Tallaght students set to make radio contact with the International Space Station

Fifth year students from Tallaght Community School pictured preparing for radio contact with with the International Space Station. (Pic: Colin O’Riordan) 

Tallaght Community School will this Thursday, 19th October become the first Irish school to make radio contact with the International Space Station (I.S.S.)

The I.S.S. travels in orbit around the Earth at a speed of 27,600km/hour and for a window of six to 12 minutes it will pass over Tallaght Community School.

The students will get the opportunity to speak to Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli while he takes a break from his extensive daily duties on board the ISS.

“The opportunity to talk to the astronauts on board the ISS will hopefully encourage students to pursue a career in STEM education, but also be a memorable moment in their journey through education in Tallaght Community School,” said Ian Boran, physics and maths teacher.

In 2014 Paolo was interviewed for an RTE Radio 1 science series called ‘What’s It All About? where he spoke about life on a previous ISS mission.

Paolo Nespoli, the Italian European Space Agency astronaut will speak to Tallaght students via a radio link (Source: European Space Agency)

Radio equipment on the ground in Tallaght will beam a line-of-sight signal to the ISS. The students in Tallaght have set up a radio station on the ground, using amateur radio equipment which includes an antenna, and a two-way radio system.

The ISS has been a channel for educating school students around the world about on the work that takes place on the ISS and life on-board the ISS.

Amateur radio is a hobby which facilitates learning about how radio technology works , communicating with others and long distance communication.

Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, is a global voluntary group that formalised a programme for helping schools to connect with the ISS through the use of amateur radio equipment.

The ARISS runs a competition where thousands of applications are received from schools worldwide to connect with the ISS, but only a few are chosen.

Schools in the home country of a specific astronaut on board the ISS received 70 per cent of the limited number of contact events per year.

So, for countries like Ireland, which have no astronaut on board the ISS, it is extremely difficult for a school to be chosen.


Student competition to build a mini-satellite launched

A competition has been launched for secondary students to build a mini-satellite.

A competition to design, build and test a mini-satellite, which is open to second level students, was launched this week to coincide with Space Week.

CanSat 2018 is a simulation of a real satellite, but built inside an empty soft drink can.

In 2016 Ireland finished 3rd in the European finals and in 2017 Ireland finished 2nd in the European finals, so this year Ireland is hoping for an overall win in Europe.

CanSat Ireland is open to post primary students, Transition Year and upwards. The competition is designed to give students experience of a real space project and aims to encourage them to consider careers in science and engineering.

CanSat Ireland started in 2012 and is co-ordinated by the European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO) Ireland.

The winner of the national final then has the opportunity to represent Ireland by participating in the European CanSat Competition which challenges teams from other European countries to compete against each other.

Schools interested in participating in CanSat should contact Alan Giltinan at Blackrock Castle Observatory by email at alan.giltinan@bco.ie and by phone at 021 4326125


Sean Duke; Science Journalist, Radio Broadcaster and Author

Sean Duke

Sean Duke is a Science Journalist, Broadcaster and Author

Sean has been a science journalist since the mid 1990s. He has worked as an editor, journalist, radio presenter and researcher, TV reporter, science blogger and popular science author.

He currently works as Clinical Editor with The Medical Independent as well as science & environmental contributor to Drivetime on RTE Radio 1.

Sean’s parents were both scientists. His mother was Fiona Duke (neé Herr), a biology teacher in Scoil Dara, Kilcock Co Kildare, and his father was Prof Eamonn Duke, Head of Zoology, UCD (both deceased, may they R.I.P.).

He has a B.Sc. from UCD, where he graduated in 1987 after specialising in Zoology, Geology and Botany in his final year. He followed that up with a Masters in Scientific and Environmental Journalism from New York University’s renowned Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP).

He returned to Ireland from in 1993 after completing his Masters degree in New York and worked initially as a substitute Biology and Science teacher at a secondary school in Co. Kildare.

In 1996, he took a Higher Diploma in Education from UCD, and this opened up the possibility of a career in teaching.

However, all through his time working in teaching, he maintained his interest in journalism and was contributing articles to his local Liffey Champion newspaper and other titles.

In 1998, a position as a senior reporter came up in the Champion. Sean applied for it, and got the position. Thus, began Sean’s 17-year career as a full-time journalist, specialising in science, medicine and technology.

At the Champion, which covered the huge population centre of west Dublin and north Kildare, Sean covered all kinds of stories, from business to local politics and sport. However, science still got a look in, and he set up the paper’s first science page, covering research developments at Maynooth University (then called NUI Maynooth).

He began contributing regularly to Technology Ireland, the magazine published by Enterprise Ireland, which was the only technology magazine in Ireland at the time.

In 2000, he was asked to join Technology Ireland, which he did, initially as a Joint Editor. Then two years later he was appointed Editor.

