STEM graduates who have gone on to achieve big things talk about their path
Life after STEM degrees full of diverse job opportunities
Maria Meehan, Research manager, Fighting Blindness
Dr Shane Bergin, physics lecturer at Trinity College;
Sinead Keogh, Director Irish Medical Devices Association
David Jeffreys, Managing director, Action Point
Dr Shane Bergin
School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin
In 1999 I came to Trinity College Dublin to study for a degree in science and, excluding a few years at Imperial College London, I haven’t left! I chose science as physics and maths were two of my favourite subjects in school.
I began a PhD in 2003. Free from the stress of undergraduate exams I felt things took off for me then: I was able to learn on my own terms and I was working with a fantastic bunch of young people from all over the world. For me, curiosity, grit and communication are at the heart of science.
As a research student I worked hard to master all three. I was very lucky to have a great supervisor – we made some exciting breakthroughs that we reported to our peers in academic journals and at international conferences. My research focused on nanomaterials called carbon nanotubes – tiny cylinders of carbon only a few atoms wide that have incredible strengths and electrical properties.
Now, I’m a physics lecturer at Trinity College. I’m funded by Science Foundation Ireland and that’s allowed me to start a research group of my own.
When I’m not pouring over equations or data with my two PhD students, I’m busy teaching undergraduates in lectures or labs - and I love every minute of it. Since starting my current post at Trinity, I’ve been working with colleagues in the school of education exploring innovative ways for our students to learn.
From May 24th, at 7pm on RTÉ Radio 1, I’ll be hosting an eight-part science documentary called Bright Sparks – looking at the impact of Irish research across all our universities and highlighting places where Ireland is leading globally. I’m encouraging people to tune in and listen to people like Fergus Shanahan (University College Cork), zoologist Emma Teeling (UCD), or physicist Jessamyn Fairfield (TCD) and be amazed at their work on the frontiers of knowledge.
manager, Fighting Blindness
I had excellent teachers who encouraged my interest in science. I chose biotechnology in Dublin City University: it’s a highly regarded degree with a focus on gaining hands-on experience through INTRA, a six-month internship programme.
My internship in Pfizer was a formative experience for me. I began to think about further studies and chose to take a PhD in cancer epigenetics at UCD. After graduation, I spent three years as a postdoctoral researcher and then joined Fighting Blindness as research manager. It’s a dynamic organisation that prides itself on funding impactful and innovative research in an area that until recently had few treatment options available to patients.
My role is varied. I implement our research strategy and manage our research portfolio which currently has projects both in the Republic and Northern Ireland. I communicate about international and Fighting Blindness-funded research to our patient and supporter base through our quarterly publications and social media. I work nationally with a number of other groups on common areas such as patient registry development and advocating for increased funding for all areas of research, notably in basic research, which critically forms the pipeline for the breakthroughs of the future.
I also organise our renowned two-day retina conference in Dublin every November. One of our major initiatives for 2015 is the expansion of our Target 5000 project, which aims to find the particular genetic cause of certain conditions that cause blindness.
As a STEM graduate the world is your oyster. There are many career opportunities outside of the traditional academic or industry route that students might not have thought of before. Learn to network as early as possible; speak to more senior people about your career – the vast majority are more than happy to give advice. Many of the skills you acquire through a STEM qualification are applicable to a vast number of industries, it’s all about finding out what you’re interested in.
Managing director, Action Point
From a young age we had an Atari games console in the house, and then I was given an old Olivetti computer when I was a teenager. It didn’t even have a hard drive but I learned to get by just using floppy disks, and played games like Nibbles and Gorilla. I wanted to learn to programme so I learned BASIC from a book borrowed from the local library.
Once I understood that programming was about rules and instructions and that the programme was a direct result of the effort and intellect of the programmer, I was hooked. It was an opportunity for me to “own” something and perhaps even prove something. In transition year in school we had to choose a career and write a project on that career. Naturally I chose programming and then realised the opportunity there was in this space.
I graduated from the University of Limerick in 2001 with a degree in computer systems. I met Action Point’s co-founder, John Savage, on the first day of first year during orientation week and together we developed a small business writing a prototype instant messaging application. Thankfully we succeeded and the programme is still in use today, 15 years later.
Action Point employs roughly 60 people who help businesses to make the best use of technology. We provide custom software development nationally and internationally and recently won a project in Los Angeles worth a little over $1 million in revenue.
Director Irish Medical Devices Association
I enjoyed physics as a Leaving Cert subject and went on to study it in DIT. After a PhD in nanomaterials at DIT’s FOCAS Institute, I worked for two years in industry before becoming director of the Irish Medical Devices Association (IMDA), an Ibec sector group.
IMDA has over 180 members on the island of Ireland, and its broad focus is to promote and support an environment that encourages the sustainable development and profitable growth of multinational and indigenous medical device and diagnostic companies.
Despite high unemployment, many medical technology companies find it difficult to find suitably qualified engineers. Responding to national demand for quality engineers across Ireland’s medtech sector, IMDA have got funding from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Springboard initiative for the fourth year in succession for a conversion programme for engineers. This programme gives engineers and science graduates additional skills to help them find jobs. Over the past three years 180 jobseekers have completed the IMDA programme and 35 companies have facilitated internships.
In 2013, the medtech sector exported products to the value of €8 billion, making Ireland one of the largest exporters of medical technologies in Europe. The sector employs over 27,000 people, which makes us, per capita, the biggest medical technology employer in the Europe. The availability of engineering skill sets is key for the sustained and continued growth of the medtech sector.
Graduates who enter the sector have excellent working conditions, high quality training and the chance to travel within global multinational companies. Career options are many and varied – anything from working in a precision engineering laboratory through to management in operations or marketing.