From the Midlands to MIT..

james merrickAs our quest to build our Midlands STEM diaspora continues, we had a the opportunity to chat with Standford Phd Candidate James Merrick to hear all about his journey from Co.Offaly to his current role as President of the Stanford Irish Association. We look forward to working with James over the coming months to help grow our database of like-minded Midlands natives and explore how we can best utilise their skills and connections back home in Ireland as part of the over Government diaspora strategy..

James, you are originally from Midlands but live in the US – how did this come about?

My path to the USA was through educational opportunity, and particularly the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where I completed a dual masters degree in Technology & Policy and in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science. When I was considering masters programs, I decided to look a bit broader than the Irish universities. One thing led to another after that initial thought, and I found myself with an attractive offer from MIT. I am now working on my PhD at Stanford University in California, situated about 35 miles south of San Francisco. Essentially MIT and Stanford are the two best technical research universities in the world, so it has been a privilege to experience both. And I suppose the reason for taking these opportunities is to try and make the most of one’s talents.

Do you miss Ireland?

I am home frequently and spend a few months of the year in Ireland so it is not too bad. Implicit in that statement is that I would miss it a lot if I was not spending time there, particularly missing family and friends of course. It is brilliant to get home to the farm and help with the cows, bring home the turf etc. All good for the soul. In general, the time away makes one appreciate Ireland all the more. Recently in particular, I have been thinking a lot about the importance of Irish culture, particularly when one reflects on the devastation of Native American culture. Gaeilge, hurling, football, ceol, the sense of humour. We can take them for granted at home, and see some of it as old-fashioned at times, particularly the language. But it is so important to have your own culture and not just be another non-descript part of a homogenous world. Ireland’s success will not be based on copying slavishly from elsewhere, but taking the best of what is out there, blending with our own way of doing things, and creating something unique that other people will want to copy. And in the big picture we have done all this pretty well, we just have to keep it going.

Can you tell us a little about what you do and your journey to get there?

My research involves the application of the ongoing computational and algorithmic advances to questions of climate and energy policy. Questions such as how can we keep the lights on affordably if we have a zero-emissions power system, how do we reduce emissions from our transportation systems, etc. are all of interest. Computer modeling of these systems can help inform how to bring about these futures. I first got interested in climate change back in 2007 when the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change released a big report at the time. I decided that this was the major issue facing humanity and I would like to work on it. This led me to MIT as mentioned above. Graduating from MIT, I had an interesting offer to apply my masters research at an institute called the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. I had a good experience and spent two and a half years there working on some influential projects, but I felt I had left a little on the table in the academic world, so I decided to return to finish my PhD. During my time working in California I got to know some of the Stanford professors, so I decided to work on the PhD at Stanford. Getting a PhD can be a long process over here, but it has gone well so far. I have been able to build on my previous experience, and I am in the latter stages now.

What are the benefits of living in the US?

The first thing I always say about the USA is to emphasise just how diverse a place it is. Living in Silicon Valley (where Stanford is located) is a hugely different experience to living elsewhere. For me, the primary benefit of living here is being on the frontier of human knowledge around the university. Then around Silicon Valley, we can see the businesses developing that have such worldwide impact. Of course in California the weather is very nice too. The can-do attitude can be refreshing and energising in the right doses. There are certainly downsides also, but that is for another day.

Is there a strong diaspora presence in the area in which you now reside?

Yes, there is a very strong Irish community around the San Francisco area, and I am fairly involved in aspects of it. I am president of the Stanford Irish Association at the moment, and that has been fun. It has been good to have a focus point for people around the university from Ireland, or simply with some interest in Ireland. In addition, myself and a few friends set up the local St. Joseph’s Silicon Valley Hurling Club. Some people come to California and set up billion dollar companies, but we set up something far more fun – a hurling team. It has been a great success on and off the field. It provides a sense of community far from home, and as it turns out, provides an excellent professional network too.

As you are aware, the government here has recently been consulting individuals with an interest in emigration issues to review how Ireland can better engage with its communities abroad – How can we engage the diaspora in a more beneficial and strategic way do you think?

