Science offers a rewarding and fascinating career

Ahead of Cork Science Week, EMMA CONNOLLY talks to the organisers of the event about their love of the discipline, their chosen fields, and why they are encouraging more young women to explore a career in science
Science offers a rewarding and fascinating career
Sinead Ryan of IPIC; Eimear Ferguson of APC; Catherine Buckley, APC; Caoimhe Byrne, INFANT; Alida Zauers, Tyndall and CONNECT; Aoife Deane of MaREI of Cork Science Festival. Picture: Larry Cummins

A GROUP of dynamic women, all with links to UCC, are the powerhouse behind this month’s innovative Cork Science Festival.

Part of National Science Week, the festival has been developed by this innovative team of local volunteers representing education, research and industry across STEM.

The main players are Dr Catherine Buckley and Eimear Ferguson, APC Microbiome Ireland; Alida Zauers, Tyndall/CONNECT; Aoife Deane, MaREI; Dr Sinead Ryan, IPIC and Caoimhe Byrne, INFANT.

They’re heading up a team who have put together a programme of events for adults and children designed to show that science is for ‘everyone’.

Coming from a female perspective, they are also keen to show girls that STEM (science, tech, engineering, maths) are attractive career options that are very much open to them, with the right education and skills.

Their message is that you don’t have to be top of your class at these subjects, you just need to be open to learning and to step forward and embrace the exciting times that lie ahead in these sectors.

Here’s what they have to say…

Aoife Deane of MaREI. Picture: Larry Cummins
Aoife Deane of MaREI. Picture: Larry Cummins

“THERE IS SO MUCH YET TO DISCOVER...”

Aoife Deane, Communications Public Engagement

Manager at the MaREI Centre, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork

Aoife, has been working in UCC for 10 years, the last four of which have been with the MaREI Centre, a Science Foundation Ireland centre for research on the marine environment, renewable energy and climate action.

“My role involves working with our researchers to engage people in the work that we do in the context of addressing major challenges facing society like climate change, dwindling fossil fuel supplies and environmental degradation,” she says.

“Communicating the relevance and impact of our research is critical if we are to engage policy makers and communities in taking action to address these challenges.”

Living in Crosshaven with husband Gavin and daughters, Clara and Meabh, she did a degree in Zoology in UCC and a Masters in Science Communication at Dublin City University.

That, she said, led on to many interesting jobs, including working in television production as a researcher and production coordinator, outreach at Fota Wildlife Park, and a number of roles in science communication and outreach in Tyndall National Institute, UCC and TCD.

Her love of science started as a child and was sparked by nature.

“For me, the attraction to science is about continual discovery and solving problems. Whether it’s relating to the environment, health, transport, technology or agriculture, research continues to deliver new solutions to societal challenges.”

She feels that initiatives like Cork Science Festival can help to address potential barriers to people, especially females.

“It will show that science is for everyone and is all around us, that world class research is being done here in Cork and that science is part of our culture.”

One barrier to people working in science, she identifies, is ‘perceived difficulty’.

“You don’t have to be top of the class to pursue a career in science or engineering — but I think there is a perception out there that you do.

“At a later stage I think flexibility within jobs can be a barrier for working mothers. We need more flexible working hours and conditions if women are going to progress in their science careers and also be facilitated to maintain a positive work-life balance. It has been really positive to see some changes in this regard in recent years through the Athena SWAN Charter at UCC, which aims to address gender imbalances in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) disciplines, based on the belief that endeavours in these fields will be enhanced when they can benefit from the talent of the whole population, and when barriers to progress in academic careers are removed.

“I would very much encourage young women with a sense of curiosity and concern about the world to consider science and engineering as a career path.

“There is so much yet to be discovered — more than eighty percent of our ocean remains unexplored! — and so many big challenges to be addressed, there will never be a shortage of fascinating and rewarding career opportunities in the field of science!”

Alida Zauers, Tyndall and CONNECT. Picture: Larry Cummins
Alida Zauers, Tyndall and CONNECT. Picture: Larry Cummins

“THE ONLY PERSON STOPPING YOU FROM REACHING YOUR FULL POTENTIAL IS YOU.”

Alida Zauers Public Engagement and Outreach  officer for Tyndall National Institute and for CONNECT.

