My name is Niamh Kavanagh. I am doing a PhD in Physics at Tyndall National Institute, which is a part of University College Cork. My research focuses on building communications systems for the internet of the future. I do a lot of work in science communication, public engagement and student outreach. I am also a passionate advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion. I have been named as one of “6 Rising Stars of Irish Research” and “20 incredible women leading the way to scientific advancement” by Silicon Republic (Ireland’s leading technology news service).
Has your opinion of STEM changed since you were a teenager?
Yes, in secondary school, when I said that I was going to study Physics in college, it was met with raised eyebrows by many people. I got the impression that it was not “normal” and that reaction can be off-putting. Anyone that is interested in STEM should be encouraged to pursue that interest, without it being abnormal.
I remember feeling a lot of pressure due to underrepresentation at the start of college. I felt that if I did not do well in a test it would reflect badly on my gender as a whole. I felt that I had to do well or it would further confirm the incorrect assumption that Physics was not for women! It made the first few months of college especially difficult. However, I had to let that expectation go because it was too much pressure to take on. All you can do is do your best and I did a lot better without that extra pressure of trying to represent my whole gender! I was also very lucky to be a part of a very supportive year, we worked together on everything and helped each other every step of the way. Still, when we graduated in 2014, I was one of only two girls in a class of 20.
I think my main opinion of STEM that has changed since I was a teenager is that I used to think women needed to change themselves in order to be more successful in science. But I was wrong. Now I know it is not women, but the culture of science that needs to change. We cannot be successful while disregarding half the population.
In your opinion, what is the biggest myth about STEM careers?
I think the biggest myth is that science is objective and that success in STEM careers is based solely on hard work, intelligence or merit. That is not the case. While it is certainly true that race, gender and sexual orientation do not determine a person’s intellectual ability, they may determine the opportunities that that person is presented with.
For example, in a 2016 study, American science professors were asked to rate CVs in terms competence, hireablility and starting salary. All the CVs sent out were the same; except half were named John and the other half were named Jennifer. The CV with the male-associated name was rated higher in all regards and the male candidate was offered nearly $4000 more in starting salary. This was for the exact same CV and qualifications! A more recent study looked at the impact of race in a similar context. It found that in Physics, for example, Black and Latina women were rated lower in hireability than White and Asian men. These women are doubly disadvantaged by the intersection of race and gender. Again, for the exact same CV and qualifications.
In fact, every evaluating factor that we use in science has been proven to be biased. We need to stop perpetuating the myth that scientists are objective and that hard work is enough to ensure success. I think it is our duty as scientists to own up to our biases and work harder to prevent them contributing to systematic oppression. In the meantime, we need to be honest about the shortfalls of the systems that we have created, so that people can get the skills that are necessary to navigate these systems and get the support that they need to reach their full potential.
Do you believe that there is enough being done to encourage girls to study STEM and pursue STEM careers?
While I do think there is a lot of work being done to encourage girls to study STEM and pursue STEM careers, I do not believe enough is being done to retain women once they are in those careers.
We need to push for real systematic change, for example on an institutional and national level. We need to consider questions like “Are our decision-makers diverse? Are our recruitment and promotional procedures attracting and retaining women with diverse identities and experiences? Do we have pay transparency and other self-checks in place to prevent our biases contributing to systematic oppression?”
We also need to address individual accountability. Unconscious bias training is becoming common in many workplaces today, but this needs to go together with privilege awareness. Everyone has privilege, in different ways, in different spaces, and each of us should be aware of how we can use that privilege for good.
Then, there needs to be a real commitment to changing the culture of your organisation to be more diverse, equal and inclusive. Bottom line, you need to think about whether marginalised women are truly safe and comfortable in your organisation. You cannot keep bringing fish into shark-infested waters and be surprised when they disappear. The culture of your organisation needs to change, for example, through ensuring the use of inclusive language, honouring a variety of holidays/traditions, and really examining the types of behaviour that are encouraged within your culture. This needs to be an ongoing commitment to ensure that all women are truly safe, included and valued, not pushed out over time.
