Sharing their stories with Cork students at I WISH

Next month, thousands of secondary school girls will flood into Cork City Hall for the I WISH event. EMMA CONNOLLY talks to some of the keynote speakers about the message they will be sharing with the youths on future careers in STEM
Sharing their stories with Cork students at I WISH
Fiona Edwards Murphy, ApisProtect. Picture: Clare Keogh

THOUSANDS of Transition Year girls and their teachers from throughout Cork will hear why they need to step up, and get stuck into STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) at an event in Cork City Hall.

The annual I WISH conference takes place at the venue from February 7 to 8, and in Dublin’s RDS, on February 11 and 12. It is designed to inspire young women to take STEM subjects to Leaving Cert level and beyond, into college and employment.

It was founded four years ago by Cork-based Caroline O’Driscoll (Tax Partner at Deloitte), Ruth Buckley (Cork City Council), and Gillian Keating (RDJ Solicitors). In the first year they brought 1,000 female students to City Hall in Cork. Having expanded to Dublin two years ago also, they have now reached out to 12,000 students and hope to increase this in 2019.

This year’s event comprises workshops, keynote addresses and interactive exhibitions. Among the high profile industry speakers in Cork are comedian and physicist Dr Jessamyn Fairfield and high profile entrepreneur Ciara Judge.

We caught up with them to hear what they think can be done about the ongoing problem of gender imbalance in the sector, and why girls need to make their voices heard now more than ever.

Kirsten Cox, Vice President of Marketing, EMEA at software giants VMware
Kirsten Cox, Vice President of Marketing, EMEA at software giants VMware

Kirsten Cox, Vice President of Marketing, EMEA at software giants VMware

WE need women to help shape tomorrow’s innovations — if future technologies are designed and developed by both women as well as men, we will go a long way towards creating the equal, progressive society that we’re all striving for.

That’s according to Kirsten Cox, Vice President of Marketing, EMEA at software giants VMware, who has been working in technology for more than 20 years.

At the I Wish event, she’ll be urging the young women to have an open mind and ignore any preconceptions they may have about what a career in the tech industry could entail.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved and I’d love to inspire more young women to become part of it,” she said.

However, she’s firmly of the opinion that women are still seriously underrepresented within STEM — and a change in mindset is absolutely key to get past that.

“There’s still a perception that STEM is a male-dominated profession and requires technical or scientific qualifications. But the industry is so much broader than that.

“There are a whole range of non-technical roles available which are just as important, if not more, than technical ones.

“As an industry, we need to help show youngsters that side of the business and demonstrate how fundamental they are to businesses delivering growth and social change.

“In doing so, we need to make sure we increase young women’s exposure to these opportunities and explain them in a way that young girls understand. For too long we have wondered why women’s uptake of STEM roles has been lower than expected. We need to get on the front foot and have these conversations at an early age so they can consider the opportunities that exist for them in a future career.”

She said the STEM industry would undoubtedly benefit from more of the softer skills women can bring to the workplace.

“We are great at communicating, collaborating and networking — skills which are critical to effective leadership and management — and studies by the likes of LinkedIn indicate that these soft skills are already the top priority for businesses. STEM firms therefore need to catch up with other industries and reap the benefits of diversity and gender equality in the workplace.”

But she said female involvement in the sector was more important than that — pursuing a career in STEM provides young women with the chance to help shape our future through the power of technology.

“As many organisations begin to experiment with technologies such as AI and machine learning, it’s essential that women are as integral as men in developing them to prevent any inherent bias from infiltrating these platforms. They are going to form a pivotal part of our future, and women have a critical role in ensuring they help promote equality and drive positive change.”

Fiona Edwards Murphy of the ApisProtect. Picture: Clare Keogh
Fiona Edwards Murphy of the ApisProtect. Picture: Clare Keogh

Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy, CEO ApisProtect

IDEALLY, gender shouldn’t matter in your career of choice and hopefully in the future it will matter less and less. In the meantime I am happy to help promote and highlight to current students what a career in STEM can look like.

And in the case of Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy, it sees her travelling the world visiting almond and blueberry farms in America and South Africa, helping beekeepers keep their bees healthy and safe, and monitoring 10 million bees from her Cork headquarters.

Fiona, from Kanturk, is CEO of ApisProtect (Apis is the latin word for bee.)

Growing up, she had a love of animals (her grandfather introduced her to the world of bees) as well as technology but never thought she would combine the two.

