I want to educate the next generation of engineers….

ClaireConwayAs we continue to build our Midlands STEM diaspora, we had a really good chat with Claire Conway, who is originally from Laois. We look forward to working with Claire 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..

Claire, you are originally from Midlands but live in the US – how did this come about?
Near the end of my PhD in biomedical engineering I started to look at postdoctoral research options. I kept my search wide looking at both Ireland and abroad. During this time I came across an advertisement for a postdoctoral position on a project in a joint department under Harvard and MIT and on topic in which I was very interested. It took me nearly two weeks to build up the courage to apply! Within 24 hours of my application going through I was contacted to do a Skype interview. Within a week the Skype interview took place and I was invited to visit MIT and give a seminar. I was beyond excited. I visited in December and after the seminar was offered a position and the rest, as they say, is history.
Do you miss Ireland?
I do enjoy living in the US but at the same time I still drink Barrys every day! I made the conscious effort to try to make the most of my time in US and to not be homesick. That said I of course miss my family and friends and get home about twice a year to see them. I love going back to visit and sometimes don’t want to leave but then the great friends I’ve made in Boston and the opportunities in the US make it great to live there.
Can you tell us a little about what you do and your journey to get there?
I studied mechanical engineering in NUI Galway and following this I received government funding to do a PhD in biomedical engineering in NUI Galway also. During my PhD I looked at medical device performance. I generated recommendations for the United States’ regulatory body, the Food & Drug Administration or FDA on how best to simulate a virtual medical device environment.
The postdoctoral project was also looking at medical devices but from a more clinical perspective in conjunction with the FDA. This project looked to examine medical device failure with both experimental and virtual methods. Looking back it was amazing to find something related to my PhD and which allowed me to expand into a very different area of experimental techniques and mechanical theory.
What inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?
I always had a love for numbers and an aptitude for maths and physics. Engineering just seemed like a natural fit to me. Engineers are problem solvers and apply mathematical and physical principles to solve real world problems. I especially enjoy knowing that my mechanical engineering expertise is helping provide insight into significant issues with medical devices in the clinic. Through research, which positively impacts the scientific health domain, I feel that I can make a meaningful societal contribution.
What are the benefits of living in the US?
Living in the US has given me the chance to travel and explore the vast expanse of a whole new continent. Through this adventure I have made many amazing new friends. It has also been fascinating to explore a different culture. We may we speak the same language but at times we use it very differently. I can’t count how many times I’ve clarified what craic means to an Irish person for instance! Then professionally it really has been such an opportunity. It has allowed me access to world class facilities, vast stores of data and expert clinical knowledge.
Is there a strong diaspora presence in the area in which you now reside?
The description of Boston as the 33rd county speaks volumes about the diaspora presence. There are Irish sport clubs, Irish language groups, plenty of Irish bars and this year for St. Patrick’s Day Fenway stadium, home of the Boston Red Sox baseball will be flooded in green light in honour of the Emerald Isle.
Do you plan to settle in the US or can you see a return home to Ireland in the future?
I am pursuing a career in academia. I want to educate the next generation of engineers. In my research I intend to continue exploring clinical needs and using cutting edge science and engineering technology to meet those needs. I see myself as a faculty member in a university ultimately – preferably in Ireland of course.
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?
I think very practical steps are being taken and need to continue to take place. More promotion of awareness of opportunities for diaspora to engage with home is needed on both sides. Professional agencies need to continue actively encouraging alliances between Ireland and overseas, in industrial and academic circles.
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?
I absolutely think those abroad would be excited to share their experiences and engage with their local community. I think awareness of opportunities that allow this is crucial. For example, the J1 visa system is an excellent opportunity for students to experience the US. However, I have heard many stories of those who struggle to attain experience within their sector. If a network or database of those willing to engage with the student population existed; it would ultimately allow for businesses and Irish students and graduates to benefit.
What do you think we can do to encourage more young people to consider a career in STEM related fields?
When you see the amazing things you can do with a degree in STEM, it really opens your eyes to a whole new world of which students are not always aware. Going to open days in universities is important and I think more organized industry visits could do a lot in showing primary and secondary level students the value of STEM.

