All the Fun of the Bog…

Clara bog blog picClara Bog is situated about 2 km south-east of Clara town in Co. Offaly. The Visitor Centre for Clara Bog is co-located at the library in Clara. The Midlands Science festival team is delighted to be hosting some school events at this venue for 2015..We caught up with Therese Kelly, Education Officer at Clara Bog Visitor Centre to find out more….

Clara Bog is perhaps the best remaining example of midland raised bog in Western Europe. Why do you think it would be well worth a visit?

Clara Bog is a very important part of our natural and cultural heritage. It is an ancient place that was over 10,000 years in the making! People have been connected to bogs for hundreds of years as sites for sacrifice, hiding precious jewellery, storing food and obtaining fuel but connecting with the bog as a nature reserve and recreational space is a relatively recent phenomenon. A walk on Clara Bog can promote a good sense of wellbeing. It is peaceful place full of unusual plants and creatures. It is the most studied bog in Europe and is also recognised as an important international wetland. Learning all about Clara Bog and spending time there reveals the marvels of this unique place.

What can one expect to see on a typical visit?

One of my favourite things about Clara Bog is that no visit is typical! The colours of the bog change with the seasons as do the creatures that live there. During spring hare’s-tail cottongrass give the appearance of a snowscape as their white fluffy seed heads blanket the bog. This is also a time of great bird activity as mating territories are being set up. Meadow-pipits and skylarks are a common sight swooping and soaring and it’s a wonderful opportunity, especially for school groups, to hear the lengthy lilt of skylarks that were once a common sound in the Irish countryside.

Migrant birds such as swallows and swifts can also be seen flying high in the sky catching insects to eat. Summer is marked by the bright pink and yellow flowers of cross-leaved heath and bog asphodel. Of course summer is also the best time to see the variety of insect life. Many dragonflies can be seen and indeed heard defending bog pool territories. Bumblebees, butterflies and hoverflies visit the flowers near the boardwalk to find sweet nectar to drink and in the process transfer pollen and keep the web of plant life in motion. They must be careful though as the sticky tentacles of the sundew plant may trap and indeed digest them. If you are lucky you may see a lizard basking on the boardwalk, a kestrel hovering over your head or even a raft spider walking on the surface of a bog pool!

The rare Curlew nest on the bog and from the boardwalk visitors may hear their evocative call that is both unmistakable and unforgettable. Indeed one may even witness this large brown bird with a curved beak flying over the bog. As the full flush of biodiversity eases and autumn draws in visitors can experience a serene stroll accompanied by a rich floral tapestry of purple ling heather and orange seed heads of bog asphodel as they stretch across the bog. Both autumn and winter are a great time to view the many colourful species of sphagnum moss. Also known as the bog builder, sphagnum moss forms a rich mosaic on the bog’s surface comprised of green, red and orange colours. It is indeed the life support system of a raised bog as it is the main peat forming plant. If you take the time to stop and look around you may even notice the signs of native wild animals such as the Irish hare, pine marten and fallow deer as they leave their droppings on the bog.

You also have a special visitor Centre in Clara town, can you tell us a bit about this?

The Visitor Centre opened in 2010 to help interpret the significance of Clara Bog and peat lands in general and why some such as Clara Bog are being conserved. There is a multi-media exhibition space consisting of information boards, short documentaries, interactive touch-screen displays and models of plants, animals, birds and invertebrates. The exhibition space is designed with both children and adults in mind and encourages our sense of exploration and discovery. The Visitor Centre also provides free primary educational tours that reflect strands in the SESE curriculum. It is also an accredited Discover Primary Science & Maths (DPSM) Centre. On a DPSM workshop the children work together in teams as mini scientists. They use microscopes, balances and other scientific equipment as they conduct investigations which help them better understand the workings of Clara Bog and its inhabitants. The tours are designed to be engaging and fun. An ecology field trip is available to secondary level students. For more information or to book a tour teachers can contact the Centre 057 9368878.

Why do you think events like the Midlands Science Festival are so important?