Describe an interesting day in your current position.
I am a PhD student, which is a strange mix of college and a job. I am paid to do research, but I also have to do a few short courses here and there. One of the goals of my PhD is to build a new type of optical communication system, so I spend a lot of time in the lab doing that.
Any time you send information over the internet, you are using an optical communication system. Computers talk to each other in a binary language of 1’s and 0’s. We turn this digital information into pulses of light using lasers, e.g. turn the laser on for 1 and off for 0. These pulses of light travel around the world (across continents and under oceans) through optical fibres, this is why the information can go so far so quickly. What I am trying to do is make a new system that is based on new types of optical fibres that could allow us to send more information, faster than ever before. So, my job involves a lot of time in the lab, designing the system, running tests and tweaking equipment to get the best performance.
There’s a lot of other aspects to my job outside the lab too, I have to read a lot of papers to learn about my field, write papers of my own to communicate my findings to other researchers and attend lots of different trainings so I can learn new skills. The communication side of things is a big part of my job, I present at conferences all around the world to share my work with other researchers but also I communicate with people outside my field; I visit schools, take part in public events and do interviews like this! I think it is important that the public can stay informed about science if they are interested and I want to make that as accessible to as many people as I can. I am very passionate about diversity and inclusion within STEM so I do a lot of work around that also.
What do you love about your current role?
I chose to study science to satisfy my curiosity, fulfil my hopes of having a good career and find the place in life where I could make a difference. Essentially, I want to understand how our world works and how we can change it for the better. What I love about my current role is that I can do all those things that I set out to do. I also love the variety, all the different people I get to meet, and the new world of opportunities that this role has opened up to me.
What has been the most surprising element of your job?
I honestly did not know this job would be so varied and I would be able to explore as many opportunities as I have. It has been through doing the PhD that I discovered my love of science communication and the community that comes with that.
Since beginning my PhD in 2014, I have taken part in over 100 outreach activities with the public and students of all ages. I try to make complex Physics concepts clear, relatable and memorable. I want to ignite curiosity, inspire interest in physics and encourage young people to consider careers in STEM.
I have had the opportunity to take part in lots of cool outreach activities that have taken me all over the world. However, certainly, the coolest experience that I have had has been performing my own science stand-up routine on the Vodafone Comedy Stage at the Body & Soul festival in 2018 with a group called Bright Club. That was so much fun!
What has been your most exciting career moment to date?
I really want to improve the culture of STEM to be more inclusive of everyone who is curious and interested. I am a passionate advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion. I am a member of several Empowering Women, Athena Swan and Diversity committees that are pushing for positive change locally, nationally and internationally, and I have been invited to international conferences to speak about these important issues.
In November 2018, I was featured in a national documentary about gender equality called “The Big Picture: A Woman’s World” in which I spoke about some of the challenges that women face to reaching their full potential in Physics. Over 220,000 people nationwide watched this. It was so exciting to be able to talk about something I am so passionate about on such a platform.
However, the highlight has been helping to set up House of STEM, Ireland’s first network for LGBTQ+ people in STEM. As co-chair of this network, I helped to organise the first international LGBT STEM day on July 5th 2018, which reached 75 million people worldwide! It was so exciting. That day I was full of pride; in myself, in my work and in my LGBTQ+ community, I will never forget it. If you want to get a glimpse of it, search #LGBTSTEMday online to see many other people sharing their stories, research and pride.
Do you get to work with any new technologies?
Yes! I work with lots of super cool new technologies such as new types of optical fibres that could send more information, faster than we have ever seen! Optical fibres are solid strands of pure glass that are thinner than a hair. They are like pipes for light. Light, from a laser, can be encoded with information using a laser, turn it on for one and off for zero, like Morse code. This light travels down the fibre by bouncing along the walls, carrying information across continents and under oceans in the blink of an eye! Basically, the internet is just a bunch of different coloured twinkling lights, travelling around the planet in solid glass pipes. It is amazing.
