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UA Alumni: Bridget Murphy

Bridget was the Global Winner in the Earth & Environmental Sciences category in 2017. She is a plant physiologist who has been studying the response of Canadian conifer tree species to climate change since her undergraduate degree.

What are you doing now?

Despite COVID-19, I was able to start my PhD project in the Ensminger lab at the University of Toronto (Mississauga campus) this past May.

My current project is focusing on the physiological and molecular regulation of cold acclimation and deacclimation of different white spruce (Picea glauca) families under warming. To give a little background, evergreen trees stay green all year, but during the winter, they downregulate photosynthesis and functionally become dormant.

With climate change, it’s important to understand how these transitions from fall to winter and winter to spring will be affected by warming in different species and also different genotypes within a species. If conifers are able to delay their fall transition into dormancy (i.e. cold acclimation), they might be able to extend their growing season which would be beneficial. On the other hand, if conifers transition out of dormancy (i.e. cold deacclimation) too soon in the spring, they’re at risk of frost damage if a late cold snap occurs. The future functioning of the boreal forest as a carbon sink will rely on the phenological responses of individual species and genotypes to warming.

What has happened since the award?

I’ve had several major academic and life milestones since winning the global award from UA. I defended my master’s thesis over zoom, published my first paper, and started my PhD project in a new city (and a new lab) this summer. I also got married and gave birth to my son Jamie in the midst of my master’s. He was my sidekick in utero during the entirety of my second experiment – I wrapped up the final measurements one week before my due date!

Being a mom in STEM isn’t always easy, but it’s definitely fulfilling. As a mother as well as a scientist, I worry about the world we’re leaving for my son and future generations. By studying the effects of climate change on the boreal forest of Canada, I feel that I’m helping in a small way.

Has receiving an award for your hard work helped?

Receiving a global award so early in my academic career definitely helped build my confidence and temper my feelings of imposter syndrome. Research is a lot of long, hard hours and lots of trial-and-error so to be recognized for that work was flattering to say the least. I also think that having an award from my undergraduate degree helped me to win further awards and scholarships in graduate school.

How was your experience as an undergraduate student?

As a white woman from a middle-class family, I recognize my privilege and I understand that I likely had an easier time in my undergraduate degree than people of colour or low-income students.

However, it is worth mentioning that being a woman in STEM can be challenging. Most of my professors were male and the first time that I was truly inspired to do research was when I took a class with Dr. Danielle Way who ultimately ended up becoming my thesis supervisor (for my undergraduate degree and my master’s degree). Having a female role model in STEM changed my life. Without Danielle, I don’t know that I would be doing a PhD at all. She showed me through example that women can be fantastic scientists and that our voices deserve to be heard.

Why should students submit their work to the UA Programme?

Being recognized for hard work that sometimes feels unnoticed is an amazing feeling. I applied on a whim and a dream that I could visit Dublin and see my family there. I had no idea how incredible the UA Global Summit would be. I got to meet and connect with so many smart and charismatic people my age from across the world.

I’ll never forget the conversations we had and the friends that I made. I’m still in touch with some of the people I met there. Follow your whims, believe in your work, and you might get to have the experience of a lifetime too.

If you wish to get in contact with Bridget, you can find her on Twitter as @BotanistBridget.

Bridget Murphy Ua Alumni Portrait

"As a mother as well as a scientist, I worry about the world we’re leaving for my son and future generations."