Irish-American scientist Returns to her Roots and Inspires Locals

2016-05-24 Dr Mary Guinan-8417Local development company Atlantic Corridor in collaboration with the ‘United States Embassy Creative Minds Series’ was pleased to welcome a most inspirational speaker and author, Dr. Mary Guinan to the region earlier this week.

During her time in the Midlands, Dr. Guinan addressed a number of secondary schools students in Westmeath and Offaly, telling stories about her barrier-crossing career in science and worked to encourage more young people to consider science as a future course of study and work. Mary Guinan, PhD, MD, was the founding dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is now professor emerita. She was the first woman to serve as the chief scientific advisor to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has roots in Co. Offaly and was proud to be taking part in a series of public events in schools and other venues to promote science and technology education in the region. This was all carried out through her association with the Midlands Science Diaspora, a network that is being developed by Atlantic Corridor.

Dr.Guinan commented,

‘A key focus of Atlantic Corridor’s work is placed upon deepening relationships with diaspora members with a background in science, engineering or a related industry discipline so I was delighted to come to the Midlands this week to share some of my own experiences and background with people here of all ages. There are many Irish and Irish American people who have made a significant contribution to science abroad but future success will be achieved through collaborations, sharing of knowledge and working together. The Midlands science diaspora project provides a platform for like-minded people to connect and hopefully create mutually beneficial opportunities, particularly those with a STEM related focus and I was delighted to be a part of that this week in Offaly and Westmeath.’

In addition to school visits and meetings with like-minded public health and science professionals, a special public interview was held in the Tullamore Court Hotel where Dr. Guinan talked about her fascinating career in science, her brand new book, ‘Adventures of a Female Medical Detective’ and this was followed by discussion, debate and learnings. A visit to Integra LifeSciences was also arranged as part of the visit. Integra LifeSciences, a world leader in medical technology, is dedicated to limiting uncertainty for surgeons, so they can concentrate on providing the best patient care. Integra offers innovative solutions in orthopaedic extremity surgery, neurosurgery, and reconstructive and general surgery. The Tullamore facility opened its doors in December 2006 and has grown from 5 employees to over 105 employees in its 10 successful years of operations.

Jackie Gorman, CEO of Atlantic Corridor said,

‘We have enjoyed a very successful week-long programme of events with Mary Guinan and feel it has been really beneficial, particularly towards our quest to encourage and excite more young people about the wide range of career choices science can offer. We would like to thank everyone for supporting the various events that we provided during the week and we look forward to connecting with many other members of the global Irish who may be able to make that valuable educational difference here in the Midlands in the future.’

Public interview with Dr Mary Guinan, May 24th

mary G

In her career in public health, Dr Mary Guinan was at the forefront of the eradication of small pox. Today, smallpox is the only disease that mankind has eliminated from nature and it is a disease that killed at least 2 million people per year until its eradication. During her barrier-crossing career, Dr. Guinan met arms-seeking Afghan insurgents in Pakistan and got caught in the cross fire between religious groups in Lebanon. She treated some of the first AIDS patients and served as an expert witness in defence of a pharmacist who was denied employment for having HIV—leading to a landmark decision that still protects HIV patients from workplace
discrimination.

Since the emergence of HIV, almost 78 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 39 million people have died. Randy Shilts’s best-selling book on the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, features her AIDS work.

Mary Guinan, PhD, MD, was the founding dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is now professor emerita. She was the first woman to serve as the chief scientific advisor to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has roots in Co. Offaly and is proud to be taking part in a series of public events in schools and other venues to promote science and technology education in the midlands region, through her association with the Midlands Science Diaspora, a network that is being developed by Atlantic Corridor.

If you wish to attend a public interview wuith Dr Guinan please contact jgorman@atlanticcorridor.ie for details.

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.

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.