The Midlands Science Festival is so important because it provides a platform to celebrate how diverse, interesting and significant science is in our lives and in the world around us. Fostering a love and understanding of science in children is especially important for they are the scientists of our

Lisa Murphy on the Selfie Explosion!

lisa M picWe had fun talking to Lisa Murphy, one of this year’s Famelab performers all about what she does and what interests her in science!

You speak about facial symmetry, selfies and how quickly we perceive attractiveness. Can you tell us a little more about what this is all about?

We all have differences in personal taste (some like blonde hair, others like dark eyes, some people love curls, others love facial stubble), but there are certain kinds of facial features that our brains will find attractive despite differences in personal taste, and one of these is facial symmetry. Judging how symmetrical somebody’s face is not a conscious process though. We don’t choose or intend to do it, and we are completely unaware that our brain is making this calculation, and research shows that individuals with more symmetrical faces are rated as being more attractive than others with less symmetrical physical traits. The interesting question here though, is why? Why do we view symmetrical faces as more attractive? The answer lies with evolution, life’s persistent longing for itself.
We have a primary purpose from the moment we are born: live long enough and reproduce, generate life beyond our own, ensuring that our genes are handed down to the next generation (I sometimes always find this a bit strange to think about…at 25 years old, I am usually thinking about where to buy a new mascara or hitting an upcoming deadline at college, rather than any deep rooted yearning to procreate, but hey, that’s science!).
In order to ensure that our genes will be passed down, we need to make sure that our offspring will be fit, healthy, and live long enough to reproduce themselves. So, it is important for us to find a fit and healthy partner with whom to produce offspring. Facial symmetry is one indication (although one of many) of a person’s health status. From the moment we are conceived, we are constantly under attack. Bacteria, viruses, and other environmental threats are at large and ready to hijack our immune systems…and our facial symmetry! For the most part, humans are designed to develop symmetrically, but individuals who are not able to withstand threats like viruses and disease (i.e. those with weaker immune systems) are less likely to develop symmetrical facial features. An example of this is in contracting the virus that causes chicken pox. As well as causing chicken pox, in some cases it can also infect the facial nerve causing the face to slightly droop slightly.
So, over thousands of years of human evolution, the brain became hardwired to perceive symmetry as an attractive facial feature because it indicates to us how capable a person’s immune systems is at fighting off infection and diseases (an important thing that a new born baby needs in order to survive).
The selfie explosion that has taken place all around the world means that now, as well as making quick symmetry calculations in our brain when we look at other people, we can now use this ability when we take a picture of ourselves, flip it around and look at it as if we were looking at another person on the street. What’s even better, some say, is that when we’re deciding on whether the selfie is a keeper or not, we can use apps and other technologies to manipulate the image, presenting a more attractive, more symmetrical version of ourselves to the online world, essentially saying ‘look at me, I’m a healthy catch ;)’

Your research lies in the broader area of Health Psychology…what area of this are you most passionate about?

Although I love catching up on the latest scientific research behind attractiveness and selfie taking, my real passion lies with learning about how people experience time differently and how this can affect the decisions they make (usually without their awareness). It’s one thing to know how to tell time, or how clocks work, but part of what makes us human is that we can perceive and experience time differently to other animals, and to one another. We can feel it moving fast, in slow motion, speeding up, slowing down, stretching, and for some, almost stopping completely. Our past experiences, present desires and future goals can all influence how we behave. For example, when it comes to school, some students are very focused on their future careers and often think about the kinds of things they would like to achieve in their adult lives. These students tend to recognize that getting high grades and performing well in other domains at school are essential to achieving their goals, and therefore spend extra time in their present lives with homework and studying. In psychology these students are considered to be future oriented. When it comes to health psychology, how we think about and experience time can also have a significant impact on how we behave. For example, we see that somebody who is very future oriented when it comes to their health would avoid tobacco smoking, make regular GP check-up appointments, eat a balanced diet, and exercise regularly because they are so focused on their future health. The opposite of this is present orientation. Research shows that a present oriented person is more like to binge drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, use drugs, and drive dangerously because they crave excitement and gratification in the present moment, rather than consider their future health. My research focuses on determining the best ways to measure someone’s time orientation, and then to determine the best ways to intervene and change a person’s time orientation, allowing them to make healthier choices, benefitting their future health.