But that’s exactly what she does; having devised technology to help beekeepers manage their hives and keep their bees, which are under global threat from a range of diseases and pests, healthy.

“We use sensors to monitor honey bees in the hive,” said Fiona. “We collect temperature, humidity, CO2, sound, and movement data from a single sensor unit installed inside the hive, called the ApisMonitor.

“We collect data from beehives all over the world using a combination of different long-range networks to bring these data together on our servers.

“There, we use ‘Machine Learning’ technology to process and convert overwhelming amounts of raw data into actual information a beekeeper can use.”

Her passion has always been to use science to solve issues that have impacted on people’s daily lives.

“One of my projects in college was to look at the safety of bridges and tunnels being built in Switzerland and Italy to ensure the safety of workers whilst these projects were under construction. I also worked on an e-health project helping doctors remotely detect pre-eclampsia in women in Africa using blood pressure sensors.

“In 2012 and 2013, I saw how beekeepers all over the world were concerned about colony collapse disorder and how that affected bees, and wondered if anyone had looked into putting sensors into beehives. A little bit of research showed there had been some work in the area but nothing extensive so I decided to focus my PhD there. After discussing my PHD in a radio interview, beekeepers all over Ireland, and internationally, started getting in touch looking for this technology.

“My co-founders and I decided to start our company, ApisProtect, to see if we could bring this project to life.”

Fiona said the she firmly believes technology should be compulsory in schools to ensure students are ready for the technology jobs of the future.

“Participating in events like I WISH is really important to me, I want to share my story with students to give them some insight into the opportunities available to them Technology is now such a fundamental part of our lives, there are no jobs that students will grow up and do that won’t involve apps, computers, software and things like that, so it is vitally important that girls are studying STEM subjects to ensure they can have the best career to suit them in their future.”

Essentially, her advice is: “If you do enjoy science and technology, follow this interest; it is such an interesting area to work in, with new developments all the time. We all use and benefit from technology every day, it will be fascinating to see the new technologies of the future and how they will make a difference to all areas in our lives.”

Niamh O’Riordan, heads up the management of capital investment engineering projects on PepsiCo’s concentrate manufacturing sites in Cork.
Niamh O’Riordan, heads up the management of capital investment engineering projects on PepsiCo’s concentrate manufacturing sites in Cork.

Niamh O’Riordan heads up the management of capital investment engineering projects on PepsiCo’s concentrate manufacturing sites in Cork

PERCEPTION is the only thing blocking females from entering into the world of STEM which offers so many career opportunities.

And in particular, engineering is a great degree to do in college because it gives you the technical backbone to be involved in so many of them.

So says Niamh O’Riordan, who moved from Dublin to Cork in 2017 to join PepsiCo’s global engineering team.

“Ireland is seen as being at the forefront when it comes to STEM capability and there is a huge amount of career opportunity in this area. It’s important that we maintain that position, with women being actively involved,” she said.

When she was choosing what to study in college, it was at a time when the area of STEM was just beginning to take off.

“However, I was aware that the STEM industry would open up many career opportunities for me and, while I wasn’t 100% sure what degree I wanted to do, I felt that engineering would be a broad enough degree for me to do in order to keep my future career options open.

“When I started out, there were very few women in my field, however, over the course of the last 20 years I have seen that increase, albeit not as quickly as we would like.

“We need to change this perception and that’s what PepsiCo is actively engaged in doing through a number of different programmes which provide inspiration to young women and girls around the exciting careers STEM can unlock.

“As one of the largest food and drink companies globally, PepsiCo offers so many different roles that require STEM skills from engineering to R&D to finance and IT. We also have so many great female role models and we are looking to share their career experience and insights with the next generation of female talent to make them see STEM careers in a whole new light.”

In City Hall she’ll be telling girls to get over the perception that women aren’t suited to STEM: “There is no reason in the world why women can’t enter this field and be hugely successful in it.”

And engineering in particular, she says, teaches you a way to think about things that is transferable across all walks of life.

“Many engineers go on to hold highly paid senior management positions later in their careers,” she added.

“You can use your non-STEM skills also: if you are a good communicator and you have good interpersonal skills, this will be a huge advantage to you when progressing in your career.”

Ciara Judge, of Kinsale, won the BT Young Scientist, the EU Young Scientist and the Google Science Fair, with her colleagues. Time Magazine named her as being one of the 25 most influential teens worldwide in 2014. She is co-director of her first company, Germinaid Innovations, with her best friend Emer.

