Exciting Appointments for Junior Research Fellows

Two of Merton's Junior Research Fellows have recently secured exciting new appointments to continue their careers.

Gwen Burnyeat

Dr Gwen Burnyeat has accepted a post as Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Social Anthropology at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Edinburgh. She has also won a prestigious five-year Starting Grant from the European Research Council (now UKRI-funded), for her project "Stories of Divided Politics: Polarisation and Bridge-Building in Colombia and Britain". She was the only social scientist at Oxford to win one of these grants. This project develops further the research on polarisation and the Colombian peace process she conducted at Merton, to study experiences and perceptions of political divisions in both countries, and conduct fieldwork with people and organisations who try to build bridges across complex political divides.

During her time at Merton, Gwen turned her PhD thesis into a book, The Face of Peace: Government Pedagogy amid Disinformation in Colombia, published by the University of Chicago Press and launched at Merton in 2022, for which she won the 2023 Public Anthropologist Award, she co-edited a special issue on the anthropology of the social contract for the journal Critique of Anthropology with Dr Miranda Sheild Johanssen (UCL), and her first book, Chocolate, Politics and Peace-Building: An Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia, was translated into Spanish. She conducted five months of new ethnographic fieldwork in Colombia across two visits in 2021 and 2022, studying polarisation in the wake of the 2016 peace accord between the government and the FARC guerrilla, which sought to end 50 years of war, listening to a cross-section of people in different regions with different political orientations about their perceptions and experiences of polarisation and its impact on peace.

As well as speaking at conferences and preparing articles based on this research, she is currently writing a third book on Colombia which combines creative fiction and scholarly research, and explores the role of storytelling in political divisions. While at Oxford, she taught at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (SAME), and organised a variety of events on Colombia with Merton, SAME, the Oxford Network of Peace Studies, the Ultimate Picture Palace, the Colombian Society, and peacebuilding organisation Embrace Dialogue, of which she is a member

Dr Nick Irwin

Dr Nick Irwin will be starting as a group leader at the Gregor Mendel Institute (GMI) in Vienna, a basic research institute funded by the Austrian Academy of Science that focuses on molecular plant biology. Nick's laboratory will be studying horizontal gene transfer, the genetic process by which genes move between distantly related organisms, like bacteria and plants. This work will expand on discoveries made during his junior research fellowship and aims to answer fundamental questions about the evolutionary origins of plants and algae while providing new insights into the genetic modification of crops.

While at Merton, Nick studied how genes have moved between viruses and their hosts. By looking across the tree of life, Nick showed how viruses can steal genes from their hosts to assist future infections but also how the hosts of these viruses, such as animals, can co-opt viral genes for their own functions as well. This work provided new insights into viral infection but also demonstrated how viruses have been a constructive force in the history of life, providing new genes that have led to the diversity we see today.

By interpreting genes that viruses have stolen from their hosts as evolutionary artifacts, Nick was also able to reconstruct the evolutionary history of a two-billion year old protein complex which today forms the basis for gene regulation, growth, and development across species from animals, to fungi, plants, and everything in between. Nick also co-led The Merton College and Oxford Department of Zoology Sponsored Expedition to the Crater Lakes of the South Pacific, a month long field trip to remote jungle lakes in Samoa and Wallis and Futuna, which aimed to answer basic questions about speciation, adaptation, and biogeography.

The College wishes them both all the best.