Why are events like Science Week so important for Ireland today?

For so long, a rigid divide existed between scientists and…well…everyone else! For many people, science was considered inaccessible, a different language with complicated rules that didn’t mean much at all to our every-day lives. Events like Science Week are essential to bridging the gap between those who study science and those who don’t, between those who know about how science works and those who haven’t yet learned, between people who understand the methods and processes of science and those who question their results. But more importantly for me, events like Science Week could very well be the difference when it comes to the 15 year old student who is trying to decide on which subjects to study for the Leaving Cert and would like to choose chemistry (or physics or biology) but feel that they are not smart enough or that science is too difficult to learn. Science Week opens the doors to what science is truly all about: discovery, innovation, creativity, and producing reliable, worthwhile results that can improve people’s lives and contribute to our understanding of absolutely everything and anything. Science is not just for the most intelligent people in the entire world, it is not just for the privileged, and it is not just for men in shiny white coats. Science should be accessible to anybody who has an interest in how things work the way that they do, in why the earth moves, in the human body, in animal kingdoms, space-rockets, sounds, colours, volcanoes, millipedes, dinosaurs, brain development, disease, happiness…the list is endless!

What does it take to be a good science communicator and why is it a great skill to have?

For me, passion is the number one! Regardless of the type of communication (talking, singing, dancing, or other forms of artistic expression.) the message will always be more impactful and memorable if it is communicated with passion. Just like it is so easy to tell the difference between a fake smile and a real one, the audience can always tell whether the communicator truly cares about the subject they are discussing. Communicating a message with passion will determine whether or not the audience will remember your message an hour after the show. Then, with passion, comes creativity and excitement. A message communicated creatively will always get an audience excited! The ability to think outside of the box and find innovative ways to communicate a message will force an audience to think about your topic in a way that may not have before, again making them far more likely to remember it! I remember at the Cheltenham Science Festival last summer, Marty Jopson, on his quest to make science accessible to everybody, gave an extremely informative talk on the physics behind ‘boomerang-ing’, how they fly and return to the thrower (if thrown a certain way). Every few seconds Marty fired a bunch of boomerangs, all different colours and sizes, around the entire stadium (which filled over 800 people!) and had audience members fire them back. I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m at a science talk, in a giant tent, with boomerangs flying around all over the place!’ And as you can see, I’m still talking about it!!
I believe those who are skilled in effective science communication techniques have an obligation to their discipline and to the general public to communicate the latest discoveries and to share their knowledge and expertise with the world. Every year, millions are spent around the world funding scientific researchers to discover new and exciting information using reliable and valid methods. The scientific method is definite and clear, but it is my opinion that until recently we have been circumventing one of the most crucial final steps: sharing the results. Communicating the outcomes of scientific investigations should not be limited to communicating with other scientists in scientific journals and discipline specific academic conferences. Science is for everybody and it should be communicated to everybody so that people can determine for themselves fact from fiction, science from pseudoscience, and truth from lies. When we are all on the same page that is when we can form our own valid opinions, and make informed individual and collective decisions.

Public Events, Career talks and Science for Breakfast!

F O' RourkeDon’t miss an opportunity to hear from some of our expert speakers during Midlands Science Festival

2015 marks 20 years of Science Week; a national, annual event that celebrates the fascinating worlds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Science Week 2.0 invites people of all ages to experience science firsthand. As part of this year’s Midlands Science Festival which is heading into its third year and features some 90 events across the four counties of Westmeath, Offaly, Laois and Longford, we will be delivering school career talks from a number of expert speakers from academic institutes such as NUI, Maynooth and Trinity College Dublin.

We are also delighted to announce another exciting and free public event due to take place in the Athlone Little Theatre on the evening of Friday 13th  – The Mind, The Body, The Universe. On the night, we will hear from experts from the world of medicine, psychology and astronomy for some fascinating discussion and an opportunity for questions afterwards.