Tyndall is a leading European research centre in integrated ICT (Information and Communications Technology) materials, devices and systems.

CONNECT is the world leading Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications.

Originally from Ballina, Co Mayo, Alida Zauers is the youngest member of the festival’s organising committee — and is brimming with enthusiasm.

An NUI Galway graduate in Earth and Ocean sciences, she’s worked in UCC since 2016.

“I am incredibly lucky to be in the position that I am today which allows me to work with some extremely talented and passionate people,” she says. “While I am still in the early days of my career I’m looking forward to what the future will bring and how the STEM industry will progress in the next few years.”

Her role involves promoting Tyndall’s and CONNECT’s research, at a non-expert level, to the public and schools across Cork and Ireland, to foster a culture of STEM and to educate the next generation of scientists.

“Among other things, our education and public engagement programme aims to encourage a greater uptake of physics and electrical engineering among students at 2nd and 3rd level; and to create an increased awareness of the importance of electronics and ICT to our everyday lives.”

She was attracted to science by her grandfather.

“As a young girl, I’d spend hours in my grandad Mel’s study watching him tinker about with different electronics kits. He used to build them as a hobby and spend his time explaining all the various components to me.

“He really inspired me to open up my eyes to what was around me and showed me the importance of how things work. He’s definitely one of my role models and I owe a lot of my love for science to him.”

Having said that, she did face some doubts along the way, although fortunately she wasn’t deterred.

“When I was in school the biggest barrier I felt preventing women entering the field of science at that time was the lack of opportunities to meet female role models working in those areas.

“I definitely feel we are moving in the right direction now in terms of breaking down this barrier.

There has been a huge amount of time spent in reaching out to under-represented female secondary school students to 

encourage them into STEM careers in the last few years.

There has been a huge amount of time spent in reaching out to underrepresented female secondary school students to encourage them into STEM careers in the last few years.

This visibility was not there when I was in school and had it been I think it would have changed some people’s career choices had they been given the opportunity to meet all these amazing women.

“Initiatives like ‘Teen-Turn’ and ‘I Wish’, which aim to influence course decision-making processes, inform participants on education and career options, and combat stereotypes by strategically changing how girls identify with technology career environments through work placements, are paving the way in how we address getting more women to pursue a career in STEM.

“More girls exploring and gaining an interest in science and technology will lead to more women earning science and technology qualifications, thus meeting a demand for skills that is currently outpacing supply.”

Her advice to female students thinking of pursuing a STEM career is to go for it.

“The only person stopping you reaching your full potential is yourself. Believe in yourself and you can and will achieve great things. If you are in school and are finding it difficult to grasp any of the science subjects, don’t let that deter you from pursuing a course or a career in it, at a later stage.

“A report completed by Millward Brown in 2015 on behalf of Science Foundation Ireland — called ‘Science in Ireland Barometer’ — found that out of 1,008 adults surveyed, 52 per cent of them agreed that how the subjects were taught to them in school put them off science/ technology.

“While I enjoyed science, I too also struggled to understand the content of certain syllabuses in school and found it frustrating at times when I just couldn’t grasp what was being taught to me. It was only when I started university that the material I couldn’t understand in school finally clicked once it was explained to me in a visual way.

“It amazes me how far we have come in science, even in the last 10 years alone. How people are constantly coming up with new ideas to help solve the problems we are facing and are trying to put that solution into action.

“I often wonder if all those great minds from centuries or even decades ago hadn’t come up with their idea or dared to dream of what could be, where would we be now? Science can sometimes be so profound!”

Caoimhe Byrne. Picture: Larry Cummins
Caoimhe Byrne. Picture: Larry Cummins

“IT’S IMPORTANT THAT YOUNG GIRLS CONTINUE TO SEE WOMEN IN PROMINENT POSITIONS SO THAT IT BECOMES THE NORM.”

Caoimhe Byrne, education, public engagement, marketing, and communications officer at the INFANT centre, where researchers work to make pregnancy safer and to improve health outcomes for moms and babies.

The great thing about a career in STEM is that there are so many avenues that you can explore and the skills you learn are so transferrable.

That’s the message from Caoimhe Byrne, who advises anyone considering a STEM career to attend one of the Science Festival’s events where they can chat to the organisers and volunteers about their jobs.

