Ah, the laboratory; the whiff of sulphur, the coloured fluids, the white coats and odd-looking instruments. Things to test, calibrate, analyse and measure. Aine Moynagh loved labs from the day she first walked into one.
She remembers the day: it was her first chemistry class in St Louis Secondary School in Monaghan. “We were growing crystals from copper sulphate,” recalls Aine. Straight away, the teenager realized that she wanted to work in a lab and not end up in an office staring at a computer all day.
There had been no ‘tradition’ of science in the family. Her father is a Hotel Manager, and her mum a housewife. However, two of her four siblings also went into technical fields, with one sister also a scientist, and a brother an ordnance surveyor. The other siblings work as a musician and a carpenter.
Her subject choices for the Leaving Certificate reflected her interest in science, with Aine choosing Chemistry, Biology, Home Economics and Maths (honours), as well as English and German. She did well enough to get offered a place in the general science course at Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT), where many of her friends from school also headed.
The interest in Chemistry and lab work that Aine developed at school, strengthened when she started at LYIT. “I loved sitting down and working out calculations,” says Aine. “There is something about the feeling of getting something working.” The practical aspect of chemistry appealed to her. “For me, I learn so much about looking at an instrument and how it works as opposed to seeing a diagram in a book and learning it that way. It was just so much easier to get into the lab and physically look at it.”
People go into science for all kinds of reasons. They might love animals, want to improve the environment, are fascinated by the stars in the skies, curious out how things work, or, like Aine, because they adore lab work.
A true laboratory lover is the type that when they are studying science at third-level they spend most of their time in the lab doing practical work, rather than in the library reading the recommended books, and scientific journals. This was exactly the type of student that Aine was, when at LYIT.
At LYIT, she started in first year, along with about 100 other students, in general science stream. This was very useful, says Aine, because it gave her time to figure out what area of science she wanted to work in. It became clear to her that she was interested in analytical science and chemistry.
She completed a certificate after two years of study, did a third year to get a diploma and then a fourth, which yielded an honours science degree. It meant she had three graduations at LYIT, Aine laughs, and three big days out. The last was in 2004, and then it was time to figure out her next move.
However, she was in no rush to get a ‘science job’. She had been working in Dunnes Stores in Monaghan since she was 16, a job that had helped sustain her all through her leaving certificate and third level studies, so she had an income, and was living at home. About nine months after graduation, she recalls, she applied for, and got, a job with Norbrook Laboratories, Newry.
The job was in QC, or quality control, which is an area in Ireland that provides plenty of jobs and career opportunities for science graduates. Most science graduates these days end up in QC, said Aine, working in the pharma industry, testing tablets and products before they are released.
The Norbrook job was a step in the right direction for Aine, but all the travelling was tough: two hours commuting each day. There was also the issue of being paid in Sterling and living in the Republic. Wages are lower in the north, and the cost of living his higher in the south, Aine explained.
At Norbrook she quickly learned the difference between lab science as an undergraduate and in the workplace. “In college if something doesn’t work, then, ah it’s fine, you can write that into the conclusions, it didn’t work, but you can’t do that in work,” comments Aine. “You have to find out why it didn’t work and everything has to be documented – the documentation is very strictly controlled in quality control and it has to be,” she added.
After a few months, Aine was keen to try and get a job back in the south and in this, she was helped by recruitment company, CPL. They helped to place her in a company called Helsinn Birex Pharmaceuticals, Mulhuddart. She decided to take it, and moved away from Monaghan to live in Dublin.
The move to Dublin was difficult at first, but after a while, she settled down. Again, the job was involved in QC, working to ensure the safety of all Helsinn products by running through well-established safety protocols. It was good work experience, but, it was very similar to the work she had been doing with Norbrook, and she began to think of applying to do a PhD.
It was 2007, and the economy was still going well, so she thought it might be a good time to apply for a doctorate, and up her skills. She applied, and was accepted, to do a PhD at Dublin City University. Aine was delighted, but she found it difficult at first to re-adjust again to studying and college.
The PhD was far more difficult than working, Aine says, because to a large extent with a PhD ‘you are on your own’ and your days are un-structured. In Helsinn, the days were highly structured, the testing protocols were well established and it was very clear what was expected of you at all times.
Aine got a scholarship to do a PhD, which sustained her while living in Dublin, so finances were not a huge issue. The real challenge was to find the resolve to work independently towards finding something totally new.
Her PhD was in the area of analytical chemistry, and specifically to try and find new ways to separate liquids with varying properties. After four years of hard work, the effort was successful and she produced a new way of separating liquids that formed the basis for a viable commercial product.
She finished her PhD in just under four years. At the end of it, Aine recalls, she had developed a new, improved technology to separate out liquids from each other based on differences in their position in the periodic table (and the atomic arrangements), the size of the molecule and other properties.
This technology was built into a ‘chromatography column’. So, what’s chromatography? “If you had a bottle of water and look on the side of it and it says it contains bi-carbonates and nitrates and a load of other things; it gives you a value as well. That’s all done by chromatography,” says Aine.
She finished the PhD in 2011. She didn’t consider trying for an academic career as a realistic option as she saw post-doctoral students struggling to get funding, and even when they secured it, they often had to renew it every three months. She was looking for more structure and focus in her life.
Again helped by CPL, she quickly secured a job in the pharmaceutical industry with Rottapharm Madaus; one of Italy’s largest pharma companies. Like Helsinn, one of her previous companies, they are based in Dublin.
The company produces glucosamine which is used to maintain cartilage in joints. They also produce nutraceuticals, which are products that are not strictly drugs in the usual sense, but more natural dietary supplements.
She joined Rottapharm initially on a short-term contract towards the end of her PhD as her funding ran out as a QC analyst, like she had been in two previous companies. However, she found she really liked the work, and an opportunity came up to gain a promotion to work as a process analyst.
The process analyst job involved designing all the safety protocols that would be followed by the Rottapharm QC analysts. It is a more challenging role, said Aine, with more research time, and less structure. This all appeals to her, but it is also a responsible job with absolutely no room for error.
“At the minute, the pharmaceutical industry is going so well in Ireland – with other sectors suffering it is probably a good career to consider at the minute,” said Aine. “I have never seen anyone struggling to get a QC job.”
This article was first published in the March/April 2014 issue of Science Spin