This year and for the first time, we will also host a business breakfast in the Sheraton Hotel in Athlone on the morning of Friday, November 13th where members of the business community and indeed the public will have the opportunity to hear from two local corporate speakers, Mr. Traloch Collins, MD of Athlone based multinational, Ericsson and Westmeath native, Mr. Feargal O’Rourke, Managing Partner of PwC Ireland. On the morning, they will talk about the importance of STEM skills for the future of Irish society and the economy.

This event is free of charge but remember, booking is essential and places will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.

Photo: Mr. Feargal O’Rourke, Managing Partner of PwC Ireland.


A Warm Welcome to the Ugly Animals…

Ugly-Animal-Book-cover-Simon, we are delighted to have you and the Ugly Animals Preservation Society at this year’s Midland’s Science Festival, can you tell us a little about what it is you do?

I am a biologist and science presenter. I do quite a few things ranging from stand up comedy, to more serious lecturing to making TV shows and writing about science. The output varies but all of it really talking about the interesting world that surrounds us.

Simon, can you now tell us about your background and what inspired you to be the voice for ugly animals?

People were always asking me at my lectures what my favourite animal was and seemed disappointed if it wasn’t one of the cutesy ones they were expecting. there are so many interesting species out there that are ignored but more importantly need our help.

How can we educate people about the importance of conserving the kinds of animals you represent?

It is tricky. I try and celebrate the weird and wonderful creatures. I think we have to talk about conservation as a whole as we are at a real crisis point for our planets biodiversity. We think that up to 250 species die out everyday.

Are these ugly animals everywhere or where would we expect to find them?

They are EVERYWHERE. Bear in mind that most animals out there are insects. 90% of the animals out there don’t have a spine never mind being cute and fluffy.

What kind of ugly mascots do you bring with you on tour and which one is your favourite?

I don’t bring any actual animals as they are endangered and rare after all. I bring lots of photos and we play games to uncover their strangeness. My favourite is the canadian blue grey tail dropper slug. If you scare it, its bum drops off.

Guts, Enthusiasm and Perspective …That’s what it takes!

fergus picWe are really excited to see UCC PhD Famelab candidate Fergus McAuliffe in action at our special Famelab event in Co.Laois during Science Week. Fergus won both the Irish and international competition in 2013. His presentation challenged human definition of life and death, using the biology of a wood frog.

Fergus, can you tell us a bit about why you love science and what inspired you to study it?

I always had a natural curiosity for science. When I was young facts and figures is what I thrived on. But as you grown up and study science you realise that it is not all about facts and figures. These details are now just a google away so we no longer need to spend ages trying to learn and remember them. What is much more important is how you go about science. What decisions will you make? What time will you give to it? What are the results likely to be? This decision making process is what I love about doing science now.

Why are science and technology so important in today’s society?

You are reading what I wrote on a computer. Without science, technology and a large dash of curiosity this computer would not exist. The work that scientists and engineers do is incredibly important to modern life. In fact, without their work, modern life would probably not be very modern!

What area of science are you most passionate about and why?

I like environmental and earth science. Simply put, we have only one earth. We must sustainably live here. This is why I chose to study environmental science at UCC where I got a lot of exposure to how we can best manage the resources that we have such as water and land. I then did my PhD, also in environmental science, on the use of trees to sustainably clean wastewater to protect the environment. Now I work in the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences. This centre carries out work in to securing supply of energy for Ireland and how we can best manage our raw materials and water resources.

What does it take to be a good science communicator and why is it a vital skill to have?

Top 3 things to have:

1. Guts – you need to be brave enough to go on stage!

2. Enthusiasm – when you speak you must show enthusiasm and passion. Otherwise people will get bored of listening to you.

3. Perspective – can you put yourself in the shoes of the man on the street to make sure that the public will understand the science that you are explaining.

Bone-Chilling Science for Halloween

abbie hallloweenHalloween is the season for all our mini witches, ghosts and goblins to take to the streets, asking for treats, performing scary poems and song and scaring one another senseless. Spooky stories are told around fires or at bedtime, fun times are had dressing up and partying at school, scary movies are shown in cinemas around the country and pumpkins are carved into lanterns. The tradition is believed to have come from Ireland, where they used to carve faces into turnips, beet and other root vegetables as part of the Gaelic festival of Samhain.