In 2003, he set up Ireland’s first popular science magazine Science Spin along with two journalistic colleagues.

As a co-founder and editor, he played a crucial role in fund raising for the magazine, and ensuring its survival as a title right through the years of the economic collapse.

Science Spin, which is published six times per year, has steadily grown its readership and recently entered its thirteenth year of publication.

As well as co-editing Science Spin, he wrote regularly on a freelance basis for The Sunday Times (Irish edition) and Science – one of the world’s most influential science publications, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2008, he began to get interested in radio, and following regular contributions to many shows, on RTE Radio 1 and Newstalk, he set up his own show in 2008.

Science Spinning was a weekly show broadcast on 103.2 Dublin City FM, and covered the latest happenings in science in Ireland and overseas. It was Ireland’s first science show on radio and rant for three and a half years.

In 2009, he began a regular science slot on East Coast FM, and this continues to the present with his weekly slot on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan in 2009. 

Also in 2009, he set up his popular Blog, also called Science Spinning featuring print features, news, thought provoking opinion pieces, radio interviews, hosted shows, and television appearances.

In 2010, he also began to host a regular science slot on TV3’s Ireland AM.  He suggested the content to be featured, did the background research, and provided supporting media for the 7 to 8 minute slot.

This regular Ireland AM slot ran for two years, after which Sean moved to RTE’s The Daily Show, where he did a regular science slot during 2012, featuring many of Ireland’s scientific greats and topical scientific issues.

In 2013, his first book, ‘How Irish Scientists Changed the World was published by Londubh. It reached number 2 in the bestseller list at Hodges Figgis bookshop, Dublin.

The following year, 2014, saw him make his first outing as a presenter on RTE Radio 1, as co-host with Colette Kinsella of the exploratory science series ‘What’s It All About?’.

This series won the silver award for specialist speech radio at the 2014 PPI Radio Awards.

In 2015 was co-presenter and researcher for a new series for RTE Radio 1. This was a 13-part ethics series, called ‘Life Matters’, featuring science-related topics such as genetic screening and assisted reproduction, and much else.

In 2016 he began to regularly contribute as a science and environmental reporter to Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio 1, while in 2017 he became a regular correspondent for Drivetime, also on RTE Radio 1.

He is also currently working on his second book. This will be a work of historical fiction based on real historical events, involving code breaking, Ireland and WWII.

Sean is 51, and lives in Terenure with his wife Maria and their three children.


The Laboratory Lover: Aine Moynagh

Aine Moynagh

Aine Moynagh, pictured here, with the ruins of Pompeii in the background, on a work trip with her pharmaceutical company, Rottapharm Madaus (Credit: Aine Moynagh)

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

Irish science seeing light at the end of the tunnel

PV 240114 IPIC 5

Minister Sean Sherlock (left), Professor Paul Townsend, Tyndall National Institute (Centre) and Professor Mark Ferguson, SFI, pictured at the launch of a new Irish photonics research centre (Credit: Darragh McSweeney, Provision )


It’s been a tough few years, but Irish science is seeing some signs of light – literally – with the opening of a new €30 million government and industry backed photonics research centre.

The Irish Photonic Integration Centre (IPIC) has been set up with an eye on growing Ireland’s share of the huge €58 billion European photonics market.

Photonics – the science of light – underpins many high-technology sectors, including medical devices, and IT, in which Ireland is strong.

The IPIC, which comes under the remit of Science Foundation Ireland, will bring together four research institutes, over 100 researchers and 18 industry partners.

The goal of the IPIC is to create 200 new jobs over the next six years. Funding of €20 million is provided by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and with an additional €10 million coming from industry.

Commenting at the launch of the IPIC, Sean Sherlock, the Minister with responsibility for research and innovation said:

“The Centre is in prime position to achieve further funding from the Horizon 2020 funding round and to attract new companies and talent to Ireland”.

The Process Scientist: Brian Moran, Pfizer Grangecastle


Brian Moran holds a doctorate from DCU and now works as a process scientist with Pfizer at Grangecastle in Dublin (Credit: Brian Moran)

Whether it’s for heart disease, or depression, the drugs that sustain our health only reach the pharmacist’s shelves after a hugely complex and highly regulated manufacturing process. The making of a drug can involve input from hundreds if not thousands of people, and right at the heart of it all, is the process scientist.

There is a sense that the process scientists – who are the glue that holds together the entire drug manufacturing process – are the unsung heroes of Ireland’s, still thriving, pharmaceutical industry. The key role of process scientists, working as a technical services team within the plant, is to field questions on any aspect of the process, large or small, from any manufacturing section or quarter, right across the site. They are expected to take these questions and to find answers.

The questions might have to do with the raw materials coming into the plant, or to do with the labeling on the drug as it is about to leave the site. Whatever the stage of the process, or the nature of the question, it will be sent to the process scientists at technical services to deal with. It’s an important, challenging role.

