Careers rarely develop the way we plan them. Our career path often takes many twists and turns, with particular events, choices and people influencing our direction.

We asked Brian Macken from Smart Futures to give some advice for people considering this job:

Brian Macken

Science Communicator

Smart Futures

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Brian Macken

I would strongly advise you to do the Masters in Science Communication in DCU. It really gives you a feel for the different kinds of media and ways of explaining things. And it's a good place to make contacts, which is also useful.

I would also recommend that you read science books. Not textbooks, good popular science books are just as useful for this kind of work, as it's already been broken down into simpler language for you. And only read the ones that you're interested in - it shouldn't be a chore to read them.

But I would recommend reading outside your subject area, so if you're into physics, then read some books on biology and vice versa (everyone should read Stephen J. Gould).  However, the more knowledge you have, the more questions you'll be able to answer.

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Not surprisingly, some aspect of the natural sciences will run through the Naturalists interests - from ecological awareness to nutrition and health. People with an interest in horticulture, land usage and farming (including fish) are Naturalists.

Some Naturalists focus on animals rather than plants, and may enjoy working with, training, caring for, or simply herding them. Other Naturalists will prefer working with the end result of nature's produce - the food produced from plants and animals. Naturalists like solving problems with solutions that show some sensitivity to the environmental impact of what they do. They like to see practical results, and prefer action to talking and discussing.
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Orla O'Sullivan - Bioinformatics Researcher

Orla O’Sullivan talks to Smart Futures about her career as a researcher.

Where do live/work?

I Live in Watergrasshill Co.Cork and I work in Fermoy Co.Cork

Where are you from?

Ballyvolane, Cork City.

What secondary school did you attend?

St. Patricks GSS, Gardiners hill, Cork What was the title of the courses/area of study (undergraduate and postgraduate) and the name of college/university you attended? Undergraduate: Entered under Biological and Chemical Sciences and focused on Biochemistry from 3rd year. Postgraduate: PhD in Biochemistry. (Bioinformatics)

What are your areas of expertise?

Bioinformatics and genomics

What is the main area of focus of your research?

Genomic and metagenomic analysis of the gut microbiota.

Can you explain your research in 2-3 sentences?

A healthy gut is one where microbial diversity is high; if we can find ways to improve diversity we can potential improve overall health. I investigate both the composition and function of the bacteria in your gut to determine if alterations in diet and/or lifestyle can influence its diversity and function. This study will particularly elucidate the impacts of a high protein diet and/or high levels of exercise on the gut microbiota.

What do you hope the impact of your research will be/what do you aim to achieve?

We will determine whether protein and exercise can alter and improve the diversity of gut microbiota. Results may lead to the development of protein supplements to benefit human health.

Can you describe a typical day? What are the daily activities you carry out/ routine?

My day varies depending on what stage sequence data analysis is at; at the start of an analysis there is a lot of communication with collaborators to understand what type of data we are dealing with and what types of analysis they want. Then once this is established data is fed into pipeline depending on the analysis in question. Once analysis is complete downstream interpretation is necessary, this may be statistical analysis of metagenomic data or for genome projects this will follow a more manual route. Some days I will spend on more practical tasks such as updating databases, installing new or updating software packages and reading literature to ensure we are up to date on all techniques. At the start of any new project time will be spend ensuring all suitable packages are bench marked and suitable for the task and scripts will be written to seamlessly run pipelines. Other activities I will routinely carry out is advising and mentoring other staff and students and contributing to project planning.

What are the elements you enjoy the most about your job/career?

I most enjoy the opportunity to work with other leading scientists and the satisfaction you feel when you analyze results and they tell you something exciting.

Who or what has most influenced your decision to study in this area?

I had never heard of bioinformatics until I was assigned my 4th year research project with Prof. Des Higgins and have never looked back since. My interest in the gut microbiota has been fueled through working with excellent scientists in Teagasc and the Ailementary Pharmabiotic Centre; namely Prof. Paul Ross, Prof. Fergus Shanahan and Dr. Paul Cotter. Were you always interested in science/technology/engineering/maths? I have always been focused on science from an early age; my parents say I was always asking “why” as a child.

I studied all the science subjects for the leaving certificate. I was one of the lucky ones who always knew what I wanted to so when I grew up.

What advice would you give to someone considering studying/working in this area?

My advice is to go ahead and pursue it; if you love what you study/work at your days will seem shorter. The hard work is definitely worth it. A background in Science will open many doors in the future. For this particular area knowledge of statistics and computers is essential; as well as focus, enthusiasm and ambition.

Article by: Smart Futures