Lynsey Harper joined the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) in June as a postdoctoral research associate. She received her bachelor of science at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, where she worked on endangered amphibian and reptile research and conservation in Tobago, and published on the benefits of expedition fieldwork for students and for science. She also earned her master's degree at the University of Glasgow where she assessed the post-translocation status of a threatened great crested newt population as well as habitat and survey criteria for this species in Scotland.
Lynsey moved to England to do her PhD at the University of Hull on biodiversity monitoring of freshwater ponds using environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis. She stayed on at the University of Hull as a postdoctoral research associate and worked on the development of an eDNA-based lake fish classification system under the EU Water Framework Directive.
At INHS, Lynsey will be working on a suite of eDNA projects, including single-species eDNA survey, dietary DNA metabarcoding, and eDNA metabarcoding with INHS researcher Mark Davis.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I’ve always been fascinated by nature. As a child, I was all about the charismatic megafauna and obsessed with lions, tigers and dolphins. Documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs, Planet Earth, Blue Planet and The Life of Mammals captured my attention. I’m lucky to have amazing parents that tried to foster this curiosity and supported me in my decision to study ecology. Without them, I wouldn’t have completed my degrees or been able to go to Tobago and experience tropical conservation and research. My Dad was my most dedicated fieldwork volunteer despite his hatred of “jaggies” (brambles, nettles).
Who or what drew you to study eDNA?
While I was doing my University of Glasgow MSc research on great crested newts in 2014, eDNA analysis was an extremely novel tool with only a handful of papers published on it. My supervisor and I decided to trial eDNA analysis for a translocated population of great crested newts in Scotland, which naturally led onto my PhD on pond biodiversity monitoring using eDNA analysis at the University of Hull.
What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at INHS?
I’m looking forward to pushing some of the boundaries in eDNA research. The projects I’m working on will tackle biodiversity assessment using DNA/eDNA metabarcoding or unanswered questions about eDNA as a molecule. I’m excited to apply the skills I’ve cultivated over the last 10 years to these projects and ultimately inform the applications of eDNA analysis for species conservation and management.
What are common misconceptions about your career?
People generally think that eDNA researchers believe eDNA analysis can replace all other monitoring tools. This couldn’t be further from the truth. eDNA analysis is complementary, not a replacement. It can’t tell us about sex, age, size class, and recruitment of individuals in a population, for which we need live capture. However, eDNA analysis can provide information on species distribution and, in some cases, relative abundance/biomass when conventional tools can’t. eDNA analysis is non-invasive, can be deployed in all seasons, and captures species presence independent of sex, life stage or size class. Furthermore, eDNA metabarcoding (i.e. community eDNA survey) generally provides a better snapshot of all species present in an ecosystem than conventional tools.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
I don’t think I’ve faced any challenges that aren’t experienced by most ecologists. Lack of funding was always a concern during my PhD and influenced what I was able to do. There’s always pressure to publish and this can affect your work-life balance if you have several papers on the go at once. You always compare yourself to other people, even though you know you shouldn’t, and sometimes it feels like you’re never doing enough. This line of work can be mentally exhausting and emotionally draining.
What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
Science is a constant learning curve as what we know is always changing. Science isn’t glamorous, particularly if you’re an ecologist, and a lot of your time will be spent on sampling, lab work, data analysis, and writing. Your science is unlikely to change the world but will hopefully contribute to cumulative research in your field that will.
What advice would you give to future scientists?
Volunteer with different organizations/labs to gain a wide set of skills that make you more employable—be a chameleon! However, it’s also good to specialize on something, whether a species, ecosystem, particular branch of ecology, that you’re passionate about as this will naturally shine through when you’re networking or being interviewed for a job. Imposter syndrome is real but all you can do is your personal best so try not to compare yourself to other people.