Women in Science: Alison Peel

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

Dr. Peel initially trained as a wildlife veterinarian at the University of Sydney (BVSc; BSc(Vet)), then the Royal Veterinary College and Institute of Zoology, London (MSc Wild Animal Health). Her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge was on the population genetics and epidemiology of zoonotic viruses in African fruit bats. She is now an Australian Research Council DECRA Research Fellow at the Centre for Planetary Health and Food Security at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

What do you do in the field of science?

I am a wildlife disease ecologist with a specific focus on bat viruses, which means that I try to understand what factors drive the dynamics of virus transmission among bat populations and also from bats to other animals. For example, our team’s research considers a broad spectrum of drivers, like changes in bat ecology and behavior which are often driven by external factors, like climate or habitat and land use. I am particularly interested in the role that humans play in altering viral dynamics in wildlife hosts, and how this can ultimately lead to spillover of viruses into other animal species and humans.

What made you interested in going into that field?

I started my research career at a time when there was an increasing focus on emerging bat viruses, and I was fascinated by some of the new and emerging viruses being described. I was fortunate enough to receive an offer to study bat viruses in Africa, and it seemed like a dream opportunity to combine this new exciting field with a childhood dream of traveling to Africa. Ultimately, through my research, I have become absolutely fascinated by the bats themselves, and their amazing ecology. I have always loved any kind of problem-solving, and there is so much more left to learn about bat ecology, how they interact with their environment, how they track resources across continental distributions and communicate with each other. It is a humbling experience to delve into the ecology of a species so different from our own and to recognize all its complexity and beauty.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?

I have had plenty of challenges to overcome in the field when equipment fails in a remote area or things just don’t go to plan. But absolutely the biggest obstacle to overcome is maintaining belief in yourself and the ability to get back up on your feet again after any setback. In research and in academia, repeated failure is central to everyone’s experience – whether it is a failed experiment, a failed grant application, a rejected manuscript submitted to a journal, or a collaboration that just didn’t pan out as you hoped. The challenge is to learn something from each of these experiences, get back up and try again. It really helps to build a network of people around you to help with this so you can share in each other’s failures and successes.

Who are your role models?

My role models are other researchers or supporting staff that conduct themselves with integrity and kindness, and support others to achieve their best. Oh, and amazing young scientists and climate activists fearlessly and ferociously speaking out for climate action.

Do you have advice for young women interested in pursuing a similar career?

From my experience, science is so much more fun when you are working with a great team – where curiosity thrives, ideas are supported, and everyone’s voice is valued. Especially as you are beginning in a research degree, I think this is so much more important than the topic itself, so seek out mentors and supervisors that foster an environment like this and that inspire you by the example that they set themselves. Speak to current and past students of any potential speak supervisor and find out what kind of experience they have had. This career can be hard, but so rewarding, so be ready to accept failures and keep trying.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of working in your field?

I love collaborating and jointly trying to problem solve a particular research question. Sometimes observations or data produce an unintuitive result or give a hint that there must be a process underlying them, but that process isn’t immediately clear. Is a real joy to try and nut out these problems with other researchers, pushing back and forward with each other as we propose hypotheses and ways that these hypotheses might be testable. At its best, this process generates a level of creativity that is hard to achieve in isolation and mutual respect between team members that heightens the joy of eventually solving the problems!

How do you see your field changing in the next ten years?

I think our research is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Our challenge is to identify those problems that are most important to solve for both environmental and human health on this planet and collaborate with researchers across broad disciplines to find solutions. There is a renewed urgency to identify potential solutions, but that’s just the beginning! Humans are complex beings, and ensuring solutions are acceptable and achievable in the current climate of science denialism is a formidable challenge!