She also highlights the vast learning opportunities and potential careers that exist in STEM and highly recommends doing some voluntary work experience to explore all the options.

“After completing my degree in Genetics and working in a lab for a few months to get some experience, I decided that going down the research route wasn’t for me.

“I did my Masters in Science Communication and Public Engagement and now I communicate scientific research in an accessible way to the wider community,” she said.

Originally from Laois, but with her mother from Cork, she said she always knew she’d be based here.

“I did my degree in UCC and my Masters at the University of Edinburgh. I lived in Australia for the past eight years where I worked at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. I moved home earlier this year and have been settling back to life in Ireland.”

Her job at INFANT is to raise public awareness and understanding of the great research that is happening within the centre.

Uniquely, INFANT is the only female-led research centre in Ireland.

“But,” she adds, “I understand that is not always the case for everyone.

“It’s important that young girls continue to see women in prominent positions so that it becomes the norm. As the saying goes ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’.

“Exposure to real examples of females working in STEM and achieving great things will help build girls confidence and self-belief in their own ability.”

Sinead Ryan of IPIC. Picture: Larry Cummins
Sinead Ryan of IPIC. Picture: Larry Cummins

Dr Sinead Ryan, Education & Public Engagement officer at the Irish Photonic Integration Centre (IPIC), a Science Foundation Ireland-funded Research Centre based at Tyndall National Institute

The area of STEM is huge and there are many different types of careers that you can pursue.

That’s the advice of Dr Sinead Ryan to females considering a science career, but who may be feeling a little daunted.

Sinead, who grew up in Glanmire and now lives in Frankfield, did her undergraduate degree in UCC entering through the Biological & Chemical Sciences programme.

“This gave me a really broad overview of the different fields of study but in the end I choose to specialise in Neuroscience,” she says.

“I was intrigued by the complexity of the brain. From a research perspective, I saw that this area presented a particular challenge as so many neurological, neurodegenerative and psychiatric conditions remain, even to this day, without a cure.

“After graduating, I decided to pursue a PhD research degree in UCC. My research interest was the effects of inflammation on a region of the brain called the hippocampus —this area is especially important for learning and memory.

“After I was awarded my PhD, I moved to Trinity College Dublin for two years where I did further research focused on Alzheimer’s disease.”

Currently at IPIC, she says her job ‘is really diverse and every day is different, which I love.’

“Photonics is the science and technology of generating, controlling and detecting light. It is not an area that most people are familiar with, however it is all around us, e.g. powering our internet, mobile and TV screens, diagnosis and treatment of disease.

“I work with the researchers in our centre to help them talk about their research, especially to people who are not scientists or very familiar with the field.

“An important part of my work is with schools. The team here regularly visit primary and secondary schools and talk about light and how important it is.

“We also host secondary student visits to the Institute so that the students and their teachers can see what our scientists and engineers do and what types of careers there are.”

On that note, she feels it’s important and beneficial for youngsters to avail of any work experience opportunities that might be available, either during transition year or on summer placements during college.

She acknowledged that certain fields of science and engineering do have a lower level of female participation.

“In reality, there are many women working in many diverse areas of STEM and while some may not consider themselves ‘role models’, even taking 5 or 10 minutes talking with a student or someone interested in moving into a particular area can be very impactful and gives that individual the human insight of what it really means to work in a particular field.”

Eimear Ferguson of APC. Picture: Larry Cummins
Eimear Ferguson of APC. Picture: Larry Cummins

“WE GET ALMOST 300

RESEARCHERS AND STAFF TALKING ABOUT THEIR

AMAZING WORK HERE AT THE INSTITUTE”

Eimear Ferguson, Education and Public Engagement manager, APC Microbiome Ireland, a Science Foundation Ireland- funded research institute based in UCC

Describing herself as the blow in to the Science Festival, Eimear is from a small village in Co. Kilkenny called Kilmacow. “I came to Cork in 2004 when I started my Physiology degree in UCC and never left! I fell in love with a Cork man from Araglin and the rest is history.

“For the past two years I have been working in APC Microbiome Ireland, With my colleague Catherine Buckley (Communications Manager), we get the almost 300 researchers and staff talking about their amazing work here at the institute.

“This means that I work closely with the scientists through training, events and workshops to get their research into the public domain.

