Physical and Mathematical Sciences is a broad sector, with many potential career paths for those with qualifications and suitable skillsets, including medical work, engineering, teaching, finance and technology.
The most usual route is through taking a degree at a third level college, often following this with a post graduate qualification.
Physicists want to understand how the world works, in every detail and at the deepest level. This includes everything from elementary particles, to nuclei, atoms, living cells, solids, liquids, gases, living organisms, the brain, supercomputers, the atmosphere, galaxies and the universe itself.
Science Ambassador Dave McDonald is a health and safety representative by day, and amateur astronomer by night. In 2008 he became only the second person to discover an asteroid from Ireland, 160 years after Andrew Graham in 1848. This was followed by a second discovery in March 2009.
In this interview – before he became famous – he talks about how he chose his career, the cool things in his work, and his tips on work experience and what to study.
Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
The careers guidance office was absolutely fantastic and extremely helpful. They interviewed me (more of a chat really) and we discussed what it was that I wanted to do – it wasn’t really a discussion about jobs, just what I liked to do and what things interested me and science came top of the list. They quickly identified a third-level qualification I could try for and they even arranged an interview with the polytechnic. It was all plain sailing after that.
As regards astronomy, even though it’s not a “job”, the prime motivator for me was a colleague, Eamonn Ansbro, who was doing some scientific work for a PhD. After chatting with him extensively, I decided that I was going to follow that path as best I could. And sure enough, a few years later I’m providing quality data to the Minor Planet Centre and sending in data to the Jet Propulsion Lab in support of the Dawn Mission.
Describe a typical day?
There really isn’t a typical day in health and safety. There are common themes though – lots of questions from clients, deadlines to meet, novel or complex problems that take time to work through and a need to communicate all this in plain understandable language.
For the astronomy side of things, a typical day would involve checking the weather. If we’re all go for a clear night, it’s a case of planning targets, writing scripts for the automation software and then getting the equipment ready for a night’s run of taking images. The images are then analysed and data generated. Thus is then formatted before being sent to the Jet Propulsion Lab or the Minor Planet Centre.
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
I am required to carry out consultancy work and training. Consultancy involves carrying out noise assessments, chemical/biological exposure assessments, thermal comfort surveys and working with people using display screen equipment (VDUs) to make sure they are safe and healthy.
I carry out training in a wide variety of health and safety subjects and train all kinds of people from operators through to directors. Along with all of this, I have to keep up to date with all the latest legislation and guidance coming out of the EU and the Health and Safety Authority.
With the astronomy, the main tasks are reporting positional data on asteroids. Some are far away, some are close by and warrant us keeping a close eye on them to see if they might come a little too close for comfort.
I don’t know about cool, but there is a buzz – even after 25 plus years in the profession – when you do something that changes someone’s viewpoint on health and safety and they start to do things the right way in order to protect themselves.
There’s loads of cool stuff with astronomy. I’ve been fortunate enough to do some work with RTÉ – both live and recorded. I even got to do a film review on the Moon landings. As well as meeting the RTÉ folks like Dave Fanning and Derek Mooney, it’s great to communicate the message that astronomy is interesting, fun and very accessible to everyone.
The coolest astronomy thing, though, has to be having an asteroid bearing my name. With all my achievements, one very kind colleague put my name forward to the International Astronomical Union and they named asteroid number 21782 after me. So asteroid Davemcdonald will be whizzing around the solar system for a few billion years after I’m well gone. Now that’s cool!
What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
The basic school subjects of maths, chemistry, biology and physics were crucial. Unfortunately, I was rubbish at higher level physics but it didn’t have a detrimental effect. I’ve managed to learn enough physics to keep me going.
I have to say that English was also very important. I usually communicate in writing reports – they need to be clear, concise and grammatically correct. English was a big help and I did much better at that than physics. The IT diploma was a real boon to me. Doing formal study in that area has been a fantastic help.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
For work, I would like to think that I’ve made a positive difference to my clients’ employees. If I have prevented an accident or someone getting sick or going deaf, that to me is invaluable. And I think I’ve done that on many occasions.
In astronomy, I would hope that my small contributions will encourage others to strive for more, and perhaps one day Ireland will be able to match its past achievements in this area.
What is your dream job?
I’d love to have the Hubble telescope all to myself. Of course, I would need a control room kitted out with all the latest computer gadgets, a good sound system for music and a well stocked fridge. A 70-inch plasma screen for watching movies on and playing Halo would be mandatory for break times. Heaven!
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
My profession is a “caring” profession – I am involved in protecting people’s health at work. I guess that’s one of the reasons I chose it. It certainly has been very good to me on the earning front. And while it has taken a few years to save up for life’s “luxuries”, I am certainly in a very healthy position to take great vacations, have a nice house and spend a significant portion of my earnings on my hobby.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
A caring attitude is essential for Health and Safety – you need to be passionate about getting the message across to people and telling them why it is so important. After all, no-one wants to see anyone suffer harm or be in pain.
For astronomy, a yearning for answering the unanswered questions is a must. You also need to be dedicated and focused and not put off by the weather
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Working for a large manufacturing or construction company and being assigned to a health and safety professional for a few weeks would be great – you’ll quickly know if it’s for you or not. For astronomy, if you could get someone to show you Saturn, live, through a telescope, I guarantee you’ll be hooked.