UL prof took the primary route to top in research


After teaching in a primary school in Limerick for 18 years, Eamonn Murphyset out on a course of study which led eventually to a professorship at the University of Limerick. Anne Byrne reports

His background teaching ABCs and one-two-threes has given Professor Eamonn Murphy a decided advantage when it comes to instilling the basics of probability theory into third-level students.

A primary teacher turned college professor, Murphy was recognised by UL in 1998 as a faculty member who demonstrated exceptional teaching ability. Now primarily engaged in research, he has consulted on more than 60 manufacturing design projects in 40 companies in Ireland, Britain and Hungary. He is director of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centre and is a co-founder of the National Centre for Quality Management and the Small Firms Research Unit at UL.

Murphy was born in Limerick in 1948 and attended Sexton Street CBS. "It's a reflection of the maths taught there that I am here today. There are very few lecturers from Limerick in UL, but at one stage there were three in the statistics department, all ex-pupils of Sexton Street," he says.

After qualifying as a national teacher, Murphy taught at primary level in Limerick for 18 years. He decided to study for the graduateship of the British Institute of Maths because it would give him additional income with an honours degree allowance. It was not a career decision. "I just liked maths," he says.

Sitting the graduateship exams in 1980, he came first. One of the professors who had set the papers suggested he should enrol on a master's programme in statistics. There was no such programme available in the State.

But UL, with the help of Professor Aidan Moran of UCC, set up a course and the Department of Education gave Murphy leave of absence to attend it.

Afterwards, he says modestly, there weren't too many people around in Limerick to give tutorials so he began to teach in UL on a part-time basis. "Coming from a teaching background, I had a fair advantage and the recommendations of students were very high." Still doing the day job, he knew he had to make a choice. He decided to do a PhD, a risky decision, he says. "I was closer to 40 than 20. I had no guarantee of a job at UL. If I succeeded in the PhD but didn't get a job at third level, I would be a complete anomaly in the primary education system." But he forged ahead anyway and took a two-year career break to do a PhD in UCD.

The Logo (computer) language had just been invented at MIT. For his PhD, Murphy used it as a tool to teach maths using computers. "It was very successful. The key concept is reversibility. With this programme, I systematically taught the kids how to work back." After completing his doctorate, Murphy's hard work paid off in the form of a job in UL. Today, he is once again using computing to teach maths. One of the biggest difficulties worldwide is teaching probability to large class groups, he says.

"A number of problems exist with the traditional 'chalk and talk' method of teaching, especially with large groups. There is a lack of personal interaction; the student is generally a passive uncritical recorder of information. There are varying levels of student motivation and approaches to study. Other issues include large workloads of students, the nature and pace of the content, the diverse level of background knowledge of each student and the transition from second-level to university maths." So, he has put together a web-based, interactive teaching programme for teaching statistics, which he is trying out with his current class group.

The €50,000 funding to develop the project came from Enterprise Ireland, UL and Nokia.

Only one-fifth of Murphy's time is now devoted to teaching. About half is dedicated to research. He supervises 15 PhD students and 30 research master's students and has secured €1 million in funding to date. In 1995, his paper with PhD student James Prendergast won the outstanding paper award at the IEEE conference in Nevada.

In 1999, he was the recipient of the UL excellence in research award, for his work on integrated circuits. "There's often up to six months' lag from the reliability data at final test being made available in the wafer lab foundry. Our research was to cut that time dramatically," he explains.

Murphy's current research includes devising statistical rules for radiation controls and looking at the reliability of lead solder joints. UL has a research relationship with Nokia, worth about €1.25 million a year. Murphy was instrumental in securing the Nokia Global Quality Research Centre for UL.

With them, Murphy is looking at the relationship between field failure returns and online testing.

He is co-writing a book on enhanced reliability models for electronic systems. The remainder of Murphy's time, about one day a week, is devoted to a cause he calls "Ireland Incorporated". He says: "I believe very strongly in Ireland Inc. and in helping indigenous industry, changing and adapting research so that it can be used in small companies."

In a bid to counterbalance the strong industry bias towards the north east of the State, the Atlantic University Alliance was formed. A joint endeavour between UL, NUI Galway and UCC, Murphy is the UL programme director.

"Together, the colleges are developing a distance learning master's in technology management to support R&D and process innovation within the indigenous sector on the western seaboard." Now firmly ensconced in the third-level sector, as Boart Longyear Professor of Quality and Applied Statistics in the department of mathematics and statistics, Murphy says: "UL is a unique place to work. It's very helpful.

"I don't know if I would have blossomed as well anywhere else. This place has allowed me to grow with it."