However, there are some problems with sending light through glass. Similar to you trying to run through a swimming pool, light travelling in glass can only go about 70% of its full speed. In addition, for high powers, light and glass interact in weird ways that corrupts the information being transmitted. Because of this, we have hit the maximum power limit that these fibres can carry.
My research is looking at new types of optical fibres that are hollow rather than solid, so the light now travels through air rather than glass and this could have several advantages. First, in an air core, light can travel at pretty much its full speed, well 99.7%. In addition, since the light is not travelling through glass, you do not get as much of those weird effects so you can send much more power. These hollow-core fibres are predicted to carry more information, faster than ever before!
Do you ever get to travel abroad for work?
Yes, I have travelled all over the world for conferences, diversity meetings and science communication events. I have been all over Europe, in places like Germany, Italy, Spain, France and the UK. This year alone I will be in the US four times. It’s great because I love travelling, meeting new people and exploring the world!
What kind of other experts do you work with on a day to day basis?
I work with a wide variety of people. In fact, one time I surveyed my co-workers to find out what degrees they did in university for an outreach project, the main responses were physics, chemistry, engineering, biomedical, maths, marketing, business and microbiology.
I also asked them to summarise their work in a sentence, some of the responses included:
- “smart wearable wound-dressings”
- “new sensors for farmers to reduce waste and have more sustainable food production”
- “developing long-life, tiny (<1mm) batteries”
- “devices to increase internet speeds”
- “bovine disease diagnostics”
- “miniature energy harvesters”
- “light-based circuits to make people’s lives better”
- “embedding sensors in the world around us for more informed real-time decision making”
- “discovering ways to grow materials one atom at a time”
- “finding cheap, non-toxic materials that use sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into fuels”
- “putting more information per second across internet cables”
- “making smart needles for more targeted anaesthetic injection”
- “looking at new ways information can be sent across the internet so we can keep sending more and more”
Is your current job, and the work of the wider team, making a difference in the world?
Yes, with the rise of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, high-definition video streaming, cloud storage and increased connectivity through the Internet of Things, we need to prepare for a future full of big data, high capacity demands and increasingly bandwidth-hungry applications. Current forecasts predict that global internet traffic to triple from 2017 to 2022, along with the number of internet-connected devices becoming three times larger than the world’s population!
This is creating a strain on our current communications network and could lead to a global capacity crunch in the not-so-distant future. There is only so much the system can cope with. This capacity crunch could seriously affect the internet’s future growth, causing slower internet and increased prices for users. New systems and new ways of thinking are required to meet future demands. That is where my work comes in to (hopefully) save the day!
What do you hope to achieve in the next year in your current position?
I am coming to the end of my PhD now so I am looking to take next career step into a fast-paced, exciting organisation that is committed to innovation, inclusion and making a positive impact on society.
Do you feel that you fit the stereotypical description of a person in your role?
No, as a bisexual woman in Physics, I did not know any other people like me in my institution and I see very few people like me represented in the higher levels of my field, or in the media. But I am very active on social media and I have found people like me there; people who face the same struggles and share the same goals. Then, with the support of those people, I learned how to identify allies within my own institution. These allies helped me to connect with others, and I started to build a strong support network of people that I could identify with.
In addition, I think very few people fit into the strict confines of stereotypes. Everyone is different in their own way. Hopefully, if each of us keeps breaking the mould in our own unique ways, we can make the concept of what is accepted, expected and celebrated broader over time so that more people feel like they can truly be fit in, feel included and be valued as their authentic selves.
If a young person told you that they would like to get into your role, what advice would you give them?