Dr Brian Moran, is a process scientist working within the technical services team at the massive Pfizer Grange Castle Biotech plant in Dublin. The €1.8 plant is located on a 90-acre site and is one of the largest biotech plants in the world. The site as a whole is involved in the manufacture of the ‘next generation’ of EMBREL, a drug used to treat osteoporosis and arthritis, and Prevnar 13, a vaccine used against pneumococcal bacteria given to newborn children. Brian works on EMBREL.

The pharmaceutical industry must have a ‘pipeline’ of products constantly coming through. Otherwise, if a drug like EMBREL came ‘off patent’ without a new version being in place, then the ‘generic’ drug manufacturers would make a cheaper version of EMBREL and sell it using its chemical, not its brand name.

In this scenario, Pfizer, the company that produced EMBREL, would lose out.

The real importance, however, of the job of the process engineer is to ensure the integrity of the production process, in order to make safe, and effective drugs – and that applies to every batch of drugs that leaves the plant, without exception. The secondary role is to save money, by providing efficiencies in the production process, and to maximize the return the company makes from its drug pipeline.


Brian, who is from Dungarvan, was inspired to pursue a career in science by his  chemistry teacher at St Augustine’s College, Oliver Broderick. “He was very much ‘old school’, but he knew how to connect with the students,” said Brian about his former teacher. “He knew how to make the subject enjoyable. You would get homework, but it was a pleasure to do the homework – almost. It was very much related to real life. He had a real passion for the subject, for the sciences. It certainly did rub off on the majority of the sudents,” recalled Brian.

Such was his influence, said Brian, that all of his siblings went into the general, scientific, medical or healthcare fields. “I have a brother and a sister that are both pharmacists and my little sister is an occupational therapist,” said Brian’. “The one abiding link there is that we all had the same chemistry teacher.”

After his Leaving Certificate in 2000, Brian went to DCU where he signed up for a four year course in Pure and Applied Chemistry (in his first year the course changed its name to Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science). In the summer following his 3rd year at DCU Brian got the opportunity to work in research in the US as part of a r collaboration between DCU and the University of Kansas.

This experience whetted his appetite for further research after his degree, and he moved on to do a PhD in DCU in medicinal chemistry.  The doctorate took three and a half years to complete; then it was on to a post-doc. At this point, however, he switched his chosen field to environmental and analytical chemistry. At the same time, he began questioning the logic of trying to secure an academic job.

“Academia is a very difficult area to break in to,” explained Brian. “To make a success of it you have to be young, free and single, to get the international experience, and build up your contacts. Then the opportunities are very limited. I had a young family and I was looking for something more secure. There was more job security and opportunity by getting into the pharma side of things.”

After two and a half years of post-doctoral work, Brian applied for, and secured a job working in technical services at the Elanco plant in Sligo (Elanco is the veterinary wing of Eli Lilly).  He had started to build a house in Dundalk, where is wife is from, and had a small daughter. His stayed in Sligo during the working week and came home to his family at the weekend. When a second child came along a few months ago, a boy, there was a strong motivation to get a job ‘back on the east coast’. The job at Pfizer is within commuting distance of Dundalk.

The great thing about working in the pharmaceutical sector, he says, is that it had – at least until a few job loss announcements recently – been largely untouched by the economic crash. Things are still going well in Irish pharma, but the emphasis, he said, is changing in the industry with a general move away from the manufacture of the bulk products – the tablets and chemicals – into synthesizing medicines using biotechnology. This is exactly what is being done at Grange Castle, he said, where products are being grown up using cell lines, and the whole process is more advanced than before.

“Currently I’m looking at all the starting raw materials coming in, making sure that they are all sufficiently pure, doing any testing that needs to be done to make sure that they are all fine, fit for purpose for the product. We are working side by side with the engineers who are looking at the ‘hardware’ side of it.”

The analogy he used was to think of the process at Grange Castle in terms of it being like building a PC.  Under this analogy the engineers are looking at the hardware – the computer monitor, the keyboard, the mouse etcetera– while the technical services department (populated by scientists like Brian) looks at what software needs to be put in, what kind of anti-virus programme and what filters.

Brian loves the interaction across the entire Grange Castle site that his job provides. He is also at ease with the responsibility that comes with the position. On the downside, there is a lot of paperwork. He has had to ‘hang up his white coat’ and spends a huge proportion of his work time in front of a PC writing up reports, writing assessments and signing off on things, rather than at the bench.

He would recommend his job to anyone considering a career in science. “In terms of technical services,” said Brian, “you can get in at the boom level and you can go right up to the very top of the whole manufacturing structure. There is always great scope for moving up the line, there are great opportunities.”

