My Weekend: My job can be really busy so I appreciate the countryside

Fancy winning a fossil hunting trip with real palaeontologists? Prof Maria McNamara, Professor of Palaeontology, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science, tells us more — and also shares how she likes to spend her downtime
My Weekend: My job can be really busy so I appreciate the countryside

Prof. Maria McNamara of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) at University College Cork, Ireland. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Professor Maria McNamara features in our My Weekend

Tell us a bit about yourself:

I’m from Clonmel in Co Tipperary, married to my college sweetheart (!) and have two kids, a boy aged 11 and a girl aged seven, who are great craic. Before I had kids no-one told me they would be so much fun!

That’s not to say that we don’t have our moments – we certainly don’t always see eye to eye, and there are lots of discussions about boundaries etc, but it’s good for a parent to recognise your kids are separate individuals with different likes and desires and plans!

My worklife is a whole other world. I’m Professor of Palaeontology at UCC and am based in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences in Distillery Fields, just off Cork’s North Mall.

I run two big laboratories where we prepare and analyse fossils and other materials, and I run a big research group with six PhD students, two postdoctoral researchers and two research support officers.

I also run a new national public engagement programme, called Ireland’s Fossil Heritage, that aims to increase Irish people’s awareness of our remarkable fossils.

What is your ideal way to spend a Friday night?

It depends. During Covid we started ‘Pizza Night’ at home on Fridays and it became a real treat that we looked forward to all week, with the kids helping make the pizza dough and chopping the toppings, and we all watch a film after. Since restrictions have lifted, though, I’ve really enjoyed the occasional evening in the pub catching up socially with friends and work colleagues. I feel we’ve all missed so much in terms of little interactions and long chats, so it’s worth putting time into reconnecting with people .

Lie-ins or up with the lark?

Up bright and early. I can’t lie in bed. Too much to do! The world is waiting!

Does work creep into your weekend?

Yes, but not every weekend. Some weekends I might have to check out sites for a student fieldtrip, or I work in the lab preparing fossils for analysis; the prep work can take up to 10 days or more so, once you start on a batch of samples, you have no choice but to work over the weekend, but it’s usually just for a few hours each day.

A few times a year we go to particle accelerator facilities called synchrotrons (where electrons are spun around inside a huge doughtnut-shaped ring up to 1 km across and at one-third the speed of light). The electrons don’t stop at weekends and you have to take the slot you’re given, so if it’s across a weekend, tough luck, you just have to work through!

If money was no object where would you go on a weekend city break and whom would you bring?

I wouldn’t be a big city break fan. My job can be very busy so I really appreciate the countryside! I guess, somewhere warm, remote, with hills or mountains, and a spa… maybe The Alps or Greece. I have to say I’d bring my husband but he doesn’t like hot weather so maybe some friends who like hiking!

 The Comeragh Mountains over looking Dungarvan bay and Helvick head. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
The Comeragh Mountains over looking Dungarvan bay and Helvick head. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Closer to home, is there a place where you recharge the batteries?

For a quick walk near Clonmel, a hiking spot called The Cross in the Comeraghs. It’s only a 40 minute steep walk from the town centre, with an incredible view of Slievenamon, the Galtees, and as far as the Devil’s Bit.

Do you like to catch up with family/friends at the weekend?

Yes. Lots of time with the kids. And meeting friends for a long walk or dinner.

Do you get to indulge any hobbies? Even as a spectator?

I run about four times a week and would be a very cranky person without it. I also do a lot of yoga – great for strength and balance. Both are essential to getting a bit of headspace and help me react in a more rational way to what life throws at me.

Entertain or be entertained? If it’s the latter, do you cook a signature dish?

Ooh, I love cooking for guests. I am vegetarian and enjoy cooking veggie food from all over the world. I do a great stuffed aubergine dish with breadcrumbs, nuts and smoked goat’s cheese, served with tagine. And I make a dish my kids call ‘magic tofu’: tofu tossed in flour, baked, then tossed in a pan with soy sauce, sugar, water and sesame seeds. So tasty. My attempt to mimic what I’ve eaten in China!

With so many places to eat out in Cork, which are your top spots for coffee/lunch/special meal?

Café Paradiso, hands down. Their veggie food is incomparable. I’ve loved every single thing I’ve eaten there. A real feast for the senses.

Sunday night comes around too fast.. how do you spend it?

Sunday night I normally hustle the kids into the bath and then go through emails, catching anything I haven’t handled the week before, and checking my schedule for the week. I need to balance labwork with meeting my students and postdoctoral researchers, as well as public engagement and teaching, so I have a lot to squeeze in. I try to be organised but there is room for improvement.

Prof. Maria McNamara of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) at University College Cork, Ireland. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Prof. Maria McNamara of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) at University College Cork, Ireland. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

What time does your alarm clock go off on Monday morning?

6.50am

What else are you up to right now?

We are running Ireland’s first National Fossil Art Competition and we’re calling all kids and teens who like fossils to enter! We have some great prizes in four age categories, with a top prize of a fossil-hunting trip with my colleague, Jess, and I. Other great prizes include a visit to your school, a behind-the-scenes visit to our labs, and fossil-themed t-shirts. Entry is free and the deadline is May 3.

The theme of the contest is Irish Fossils ALIVE. We are inviting young artists to create a unique art piece inspired by the rich fossil heritage on the island of Ireland and have prepared a list of some of the most famous Irish fossils on our website for inspiration.

Entrants do not need any prior knowledge of fossils to enter, they can simply let their imaginations run wild!

Prizes will be awarded in four age categories: U8; 9-12; 13-15, and 16-18. The overall winner of the contest will win a once-in-a-lifetime experience of a day out fossil hunting with palaeontologists from UCC with lots of other fossil-themed prizes to be won.

The top selected entries will be invited to display their art pieces at a public exhibition at the Glucksman art gallery in Cork in June 2022. Further details on how to enter can be found on our Fossil Art page see www.ucc.ie/en/fossil-heritage/fossilart/

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