If you are interested in STEM, please get involved! There are many different initiatives to support young people, and young girls especially, who have a passion for STEM. Try to talk to anyone you know who works in a STEM-related job. Ask at your local university or Tech Company to see if they have outreach, activities or support structures that you can get involved in. There are many national initiatives in Ireland, for example, around Science Week and Engineers Week where there are many events on around the country, so keep an eye out for something similar where you live. The internet is an endless resource, where you can find anything about anything, so take advantage of that!
What do you want to see change in the industry in the next 10 years?
Achieving equality in STEM, so that people of all genders, races, sexual orientations and diverse backgrounds are included and can reach their full potential.
Did you complete any sort of placement or internship during your studies? If so, did it prepare you for what you do now?
Before coming to college, I took a year out after my leaving cert and worked full time as a waiter, housekeeper and babysitter. Then during college, I continued this work for the first two summers. After that, I wanted to try something different. During my one of my courses, I visited the photonics systems group at Tyndall to do research for a project. I was so impressed with the facilities, the people and the work that they were doing that I emailed to inquire about a summer internship. That following summer I took part in a laser project that completely re-ignited my passion for Physics and opened my eyes to a whole new world of amazing applications, I felt lost in Physics before then honestly. I loved the internship and returned the following summer. Then, in my final year of college, with supervisor’s help, I applied for a scholarship from the Irish Research Council to fund my PhD.
Name one thing on your bucket list.
The main thing on my bucket list right now is that I would love to live outside of Ireland for a while, so I am looking for a job abroad at the moment. I want to spread my wings, experience different cultures and explore the world!
What television series are you currently watching?
I grew up watching Buffy, Xena and Charmed, so I normally love anything fantastical with a strong woman lead. I am currently watching Russian Doll, Grace and Frankie, Tales of the city, Fleabag and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I have a few feel-good favourites that I return to repeatedly, usually 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, Schitts Creek, Brooklyn Nine Nine, The Good Place and Queer Eye. Some of my other all-time favourites are Broad City, Sense 8, Orange is the New Black, Dirk Gently and Orphan Black.
What living person do you most admire, and why?
There is so many, I cannot pick just one! I really admire my parents (Elizabeth and Pascal Kavanagh). There were my first role models. I come from a working-class background, they always did their best to support me and my siblings. They taught me the value of hard work, kindness and commitment.
In my own field of photonics, the person I most admire is my supervisor, Fatima Gunning at Tyndall National Institute. She is a wonderful example of a brilliant physicist who knows the importance of empathy. Arti Agrawal is a director in the University of Technology in Sydney and a great advocate for diversity. In the wider field of STEM, Linda Doyle created her own title as Professor of Engineering and The Arts (what an amazing combination!) of Trinity College Dublin. Jessamyn Fairfield is a Physics lecturer at NUI Galway and stand-up comedian. Niamh Shaw is a space explorer and artist in residence at Blackrock Observatory. I think these women are breaking barriers, blending the boundaries of STEM and I find that so admirable!
I admire so many brilliant scientists who are bravely outspoken about the issues that face marginalised communities in STEM. Shubhangi Karmakar is a medical researcher, artist and activist who is creating platforms to give a voice to people from minority communities. Angela Saini is a science journalist who has written two amazing books, Inferior (about gender science) and Superior (about race science), that have changed my perspective on the world. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire and has taught me so much about challenges facing Black women in STEM and I am so grateful for the work she shares.
In the grand scheme of things, the year I was born, Mary Robinson became the first woman to be president of Ireland, she was also UN High Commissioner and today she has a podcast about how climate change is a feminist issue! I think Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist, is an amazing role model. In addition, Sinéad Burke is an Irish educator, contributing editor at British Vogue and the first little person to attend the Met Gala. Finally, Caster Semenya is a huge role model for me right now. I think her fortitude, determination and grace in the face of such adversity and discrimination is truly admirable.
There is so many more that I admire. I hope that I can make as positive an impact on the world as these inspiring people.