This article was first published in the January-February 2014 edition of Science Spin

As the amazing Young Scientist Show hits 50, Tony Scott recalls its humble origins


Every January, the success of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition means that science – for one week at least – is guaranteed the nation’s attention. Photo Credit (BTYSTE)

This year the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition celebrates its 50th year. Dr Tony Scott, retired UCD Physicist, and co-founder, along with Fr Tom Burke (deceased) has many cherished memories of the show down the decades.

“The first one was held in January 1965,” recalled Tony. “We had about 220 projects – with Aer Lingus’s support we booked the round room of the Mansion House. Then based on the projects we picked judges and just told them to judge. The projects were divided into boys and girls and they were all individuals.”

It’s a long time ago. Some of the stories making news in January ’65 were the death of Winston Churchill; the first meeting (in 43 years) of an Irish Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, with a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill; and the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson for a second term as the President of the US.


The idea for the Show followed a 1963 visit to New Mexico by Tony with Fr Burke – his mathematics teacher at Terenure College and by now his colleague in the UCD department of Physics. ‘Fr Tom’, as Tony called him, had gone out to the US first, and reported back to Tony on something interesting he saw there.

The two UCD researchers had been invited to visit the New Mexico Institute for Mining and Technology, based in Socorro, a small-ish town in the Rio Grande Valley, 74 miles south of Albuquerque. The Americans wanted the Irish to build a replica of something that was called ‘the Nolan Photoelectric Nucleus Counter’.

This device had been named after its inventor, Professor Patrick Nolan – the  Chair of the UCD Geophysics Department up until his 1964 retirement. It was, and is, the standard instrument used around the world to measure condensation nuclei – the tiny particles upon which vapour condenses during cloud formation.

Fr Tom went out to New Mexico first, Tony recalls jokingly, because “I had more exam papers to correct than he had”. Before long, Fr Tom was in touch with Tony about something that he had seen that engaged his keen interest. “He got back to me and said there is a young man out here who is building a rocket,” said Tony. “It will go up one mile and he wants to demonstrate it. The morning after I arrived we went to the schoolyard of the local primary school in Socorro.”

At the school, the Irish scientists met a young man called Gary, recalls Tony, who was setting up a rocket. They started chatting, and he said that he planned to enter his rocket project into a science fair that was being held in Albuquerque. Fr Tom stayed on to attend the fair. He arrived back at UCD in September 1963, talked to Tony and asked: “Could we do it here in Ireland?” It was agreed that, yes, it could be done, but that a sponsor was needed. Tony had a contact in Aer Lingus, and they presented the idea to the General Manager JF Dempsey. “He took to it immediately,” said Tony. Thus began a fruitful 32-year sponsorship.

“For the first 10 years or so until 1975 we never had group projects,” said Tony. “It was all individual. Fr Tom wanted individuals because I think that’s what he saw in Albuquerque.” Tony, however, put the case for group projects. “I said Tom, we are doing research together, we are publishing together, therefore, aren’t WE a group?” Tony’s point was taken and from 1976 onwards group projects were taken. One other big development in the 1970s came in 1973 when projects from Northern Ireland were first accepted. Up to, it was Republic only.

The Show was growing – slowly – but it was still felt that it needed the official ‘imprimatur’ of a big scientific name to back it. The biggest name of all in Irish science in the 1970s was Ernest Walton, TCD’s legendary atom splitter, and Nobel laureate. Walton, who was in the twilight of his career, supported the show by just being there. “He was an incredibly shy man,” recalls Tony. “He wouldn’t push himself forward as a Nobel Prize winner, he was a modest man. He would drift in, walk around and people would say – look, he split the atom!”

In the 1980s, the Show hit a milestone when it surpassed 400 entries, which at the time was the limit that the RDS could comfortably accommodate. This meant that, for the first time, it would be necessary to ‘screen’ entries for quality. Tony, along with Professor Sean Corish, Head of the Chemistry Department at TCD, acted as the first screening judges. The need for screening has increased over the years, as the number of entries has increased. These days, the RDS can manage to accommodate 550 projects, but, this year, there were some 2,000 entrants.


The Show has become so successful that only about one-quarter of the entrants now make it into the hall. This is a double-edged sword, because on the one hand it means that all the projects on exhibition are of high quality, but those that don’t make it – an increasing number – are left disappointed. Of course, everyone could be accommodated in a larger venue, but, Tony believes, the Show gains a lot by its association with the RDS. “The venue is one of the best in the country, in terms of hotels and transport available,” said Tony. Furthermore, he said, BT are now offering E200 bursaries for exhibitors that live more than 75km from Dublin. This pays for the train up and down and for Bed and Breakfast.

Aer Lingus ended its sponsorship of the Show in 1997 because they wanted to put their money into something that better reflected the global reach of the airline. For the first time in decades, Tony and Fr Tom had to go looking for a new sponsor. Aer Lingus had been brilliant, said Tony, and they provided flights home from Rome for Fr Tom, when needed, and cabin crew to ‘work the floor’.

