A science career is an easy sell if you ask me!

We can’t wait for a very special and new event taking place in Co.Laois during the year’s Midlands Science Festival – The Secret Life of Crows will be brought to the region by Ricky Whelan..We caught up with Ricky in advance of the festival..

Ricky, we are delighted that you will be getting involved in this year’s Midlands Science festival especially given you are a native! We know that you have a degree in Zoology from NUIG and are passionate about all things nature…what inspired you to pursue this type of career path?

My choice of career was very much inspired by a childhood spent in the fields, in the hedgerows and down by the river. We were free to roam in the 90s when I was growing up and the experiences we had picking damsons, collecting frog spawn and staking out rabbit burrows stayed with me.

I lost my enthusiasm for nature as a young teenager before rediscovering it in my late teens through surfing. Surfing brought me to the wildest and most beautiful places in Ireland and the sight of diving gannets and passing dolphins reignited my love for all things wild. I didn’t impress anyone with my leaving cert results and luckily at the time I had enough points to study science which I saw as my opportunity to work my way over into marine conservation. I enjoyed my time studying in Galway but being from Laois (the most land locked county in Ireland) it seemed daft for me to pursue Marine Science and I elected to keep my options open and specialised in Zoology.

Whilst I knew I wanted to protect wildlife and wild places I didn’t know how and I volunteered for loads of wildlife NGOs from BirdWatch Ireland to Bat Conservation Ireland. I was lucky to nab an unpaid internship in the UK and moved to a well-known nature reserve in the east of England, RSPB Minsmere. It was there in the UK where I cut my teeth and learned the skills I needed to return home to my local patch and get involved at the sharp end of species conservation here. I owe my inspiration to my mam and dad for getting us outside, to my uncle Ray for introducing me to fishing and the river Barrow, to my primary school teachers Ms Fennelly and Ms Kirwan for our regular “nature walks”, my second level science teachers Mr O’Connell and Mr Murray who were fantastic influences and to all of the fantastic and committed wildlife heroes I met along the way!

What do you love most about your job?

Its difficult to say what I love most about my job but there are definitely a few stand out reasons why I find it so enjoyable. My colleagues at BirdWatch Ireland are all experts in their respective fields and very motivated people who want to be at their desks or out in the field doing what they love best which is protecting wild birds and biodiversity. That gives the office a really nice atmosphere knowing that everyone there is so committed to their respective roles. The variation of the fieldwork is also a major benefit from visiting remote islands within the summer months to catch and tag seabirds, to surveying Swifts at some of Irelands most ancient and historic sites really makes the day to day survey work quite special. The seasonality of birds and the change over from the wintering species to the summering species and vice versa gives me reasons to enjoy and

What do you think parents can do to encourage a love of science and nature in very young children?

I think for modern kids to find a respect and love for nature they must experience it in the flesh. You don’t need to be a scientist or a wildlife expert to go into the woods with your children and climb a tree or look for deer tracks, children are full of that natural wonder themselves and only need to be given the opportunities to explore it for themselves. Spending time enjoying the outdoors is a good place to start whether it’s a family walk or picnic, a visit to the local nature reserve or whatever, nature will provide the entertainment! I spent my childhood catching minnows (a small fish) in jars with a piece of string attached, my cousins and I were amazed by the little creatures and its memories like that that make me want to protect our rivers and other wild places so other kids, maybe even my own someday can enjoy catching minnows in jars too! Society is a different place than when I grew up and we were probably the last generation of kids who had true freedom but the perceived threats of the modern world is too often used as an excuse to sterilise kids’ lives, let them out in the woods, let them get stung by nettles, let them fall from the branch, the only risk is they might enjoy themselves.

What would you say to a second level student to encourage them to consider a science career?

A science career is an easy sell if you ask me. Science is the systematic gathering of information through observation and/or experiment, does that sound boring or what? But science is part of nearly every facet of life and every industry needs scientists, be it making Mars Bars, making a Formula1 Car move, protecting the Great Barrier Reef or doing your granny’s hip operation we need scientists! A science career could land you at any location in the world, working on any sort of project, product or challenge! Giving science at third level a go opens up so many opportunities to any student and more importantly opens up the world to them!

Why are events like the Midlands Science Festival so important?

The Midlands Science Festival and similar events brings science, live and in the flesh out to our towns and schools. The organisers and people involved find the coolest things to talk about and demonstrate or make the everyday stuff far more interesting by injecting a tiny bit of science! Its at a Midlands Science Festival event you are going to find yourself saying “Wo, that’s cool, I never realised that before”. We have become afraid of the word “science” but the Midland Science Festival reminds us that no one word can describe with any accuracy how totally bananas and interesting science and its many disciplines can be!