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The surprising diversity of roles for women in science and tech

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Dervilla Donnelly

Professor

We asked three women, from different backgrounds, how they all came to be working in STEM, and what they love about it the most.


Who or what sparked your interest to get involved in STEM?

As Ireland’s representative in the European Science Foundation in the 90’s  Europe‘s scientific community were considering the best approach to issues challenging the continent. A conference entitled  CHOICES FOR  EUROPE was held in the Hague. A new Commission was in place and as was the custom  a rethinking of goals and instruments was on the Agenda. At that time it was a time of change not only in Society in general but also in scientific system. The issue of societal relevance of science  dominated so many discussions not to mention industry and commerce.

Science was becoming more and more like politics because researchers had to fight for budgets arrange and negotiate international collaborations and form coalitions to convince the individual research Councils of the relevance of the proposal

Can you tell me something about your career that we may not know?

As Chairman of the European Research Councils , a committee of the European Science Foundation(ESF), joint projects were achieved over some 10 years.  This progressed to an informal club that was called by the acronym Eurohorcs   whose members were the respective chairs of individual councils. The national organisations felt uneasy about the tightening grip of administration in Brussels on European science and interference in fundamental science, as their funding programme was geared towards product oriented research.   

Influencing European science policy meant to lobby for the highest possible ranking of science in European politics. Out of this ESTA (European Science and Technical Assembly) was born and had a growing influence on European science policy.  The ultimate success is the existence   today of ERC

European nations have a long history in scientific endeavour. The tradition of scientific inquiry is well rooted , a strong cadre of qualified men and women exists. The ESF in the following years extended it range of interests to the social sciences, thus allowing a widely disciplinary approach in coping with many of society’s complex problems.

I acted as Vice-president of the ESF and was elected Vice president of ESTA

Has there ever been a time where you’ve made a big impact on society through your career – can you tell me about this time and how it made you feel?

When elected (1990) as the first female  President of the Royal Dublin Society a body that aims to see Ireland thrive culturally and economically by encouraging new ideas disseminating information and showcasing best practice . I felt very honoured to have been elected by the Members. Recently, I was awarded the Cunningham Medal by the Royal Irish Academy, their highest honour.

What is your favourite aspect of your career and why?

My life as an academic with the opportunity to work with so many research graduates both at home and abroad and on topics of ones choice.

Have you a wish list for women working in science in Ireland?

I wish them every success as scientists  


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Mary Caroll

WITS Chair

Who or what sparked your interest to get involved in STEM?

My mother had a natural aptitude for Maths and a real can-do attitude with regard to problem solving – no limiting beliefs in that respect!  I also had a brilliant Maths teacher at school, Gerry Coogan, who made Maths uncomplicated and explained it so clearly. Unusually, my all-girls school, although very conservative in many ways, was hugely enthusiastic, in the 80s, about encouraging all of us to study Engineering – probably overly so – I recall one of my classmates protesting that she didn’t WANT to be an engineer, she wanted to be an accountant!

Has there ever been a time where you’ve made a big impact on society through your career – can you tell me about this time and how it made you feel?

In 2003, I volunteered with Goal in Zimbabwe, managing a UN funded Emergency Food Distribution programme for six months for up to 122,000 beneficiaries monthly, with a team of 45. Of course, I got more out of the experience than anyone – it was so very rewarding. It was during a very tense time politically in Zimbabwe with some challenging dynamics at play. The management skills I had acquired in industry served me well in the role. The unexpected bonus was that I met my husband, Will, there!

What is your favourite aspect of your career and why?

I now run my own business, Growth Potential, as a Strategist and accredited Business Coach. I love the variety of supporting all sorts of organisations, both corporate and not-for-profit in developing strategy. I really enjoy analysis, probing and questioning assumptions, counterbalanced by a real interest in people and what enables them to reach their full potential. One of the areas that I love is supporting organisations to be inclusive of all their talent, by raising awareness of, for example, unconscious bias and supporting them in implementing systems and cultivating a truly inclusive environment.

Have you a wish list for women working in science in Ireland?

That they would have equal opportunities and comparable experiences to their male . That preconceptions that can exist about who is good at what and who is responsible for what would become a thing of the past. That women would not find themselves having to make difficult choices due to factors such as a lack of affordable childcare, which would be seen as a family rather than a women’s issue. That parents would have the option of sharing “maternity” leave as they see fit, benefitting everyone.


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Kate Reidy

Student

Who or what sparked your interest to get involved in STEM.

Definitely my mum. She’s a science teacher and would always bring home small ‘experiments’ for me to see. Although STEM is conventionally seen as very structured, there is a huge amount of creativity and inventiveness involved in any STEM subject. That is the part that first motivated me, and the part that people often don’t get introduced to at a young age.

Can you tell me something about your career that we may not know?

One thing that I didn’t know before I started university is how many opportunities there are to get involved in real leading-edge research as a student. For example, two summers ago I did an internship in iNANO, Denmark, and got to contribute to water splitting research (for hydrogen powered cars) while also getting to travel. I continued this last semester, completing my final year project at California Institute of Technology, developing solar fuels – a potential runner in the future of clean energy. The level of input that a student can have, even through the time period of a summer project or internship, is something that I think is important for current and future students to realise – that their work can have a meaningful impact in the wider research arena, and they don’t need to wait until they have graduated to start making contributions.

Has there ever been a time where you’ve made a big impact on society through your career – can you tell me about this time and how it made you feel?

Through my work in the Trinity Student Scientific Review (TSSR) last year, I definitely felt like I made an impact on the local society of undergraduate students in Ireland. The importance of scientific communication has never been greater than in our current climate and, as the first undergraduate science journal in Ireland, I was heartened to see this opportunity given to students to engage in current research, think critically, and question the world around them.

What is your favourite aspect of your career and why?

Definitely the flexibility that comes with being a student, and the ability to focus on exactly what interests you. Through research internships and projects, I was free throughout my college years to focus on many research directions, see what new research was emerging, and decide what really mattered to me as a future scientist. You’re not bound by contracts or funding as a student, so it’s the time to really get out and explore.

Have you a wish list for women working in science in Ireland?

One thing I would definitely like to see in the future is a greater representation of women in science at the second and third level. Even as a relatively ‘new’ physics student, I have noticed an unequal gender balance, especially in my physics and maths classes. However, I this balance is much better than it was some years ago, and I would hope the future motivations for young women to pursue STEM would be supported and encouraged.

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