In 1998, Esat Telecom came in as a new sponsor; in 1999 it was Esat Fusion, and then in 2000 BT  came onboard. “BT bring 150 staff, out of 800 in Ireland, so it’s not just the money – it’s the money and the infrastructure of the people that’s crucial. The BT ‘red coats’ are there to help the students and public during the day, and the young people at nighttime when they have discos. The Show is one of biggest that BT’s is involved with – impressive considering BT was the official communications partner at the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.


The way that projects are judged has changed over the years. In the beginning the judging process was far less organized, but the overall winners were still outstanding. These days the judges mark projects under specific headings including originality, scientific content, and communication ability. These days some projects are so sophisticated that outside experts are called in to judge.

However, Tony, despite the growing complexity of some projects, said he always uses the same basic approach when judging projects. “I sit down with them, – that’s very important – I’m not towering over them,” said Tony. “I always ask the same three questions: What did you set out to do? How did you do it? What did you find? I may interrupt you from time to time – tell me your stories!”

The quality of the winners has remained consistently very high. This can be judged by the success of winners of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) at equivalent European and international young scientist competitions. “If you take the last 24 years, we have got a first in Europe on 15 occasions,” said Tony. That’s impressive even given that there are three winners in Europe each year, in different categories. Ireland also does well, said Tony, at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) each year, which involves entrants from all the US states, and 49 countries, including the giants – Russia and China.

This success of BTYSTE has attracted international attention, and the UK has imitated it with a similar – though not identical – show called ‘The Big Bang – UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair’. In an interesting recent development there is now a Tanzania version of the Show, and, if that works, there is the possibility that it could be expanded into other African nations, said Tony.

The Tanzania connection grew out of the work of the Combat Disease of Poverty Consortium based at NUI Maynooth. This led representatives of the Tanzanian government came to have a look at the Show and they liked what they saw. They came to the Board of the BTYSTE and asked for help setting something similar up. The Board gave the Africans everything, materials, forms, judging materials, and the Irish government, through Irish Aid, also came in behind the venture.

The first YS Tanzania show was held in October 2012 and the winners were three girls, Monica Shirima, Nengai Moses and Aisha Nduka from Kibosho Girls Secondary School, situated in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. The girls and their teacher visited the 2013 BTYSTE in Dublin. They got a warm welcome – and that helped them adjust from temperatures in the 30s Celsius to below 10C values.

The January 2014 show – the 50th – will be visited by the vast majority of previous winners stretching back to the first winner John Monaghan, the biotech entrepreneur now living in California, and several will this year act as judges. Some past winners remain prominent on the Irish scientific landscape. Professor Luke Drury (1969) is the Director of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies; Professor Ronan McNulty (1985), is a leading particle physicist based at UCD; and Patrick Collison (2005) who became a millionaire, aged 19, when, along with his brother he sold his software company, Auctomatic for E3 million.

As the show reaches its half century milestone Tony is glad that it is doing so well, with an excellent sponsor in BT and numbers of project applications growing each year. It has been a remarkable success story, and that success has meant that Irish science, for one week at least, always gets the nation’s attention.

Tony’s one regret is that Fr Tom is not around to celebrate the 50th. However, in Fr Tom’s memory, a special prize, the Fr Tom Bursary, has been established to recognise the best communicator in an individual project. This is in recognition of the fact that Fr Tom always judged individual students, rather than groups.

As for the future of the Show? Tony says that another exciting development that has proved successful is the addition in recent years of primary school projects. This has grown and grown and last year 120 schools took part. Meanwhile, he believes that despite all the success and the growth that not too much should be done to alter the special chemistry that makes the show at the RDS so popular.

There are 550 entrants each year, which is the optimum number, considering the space constraints and the time demands on the judges (which are all voluntary). If the show got any bigger, or was to be held at a venue outside of the RDS, it might “suffer” said Tony. “It works, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

This article was first published in the Jan-Feb 2014 edition of Science Spin

The Public Defender: Janette Carroll Forest Laboratories, Dublin

Janette Carroll

Janette Carroll, pictured here, is a quality control scientist working in Dublin (Credit: Janette Carroll)

Some five million prescriptions are written every year in Ireland for mental illnesses alone. Each and every tablet must have a precise balance of ingredients to ensure that it works properly in the body and is safe to use. The people that ensure this happens and act as the consumer’s last line of defense are quality control scientists, like Janette Carroll, a contract scientist at Forest Laboratories in Dublin.

Janette, who hails from Galway, was always curious as a child, and was naturally drawn towards science. As a teenager, she began to avidly read crime fiction, and the works of authors such as Kathy Reichs, a former forensic anthropologist in the US. She loved Reichs’s novels, which focus on the use of science to solve crime, and enjoyed trying to solve the crime ahead of the narrative.