Amid all the fun and celebration about the fact that everybody is on mid-term break, the origins of Halloween are often overlooked but it really is about much more than fake blood- stained costumes and monkey nuts.

Halloween, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, can be traced back about 2,000 years to a pre-Christian Celtic festival held around Nov. 1 called Samhain which means “summer’s end” in Gaelic, according to the Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries. This was known to some as a safe time to commune with the dead..People would gather together and light huge fires to ward off bad fortune for the coming year and any evil spirits.

Here are fearsome facts to keep your little horrors entertained…

The word “witch” comes from the Old English wicce, meaning “wise woman.” In fact, wiccan were highly respected people at one time.

The largest pumpkin ever measured was grown by Norm Craven, who broke the world record in 1993 with a 836 lb. pumpkin

Trick-or-treating evolved from the ancient Celtic tradition of putting out treats and food to placate spirits who roamed the streets at Samhain

Black and orange are typically associated with Halloween. Orange is a symbol of strength and endurance and, along with brown and gold, stands for the harvest and autumn. Black is typically a symbol of darkness and acts as a reminder that Halloween once was a festival that marked the boundaries between life and death.

Halloween is thought to have originated around 4000 B.C., which means Halloween has been around for over 6,000 years.

One of the scariest of the last few decades is making its way back to cinemas this year!. John Carpenter’s slasher classic Halloween is going to be showing at a selection of cinemas around the country – Go if you dare!!

Bringing Energy Education to Life…

SEAIWe are delighted to welcome Nuala Flanagan from the Irish Peatland Conservation Council to this year’s Midlands Science festival…

Can you tell us what the IPCC do and a bit about your role?

The IPCC or Irish Peatland Conservation Council is a charity that was set up to conserve a sample of Irish peatlands for future generations to energy. Peatlands are a wetland habitat in Ireland and in the midlands we find our raised bog habitat. Peatlands have many wondeful benefits to us all from their use as an amenity for walking, for the unique wildlife they support, their ability to store carbon and their water regulating functions. However we use the peat beneath the living surface of a peatland as a domestic fuel called turf, we burn it to make electricity and use it as a growing medium in our gardens. The peatlands in the midlands of Ireland have been forming for 10,000 years since the last Ice Age and the rate we are cutting them is far quicker then they could ever grow back. As Environmental Education Officer with the Irish Peatland Conservation Council my role involves working with schools, community groups and members of the public to raise awareness for the need to conserve a sample of these wonderful wet and wild peatland habitats in Ireland.

What type of workshops will you be bringing to Midlands classrooms this year?

As we burn peat in our peat burning electricity stations the Irish Peatland Conservation Council have partnered with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) to promote cleaner alternative ways of generating electricity. By choosing alternative cleaner means of generating electricity we will be helping to protect the peatland habitats of Ireland as we will no longer need to harvest the peat for burning in electricity stations. Peat can be described as a fossil fuel and when burnt it releases carbon disoxide into our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is one of the gases that is causing our climate to change at a much quicker rate than ever before recorded. Climate change will affect us all so this year I will delivering energy workshops to students promoting simple ways we can conserve energy at school and home and introduce some renewable technologies developed to generate electricity.

Do you have a central location and what types of activities can the public access there?

Yes I am based at the Bog of Allen Nature Centre a centre of excellence in peatland edcation, conservation and research aswell as one of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s regional education centres. W are open to members of the public all year round and offer educational visits to groups. We are open Monday to Friday from 10am-4pm and visitors can expect a guided tour of our peatland exhibition promoting all aspects of the wild and wet peatlands of Ireland, visitors can also explore the largest insect eating plant display in Ireland and the UK in the wildlife gardens of the centre or take time out and visit Lodge Bog an example of a raised bog habitat. School groups can also expect hands on activities such as pond dipping, nature crafts, energy workshops or frog and newt searches.

How can we make science more fun and engaging for young people do you think?

