Irish Women of the World: Health adviser Liz Shanahan and other science success stories

At the coalface of groundbreaking scientific and health research all over the world are these eight pioneering women

Dr Fiona Ginty
Principal scientist in the Life Sciences and Molecular Diagnostics Organization at GE Research Center (GRC) in NYC, working on a cure for cancer

Being on the cusp of scientific breakthroughs and cutting-edge innovation in finding new ways to fight cancer is in all in a day’s work for Dr Fiona Ginty.

The scientist, who grew up in Co Galway, was recognised for her ground-breaking work last year when she featured in an episode of a documentary directed by Academy award-winning director Ron Howard and Hollywood producer Brian Grazer.

The series was called Breakthrough and was aired on the Discovery Channel. Ginty explained on the show the novel ways technology is being developed to image cells and cancer tissues to understand how they behave. The same technology can be applied to ageing and other diseases.


“Last year was a fun year. The programme focused on the different technologies used to solve human problems – this episode was human aging,” she says.

She currently works as principal scientist for life sciences and molecular diagnostics GE Research Centre.

She says although she has lived in New York city for more than 10 years, when she first finished her studies at University College of Cork she was "tempted to stay in Ireland. But I had the opportunity to go to Switzerland and I went for it," she says.

After two years as a research scientist at Nestlé, she moved to the UK to work for the Medical Research Council. “I had the travel bug by then. I saw an opportunity in America and I got the sense they were pushing the envelope over there. I got the position and off I went.

“I love it and it is exciting. I work for a big company and I’ve met really amazing researchers across the world.”

Is there a good piece of advice she was given along the way?

“Most people will help if you reach out and ask them for advice. So many people gave me great advice along the way. While I was still in college a professor said to me ‘You make your own luck’, that’s true. It can be a tough road in research, you’re not always successful. You have to develop resilience to that.”

What’s the best qualification/ training to succeed in healthcare and/or life sciences? In addition to studying a science, Ginty says it is good to get a technical qualification although it does not need to be to degree level.

Dr Rosemary Masterson
Leading consultant nephrologist Australia

It is "hard work" but possible to have children while in training to be a successful consultant, Dr Rosemary Masterson says.

Masterson, a leading consultant nephrologist in Australia, says she studied for her PhD at the same time as rearing her two young children while living in London and commuting long distances.

“It is possible to have a family and train. I had two children during my training years and I thought it was the end of the world initially when I got pregnant, but you find your way. In the long run, it is definitely worth it,” she says.

“It is possible to do both. Later in life people can regret it if they don’t.

“But you have to be fairly determined. There’s always a way around it. Women should have belief in themselves.”

Masterson, who has worked at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in the renal transplant section for more than 10 years, graduated from the National University of Ireland. She undertook advanced training in the UK and later moved to Melbourne in 2003 where she completed her PhD thesis.

She also works as an associate professor of medicine at the prestigious University of Melbourne. Her work has been published a number of times and she has received several research grants. She also continues to be involved in clinical research. “I’m very lucky to work in renal medicine; there are great highs and lows. You see the patient right through the whole journey and know them for years,” she says.

“We do about 120 transplants here a year. I’m a physician. I’m part of that team that look after the transplant patients,” she explains.

“Renal medicine is incredibly interesting. The human side, the contact side is most rewarding.”

Is there a good piece of advice she was given along the way?

“Young people starting out should not be afraid to travel to the UK or further for training opportunities.

“It’s important to try and research different training opportunities. I found the Irish diaspora very helpful to me in finding opportunities.

“If you don’t do what you want to do- you’ll forever be dissatisfied.”

Jules Montague
Consultant neurologist at the Royal Free Hospital, London

Dubliner Jules Montague's CV already runs the proverbial gamut; an author and writer for the Guardian,

Montague is also an honorary consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (UK), a visiting lecturer in neurology at Mozambique's Beira hospital, as well as chair of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

She grew up in Portmarnock, Dublin, and cheerily admits to “surviving” convent school, before graduating from Trinity College’s Department of Medicine. Stints in Tallaght and Beaumont hospitals followed, before she headed back to Trinity to complete her PhD on ALS and dementia.

At the age of 33, she became a consultant at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London, and is also an honorary consultant at the National Free Hospital, London. Montague's work has been published in Lancet Neurology, and academic articles internationally.

Does a woman have to be more talented/work harder/be more ambitious than a man to succeed at the same job?

“I think there’s an element of first impressions being more difficult but that goes for anyone who does not fit the stereotype. So some patients (not all, I must emphasise) still expect their neurologist to be a bespectacled, bow-tie wearing, white-haired professorial type. Those patients can be a bit disappointed when those expectations aren’t met. So then the rest of us have to spend extra time building trust and confidence that comes by default to the bespectacled, bow-tie wearing, white-haired professorial types.