Some of the other writers that Janette likes to read including Patricia Cornwell (she has read all of her books), Karin Slaughter and Dick Francis. Some of the girls she talks to, she says, question why she wants to read about all of this terrible stuff, but for Janette it is all about curiousity. These authors, she says, know their audience well, and they often given out information on specific tests being done, or chemicals used, which help those with a keen eye – like Janette – to solve the crimes.

Janette’s other great interest in life is sport. She has always been interested in sport, and good at it. She used to horse ride all the time, and compete in events, though she doesn’t compete these days. She also plays basketball twice per week, and acts as a referee at the weekend. When she was younger she played rugby, and these days she plays a lot of softball. She has played for the Irish academy team in the world softball series and hopes to graduate onto the senior Irish team soon.

Neither of Janette’s parents worked in science. Her mother is still a teacher for children with physical and learning disabilities, while her father is a mechanic that builds customised cars for people with disabilities, or people that have suffered a serious car accident and, perhaps, lost several limbs. Janette grew up with her father’s garage beside the house, and often helped him with his work. People sought him out after they had an accident and he adapted vehicles to suit each person. Janette did learn from watching her father, but didn’t want to follow his career path. “I have a small idea of how to service my own car,” says Janette, “but I’d prefer to pay someone to do it for me.”

Janette doesn’t remember any particular teacher that piqued her interest in science. That interest was simply there, and from a young age. Her parents recognised this and one year Santa brought Janette a microscope for Christmas. She loved it. “I didn’t read the instructions,” recalled Janette. “I just shoved things under it. You could read the instructions, but that ruins the fun of just being curious.”

Thus, when a career guidance teacher at St Enda’s College in Salthill told Janette about a new course in Pharmaceutical and Forensic Science that had started at Limerick Institute of Technology, she was captivated. However, there was still a career choice for Janette to make, as she was also very interested in studying veterinary science, and had a strong interest in horses and horse riding.

She decided to do the science course. The course was very interesting, but she soon realised that the opportunities available in the area of forensic science – one part of the course – were far less than in the other part, which focussed on the skills required to work in the pharmaceutical industry. After graduation, in 2007, Janette got a job with Wyeth Laboratories. This was a great job, she recalls, and she was earning a lot more than most graduates, straight out of college, could hope to earn.


The job at Wyeth was as a quality control (QC) analyst. Many of Janette’s college classmates also ended up working in QC with one now employed at Roche and another with Merck, Sharpe and Dohme. The QC job is a responsible one, Janette says, which required good planning skills as well as scientific ability and rigorous attention to detail. Janette has found it challenging and rewarding.

After a while at Wyeth, Janette decided to go travelling, and picked up a job at the Charles River Laboratory in Scotland. This was a great job, she recalls, which involved working on the early stages of drug development, rather than on the testing of a drug that had already been designed. Although she doesn’t particularly like research, prefering to get stuck in, in the laboratory, using equipment and re-agents, she loved the intellectual challenge of early design and drug testing.

One of the great things about science, and working in QC, says Janette, is that there are plenty of jobs available, and this means it is always possible to travel and pick up contract work. That’s what she did after Scotland, and this time her destination was Australia. There she spent four months working on a boat on the Great Barrier Reef, which involved spending up to six hours underwater every day. Janette didn’t mind this, in fact she loved it, as scuba diving is one of her big interests.

The idea of diving into the depths off a boat into waters populated by all manner of fish and predators would be a terrifying prospect for some, but not Janette. “It is not scary really,” says Janette. “I am confident enough that I’d be able to handle myself and someone else in a rescue situation (underwater). It won’t ever be scary for me,” she says, while adding “sometimes in the dark in the night, with a torch, and with the sharks around you, your heart skips a beat.”

After such adventures ‘down under’ it is perhaps inevitable that Janette regards life in Ireland, by way of comparison, as “a little boring” yet “it’s home”. She spent two and a half years away and was ready to return home. However, even though she arrived back in the middle of the worst economic crash in Irish history, she still had no problem picking up work straight away. The degree she took and the experience she has gained as a QC analyst means she can work almost anywhere.


When Janette came home, she got a job as an analyst with Forest Laboratories, a multi-national pharmaceutical company with two plants in Ireland. The plants at Coolock and Baldoyle in Dublin make drugs to combat psychosis, heart disease and Alzheimer’s exclusively for the US market. The Baldoyle plant produces Sudocream, which every parent will be familiar with, and recently a new drug gained approval for the US that will be produced in Dublin; a big boost for the Irish plant.

There are a couple of main stages of getting a drug through a quality control laboratory. There are the raw materials, which include active ingredients – the medicines – and the other ingredients. The drugs must be what they say they are, and there must be a consistent quality in all tablets produced. The QC work is very important, says Janette, as it protects the public from any harm. It requires a lot of discipline and organisation, but she admits that aspects of the job are boring and repetitive. That said, she would still highly recommend a career in science and QC for anyone considering it.

