Fascination for how things work

They were all grist to his mill... radios, toasters, washing machines, cameras

They were all grist to his mill . . . radios, toasters, washing machines, cameras. James McGinley recalls his days as a young boy growing up in Meenaneary in the valley of Glencolmcille in Co Donegal. "I took everything apart," he says.

"If I suspected at all that there were electronics involved in it, it would come apart - that's one of the things that attracted me to physics," says the boy who grew up to become a systems engineer. He doesn't know where this curiosity came from but he recalls wanting to open up every object to find out how it worked.

It's a mystery where the interest came from, he says. There were no applied physicists in the area. He comes from a farming background. "It was a rural community, but if I found somebody chucking something out I'd have it off of them. I'd go into the room and dismantle it. It has a lot to do with curiosity more than anything else. That's what a lot of physics has to do with. Figuring out how things actually work."

Physics was what he wanted to do "from an early age", he says. "I was always building stuff." He had a good physics teacher at Carrick Vocational School in Glencolmcille - Padraig Leamey.


McGinley was always pretty good at maths and science. In fact, he says, "I always knew that it was physics in particular that I wanted to pursue. I was extremely focused from an early age and that was probably unusual."

He managed to find 10 different courses that featured physics which he listed on his CAO form. He went to DCU to do a four-year degree course in applied physics and he's never regretted it. "Looking back, I'm delighted that that's the course I did. I could have done others which might appear to be more relevant (to my current job) but I never regretted having done physics. It allows you to go into numerous technical disciplines. You'll get your computer programming knowledge along the way."

The applied physics course gave him "a very good technical grounding that allows you to take on any technical problem. The subject is very underrated," he says.

The DCU course involved one day a week in the lab. This was the most interesting part of it for McGinley. "The lab work was always very good. It allowed you to get in and find out how things worked at a particular level."

His final year project, which won the 1996 Institute of Physics Undergraduate Award, looked at the design and construction of a blackbody source for use with optical pyrometers. It took about six months to complete.

As for work experience, he spent six months with Glen Dimplex in Dunleer, Co Louth, and learned a lot about the actual industrial environment and about the implications of decisions on manufacturing and other areas of production. After graduating with a first class honours degree, he worked with the National Electronic Text Centre at Forbairt in Glasnevin, Dublin. He joined Tellabs after this and he's been there for three years.

HIS current job involves the high-level design of telecommunications systems. His role is similar to that of an architect, designing a system, he says. For young students who are toying with the idea of a career in physics, he says a solid technical grounding in physics is important. He explains that the majority of people he works with have degrees in computer science or electronic engineering. Having a degree in applied physics, he says, is "an advantage, it gives you a different slant."