“But you know what, I actually enjoy that now because you realise that when you do break through in that sort of challenging situation, the interaction means so much more.

Does female solidarity exist, and if so, how has it helped her?

"Because neurology has always been male-dominated (although this is changing now), by default many of my mentors have been men, so female solidarity was not something available to me when I started out! Neurologists, Dr Raymond Murphy (retired from AMNCH) and Professor Michael Hutchinson (St Vincent's) were two mentors whom I owe much to. The encouragement and inspiration they provided and continue to provide is phenomenal, regardless of whether trainees are male or female.

“It’s a competitive world out there but they showed me that you can make it and still help people along the way. It was true generosity of spirit. Solidarity, I suppose, comes in many forms."

Liz Shanahan
Health adviser

Passion for what you do and networking are the key elements to forging a successful and enjoyable career, says Liz Shanahan..

Shanahan, who gives advice to the chief executives to some of the world’s leading healthcare organisations, has more than 25 years’ experience in health and life science communications.

Her clients have included the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Economic Forum, Pfizer, Boots and the NHS.

She is a serial investor and entrepreneur with a long list of accolades to her name including being co-chair of the Irish International Business Network, executive chair of the Reconfiguration and Engagement Partners.

She grew up in Castleisland in Co Kerry with her six siblings. At 21, she travelled to the UK after she finished her BSc in computers and maths at University College Cork.

“I wanted to see the world a bit and experience other things. I came here during the Troubles and the English were amazingly welcoming and tolerant,” she says.

Coming from a family of pharmacists, she was drawn to the world of healthcare and science in London.

“Healthcare is a fantastic area to work in. You can genuinely change people’s lives for the better. It’s what motivated me every day and keeps me focused.”

What’s the best qualification, training to succeed in health care and/or life sciences?

“I’m a bit of a strange one – I’ve a BSc in computers and maths – not really and obvious one for healthcare/life-sciences but it’s been hugely beneficial in giving me a very logical, scientific perspective when looking at things.

If I hadn’t started my first business when I was so young (29), I would probably have done an MBA but running a business is probably the best MBA you can do. I also think being Irish has helped – it’s neither a skill or a qualification, but you stand out!

Is there a good piece of advice she was given along the way? "I have a few. Burn no bridges! Network, network, network and keep in touch – you never know when those you meet along the way that might seem peripheral to your career become useful. And finally, Madeline Albright says there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

Dr Muireann Brennan
Unicef, Geneva

Dr Muireann Brennan believes a medical degree opens doors into work in all sorts of areas. “The possibilities are endless,” she says.

For her, it started when she graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1985. After that, she went on to receive a doctorate in medicine from Trinity and an MPH from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

She is a veteran humanitarian and has recently taken on the role of epidemiologist and medical officer seconded to Unicef’s Office of Emergency Programmes (EMOPS) in Geneva, Switzerland.

She advises new graduates to spend time in a challenging environment – something with which she is very familiar from working in numerous war-torn countries, helping to implement and co-ordinate health initiatives. These have included vaccination campaigns, emergency flood response systems and evaluating under-resourced health systems and finding solutions to save lives in challenging circumstances.

For more than two decades, Brennan has developed programmes in countries ranging from working in Muslim health in central Bosnia to strengthening epidemic disease surveillance in Jordan. She has been seconded to the World Health Organisation, Unicef, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

What’s the best qualification/ training to work in her area?

“Get good clinical experience first, then time in a challenging environment in the field (clinical or programme), before doing additional studies such as a master’s in public health or PhD in epidemiology.”

Is there a good piece of advice she was given along the way?

“How will people believe that you care about 500,000 people, if they cannot see that you care about one?”

Dr Lydia Lynch
Professor in the Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

During her Newman Scholarship at St Vincent's Hospital, Walkinstown native Lynch won the Unesco-L'Oreal International Woman in Science award for her work with T-cell and human lipids. She is the first and, to date, only woman to win the award. It ensured not only a flying start to her science career, but a passport to the world to boot.

She decamped to Harvard for her postdoctoral studies, thanks in part to a Marie Curie International Fellowship. A mother of three, she now works as an assistant professor in Harvard's eminent immunometabolism lab, where she oversees several PhD/postdoc students as well as several Irish students during summer months. She recently received an American Diabetes Association faculty award and an Evergreen innovation award for her groundbreaking work.

Does a woman have to work harder than a man to succeed?

“No, I don’t think a woman needs to work harder or be more talented than a man to succeed. I think hard work, determination and belief in oneself wins. I think men have some advantage in that they can be less self-doubting (on the outside anyway) and of course men and women are different, but equal. In my personal experience, I never felt I had to try harder than a man to get ahead – I felt I had to, and wanted to, work harder than everyone else around me!

