Your job title?
Physics Lecturer, School of Physics and CRANN, Trinity College Dublin.
What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?
I’m a nano-scientist – my research hopes to harness the souper-dooper from the nitty-gritty. I started as a physics lecturer in Trinity College Dublin in October 2012.
My research team (NanoSurf) is busy freeing nanomaterials from otherwise aggregated clumps of uselessness – allowing their maximum potential to shine through. My team and I report our scientific findings in written papers published in journals and at international conferences.
We also work with industry on possible routes to apply our research findings. When I’m not in the lab, I’m busy teaching masses of undergraduate students on topics as diverse as ‘smashing wine glasses with sound’ to ‘why we get so cold when we get out of a hot shower’. I’m also an active science communicator: recently, I ran a campaign DARTofPhysics to place physics statements and challenges on Dublin’s commuter trains. Statements like ‘The Spire is shorter when the weather is cool’ sparked a city-wide conversation about physics.
Describe a typical day?
My typical day is a busy mix of lectures and laboratories with undergraduate students. I also make sure to catch-up with my graduate (PhD) students working in the lab on our research. We chat about results, and try to understand what they mean by plotting graphs, applying theories and comparing them with what other scientists have reported. Recently, I started working with the School of Education here in Trinity on new methods to teach physics lab-classes to our undergrads.
Collaborations with colleagues from different schools and departments in the university is really fruitful. Some days I get to chat with visiting children from primary or secondary schools about science – it’s important to get beyond the ‘can you blow something up’ attitude to science lectures. I also get to talk on the radio or at the Science Gallery in TCD about scientific topics. Clichéd and all as it sounds, I love my job. I’m always keen to share this with others.
The variety of things I get to do and the freedom I have to do it. What are the main challenges? Working in a university comes with a lot of administrative tasks – I hate doing them. Also, the lack of female lecturer colleagues… The majority of lecturers and professors are men – based on lots of rubbish reasons. The university is working hard to change this trend. I’m a real feminist when it comes to making the needed changes.
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
My dad is a scientist, so he probably influenced me most. Both my parents encouraged my brothers and I in all aspects of our education. In school, I had amazing maths and science teachers. They made a HUGE difference. I would not be where I am today without their dedication to my classmates and I. Also, I think Transition Year helped me decide to be a scientist. I had toyed with other college options, but the free-style curriculum and work experience in TY helped me make my mind up. The best advice I was ever given on how to choose college courses is to forget about careers and pick a degree course that contains the subjects you like and are best at – you’ll be good at them, enjoy them and as a consequence be great at any job that needs them.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Yes and no. I live and work in the centre of Dublin, which I think is amazing. My work has taken me to places all around the world including three years in London. I loved every bit of that aspect (others don’t). Job security is really poor. Most young scientists are on fixed-term contracts hoping to be given a permanent position. It’s very, very competitive. Then again, most jobs at that level (in law, business, etc.) are too. Far more needs to be done to help research scientists move from the lab to the non-academic world. Recent initiatives by government and industry have started to make positive changes here.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
For my Leaving Cert, I studied Maths, Physics, Applied Maths (BRILLIANT SUBJECT), Chemistry, Music, English, French and Irish. I did the ones I was best at – simple. I worked hard for my Leaving Cert and hated exams. My school had a great record in maths and science –this culture helped.
What is your education to date?
I went to the Patrician Secondary School, Newbridge and studied Physics and Chemistry of Advanced Materials (now Nanoscience) at Trinity College Dublin. I then completed a PhD in Physics, also in Trinity College Dublin and a Marie Curie Fellowship, in the Dept. of Chemistry, Imperial College London.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
All of them – I teach some of them to younger students now.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Science research and lecturing needs people who are curious, creative, stubborn (they like problems that take ages to solve). You need to like communication – you’ll be teaching, writing, debating and discussing science all day, everyday. If you like to be challenged intellectually, are creative about ways to solve problems, like working with teams people from the four corners of the world, then science is for you. It’s more David Attenborough than Sheldon Cooper.
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
You would need to have a degree in science and a PhD in your area of expertise. After that, it’s about working with the best people in the leading labs… then, you have to get money (from industry or the science funders) to start your own research group.