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.