“It’s still amazing (a career in science) and easy to get a job,” says Janette. “The money is really good and there is plenty of opportunity to travel. Contract work is easy to pick up if you want to move about a bit when you are younger without having to take up permanent jobs, or set up a pension when you are 22 and just coming out of college,” she says, while adding that security and long term jobs are also there for those that want to work and settle down straight from graduation.

This article was first published in the November 2013 edition of Science Spin 

The Safety Engineer: Emmet Tobin, Millipore Ireland, Cork

Emmet Tobin

Emmet Tobin, engineer with Millipore Ireland, pictured here enjoying some time off with his dog Skipper on Bunmahon Beach Co Waterford (Credit: Emmet Tobin)

Pharmaceutical drugs and medical devices help millions of people worldwide to live longer, and better lives. It is crucial, however, that existing products remain safe for consumers, despite ongoing changes in the materials or equipment used to produce them. It is also vital that everything possible has been done to ensure the safety of new medical devices and drugs. The front-line in the fight to ensure all these products are safe, time after time, are validation engineers like Emmet Tobin, based at Millipore Ireland, in Cork.

 The size of the medical device market is staggering, with approximately 160,000 hip and knee joints replaced with implanted devices each year in England and Wales alone. The prescription drug market too is massive too, with an estimated one sixth of the UK adult population, or just under 8 million people, taking anti-depressant drugs on a regular basis. Given these figures, from just one country, our nearest neighbour, it is remarkable that industry has managed to produce medical products so safely for so long.

 That they have done so is due in large part to the work of engineers like Emmet that work feverishly to ensure that processes and manufacturing standards comply with those of the world’s leading regulatory agencies, such as the US Federal Drug Administration or the European Medicines Agency. We all take the safety of medical products for granted, and there is outrage when safety has been breached. This is the context in which Emmet works. His work is difficult – success is expected, and failure is unthinkable.


Waterford native Emmet had an uneventful primary school education before attending Mount Sion where he started to show an aptitude for technical subjects. He studied engineering and physics for his leaving certificate and had an ambition to go into teaching. However, the points for teaching training courses were high, Emmet recalls, so he decided to apply for a manufacturing technology course in Waterford Institute of Technology. He was accepted for that, and got this Higher Certificate in 2001. However, rather than seek work immediately he decided that he would apply for another third-level course in Medical Engineering and Medical Bioengineering at the University of Bradford in the UK.

The interest in medicine and biology had been stimulated by his volunteering work with the Order of Malta in his youth. He was trained as an early responder to medical emergencies and attended public events such as gymkanas, horse shows and rallies in that capacity. He did his research and discovered that the University of Bradford had a long history of achievement in the bioengineering field. The lecturers were well known, and some had been at the university since the start of hip and knee replacement surgery in the UK several decades before. He decided this course was for him, and he made the brave decision to move to England to further his education. Emmet had a friend in Bradford, but he recalls that the initially six months were difficult as he tried to settle in, and make some friends. The course lived up to expectations: the lecturers were passionate and knowledgeable, and the they covered key areas such as biomechanics, biodynamics, tissue engineering, medical ethics, and electronics.

There was an opportunity mid-way through his time at Bradford to come back to Ireland for a summer and work at the National Centre for Biomedical and Engineering Science at Galway. This helped him learn more about biology, and how to grow cells in the laboratory. In his final year at Bradford he worked on a tissue engineering project focused on growing cells to replace damaged or burned skin tissue. By the time he graduated, he was ideally placed to find work in the pharmaceutical or drug device industry.


After graduating in 2005, he returned to Waterford where he got his first job working with the manufacuring division of Teva Pharmaceuticals in Ireland. This operation was involved in the manufacturing of tablets and inhalers. Emmet worked there as a research and development engineer for two years. However, he started to become restless after a few years, as he was still living at home with his parents, and was keen to strike out on his own. Antoher factor in his getting itchy feet was that he felt that the wheels of the pharmaceutical industry turned very slowly, and it took a long time to get things done. He was getting bored. Then in 2007 his mother passed away, and he decided he would give up his secure, permanent job and go travelling the world. His career was effectively put on pause, and leaving his job was something of a risk, but he was betting that he would be still well placed to get job when he returned to Ireland. The travelling brought him to South Korea where he taught English as a foreign language. It was hard work, but he gained very valuable experience working in a an Asian country.

Emmet returned to Ireland in 2008, and suddenly the country was in the middle of a huge economic crisis. He found himself out of work for several months, but finally got a new job in his native Waterford with the giant contact lens manufacturer Bausch and Lomb. The fact that he had been educated in the UK, and had travelled and experienced life abroad helped to ‘put some colour on his CV’ and make it stand out from the crowd, Emmet said. At Bausch he had the responsible job of ensuring the safety of new products coming onto the market and meeting the stringent regulatory requirements of the US Federal Drug Administration and the European Medicines Board. He became familiar with what it takes to deliver safe and effective product onto the market time after time. This was a responsible and important position.