Science is about investigating the world around us and to engage young people with science we must make it hands on. For example when young people study living things we must take time out of the classroom and explore the natural world in our local community this may be as a simple as taking students outside to the school garden or local parkland and searching for invertebrates.

You are also representing The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland at some school events this year Nuala and we are delighted about that! What types of workshops to you facilitate in this role?

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland workshops are about engaging young people with energy and raising awareness that most of our electrical energy is generated in Ireland by burning fossil fuels. These fossil fuels release many gases including carbon dioxide which is causing our climate to change at a much quicker rate then ever recorded, Many of us do not think of climate change on a daily basis but it will have an impact on all of us. I will be working with primary and post primary students delivering the SEAI energy workshops which will engage the participants in a hands on practical workshop learning about energy conservation and alternative cleaner renewable ways to generate electricity

Why is it important to educate young people about energy issues?

Climate Change will affect all of us for example farmers produce our food that we eat providing us with energy. If the weather changes it will be much harder to plan for the planting, growing and harvesting season therefore our food supplies may be affected. We will experience changes in our weather for example think back to 2010 and the very long and cold winter we experienced and compare this to last Christmas a much milder year. We can all make a change to help our climate and young people are tomorrows leaders so ensuring they understand energy and climate change will help them to make better and more informed decisions in the future.

We are very excited about these new and fresh workshops for 2015!

Counting Down to the Midlands Science Festival 2015

Eddie, Gill, JackieAs Science Week grows closer with under two weeks to go, the Midlands Science Festival team spearheaded by local development company, Atlantic Corridor is gearing up to provide an array of exciting and innovative science events across four counties. In this the year of Irish Design, Science Week 2015 celebrates the deep connection between science and design. Medical devices, technological appliances and research apparatus demonstrate how closely these two fields are intertwined. Science Week 2.0 urges young people to actively ‘Design your Future’ by engaging with science disciplines and embarking on exciting and fulfilling careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

Coordinated by SFI Discover, the education and public engagement programme of Science Foundation Ireland, Science Week will run from 8th – 15th November 2015.

The week-long festival will highlight how science, technology, engineering and mathematics are fundamental to everyday life, and demonstrate STEMs importance to the future development of our society and economy. The annual festival of events, activities, demonstrations, talks and interactive shows is thanks to the collaborative work of volunteers, teachers, researchers, scientists and fans of the wonderful world of science. Communities all around Ireland – including schools, colleges, universities, research institutes, businesses and libraries – will take part in Science Week 2.0.

Ian Robertson is a Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin and Ian will speak at an event entitled ‘The Mind, the Body, the Universe’ on Friday, November 13th and he commented,

‘Trinity College Dublin is pleased to be associated with local and national activities that encourage people of all ages to engage with STEM and we are really excited to be involved with the 2015 Midland Science Festival. It is my pleasure a key speaker at one of the main public events during this week as we would like to do all we can to work towards inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. Don’t miss out on what promises to be a really informative and fun-filled week for all.’

Many of the global medical technologies and pharmaceutical companies now have a dedicated presence in Ireland and throughout Science Week people will be able to learn more about what kind of science-related jobs would potentially be available to them in the future. High-value career guidance advice into the world of technology and innovation will be delivered during the festival by leading scientists and expert technology speakers.
Science Week is a free, family-friendly, programme of events which allows people of all ages to discover something new, participate in a large number of hands-on science and technology activities and see a whole host of live performances by science enthusiasts and communicators.

In particular, we want to ensure that we are really focusing on the younger audiences as research tells us that the earlier we can get into classrooms to start promoting science, the better. We are
really pleased to have the Reptile Zoo back again to entertain children with a variety of exotic animals and the Irish Wildlife Trust and Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland who will be teaching children about environmental awareness through participation in a range of games and activities.

We are also very excited about bringing the Exploration Dome to a Midlands primary school where pupils will learn about earth science, maths and astronomy and there are lots more workshops, shows and surprises from star gazing to sea creatures right across the region this November. As well as celebrating science in schools we intend to provide some really unique and inspiring events for the general public too and more news on this will follow in the weeks ahead.

