution’s first head of research and in April she became president of the British Society of Animal Science.

Where and when were you born?
Dublin, in 1976. I moved from Ireland in 1998 to pursue my PhD at the University of Edinburgh.

How has this shaped who you are?
One of the most important aspects of my education in Ireland was the diversity of the learning experience, both in the classroom and outside. Extracurricular activities were encouraged and time spent moving between school, hockey matches, singing performances and local community and cross-border youth groups really helped with multitasking and broadening my experiences and circles outside the classroom.

What do you hope to achieve in your new roles at SRUC and BSAS?
Taking on both in close succession is slightly scary and not at all planned, so I’m grateful for the support of both organisations. At SRUC we are developing a research agenda that informs and drives our rural enterprises. This will have interdisciplinary science at its core, delivering tools that will bring about a step change in our rural economies and communities at home and abroad. BSAS has always championed interdisciplinary science, both in academic and industrial settings, so our aim as a society is to reinvigorate that cooperation between industry and academia to inform how animal sciences are critical to addressing the challenges livestock production faces.

Tell us about your work on ‘climate-friendly cows’.
Methane, a greenhouse gas, is one of the by-products of digestive processes in cattle. What is less well known is that about 90-95 per cent of methane gas escapes from the front, not the back end, of the cow! Selective breeding has already led to cumulative reductions in the carbon footprint of livestock products by 1 per cent each year, and more recently we’ve been exploring new ways of incorporating methane emissions into breeding programmes by using information on the genetics of the cow and the genetics of the bugs in the cow’s digestive track that produce the methane. We estimate that that combination of genetic tools could reduce the intensity of methane emissions in livestock production by 30-50 per cent over a decade. 

What do you make of the recent Extinction Rebellion climate change protests?
The one thing the various climate protests have shown is that our younger generation are demanding that we take action on the biggest threat our planet faces. We have many tools in our hands already, and more in the research and development pipeline. We now need international governments and individuals to use them.

What would you say to someone starting out in your line of research now?
At its heart, agricultural science is underpinned by interdisciplinary thinking so I would encourage someone starting out to be curious as to how other disciplines can enhance and improve on your research topic.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
Some people assume that genetic improvement of livestock is about working to alter the DNA in a lab and akin to genetic modification. This is not what I do at all. I use statistical models to help identify the animals with the best and worst genetics for a given set of traits in a population. This leads to farmers being able to make decisions about which animals to breed from and keep to be the parents of the next generation, leading to genetic change within their farm and hopefully across the wider population.

Tell us about someone you admire.
Bill Hill of the University of Edinburgh has developed some of the key theoretical components in the field and at the same time worked with industry to convert that theory into usable genetic improvement tools. More recently I’ve had the pleasure of working with women including Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the world-leading astrophysicist and first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who probably aren’t aware of their influence on me.

What do you do for fun?
I’ve got two wonderful dogs, Polly and Morph, and they help me clear my head at the end of the day with an evening walk. I also love to cook and have a set of friends who share that interest. And you won’t find me anywhere near the office during the first few days of the Edinburgh festival.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
I fear I may have ended up in politics. I was very involved with politics in Ireland before I moved to the UK and at that time was being exposed to cross-border cooperation that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement. That showed me that politicians can bring real change and I wanted to be part of that and make a difference. 

What saddens you?
On a personal level, homelessness in a country like ours really upsets me. From a professional point of view, the leaky pipeline where so many women are lost from the academic and industry STEM career pathways from graduation is simply not good enough.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
The more you put in, the more you get out. I believe that, where possible, you need to give something back to the wider academic community, as well as focusing on your personal research aspirations. It’s not simply about paying your dues – it’s really helped develop my skills and broaden my knowledge.

What would you like to be remembered for?
For having contributed to the delivery of sustainable genetic improvement tools for our livestock industries that have had a demonstrable impact on the economic and environmental efficiency of agriculture.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Deep Saini has been appointed Dalhousie University’s next vice-chancellor. Dr Saini, who will begin his five-year term at the Nova Scotia institution in January 2020, is currently vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra. Previously he has served as vice-president of the University of Toronto, and dean of the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. Dr Saini said that he would be “honoured and humbled” to lead Dalhousie. “The university’s singular commitment to its anchor role in the region’s economic and social development is fittingly matched to its lofty national and global aspirations – a balance that I have espoused throughout my career and will form the cornerstone of my leadership at Dal,” Professor Saini said.

Graham Baldwin is returning to the University of Central Lancashire as vice-chancellor. Professor Baldwin has spent the past five years as vice-chancellor of Solent University in Southampton, but spent 13 years at Uclan before that, rising to serve as deputy vice-chancellor (academic). Professor Baldwin, who will start his new role this autumn, said that Uclan had “real strengths as well as great opportunities to exploit further development and success”. “My values and beliefs closely align with the vision and mission of Uclan, particularly to ensure the highest quality of student experience with a focus on overall student achievement,” he said.

Sue Harrison has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation at the University of Cape Town. She is currently a professor in the institution’s department of chemical engineering.

Iwan Davies will join Bangor University as vice-chancellor in September. The law academic is currently the senior pro vice-chancellor at Swansea University.

The European Commission has appointed Mauro Ferrari the next president of the European Research Council, taking up the role in January 2020. He was previously president of the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

Donna Whitehead is joining London Metropolitan University as deputy vice-chancellor. She is currently pro vice-chancellor and executive dean of the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of the West of England.

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