Karen Bacon

Bye everyone! Thanks for all of the great questions :)

Favourite Thing: Working with fossils that are millions of years old



I did my undergraduate degree from 2000-2005 (geology and botany) and my PhD 2007-2012 all at University College Dublin, Ireland


I have a Bachelor of Science degree in geology and in botany and I have a PhD in palaeobotany

Work History:

I have worked in University College Dublin and National University of Ireland, Galway in Ireland and in King’s College London and University of Leeds in the UK.

Current Job:

Currently, I’m a lecturer in Ecology and Global Change


School of Geography, University of Leeds

Me and my work

I use fossil leaves to investigate climate change millions of years ago

I am a palaeobotanist. This means that I work with fossil plants, usually that grew millions of years ago. I also work with plants that are alive today and I conduct experiments on living plants to try to interpret changes that we see in fossil plants. I put the living plants into different experimental treatments, for example with higher carbon dioxide or temperature than today, and see what happens to the plants. Then I look at the fossils and see if the same thing can be seen in the fossils. I also work on how plants respond to natural pollutants such as volcanic gases and changes in light quality.

My Typical Day

There is no typical day but usually I spend some time teaching, some time doing admin/office work and some time doing lab work or writing

There is really no such thing as a typical day for an academic scientist. For most of the last two weeks I was teaching on fieldtrips in North Yorkshire, before that I was in Colorado for a big conference and for the next few weeks I’ll be spending more time in the office and lab.

When I’m in my office I am usually reading scientific papers and analysing data or writing a paper. This is where scientists write about their experiments and then try to publish their findings for other scientists to read about – it’s a hugely important part of our job. I also write my lectures in my office and prepare for classes, another hugely important part of the job. Writing lectures takes a lot of time too, so when I’m lecturing, I spend lots of time in my office.

At the moment, I am trying to finish up an experiment where I see how plants use carbon differently when they are grown in different atmospheres, so I am also in the lab grinding up leaves into tiny parts so that they can be put into a machine that will then work out how much carbon is in each leaf.

What I'd do with the money

I would like to make some short videos and podcasts about people working in science to show students the range of different careers available to science graduates

My plan is to make a series of short videos and/or podcasts where different people explain what jobs they have after studying science – many of my coleagues are doing things that are not traditional “scientist” jobs – that is not in a white coat and a lab and I think that many students in school don’t realise how many different career options there are for people once they finish studying science.

I would also like each person who makes a video to go and visit a school and talk about science.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Curious, enthuastic, adventurous

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I can never remember the names of bands or singers that I like – I just know them when I hear them!

What's your favourite food?


What is the most fun thing you've done?

Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with three friends in 2007

What did you want to be after you left school?

A scientist or a journalist

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Not really, though I was a bit freer with opinions that I should have been sometimes and that used to get me in a little bit of trouble occasionally.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Biology and History

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Spent a month underneath the Field Museum in Chicago working on an amazing collection of 200 million year old fossil plants

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I had a really great teacher when I was in the junior cycle of secondary school (GCSE equivalent) who really encouraged my interest in science and my parents were always really supportive and encouraging when I talked about being interested in science.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Probably either a journalist or an historian

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Healthy, happy and having fun

Tell us a joke.

Why do microbiologists feel at home everywhere ? They are familiar with many cultures.

Other stuff

Work photos:


This is an image of a type of plant called a cycad. It was grown in a special lab called a controlled environment chamber where it was exposed to high carbon dioxide, low oxygen and high sulphur dioxide. This was so that colleagues and I could see how this plant, and others, responded to the type of atmosphere that existed 200 million years ago when a massive volcanic eruption led to mass extinctions of animals and major ecosystem change in plants.


This is a fern fiddle head, just about to open. This plant was part of the same experiment as the cycad described above.


A lovely fossil fern


This is an image of me explaining about a fossil to some visitors to the lab last summer. If you look carefully, you can see another fossil-bearing rock behind me (Thanks Louise Bailey for the photo).


The next few images are from my recent fieldtrips around North Yorkshire. This is a photo of some beautiful limestone pavement in North Yorkshire. Some of you might recognise it from a relatively recent film that involved magic!


This is another shot from my recent fieldtrip – a rather dramatic limestone formation.


And another North Yorkshire image, this time of a lovely bog.


One of my favorite plants is Ginkgo biloba, pictured above. Plants similar to this one have existed on Earth since before the dinosaurs and are commonly found planted on streets in the UK today.


This is a fossil ginkgo leaf that was collected from East Greenland. The plant that this leaf grew on died over 200 million years ago!