I am a Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin and Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. I research space weather and also teach in the School of Physics at Trinity. Space weather is all about how the Sun impacts the Earth; eruptions of radiation and hot gas from the Sun can disrupt technologies like radio communications, GPS, and power grids, so we try to forecast when these events might occur (just like weather forecasting but for space!). As a solar physicist I analyse satellite images of the Sun with computers in order to better understand how and when these eruptions occur.
Has your opinion of STEM changed since you were a teenager?
I don’t think the acronym ‘STEM’ was around when I was a teenager, or maybe it was but I never heard of it until I was at university! I learned about science in quite a traditional way at school, with images of laboratory experiments in my mind, and didn’t have much exposure to engineering or technology. For the Leaving Cert I studied English, Irish, Maths, German, Physics, Chemistry, and Geography. Maths was always my favourite subject, but I was really interested in all things space so that’s why I chose to study for a BA degree in Astrophysics (then going on to do an MSc in Space Science and PhD in Solar Physics). I didn’t entirely know what an astrophysicist did before I started university (I probably thought it had to do with telescopes and blackboards with equations), but I was interested enough to learn more!
I have since learned there’s so many different roles that a scientist has, and how that interacts with technology and engineering. The research part of my job for example is more about computer programming (I don’t own a lab coat or touch a telescope!), and the teaching part includes lots of communication and outreach.
Describe an interesting day in your current position.
My daily work can vary quite widely depending on what’s in my schedule. If it’s teaching term you might find me supervising one of the physics laboratories or teaching in a lecture hall. A normal day of research at the office would probably consist of computer work, for example computer programming and data analysis of satellite observations. That analysis work may lead towards writing a scientific paper, usually with other colleagues in the office or worldwide (which means lots of meetings and travelling!). If there is an upcoming deadline I will spend time writing reports or proposals instead of coding.
I guess an interesting day would probably be speaking about my latest research at a space weather conference, at which I would be leading discussions and presenting my recent research work. Recently I was in the USA presenting some results to hundreds of colleagues from all around the world! It’s a great chance to catch up on the latest discoveries in the field and plan new research collaborations.
I also undertake a lot of outreach activities, which I think is a really interesting part of my job. I might for example have to prepare a presentation for a public talk, help run an event at Dunsink Observatory, or talk to colleagues at the Science Gallery to help plan a new project or exhibit they are working on.
What do you love about your current role?
Space weather is quite a new field of research in the grand scheme of things. We still don’t fully understand the underlying physics behind solar eruptions, which can make accurately predicting when they will occur rather tricky. Working in such an active research area is really exciting, as we are still uncovering new discoveries! I love that my job is a bit of a mix between the science and the communication since it’s such a new field.
Working as a scientist also allows for a lot of day-to-day flexibility, which is great. If I need to work at home for a day I can, and my working hours can vary as needed. I also get to travel abroad regularly to interesting places to talk to interesting people!
Do you get to work with any new technologies?
Most of my research work is computer-based, so I do work with the latest technologies in my field. I code in popular data science programming languages such as Python and R, and run machine learning algorithms on big supercomputers. I am lucky to get to analyse the latest highest resolution images of the Sun from some amazing NASA and ESA spacecraft missions!
Do you ever get to travel abroad for work?
I do travel a lot for work, whether it’s to do some outreach, attend a conference, or meet with colleagues to work together on a project. In the past few months I have visited the USA, UK, and the Netherlands for meetings. My next trip will be down to Cork to give a public talk!
What kind of other experts do you work with on a day to day basis?
We call space weather ‘multi-disciplinary’ since it includes lots of different areas of science expertise. I work with scientists who would never normally work with each other, such as astrophysicists who study the Sun and the solar system, scientists studying the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, and geophysicists studying the ground and below! Since we are only starting to decide on international standards for space weather forecasting I also get to work with lots of people in other areas of expertise, such as weather forecasters, people in industry (e.g., space agencies, spacecraft manufacturers, insurance, power suppliers, radio operators, airlines), and government policy makers. Through my outreach activities I also work with teachers and other science communicators to create space-themed educational resources.
If a young person told you that they would like to get into your role, what advice would you give them?
If you like maths or physics in school that’s a good start! To be a research scientist you’ll start with a Bachelor Degree then become more specialised in your field with Masters and Doctoral degrees, so it’s worth knowing that’s probably a good 8 years of education ahead! If you’re interested in learning a little bit more about what this kind of career is like I’d say check out if your nearest university hosts any events for secondary students. For example here at the School of Physics in Trinity we run things like the Walton Club, the Transition Year Physics Experience, and the Physics Open Day, and I’m sure other universities have similar initiatives elsewhere.
For my particular field, I’d also say that computational skills proved to be a lot more important than I ever thought possible as I spend most of my day at a computer!
What do you want to see change in the industry in the next 10 years?
I think it would be great to see more Irish involvement in space research and industry in the coming decade, particularly in my area of research since I tend to work with international colleagues more than anyone in here at home. I’d love to be involved in creating an Irish space weather forecasting centre!
Did you complete any sort of placement or internship during your studies? If so, did it prepare you for what you do now?
As an undergraduate I didn’t complete any specific industry placements as there weren’t too many available back then! There are lots of summer research programmes available nowadays at universities that I highly recommend. I did get to spend a couple of months in the USA when I was in the third year of my degree as part of the FÁS Science Challenge, where I attended lectures at Florida Institute of Technology and got to work on projects with some of the scientists there at Florida Space Authority. It was an amazing summer, and really helped me decide that I wanted a career in the space industry.
When I completed my PhD I attended a number of advanced summer schools in solar physics, as well as some computer programming courses at the university. New projects often mean needing to learn new skills so I think further training is something I will continue throughout my career!
Do you feel secure in the fact that you can earn a living from a career in Stem?
As a Research Fellow I am reliant on finding my own funding through national and international research grants. These are contracts of fixed length (usually a few years at a time), so I’m afraid it isn’t the most stable profession. Constantly writing research proposals gets pretty stressful after a while. I hope to secure a permanent position in the future, but I’m afraid it’s the nature of this field of study that we all have to get through. I know with the skills that I have gained through my education and career I could easily find a job in something like data science or other technological fields, but I enjoy space research so for now it’s worth the effort!