In terms of what the government can do, I think it is important to make it easy for people to come home and bring both their experience and what they have learned back with them to benefit the Irish economy and society more broadly. Simple examples would be keeping an eye on how car insurance, health insurance companies treat people who have been out of the system for a few years. Of course, the most compelling form of engagement I can think of would be allowing Irish citizens abroad to vote. Most democracies allow this in some form or other. In terms of other initiatives, the recent ConnectIreland initiative seems like a positive step. Personally, I would also like to see an initiative that would identify the young people with a great passion or talent for mathematics / science / technology and set up a conversation between them and with people who have been able to build successful careers in those fields. From my own experience, I know it can be difficult to imagine how to pursue those interests, and simply talking to somebody who has been there is always a good step.

Having spoken with several high profile individuals with an affinity for the Midlands in recent years, we know there is definitely a need to create greater awareness about what is happening back home, with a view to being able to then invite Irish business people abroad to play a more active role back here in a more committed way. Do you think Irish people abroad would be willing to engage more with their local community if they knew more about opportunities?
Absolutely, I see people here making an effort all the time when the opportunity arises. Of course, like in anything, when engaging is a win-win for all parties, it is easier for busy people abroad to get involved.

Would you like to Join Our Team?

We’re looking for a Business Development Executive to join our team. So, if you’re interested in supporting the growth of STEM education and skills in the Midlands, please have a look at the ad below and contact us for more details.

Business Development Executive
(Part Time Role 3 Days per week)

The Business Development Executive will be a key role in the development of Atlantic Corridor’s work in the promotion of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths] Education.
About Atlantic Corridor:
Atlantic Corridor is an innovative development company, funded by a mixture of public and private sources. Its work in the promotion of STEM education in the Midlands is widely acknowledged and highly valued. The Business Development Executive will play a key role in the growth and sustainability of this work. The successful candidate will be responsible for cultivating and securing new public, corporate, foundation and private philanthropic relationships/funding to support Atlantic Corridor in its mission to grow STEM education and skills in the midlands. The current work programme includes the Midlands Science Festival, SWIM [Science With Inspirational Mentors], JUMP Math, Midlands Science Diaspora Network and a range of events and initiatives focussed on STEM issues.

Further information is available on www.atlanticcorridor.ie and on www.midlandsscience.ie

The following are the key requirements for the position:

Education:
Third level qualification or professionally trained with appropriate qualifications.
Desirable experience:
• Minimum of three years fundraising experience or equivalent (private sector sales or capital fundraising experience in a target driven environment would be considered as comparable).
• Demonstrated experience in managing and implementing a comprehensive development programme via corporate partnerships.
• Excellent networking skills with proven experience of working with key stakeholder audiences, in particular at senior corporate level in the private sector and with high net worth individuals, but also government, foundations, university sector.
How to Apply:
Apply in confidence by email only with covering letter outlining your key experience and suitability for the role, together with a full CV to:

Jackie Gorman at jgorman@atlanticcorridor.ie
Application email must include this subject line: Business Development Executive position. The deadline for applications is 12pm Fri Mar 4th. Please note canvassing will disqualify.
Atlantic Corridor is an equal opportunities employer.
Atlantic Corridor is signatory to the Statement of Guiding Principles for Fundraising under the auspices of the ICTR (Irish Charities Tax Research).

Celebrate International Innovation Day

_DSC0210How will you be innovative for ‘International Innovation Day’ which takes place today across the globe? Simply spot a problem or issue that needs to be addressed or fixed and try to think of a solution…..and before you know it you’re innovating! Innovation Day and the art of innovating is all about imagining new, better ways of doing things. It’s about ideas and delivering more efficient processes, answers and ideas.

In December 2015, the Government launched plan entitled Innovation 2010. Innovation has been central to securing Ireland’s economic recovery to date and has supported growth in the numbers at work with 135,000 more people in employment since 2012. Recent reports have also seen Ireland continue to improve in international innovation rankings, most recently climbing from 10th place in 2013 to 8th place in 2015 in the EU Innovation Union Scoreboard.

To build on this success and achieve the vision to become a Global Innovation Leader driving a strong sustainable economy and a better society, Ireland must continue to invest heavily in Research, development, science and technology which will all contribute to this goal to deliver on our vision focusing on excellence, talent and impact in research and development.

