Biologist awarded Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship
Press release issued: 8 November 2011
Dr Patricia Sanchez-Baracaldo, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Bristol, has been awarded a prestigious Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship by the Royal Society.
Six Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships were awarded this year, with a successful application rate of just 3.5 per cent. The scheme is for excellent scientists in the UK at an early stage of their career who require a flexible working pattern due to personal circumstances such as parenting or caring responsibilities.
Dr Sanchez-Baracaldo will hold this fellowship in the Schools of Biological Sciences and Geographical Sciences. She will study the role that microorganisms have played in regulating the global environment and past climatic events. The fellowship builds on her earlier research on the evolution of cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae). These bacteria were the first organisms on the planet to do oxygenic photosynthesis, thus releasing large amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere of the Earth in the ‘Great Oxygenation Event’, 2.3 billion years ago.
In collaboration with Professor Andy Ridgwell’s lab, Dr Sanchez-Baracaldo will use a computer model of the Earth system to measure whether cyanobacterial activity had any effects on atmospheric carbon dioxide and on the Earth’s climate during the ‘Great Oxygenation Event’. The modelling results will then be evaluated and compared against published geological evidence.
By bridging the fields of evolutionary biology and Earth system modelling, she will be able to test some of the most fundamental and important problems scientists face in understanding microbial evolution and the effect that evolutionary events have had on the changing climate and the chemistry of the Earth through time.
Dr Sanchez-Baracaldo said: “Climate change is one of the most pressing and relevant issues our society faces today. As an evolutionary biologist, I would like to help the climate change modelling community to represent biological systems in their models, thereby making better climate change predictions.
“Taking time off from science has changed my perspective on what sort of contribution I wish to make to the world’s current and urgent needs. I believe that a deeper knowledge of climate change science will help build a better future for the planet that my children and grandchildren will live on.
“This fellowship is ideally suited to my current family commitments. It will allow me to return to science after taking a career break to look after my young family, developing my own research ideas in a field I am passionate about.”
Dr Sanchez-Baracaldo gained a degree in Biology from the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia and a PhD in Plant phylogenetics and evolutionary biology from the University of California, Berkeley, USA before coming to the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences in 2001. Here, in parallel to her postdoctoral research work on molecular ecology, she pursued her own research ideas on the evolution of cyanobacteria which resulted in two substantial papers that significantly improved our understanding of microbial evolution. In October 2007, she advised the Ministry of Environment in Colombia on adaptation to climate change and wrote a document on adaptation to high elevation ecosystems – work that sparked her interest in the field of climate change. In June 2011, Dr Sanchez-Baracaldo was awarded a Daphne Jackson Fellowship.