Tom Keaney: Humans of BioSciences

Meet Tom Keaney, a graduate researcher whose PhD is focused on how evolutionary forces like sexual selection affect the fitness and persistence of animal populations. Tom has always been enthralled by the natural world, ecology and the animal kingdom, but wasn’t motivated to pursue science until he discovered a fascination for evolutionary biology. Tom’s path to postgraduate studies was challenging, especially during his undergraduate years, however his experiences taught him that it is okay to struggle, and that “immediate good grades aren’t essential for postgraduate success”.

Tom in the field with a bird
Who are you and what problem are you trying to solve with your research?

I am in the first year of my PhD working with Dr Luke Holman and Associate Professor Theresa Jones on my thesis, Sex as a prophylactic against extinction. I work mostly in the lab (although I’d like to get out into the field at some point), using insect species as models to investigate how evolutionary forces like sexual selection affect the fitness and persistence of animal populations. I hope to help answer some longstanding questions in evolutionary biology, such as why sex evolved and how it’s become so prevalent, and how adaptation might be able to protect species from extinction.

What got you into science in the first place?

I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world, and especially the animal kingdom. I didn’t love science in high school, but when I found out I could major in Zoology at university, I jumped at the opportunity. I really enjoyed the ecological subjects I took, but what truly motivated me to pursue science was when I read about evolutionary biology. I vividly remember reading a chapter written by Robert Trivers in the book Life: The Leading Edge of Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Anthropology and Environmental Science. From that point, I was completely hooked.

What do you enjoy doing outside of science?

Outside of my PhD, I really enjoy the challenge of endurance exercise. Whether it’s running, bush walking or cycling, it’s a great way to blow off steam and explore the world. There’s always another hill to climb or landscape to experience.

Tom on Mount Kosciuszko

Do you have any advice for undergraduate students?

The most important thing I can say about undergrad is that it is okay to struggle. Immediate good grades aren’t essential for postgraduate success. I still remember sitting my first-year biology exam; a substantial section was dedicated to the genetics of Drosophila fruit flies, and I skipped the whole section because I couldn’t comprehend it! I’ve since completed a Master’s degree centred around experiments using these same fruit flies.

The second piece of advice I can give is to interact with your lecturers and tutors, especially in second and third year when classes tend to get smaller. Interested in the topic an academic is teaching? Send them an email or chat to them after a lecture about their current research projects. Building these relationships now isn’t essential, but it will help you decide whether you’d like to work with that academic if you choose to pursue postgrad study.

For example, I first started working with Luke and Theresa during my Master's, but it was during undergrad that I became aware of Theresa’s research. I really enjoyed the subjects that she coordinated, especially the third year Animal behaviour courses. At the time, I knew I wanted to pursue postgraduate study, but I was having trouble finding a research project I was passionate about. I approached Theresa for advice, and she suggested that I work with her and Luke during my Master's as their research interests aligned closely with my own. My Master's degree went well, and it was a natural decision to continue working with them on my PhD.

Luke’s work includes two topics that I am exploring in my PhD: understanding how sexual selection affects population mean fitness, and how sexual selection can limit the spread of natural gene drives. Theresa has worked on sexual selection for many years but is now more focused on understanding how artificial light at night can impact biological processes. Together, they have provided me with an invaluable opportunity to conduct research in the areas I am most passionate, in a fun and welcoming environment.

'Humans of BioSciences' is a special series to introduce the School of BioSciences' undergrad and postgrad students, our academics, professional staff and associates.