“We use a number of fantastic props to do this, including our giant 15-metre-long inflatable gut called ‘Alimentary Adventures’ to discuss the importance of the microbiome.

“The microbiome describes the various locations in and on the body where microbes live.

“Microbes are single celled organisms that include bacteria, viruses, fungi and yeast.

“Alimentary Adventures recently featured on the RTÉ Junior programme called Let’s Find Out.

“Our education and public engagement programme includes schools visits, laboratory workshops and public events. We even got to meet the president at the National Ploughing championship in September!”

Her advice to young women in science is to ‘dream big.’

“Don’t settle for OK if you think there is something better out there. I worked a number of different roles before I found my dream job. I never gave up my hope that one day I could combine my two favourite things, science and communication... but here I am.” A major barrier to women getting involved, in her opinion, is confidence and ambition.

“I think all too often I hear young women say ‘there’s no point in trying, I won’t get it’. I would love people to hold their head high and try their best. At least then, if it doesn’t happen, you can say you tried.

“From my own experience, confidence only comes from practice. I still get very nervous when speaking in public but I try to use this to my advantage. When I get nervous, I know it’s just because I care about the project. The day I don’t get nervous, I know my heart isn’t in it”

Pic; Larry Cummins.
Pic; Larry Cummins.

“STUDY WHATEVER

FASCINATES YOU AND YOU WILL NEVER BE BORED”

Catherine Buckley, Communications Manager, APC

Microbiome Ireland, UCC.

“To any young girls interested in science or engineering, I would say study whatever fascinates you and you will never be bored. If you remain flexible, you will always find employment. And a qualification in any area of STEM gives you great opportunities to travel and work around the world.”

That’s the sound advice from Catherine Buckley, Communications Manager, APC Microbiome Ireland.

Their research is focused on the microbiota, the communities of bacteria, viruses and fungi, which live in our intestines and which plays a vital role in our physical and mental wellbeing.

“My job as Communications Manager is to communicate the excitement of our research to the public as well as its benefits for society from improved health and wellbeing to the creation of new jobs in Ireland.

“APC has several spin-out companies, each of which has created great job opportunities in Cork, e.g. Atlantia Food Clinical Trials in Blackpool now employs 30 people providing clinical research to companies all over the world.

“I work closely with my colleague Eimear Ferguson, our Education & Public Engagement Manager, engaging with the public, including schools and young people, our future citizens and scientists,” explained Catherine who is originally from Cork city but now lives in Ovens.

She studied Biochemistry at UCC and subsequently completed a PhD in Biochemistry, which included spending a couple of years at a biotech company near Boston. Afterwards she worked in research at Trinity College Dublin and UCC.

She feels that the biggest barrier preventing women from entering the field of science is the lack of provision of science subjects in girls’ schools, where they do not always have opportunities to study physics and chemistry.

“Modern science is so multi-disciplinary, you need to study more than just one science subject.

“Bioinformaticians analysing the enormous amount of DNA sequence data generated at our institute need advanced computer skills as well as biology.

“There are amazing opportunities for women in science and engineering once they have the education and skills,” she said.

WHAT IS ON FOR CORK SCIENCE WEEK

CORK Science Festival opens on Sunday, November 11 at ‘Celebrate Science’ in Gateway UCC on the Western Road, with more than 75 interactive workshops, exhibits and talks on science in our every day lives.

Throughout the week, there is something for everyone, from the Science of Skin with the ‘Skin Nerd’ Jennifer Rock, to the screening of hit film 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Kino and Cocktail Chemistry at Edison.

For children, primary school outreach will extend across the city and workshops on Learnit LEGO, ‘Bloody Detectives’ and ‘Electric Brain’ to Science Storytime in libraries and “Celebrate Science” at Gateway UCC on November 11 and finally the “Community Festival of Science” at Neptune Stadium, on November 18.

MaREI’s Aoife Deane said; “This year, there are fresh and exciting ways for families and individuals to engage with science in our city.

“We have a really diverse range of events and we invite everyone to attend free science events in Cork.

“From primary school workshops, science storytime at libraries, movie screenings and science events, as well as the flagship Sunday events in Gateway UCC and Neptune Stadium, we can scientifically guarantee a really great and fun time for all.”

See www.corksciencefestival.ie for more information

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