We are delighted to be welcoming Dr. Helena Bonner from the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) to the Midlands this year, where she will provide a valuable careers talk to a very lucky secondary school in the region. We caught up with Dr. Bonner in advance of the festival to find out more.
What inspired you to pursue a career in a science related field?
I had a great science teacher who was really passionate about the subject. I also just liked the sciences more than any other subject so I enjoyed studying it.
What is your role at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI)?
I have an exciting job in that no two days are the same. My background is in Neuroscience (the study of the brain and the nervous system). We are interested in what happens in the cells of the brain (neuronal cells) before they die as a results of brain damage due to a stroke, for example. This damage occurs when the neuronal cells get deprived of blood, which contains oxygen and nutrients. This leads to a series of events that lead to the death of the cells. We are trying to find out how they die and how we could potentially stop that process. At the moment, I am also working on trying to see into tissues more clearly. When you are trying to look deeper into the cells and vessels of tissues using a high spec microscope, there is a lot of fat in the way. We want to get rid of that fat without damaging the tissue so we can see the cells and vessels more clearly. Our main tissues of interest are the brain, spinal cord and the pancreas. This is a long process that demands patience but when it works, it gives you a lot of information and beautiful images.
Other aspects of my job include organising outreach programmes where students come into RCSI and have a tour of the labs and speak with researchers. We also hold a three day programme for TY students who learn about what it’s like to work in a lab and experience what it is like to do research as a career. I also go out to schools around the country and give science career talks to TY, 5th and 6th year students.
Why is it important for the RCSI to take part in events such as the Midlands Science Festival?
RCSI is a well known medical school in the heart of Dublin city but we also have an expanding research institute that will always be looking out for talented science, technology and engineering and math (STEM) graduates to work or pursue their postgraduate studies here. It’s important for us to reach out to these graduates so that they know we exist and to inform them on what type of research is being undertaken at RCSI and to encourage them to pursue these exciting careers.
Are there are any specific challenges for women in science now?
The biggest challenge most women in science face is trying to balance a career with motherhood. Many women feel they have to have kids before they get too old and there isn’t enough time or money to do both without some form of support (like childcare or research grants). And compared to their competitors, who can work longer hours and attend more conferences, some women don’t have the qualifications to get high up positions. But this challenge for women can also occur in other fields and not just science.
What is your favourite science fact?
The brain of an adult human weighs around 3 pounds (1.5 kg). Although it makes up just 2% of the body’s weight, it uses around 20% of its energy.