Anson Mackay, PhD

he/him/his

You can find him on Twitter: @ansonmackay or Instagram: @ansonmackay

Education:

  • University of Edinburgh, BSc Biological Sciences (Botany) 1989
  • University of Manchester, PhD Environmental Science 1993

Current Job Title: Professor of Environmental Change

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

My first experience of undertaking original research was during my final year as a Botany student at Edinburgh University. I actually undertook two pieces of research which led to two dissertations. The first was in using pollen to reconstruct Holocene forest ecosystems in southern Scotland (from a raised mire outside of Edinburgh). This got me really interested in palaeoecology. My second project that year was more experimental, looking at the ecophysiology of bromeliads under water stress. I enjoyed both immensely. 

So when I came to look for PhD positions, I applied for projects that were either experimental, or palaeoecological. I got interviews for both. For the experimental project (looking at crops in Bangor) I came second, but I secured the palaeoecological project in Manchester, and so began my life as a palaeoecologist. 

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

People who have made distinct impressions on my career include:

Prof David Adger, my partner, who helped me hone down my scientific method and understanding while I was an undergraduate. He kept me on the track of always thinking about the big picture, and always asking the interesting questions.

Prof Rick Battarbee at UCL Geography – he was a pioneer in the use of diatoms to reconstruct environmental histories from lakes, and he saw something in me during a conference I was attending whilst doing my PhD, which eventually led me finding my way to work in his lab at UCL. 

Prof Melanie Leng has been inspirational in being a mentor and collaborator in my early days of understanding stable isotopes in diatom silica, which I have now become quite expert in!

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

Gosh, where do I start!! I actually took five years to get my BSc (although admittedly 4 years is the norm in Scotland). The reason being, I started off specialising in pharmacology and physiology, but really hated the subject. I decided to repeat my third year and change programmes to do botany, which I absolutely loved, and that really set me on my academic path.

After a couple of post-docs in London (working on Lake Baikal in Siberia), I decided to move into research management, looking after the finances and personnel of Rick Battarbee’s research group, the ECRC. But this was partly as I didn’t see myself as being a lecturer, as I always felt I wasn’t good enough to be an independent academic. Looking back, this was a classic case of imposter syndrome, and I’m relieved that David Adger once again had more confidence in me than myself, and made me apply for the lectureship that I eventually secured.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

As hinted above, I repeated my third year at university. In all honesty, I actually didn’t have any choice but to leave university after my first third year, but due to mitigating circumstances linked to my coming out as gay and mental health issues at the time, the university agreed that if I did well in Botany in my repeat third year, then they would consider me for an honours year, which thankfully all worked out!!

My very first paper from my post-doc on Lake Baikal was rejected from a small, unknown journal, in the main due to the negative finding of no pollution impact on diatoms could be demonstrated from my research. However, I managed to turn this into a positive to show that no pollution impact was incredibly important for Lake Baikal’s ecosystem, and this was eventually published in a massive 44 page article in The Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions B. The article itself was later featured in Nature. We also suggested in that paper that climate change may be affecting diatoms more, and of course this was occurring at the same time as the global impacts of recent climate was just being recognised, so all very exciting.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

I can give two examples here. First, as mentioned above, I’m gay, and I now try and raise the importance of being yourself with respect to your sexuality and gender identity in both science and in academia in general. I have given a few talks on being LGBTQ+ in STEMM, with my colleague Dr Helene Burningham we set up our departmental LGBTQ+ group called Out in Geography, and I now also hold the new position of Faculty Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at UCL.

Also, I run. A lot. I love running. So with my colleague Dr Alan Latham at UCL Geography, we started our own running group called UCLgeoggers. We run every Monday evening, and once a year raise funds for a different charity every spring with a sponsored 10k / half marathon.  And then in 2013, I managed to combine my love of running with my love of Lake Baikal, and I entered into the Baikal Ice Marathon a couple of days before a research expedition on the frozen lake. This was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life!!

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Always follow your interests, even if that may mean taking a step back, not taking the most direct route. And be true to yourself, and respect all others. 

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