What Is Innovation? Whether it happens among students or young pupils in a classroom setting, or scientists in a laboratory, innovation is a series of steps that begins with imagination and creativity and results in the creation of something new, progressive and of value for society.

One of Ireland’s greatest strengths is its people and future innovation depends on people. Some of the things that must be done immediately at all levels is greater encouragement , from encouraging greater engagement with science, technology, engineering and mathematics at primary level to ensuring the necessary supports for researchers at postdoctoral and Principal Investigator levels.

As well as supporting the full continuum of talent development in order to ensure that the quantity and quality of trained people is sufficient, we also must support the full continuum of research, from frontier research at and beyond the frontiers of current understanding, to the creation and development of research-informed innovative products, processes and services. Support for excellent research across all disciplines (including arts, humanities and the social sciences as well as science, technology, engineering and maths) is essential, as is the provision of adequate research infrastructure to ensure that our researchers have access to the best possible equipment and facilities.

We all have the ability to be innovative – Think about some simple ways that you can do so today!

Making Sense of Science Through Fun!

scoil mhuire boat projectDuring the course of last year, we undertook some simple surveys to find out what Midlands students thought about science, the teaching of it and the subject itself. A large number of responses indicated that science could definitely be more fun in the classroom and that this should start from an early age.

One student said, ‘I have loved science from a very young age and think it is so important to start encouraging pupils as early as primary school level about what an adventure it can be to explore science and all its wonders. Events such as the Midlands Science Festival ensure that children as young as five years old have the opportunity to see how certain elements of science work, but in a more fun and often lighthearted way. I dressed up as a scientist for a primary school fashion show years ago; that’s how young I was when I fell in love with science!’

The Midlands Science Festival will be heading into its fourth year in November and we will be doing some work over the next year or so to track back to those pupils who experiences their first science festival event in 2013 to see what they think of these events, to find out if they have had any impact on them and on their understanding of science and to see how they feel about learning science at school.

We know from talking to teachers that students (especially the younger ones) really learn through fun but we also know that it can depend on how much emphasis is place on science as a subject in the early years of schools. In some cases, it can be down to one very enthusiastic science teacher and in other cases the importance of science is not empahsized enough. We try to work with both ends of the scale so we aim to bring science events to the existing science enthusiasts but we are also working to ensure more and more schools avail of science activities even if it isn’t on the top of their agenda …yet!

Fionnuala Doheny, Principal of Scoil Mhuire in Tullamore commented, ‘It is our belief that once an appreciation of maths and a curiosity of science is established, often through fun activities such as maths trails, boat making or attending Midlands Science Festival events, it will stay with them forever and indeed many of our past pupils have taken up careers in the world of science and maths.’
Recently while doing some research into events planning and how we in the Midlands Science Festival team can make sure we are providing ample school based science activities that are fun and exciting we came across this really interested TED talk. It features a teacher in the United States who explains the importance of all of this and how he has worked to make science fun!

Take a look at this link and see how you can ensure young people have the opportunity to learn just how much science is all around them and just how fun it can be –

Celebrating Darwin Day!

darwinDarwin Day is a global celebration of science and reason held on or around February 12th annual as this is the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin. Darwin’s remarkable impact on biology, cosmology and the scientific process cannot be understated and he had an overwhelming hunger for truth through scientific discovery, an unwavering curiosity to discover that which was hidden and a determination to brave intellectual depths.

The International Darwin Day Foundation is a voluntary movement which, through focusing on the scientific achievements of Charles Darwin and others, serves to improve the public understanding of science and to help improve science literacy. This is very similar to what we, in the Midlands Science festival team strive to do at all times. Like our own objectives, International Darwin Day encourages interested groups and individuals throughout the world to participate in the annual celebration of Charles Darwin’s life and in doing so to become more familiar with his contribution to science. In all fairness, we owe him a lot!

His interests were vast and broad but one of his main strengths was to bring ideas from different subjects such as botany, psychology and zoology together, uniting them under his grand theories of evolution. Darwin Day is a day of celebration and cooperation for the advancement of science, education, and human well-being. How will you celebrate it?

‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.’