Jackie Gorman, Director of the Midlands Science Festival said,
‘The main objective here is to create a buzz about science, not just in students but the general public and to help people to see that science is all around us and it actually has an impact on our daily lives. We want people to talk about science even if they sometimes don’t realise that’s what they are doing! It’s in everything from our i-pads to our vegetables. It’s about creating greater interest in science education and careers which of course benefits the Midlands region. We can look forward to an exciting week in November with about 90 science events across the Midlands counties this year. Please keep an eye our website in the weeks ahead for details.

Famelab returns to the Midlands!

Suzanne DunneWe are delighted to be bringing Famelab back to the region this year for a special event which will take place in Mountmellick Library for students on Friday 13th November. We caught up with one of the Famelab performers to hear more…

Suzanne Dunne is a microbiologist who has also dabbled in a bit of molecular biology. A few years ago, she made the leap back into research and in 2014 she completed a PhD with the Graduate Entry Medical School in the University of Limerick.

What first inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I don’t know that my goal was ever to pursue a specific career in science. All I know was that from an early age I always wanted to know how things worked – and that curiosity, I think, leads you towards wanting to study science – or at least it did for me. So I followed my interests and curiosity and did my first degree – a Batchelor of Science. I ended up majoring in microbiology and minoring in biochemistry because those subjects appealed to my interest in how the human body worked and particularly in relation to how illnesses and diseases were caused. Because if you understand the cause, it’s a big step on the way to finding a cure. And of course as a microbiologist you also learn how to make interesting things like yoghurt and beer and antibiotics!

From there, I was offered the chance to do a Master of Science degree by research and I worked in the area of host-microbe interactions for two years. This work moved me more into the area of molecular biology, which is an understanding of how illness (amongst many other things) works at the molecular level. When I finished this degree I got a job in the pharmaceutical industry – due to the expertise I had gained in both of these degrees – and while I started off working in a lab, I have moved into many different areas over the years and I now work in Quality Management and Regulatory Compliance.

Some of the experiences I had during my time in industry sparked another curiosity in me and led me to eventually returning to University to pursue a PhD (which is a doctorate degree), which I was awarded that at the end of last year. For this degree I did research into usage of, and opinions towards, generic medicines, and also on the accuracy and availability of medical and healthcare information that is available to people on the Internet. Some of the work that I’ve published in this area has been quite influential and was recently presented to the Irish government and to the EU Commission. Also, a recent report from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health on the cost of prescription medicines in Ireland was directly informed by my research, and my work led to three of the recommendations made in this report. As most scientists aim to see their work have some impact in the world, having my research directly influence government policy and decision making is something I’m very proud of, and if I’d never made the choice to study science in University, I would never have been able to do that.

Suzanne, why are you such a firm believer that science should be communicated in as fun and audience-friendly a manner as possible?

I think that sometimes people are a bit afraid of science because they think that it’s complicated and will be too difficult to understand – but a lot of the time this isn’t the case at all. It’s a bit like speaking another language – if you don’t speak French, you might not understand what’s happening when you visit Paris – so if you haven’t studied science you might find it difficult to understand because science has a language of its own. But that’s not to say that it can’t be translated.

So, for me at least, that’s where making science ‘audience friendly’ comes into science communication – that translation from science-ese into English. And so many aspects of science can be amazing and even mind-blowing – those ‘wow’ moments when you discover something new or find out something you’d been curious about for ages. When you see how amazing technology can be or when you can have a greater understanding of how the universe works – or even how we, as humans, work. In fact, some of the most amazing science, in my opinion, is in biology (although I also have a love of physics – even though I don’t understand a lot of it!). Some of the best science isn’t just fascinating – it’s also disgusting , but in a good way! And if you’re into icky side of things, you’ll have to come along to the talk I’ll be giving at the Midlands Science Festival where I’ll be telling everyone about fascinating, yet icky, science at its best!

What can we do to encourage more people to study science?

I think that humans are naturally curious, and it’s that curiosity that has led to all of our scientific and technological advancement. Someone seeing something and wondering “Hmmm, I wonder what would happen if…” or “I wonder how that works…” and the like. So encouraging that natural curiosity in school would help. And also de-mystifying STEM subjects and topics and improving exposure to good science communication might also be a good path to take in this regard.

