Women in EU-LIFE: Mary O’Connell, Research Group Leader Senior at CEITEC

Mary O’Connell, Research Group Leader Senior, Project Coordinator Manager at CEITEC


Could you tell us a bit about your research?

We work on ADARs the RNA editing enzymes. I was fortunate to be a postdoctoral fellow with Prof. Walter Keller in Basel who suggested this project to me. So, I purified and cloned both ADAR1 and ADAR2 when I was in his group. When I became independent, he generously told me to take this project with me to my new lab. For many years not many researchers or funding agencies, were interested in our research but as more recently ADAR1 has been found to be critical for innate immunity and also to be involved in many diseases including cancer, our research has received a lot more attention.  


Could you take us back to the beginning of your scientific career? What got you interested in your field?

I was a PhD student in New York and some of the first patients with HIV were admitted to the hospital attached to our university. Unfortunately, some friend died from HIV so I became interest in research on RNA.


What would you have liked to be if you were not a researcher? Is that field related in any way to your current work?

Maybe a medical doctor but I do not think I would be suited to it. This is related to our current work as we investigate how ADAR1 can be protective against infections.


In 2017 you were the first woman working in the Czech Republic to be elected a member of EMBO. How does it feel to be recognized in such a prestigious manner?

I felt very humble. I realized that I was just lucky to be elected and that there were many other women researchers in the Czech Republic who deserved the honour more than I did. I’m glad to say that currently there are 4 women who are EMBO members from the Czech Republic.


Do you think women studying and working in STEM face specific challenges?

I think the challenge they have is that there are fewer women working in STEM so they have less collegial support.  


There have been a lot of initiatives in the last decades to improve conditions for women in STEM. Where do you think we stand? Can you elaborate?

Well, it is obvious that these initiatives are not succeeding. To start with equal pay for equal work, even if you do not have a family money is important.

On average women earn approximately 15% less than men across the EU and this also applies to women in STEM. Women lose loyalty to an institute when they see that they are unfairly treated and are more likely to leave.

Also, women have babies, men do not. When will this fact be recognized? If you employ a woman in the age of 20-40 she will likely have children, expect it rather than treat it as an exception.

Men somehow perceive that mothers will not be productive as other workers. This is not true, if someone worked hard before they were pregnant, they will work even harder once they have children. 


What message would you give to other women who are interested in pursuing a career in STEM?

My advice is to be kind and supportive to others, the biblical saying “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’ is something good to live by and will reap you many rewards.

I also suggest that women be realistic, it takes luck and a lot of hard work to be successful in STEM or any profession. You should look at women around you that are successful, do you want to work as hard as them? You will need to, to succeed.