Meet DEB: Maureen Kearney



While in Ireland on fieldwork, Maureen happened to visit a sheep farm with a new litter of sheep-puppies.

Name:   Maureen Kearney

Education: PhD, Biological Sciences, George Washington University.

Tell us about your research: My core research expertise began in biodiversity studies, phylogenetics, reconstructing the Tree of Life, and the use of phylogenies to test evolutionary hypotheses. I’m particularly interested in a holistic approach to phylogenetics, integrating diverse types of biodiversity data – from the genetic and phenotypic data we obtain from extant organisms to important fossil history data. Such an approach confers big testability payoffs, but also presents interesting analytical challenges that smart systematists continue to work on. The Tree of Life is also an excellent organizing principle for biodiversity, and can therefore be utilized as a tool to help us connect biodiversity patterns and processes to global change and sustainability efforts – an important area I’m also engaged in.

Through the years, I’ve worked on some areas of history and philosophy of systematics and biology, focusing on issues ranging from species concepts to organismal trait delimitation to phylogenetic data and methods. Systematics and evolution have traditionally been rich subjects for philosophy of science.  As the fields evolve, these interests continue.

Most recently, though, I’ve been really immersed in broad science policy issues that cross over all the STEM fields – issues, for example, such as STEM cultures that either enhance or detract from equity and inclusion in the sciences (a “science by all and for all” vision). In this regard, I’m really interested in the emerging ‘science of science’ approach, because it allows us to investigate the scientific enterprise as a complex, dynamic ecosystem. Important components of that system include research cultures, current norms and incentives for scientists and mentors, collaboration, peer review, funding processes, and the drivers and constraints that affect scientific discovery, creativity, innovation, productivity, and impact. This type of systems approach is a familiar mindset to many biologists!

Tell us about your NSF Experience/History:  NSF supported my dissertation research, and also my early research career at the Field Museum of Natural History. I served as a reviewer and panelist periodically and then moved to NSF for about eight years, serving as a permanent Program Director in DEB/SBS (~2008-2015), which I very much enjoyed.

I’ve had an approximate five-year hiatus from NSF: In 2015, I moved to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History as Associate Director for Science, which was a great opportunity to develop strategies for mobilizing historical collections data and natural history research as tools for global change studies. Then I was fortunate to work for several years as Chief Program Officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I became immersed in those broad issues at the intersection of science, society and policy.

Returning to NSF/BIO/DEB is like a homecoming to me – there is just no beating the combination of the NSF mission, the positive organizational culture, and the collegial work environment in BIO/DEB. And, I feel the same about once again serving the biodiversity and systematics scientific community.

What are you looking forward to in your tenure here at NSF? I look forward to being closer to emerging scientific research again and to assisting the scientific community. I also hope to bring my recent experiences in science policy back to NSF in some productive ways. Not least, I am really looking forward to working with such dedicated, collaborative, and fun colleagues. The sense of community, hard work, and shared values in BIO/DEB and the related scientific community is important to me.

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