Making a Difference for Maths students…

Ciaran maths NUIMWe recently had a really good chat with Dr. Ciarán Mac an Bhaird, Maths Support Centre Manager from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in NUI, Maynooth. Here’s what he had to say…

What inspired you to choose a career in Maths?

Growing up with my parents, brothers and sisters on our small farm in Monaghan, Maths was never treated differently to other subjects at school. It was a normal subject, we saw our parents using it on a daily basis for calculations and no one said it was hard or different. If you got something wrong in maths, as with any other subject, you tried to find out why and improve the next time. I also had very good teachers at school, and lecturers in University. Some of these lecturers were inspirational, especially my supervisor. When I discovered in tutorials that I seemed to be good at explaining mathematics to students, and that I enjoyed the experience, I decided that this was what I wanted to do.

Can you tell us about your role and about the Maths Support Centre at Maynooth University? Does it help to improve students’ experience of mathematics at college?

I am a lecturer and I manage the Maths Support Centre in Maynooth. My lecturing role is standard, I try to teach to the level of the students that are in my class, taking into consideration their backgrounds and try to ensure that they are exposed to and understand material which will help them with the next step in their education or career. I also try to engage them with the material, and show them why it is relevant.

I was asked by the Department to set up and manage the Maths Support Centre (MSC) in 2007, under the guidance of Dr. Ann O’Shea. It was established to try and give students the opportunity to get to a level where they could manage and even excel with mathematics at University. We have gone through a range of initiatives over the years, the most successful model being the free drop-in facility which we provide to both University and second level students. It is very popular and we reached 100000 student visits in April 2015. We have published research which indicates that regular and appropriate student engagement with supports can improve their retention and progression, students also report a better attitude towards the subject and more confidence in their mathematical ability. The MSC staff promote a friendly and non-judgmental experience atmosphere, and the majority of students who use it appropriately are very positive about their experience.

What is the most rewarding element of your job?

When I see the difference that we can make to students. Sometimes it is clear, especially in a one-to-one situation in the MSC, you are explaining something and you see the light-bulb moment when the student understands. Sometimes you don’t see this moment, but then you get an acknowledgement from a student, an email or comment, where they tell you about how something you did made a difference. It may not have even been a mathematical explanation, it might have been advice on a subject choice, or advice on how to study, or a strategy on how to tackle certain problems. I enjoy working in the MSC, it is a lot of fun.

I work closely with Dr. O’Shea on the research we conduct into our initiatives. It is very important that everything we do is fully analysed and its effectiveness determined. It is very satisfying when you can measure the positive impact on something that you do to help students.

What do you think we can do to inspire more young people to pursue a career in Maths and STEM in general?

There are several approaches that I would advocate.

First, getting suitable graduates in Maths and STEM to go out and talk to students and parents. My colleagues and I give lots of talks to schools, and we see the impact that this can have on students attitudes towards the subject. I think companies who use Maths and STEM skills also have a big role to play in this regard. It can be difficult to see or appreciate the key role that Maths and STEM plays in our everyday lives, so when companies give talks to students and parents, or invite them in to see their facilities, I think this can make a big difference.

Getting more good news stories into the wider media is also essential. Unfortunately, the majority of headline stories represented in the media seem to be ‘bad-news’ about Maths and STEM. This has an incredibly negative impact on people’s attitudes, to the point where it has become widely acceptable to say that you are ‘bad at maths or STEM’. Many view these subjects as being only for a select few. This is completely untrue and needs to be challenged.

Could schools be doing more to make maths more fun?

I can not comment in general as I have not taught very much at second level. In my experience, and certainly in the majority of the schools in which I have given talks, the teachers and principals are very positive about the subject and this is important. I know from personal experience the difference a positive and committed teacher can make to students and parents. Certainly, I would encourage schools to get actively involved with Maths Week and Science Week activities.

Why do you think events like Maths Week and Science Week are so important?

 
I think they are a great opportunity to see Mathematics or Science related events that ordinarily you would not experience. When I am not giving talks, I go to as many other events as I can and I always find out new and exciting things about Mathematics and STEM. For example, some of the events during Science Week 2015 at Maynooth are listed at https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/faculty-science-engineering/science-week and they gave great insight into both how Science and Maths helps us in our everyday lives and also helps us to explore the known universe.