25 Days of CoDI: Day 17

On the seventeenth day of CoDI it was time to take a look at our fellow fury friends…


MaryBownes: Should We Have Zoos?zoo

So you don’t think zoos are doing any harm? Oh you over there, you do? Well then, let’s see what Professor Mary Bownes has to say about it all…

Over to you Mary

 Tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a developmental biologist and have studied reproductive biology hormones, genetics and molecular biology for many years. During this time I introduced new undergraduate courses, ran the Institute of cell and molecular biology, and trained PhD students.


Additionally I found that I was also interested in running the university as a whole. The training of postgraduate students and in public engagement and engagement with schools especially interested me. It seemed that one could not run a large lab and do all these other things that I felt were very important and where I could have a real impact on the future of many people and the way the University operated.  Further to do modern research in this field you always need to have a large lab. You must be extremely competitive, always fighting for new grants and attending and speaking at meetings. Yet many people work on the same problem and if you did not do the research somebody else would.

So if I didn’t do it someone else would.


I therefore decided to stop running a large research lab and to focus fully on public engagement and other university-wide activities. People often ask if I miss my research. Of course you miss the experience of working with an enthusiastic team and discovering new things personally about science, but I actually use my research skills all the time. I genuinely feel that the things I have done instead have really changed the way things happen at the University and well beyond.


I produced teacher resources on stem cells and on Darwin and Evolution which are widely used across the UK.  During the last 12 years I have done many things for the training of postgraduate students ensuring that they are able to talk about their research to the wider public. I have set up activities across all the universities in Edinburgh to get researchers to engage with the wider public about what they are doing and why. I worked extensively on widening access to higher education and the way students can enter the University from different backgrounds. Furthermore, I have been involved in leading sustainability and social responsibility and in running a large fundraising campaign. Much of this work helped students from disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to afford to attend the University.


Eventually, I became Senior Vice-Principal/Deputy Vice Chancellor.

What do you do now?

Having now partly retired from the University, I want to still focus part time on a particular set of projects. These projects, I believe, will lead to better alignment with a number of organisations in the city of Edinburgh and Scotland. This alignment will hopefully lead to a better experience for members of the public and broader education for students. These institutions all have a remit to be available to the public and have an educational aspect to them. Examples of such institutions include The National Museums of Scotland, The National libraries of Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland. A less obvious choice perhaps, was to engage with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Edinburgh zoo.


So while my research activity was basic fundamental research in the area of cells, genetics and how things work in an individual organism I should say that I have always been interested in animals and plants. I have visited zoos and wildlife parks and botanic gardens wherever I go. I have also travelled extensively. Highlights include visiting the Kruger National Park in South Africa several times and travelling to the Galapagos Islands, Sri Lanka and Madagascar to watch wildlife and take photographs. This makes me very aware of the issues faced in these countries. Issues regarding extreme poverty and the need to feed the population and improve their health and lifestyles whilst somehow conserving the amazing wildlife that they have.

Why did you choose to take part in CoDI 2016?

As a researcher, the founder of Beltane and a with long term commitment to helping researchers participate in public engagement in a variety of ways, how could I refuse to engage with CODI?  Although I am no longer running a biology research lab, I use my research skills daily. They help in all aspects of decision making relating to my job. I wanted to share my latest thinking relating to the role of zoos in today’s society and how they fit with the aims of an engaged research intensive University. A university who is willing to work in partnership with a variety of organisations.  The new focus of many zoos on conservation, education and research is important. It fits with a wider context of loss of habitat, climate change and loss of species.

What are you most looking forward to at CoDI 2016?

I am really looking forward to hearing the views of a diverse group of people, on whether or not we shall have zoos (and other related organisations like wildlife parks, safari parks, sea life parks and more). Furthermore, assuming we do, what do people think their purpose should be?



Mary’s show takes place on Saturday 20th August, Stand in the Square (Venue 372), 3-4pm, £8 (£6)

Purchase tickets at: http://www.outstandingtickets.com/show/114/performance/1551/book-tickets