What’s the best piece of advice she has been given?

"At the beginning, when my first grant was rejected, my mentor in Harvard, Prof Michael Brenner, told me success is not about everything always working out, it's about what you do when it doesn't. Take a day, be upset, be annoyed, then pick yourself up and keep going. It's the people that keep going that are successful. My experience for success so far is love what you do, and be resilient!

What would she say to someone at the start of their career in this sector?

“If you have a passion for science, discovery and desire to make a positive impact in the world, then follow your dream. Be brave. Put in the work and speak up. Someone is going to have a breakthrough – why not you!

“And some more specific advice, based only on my experience of what worked for me – take time to chose a lab, pick someone with influence who could be your ‘backer’ when you’ve proven you deserve it. Learn broadly but eventually develop a niche. In a world where people are sometimes secretive and guarded, be yourself and share ideas – this will lead to new ideas and collaborations. And develop a thick skin, especially if you have new ideas that could change dogma.”

Prof Niamh Nic Daéid
Forensic scientist

In 1993, Nic Daéid completed her PhD in bio-inorganic chemistry at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. From there, she was appointed lecturer in forensic science at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, where she established an international reputation in forensic science research, education and professional development.

In 2011, she became the first woman to earn a personal chair in the Department of Chemistry in Strathclyde's history. She also chairs the Interpol organising committee for the forensic science managers symposium and previously chaired the European Network of Forensic Institutes Fire & Explosion Investigation Working Group, which represents 63 forensic science laboratories. On top of this, she acts as consultant for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and is vice-chair of the scientific advisory board for the International Criminal Court.

She is also vice-chair of the Royal Statistical Society's section for science and law. In 2015, along with Prof Sue Black, she won a £10 million research grant to establish the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Dundee.

What’s the best qualification, training to get on in health and science today?

"My undergraduate degree was in honours chemistry and honours mathematics and as a consequence I was offered a choice of a PhD in either subject, chemistry being the research track I chose at RCSI. Having that early background in mathematics has stood the test of time and it is probably the most used part of any of the qualifications I have.

“One of the most important aspects of being involved in forensic science is being able to communicate. Nowhere is this more starkly obvious than at the interface between science and law or science and the public who make up our juries.”

Is there a good piece of advice she was given along the way?

“My mother suggested that I specialise in statistics rather than quantum mechanics for my mathematics degree. That single piece of advice has probably had the longest reach in terms of influence on how my career developed. I constantly meet colleagues from a wide spectrum of disciplines who find a lack of statistical acumen a huge disadvantage.”

What would she say to someone at the start of their career in medicine/health care/research?

“My advice is to not be afraid of stepping outside of your comfort zone, to see things differently. Most importantly, you need to be able to communicate with your fellow scientists, but also more broadly with the public, with the end users of your skills and services and with young people who embrace new technologies at breakneck speed so that your skills, experience and knowledge will truly make a difference.”

Prof Margaret Murnane 
Principal investigator and professor at the University of Colerado

You know you are dealing with someone formidable if they are the recipient of a "genius award" and formidable is an appropriate descriptor for Limerick-born Margaret Murnane.

A professor at the University of Colorado, Murnane is a world leader in the development of very fast-pulsed lasers. They emit short bursts of laser light measured down to a few trillionths of a second, and act like a strobe light to slow down motion.

Her lasers are so fast they make it possible to record the motions of atoms in chemical reactions. A laser built to her design was central to the success of researchers who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005.

Murnane completed BSc and MSc degrees at University College Cork and went on to do a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. She held a number of academic posts before moving to Colorado where she has remained a principal investigator and faculty member since 1999.

She has accumulated a number of major US and international awards including a McArthur Fellowship, membership of the US National Academy of Sciences and election as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

She is also only the second woman to receive Ireland's premier research award – the RDS/Irish Times Boyle Medal for scientific excellence for her pioneering work, an award that goes back to 1899. The Boyle judging panel described her as "an international leader in her field", and despite spending most of her working life in the US she remains as Irish as they come.

What is the best qualification/ training to work in her field?

“I work on short generating wavelength laser-like beams to probe materials. When I started working in this area, no one believed that it would be possible to make tabletop beams of soft X-rays. So for my profession as a scientist, the best qualification was to develop an intuition for what crazy ideas can be made to work in the real world.”

What would she say now to someone at the start of their career in research?

“Build bridges to other scientists and engineers, understand what challenges others are dealing with and solve them.”

Rachel Flaherty

Rachel Flaherty

Rachel Flaherty is Digital Features Editor and journalist with The Irish Times

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.