IT’S simply not true that men are better than women when it comes to STEM.

And if anyone is qualified to say that, it’s Kinsale’s Ciara Judge, who has made global headlines for her achievements in the sector.

A third year student of genetics in UCC, she’s also on the Quercus talent studies programme for innovation and innovation. And when she’s not studying, she travels the world speaking to young people about such things as innovation and outside-the-box thinking. She’s also partnered with various global organisations such as the We are Family foundation, which powers ‘youth around the world who are changing the game with their ideas, innovations and social good solutions’. And at I Wish, her message will be the same as it is everywhere else: “We have every right to be involved in STEM — it’s about not taking no for an answer.”

She says she’s lucky as she hasn’t experienced a gender imbalance in the sector and only heard of it when she started working in this area. Nonetheless, she feels it’s about acknowledging that it’s there; and says that understanding it is the best way to overcome it.’

“Science and technology are creating the technologies and products of the future in a digital economy and society; creating huge elements of the future so it’s only right that we’re represented,” she said passionately.

“Also, people underestimate women’s analytical thinking, which is of pivotal importance in STEM.”

Her interest in STEM was sparked as a youngster by her parents who brought her to see the BT Young Scientist Exhibition.

“I was captivated by the atmosphere and diversity of what I saw,” she recalls.

“The attraction for me is that there’s lots of scope for curiosity and problem solving with science which means you can get creative and find answers to big questions. You can think about things differently — I’m an abstract thinker so it suits me,” she said.

Immediately after the I Wish event, she’ll travel to Geneva to address international students on getting stuck into STEM and later this year will travel to Berlin to address the CEOs of some major tech firms.

“I’ll be speaking about the importance of investing in young people and giving them a glimpse of the potential of young people, but not just in terms of money but also to have faith — to believe in young people.

“I don’t know what my future will be but part of it will definitely involve science. STEM provides major opportunities in employment, travel, meeting new people, discovering new things — it’s endless.”

Jessamyn Fairfield, physicist based at NUI Galway and comedian
Jessamyn Fairfield, physicist based at NUI Galway and comedian

Jessamyn Fairfield, physicist based at NUI Galway and comedian

WE have to address the ways women are treated at higher levels in the industry, so that we aren’t just pushing girls into an environment where they won’t be valued.

Jessamyn Fairfield says that’s the first issue that has to be looked at when talking about females and STEM, followed by the barrier of gender bias.

“I think as a society we’ve come a long way, but there is still a perception that women don’t belong in certain fields, and research shows that a lot of how we choose our career is based on where we think we’ll belong. We can’t blame girls for looking at fields that have a poor representation of women, or where the women there are not always treated well, and thinking twice.

“But if we want to create new knowledge, we really need to bring everyone’s contributions to the table, not just the voices we’ve heard before.”

Jessamyn grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico — birthplace of the atomic bomb.

“Both my parents were scientists (a biochemist and a mathematician) and most of the adults I knew growing up were also scientists or engineers. I only realised much later how unusual that is! I had a lot of exposure to STEM fields growing up so I am lucky in that I always saw it as an option and had a good idea of what a STEM career looked like.

“The main attraction really was wanting to know how the world works, which is something science has a lot to say about, and wanting to make the world a better place. I think every kid has that curiosity about the world around them, and if you still have that when you’re older then you’d make a good scientist!”

She’s known not just for her work in the challenging area of nanoscience but for her improv and stand-up comedy.

“I have always loved comedy and never thought I’d be able to do it, but thanks to a really empowering improv teacher in Dublin I started performing six years ago and had a blast! Comedy is also a great way to understand things — if you can joke about something then you understand it from multiple perspectives.

“I run Bright Club Ireland, which combines research and stand-up comedy, and it’s really great to see other scientists making jokes about their work, to explain it in a fun and entertaining way.”

As a key speaker at the I Wish event, she’ll be telling students “about how exciting it is to keep on learning more and more about the world around you”.

“But my main message is that we don’t have to conform to contribute — the best scientists are the ones who follow their own intuition to discover something completely new, and women can shape their own paths in science however feels right to them.”

Science is one of the most amazing systems that people have developed for understanding the world, and girls, she says, have just as much of a right to it as boys.

“I am really looking forward to talking to the girls who will be shaping our future, and telling them that the scientific path is open to them, whenever they might choose to explore it.”

I WISH runs at Cork City Hall on February 7 and 8 and at RDS in Dublin on February 11 and 12. See www.iwish.ie for more about the events.

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