Profile with Geraldine Wright

Geraldine Wright (Wyoming & Hertford 1994) is a Reader in Neuroethology at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University. She uses the honeybee as a model to understand how the neural circuits involved in learning, memory, and decision-making function.  She first combined her interest in plants and insects by studying insect nutrition and Zoology at Oxford University. She holds a BSc in Botany from the University of Wyoming and a Master’s in Statistics from Ohio State University.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Geraldine Wright: I’m originally from Wyoming and my family is mostly still there but my mother recently moved to Arizona, so that’s where I go for Christmas. My current residence is in the UK, I work in Newcastle.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little bit about your current research?

Geraldine Wright: My research is on learning, memory and honeybees. I’m interested in using the honeybee as a model for understanding how the brain learns and remembers information about food. But I’m also interested in the basic biology of the honeybee and I currently have funding to study bee nutrition and how pesticides influence bee behavior.

Rhodes Project: Tell me about a memorable moment in your research career.

Geraldine Wright: Finding out that my paper on the influence of caffeine in nectar is going to be published in the journal Science. I actually found that out on my birthday!

Rhodes Project: How did your experience at Oxford inform or change your professional aspirations?

Geraldine Wright: I left Wyoming with an undergraduate degree in Botany and when I came to Oxford I started in the department of Zoology. So, I was really switching fields and it was a steep learning curve. From then on I continued to work with insects, which is what I did in my PhD. After leaving Oxford, I initially didn’t continue with my post-doctoral studies of nutrition, I started looking at honeybee behavior, but now I have my own lab I have returned to it. I have a very broad background. I’ve worked in botany, chemical ecology, neuroscience and behavior. My current research is an odd combination of all of those things. It hasn’t been a linear path; my time at Oxford really altered the direction of my science and the people I worked with there were excellent scientists, and they continue to support me now.

Rhodes Project: What is the most misleading public conception held about career scientists?

Geraldine Wright: People tend to have this idea that scientists are a little out of touch with the real world. That the work they are doing in the lab doesn’t apply to anything in the real world. Particularly, I’ve had to face this point of view from industry; they play upon this misunderstanding of science. For example, on the pesticide issue, we found that pesticides do influence bee behavior; they have a negative impact after long-term exposure. That is not what the pesticide industry wants to hear. It has been very contentious and one of the ways in which they contest what we have found is to say that these lab results don’t apply in the field and are therefore irrelevant. I think they are using this impression that scientists operate from an ivory tower to back up their arguments. Nevertheless, what we do certainly, hopefully, does have implications for the real world. That’s true even for people doing work that is very abstract, their work can and is fruitfully used by people coming up with applications for science.

The type of science I am really interested in is finding out how the brain works, using the bee as a model system for reaching that understanding. One of the projects that I am most keen on and I think will guide my work for at least the next ten years is using the bee as a model for learning about how drugs of abuse affect reward circuits in the brain. Addiction is a huge problem that faces society and understanding its neural basis is a challenging thing. I am extremely interested in showing that bees can be addicts with the small brains and basic neural circuits that they have. What I am trying to do is work out what are the most basic units of addiction and if these basic things are also true of our brains, even though we have other, more sophisticated mental structures that certainly have a role in addiction.

Rhodes Project:  How does being a woman affect your approach to science?

Geraldine Wright: I use information from a lot of different fields and I’m not hesitant to try and collaborate and cooperate with other people. I’ve read that women have a tendency to be more cooperative when they go about anything, that it’s an important aspect of how they operate. I can see that in my own work. If I can’t do something that I’m interested in testing, then I find someone who can help and we work together. Then I give them credit and they are just as much involved in the project as I was. (Sometimes I think I give too much credit to people!)

Rhodes Project: Are you a mentor to any young scientists?  

Geraldine Wright: I certainly try to be, especially for young women.  Now that I have my own lab I try to recruit undergraduates to help me in my research. Some of the papers I’ve published have them as co-author and I try to get funding for them too, though undergraduate schemes like the Nuffield and the Welcome Trust. A lot of these people end up as my PhD students or they go onto study in my friend’s labs.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Geraldine Wright: I would use that money to address equality and safety for women in the world. Maybe education or health initiatives, getting women access to contraception. I am very interested in the issues faced by women in the third world. When I got involved in science I thought that I would study agriculture so I could go and solve the world’s food problems – well, I’m clearly not doing that. I’m involved in food security loosely through my pollination work. I have become acutely aware that so many places are held back by the fact that women don’t have access to education, freedom from abuse or even freedom over their own reproduction.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?

Geraldine Wright: Exercise of any kind. I really just like being outside, in the mountains.

Rhodes Project: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years time?

Geraldine Wright: I’m aiming to move back to a university in the States but haven’t yet found the right fit. I want to continue to research and build on what I’m establishing now. I really feel like things are starting to get interesting.

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