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Many students intimidated by Stem subjects

Lack of student numbers in these areas poses threat to future sustainability of Stem industries

Irish Times Science Editor Dick Ahlstrom with Caroline McClafferty, HR director, AbbVie, and Todd Manning, general manager, AbbVie

Irish Times Science Editor Dick Ahlstrom with Caroline McClafferty, HR director, AbbVie, and Todd Manning, general manager, AbbVie


A career within science, technology, engineering and maths – the Stem disciplines – is widely seen as a worthwhile and highly desirable one by Irish people.

According to a recent Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) study, 72 per cent of Irish people have a favourable view of the industry, but take-up among Irish students remains low.

Irish students are not choosing to study these areas at third level in enough numbers to sustain the future of Stem industries.

Leaders in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths came together recently for a round-table meeting to discuss the issues surrounding the future uptake of careers within the industry, organised by AbbVie and hosted by The Irish Times.

The SFI report found that while half of Irish adults feel well informed about research and development in science and technology, many feel intimidated by science and Stem.

The report found 70 per cent believed Stem is too specialised for them to understand. The manner in which the subjects are taught, and the preconceived notions passed on by peers and parents also can have an impact.

Potential career

“As parents we need to be aware that unconsciously we can frame our child’s thoughts about a particular subject and potential career paths from a very early age without meaning to.

“Our research shows that when it comes to picking out third-level courses, young people are overwhelmingly influenced by the idea of “fitting in” and parents can be very influential in that regard from an early age.”

The government has set out significant aims in the recently launched BioPharma ambition report.

The biopharma industry alone is worth more than €30 billion to the Irish economy in exports and has the potential to add 8,000 jobs here over the next three years.

Highly innovative

At the roundtable meeting, organisations, including Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Engineers Ireland, Bio- PharmaChem Ireland, IDA and representatives of some of Ireland’s leading universities discussed the current landscape of Stem in Ireland, reviewing the challenges and opportunities that exist in this area.

Outlining the importance of Ireland to AbbVie’s business during the meeting, general manager todd Manning explained: “AbbVie creates new medicines for chronic, serious health issues by combining advanced science with deep knowledge of diseases. We harness Irish expertise in complex chemical and biological research, testing discoveries through clinical trials as well as manufacturing many of our medicines and delivery devices here in Ireland.

“Our aspiration is to help Irish students better see the potential that undoubtedly exists for successful, fulfilling careers utilising Stem disciplines in Ireland with locally-based companies such as AbbVie. We feel that as a research-driven innovative company, it is vital for us to be proactive so we can ensure that the talent pipeline is in place for all companies active in Stem areas in Ireland,” Manning added.

The products manufactured by the biopharma industry are highly innovative and have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of millions of people worldwide, but students and young people are disconnected from the industry and can find it difficult to understand what career paths are available to them.

There was consensus at the roundtable discussion on the need to make students throughout the educational system, from primary school all the way through to PhD and post-doctorate level, aware of what careers are available within the pharmaceutical sector and other Stem areas.

Head of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Trinity College Dublin, Prof Anne-Marie Healy, agreed there was a lack of knowledge about the pharmaceutical industry within secondary schools. “Formulation science, for example, is an inherent part of a pharmacy degree,” Prof Healy explained. “But most students at secondary level would never have heard of formulation science. A student who aspires to be a pharmacist is aware of a career as a community or hospital pharmacist – but something like formulation scientist is an alien concept, they don’t understand what it has to do with a pharmacy degree and the possibility of a path into the pharmaceutical industry. Industry needs to work directly with schools to open students minds up to the multiple possibilities available to them within Stem,” said Healy.

School-based workshops

“One key objective for AbbVie is to help transform, promote and support Stem-related projects and activities, and we actively engage with schools, colleges and industry partners to achieve this ambition.

“The work that organisations such as SFI have been undertaking in the area of Stem in order to develop a future pipeline of talent is very reassuring. However, there is an ongoing requirement on all stakeholders to encourage an engagement with science from an early age and overcome any negative perceptions of Stem. This is something that AbbVie takes very seriously and that we actively support through our series of school-based workshops that we run with the Young Social Innovators, and through our own science programme Seek (Science Engineering Exploration Knowledge). Beyond primary and post-primary level engagement, we also incentivise third-level students in various ways such as through our Intern of the Year Award and the Operations Development Programme,” said McClafferty.

Matt Moran, director of Bio- PharmaChem Ireland, emphasised the exciting opportunities to travel that young people working in Stem can avail of.

“There are huge opportunities for those who study Stem; for example, biopharma is one of the fastest growing sectors in Ireland with jobs in areas as diverse as quality control, manufacturing and research. If you study Stem at third level, once you graduate you will also more than likely end up working with a multinational company which gives you fantastic opportunities to grow your career and gain invaluable first hand-experience, and also to travel and see the world while you work.”

Engagement levels

The Irish Times

“Some of the suggestions made by this group could, if activated, improve long-term engagement levels in Stem disciplines across all levels of education. The respect for Stem is there; now we need to demystify it and whet the appetite of a future generation by showing them how a career in science or engineering can improve society hugely, as well as open many doors for them on a professional and personal level.

“The future is bright for Irish students but we all need to play our part and work collaboratively to guide them towards these potential careers paths that they may otherwise not consider.”