Also, I think there’s a bit of a misperception out there that science is ‘hard’ and studying it means that students might be more open to failure, but I don’t think that’s the case. Having science festivals like the Midland’s Festival can only help in dispelling such myths and getting today’s students – who are tomorrow’s scientists – to see that science is about curiosity and exploration. It doesn’t matter, for example, if you’re not good at maths, not all science is mathematical in basis; and besides which most scientists work in teams so if you need to do statistics, for example, for a project, then chances are you can ask a statistician to help you – and not have to worry about doing the stats yourself, if that’s not your cup of tea. Science is varied and multidisciplinary, so scientists must be varied and multidisciplinary people – and once you find the area of science that you love and want to pursue, it won’t be hard, it will just be amazing. (although there may be a tough exam or two along the way…)

Tell us about your exploration into the inner workings of the pharmaceutical industry and how the medicines we take are regulated and manufactured? What was most interesting about this?

I’ve worked in many different areas within the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry for nearly 20 years. So this means that I’ve gained a really good knowledge about how our medicines are invented, developed, approved for use, manufactured and monitored. I’m not sure if I could pick one area that I found most interesting, but generic medicines and the similarities and differences between them and proprietary (or brand-name) medicines is part the space that I worked in for my PhD, so that must have been one of them!

What is quite interesting in this industry is to get the see the enormous amount of work that has to be done – often over many years – to get a new drug onto the market. And also the work that happens at a regulatory level – on a national and international basis – to ensure that our medicines are safe and effective. I recently had the privilege, though having been involved with FameLab, to present my research at an EU Commission conference which was held to celebrate 50 years of pharmaceutical legislation in Europe. That meeting gave me a much fuller appreciation for all of the people whose work is all about making sure that our medicines are safe and effective, and that there are paths in place to get new medicines to patients for illnesses that might not have treatments available at present.


callum copyThe Midlands Science Festival team was delighted to catch up with  Scoil Mhuire Fatima in Timahoe this week to hear all about some of the wonderful achievements the school has had in science in recent years. Heading into its third year, the Midlands Science Festival promises over 90 events across the region this November, making it the biggest and best science festival the region has seen yet.

Jackie Gorman, Midlands Science Festival Director said,

‘There is a long history of achievement in science and maths in Scoil Mhuire Fatima and we are delighted to have been able to work with the staff and pupils over the past few years bringing in events such as the Reptile Zoo Village and seeing the impact these type of events have made. We are looking forward to delivering another exciting science show for pupils this year which starts with heating and friction and seeing the colour of materials change with heat. Students will find out how planes fly with hovering sweets and balloon helicopters and they will also be exploring waves, rockets, air cannons and how to play musical instruments from twirling tubes to boom whackers and straw kazoos! It’s really all about making science fun for this age group and hoping that this will have an impact for future learning opportunities.’

‘Scoil Mhuire places vital importance on science and maths education and it has always been our goal to introduce an understanding of these critical subjects as early as possible in school. Once pupils gain an interest and appreciation of science through the more hands-on, fun activities and attending Midlands Science Festival events, it stays with them. It is so important to make sure we share our successes so all the projects we engage in are displayed for parents as well as students. The school has enjoyed an excellent reputation for science in recent years and we hope that by continuing to engage with the relevant competitions and these types of fun events, we will encourage many more of our students to consider science as a career option in their future years.’

Scoil Mhuire Fatima has been awarded the Excellence in Maths and Science award for the last 4 years and former young Scientist projects have included one on worms, one on the Timahoe Esker and another on linking wind and temperatures to predict weather. In addition, the school enjoyed the prize and title of ‘All Ireland winners of the Intel Mini Scientist’ last year with “Murderous Mascara’ which was a project by two 4th class pupils, Roisin Dunne and Jamie Boyle. This is the 4th year for the school to take part in Intel Mini Scientist and last year all of 4th class and their teachers were treated to a VIP visit to Intel in Leixlip.