What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
I didn’t take any science subjects but I had four granduncles who were in the Royal Army Medical Corps. I’ve always been fascinated by disease. Other people played with dolls, I played with my granduncles’ surgical knives.
What courses or training did you do after school?
When I started off in the early 1980s, I did a year in Trinity College Dublin studying French and didn’t like it. I moved to journalism but I couldn’t pass shorthand. I didn’t realise it at that stage, but I’m dyspraxic. I went to work in the Irish Independent – for a while as a freelance journalist and then with the clerical staff in the library. I worked there for almost 20 years.
How did you go about getting your current job?
I took redundancy from the newspaper and started a BA in humanities from Oscail, DCU’s distance learning programme. I liked that so much I did a taught MA in history in NUI Maynooth. For my masters, I did a thesis on Spanish influenza in Ireland. This disease happened just as we were moving from being part of the British Empire to being an independent state so it was forgotten in an Irish context. I couldn’t leave it after 15,000 words so I went to Trinity to do a PhD on it.
You’ve just been awarded an Irish Research Foundation Elevate Fellowship.
What is that?
The fellowship is part of the EU Marie Curie scheme. It funds you to complete research and you must travel to acquire international knowledge. I’ll be based out of NUI Maynooth for the next three years but for the first two years I’ll be working out of Queen’s University Belfast, which is the international part of the fellowship.
What were you funded to research?
The changing landscape of childhood diseases in Ireland from 1910 to 1990. It starts from a situation in 1911 when 2,000 children under the age of two died from diarrhoeal diseases because of the appalling housing conditions, sanitation and poverty.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Science and medical history is a growing area. Many colleges are now offering some element of medical history. There’s a master’s course in the Centre for History of Medicine in UCD. Also, some courses are offered by NUI Maynooth, UCC and Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.
What are the main challenges?
It’s very hard to find a job. However, no matter how old you are, no matter how much you’ve failed, there’s always a way to pick yourself up. I didn’t even do science or honours history for the Leaving Cert but now I have a PhD.