His first job in Ireland outside of Cork came next with Stryker Orthopaedics at Carrigtwohill. The products here were a long way removed from disposable contact lens. Instead they produced hip and knee implants and other medical devices that were designed to last for 15 to 20 years or more inside the body. Again he worked as a validation engineering making sure that new Stryker products, or the industrial processes in place to develop these products complied with safety regulations. It was a hard-driving culture at Stryker, with people regularly working long hours, and pressure to get the job done. It was differnt to other working environments he had been in, but it was another new, valuable experience.

Emmet spends a good deal of his time on the computer writing safety protocols, or plans for how the safety of products and processes can be continually ensured. He also runs tests of various kinds, liases with people on-site and off -site as required. These people include other engineers, operators, chemists and vendors, for example. Millipore produces a lot of differnt products, so Emmet is kept extremely busy with ensuring the safety of existing products and processes, as well as new products. He has been ‘ up the walls’ with work at Millipore since his arrival there, and has no time to get bored. The job is challenging and rewarding, with a great deal of variety, and that’s the way he likes to have things.


In terms of advising the current crop of school leavers, Emmet says that engineering is an excellent choice for those that are technically minded. Engineering offers many options to change career path and people can end up doing things that they like that they had never envisioned starting out. For example, Emmet says that he would never have thought that he would have ended up being involved with making hip implants when he started his course at WIT. Engineering offers multiple career choices, and unlike some other careers, people don’t tend to easily get ‘boxed in’ career wise. It also offers the opportunity to travel, gain experience, and work with many different companies. The only downside, he offers is that the work can be very responsible and serious and there can be a lot of pressure at times to get the job done.

There is also the fact. that bio-engineers are highly sought after in Ireland. Emmet says that at any time he has a choice of potential jobs available to him, given his specialised education and the high level of his work experience. If I updated my CV on Monster one day I might get 20 calls about jobs the next day, said Emmet. These days in Ireland, he acknowledges that this is a very privileged position to be in.

This article was first published in Science Spin, September 2013 Issue

The Gene Hunter: Dr Aoife McLysaght, TCD

TEDx Dublin 2012

Aoife McLysaght speakingat the TEDx event in Dublin in 2012 [Credit: Science Gallery]

In World War 11 the RAF hired a statistician called Abraham Wald to analyse planes returning from air combat. Metal was scarce, and the idea was to only re-inforce the most vulnerable parts of the planes. The parts of returning aircraft that made it home full of bullets must be the toughest parts, Wald reasoned, and so a decision was made not to re-inforce these areas, but to use the scarce metal to strenghten the other parts of the aircraft.

Dr Aoife McLysaght, geneticist at TCD, understands Wald’s logic and applies it to her own gene hunting efforts. Dr McLysaght  is identifying genes that are most sensitive to being hit with ‘bullets’ – which in genetic terms means being hit with random gene mutations. This is important because it is known that in certain sensitive genes – right across all living species – having too many copies of a particular gene, or too few, can result in a disease.


Dubliner, Aoife, attended her local national school before attending St Andrew’s College, on Booterstown Avenue. She recalled that she although there wasn’t too much science taught in primary school, she was very interested and engaged by such science as was on offer. In particular, Aoife remembers presenting a science project with her best friend in sixth class, which involved explaining aspects of the weather to other pupils and teachers.

I had fun little demonstrations, to do with the power of wind and air,” Aoife recalled. “We had a plastic bag with a book on top of it. We got the opening of the bag and blew into it and showed that it would lift the book. We also had a glass milk bottle, with a baloon on top that was not inflated. We placed the bottle into a jug of really hot water, and the air would expand and inflate the baloon. I remember have loads of fun doing that,” she said.

Her interest in science was strongly established by the time she attended St Andrews. She remembers that she was always engaged with science, and actively listened to the teachers, so that information went in, making life much easier when it came to passing the exams. When the leaving certificate rolled around Aoife chose to do Biology and Chemistry, but not Physics. She believes that was a mistake in hindsight as she always enjoyed physics.

Instead she chose to study geography, because it was regarded as a science subject by the universities. This was a mistake, she says now, because while she enjoyed physical geography – such as explanations of why earthquakes occur – she did not at all like social geography, which for her involved too much memorising of lots of very dull information. Her experience has told her in the years since, that people will succeed at what they enjoy. That was proven when her geography result proved her worst leaving certificate result.

At St. Andrews, she was inspired by the efforts of a great teacher, Dr Nick Frewin, a PhD holder, who taught her science and biology. “He was just really good,” recalled Aoife. “He spent a lot of time clearly explaining things, had well planned lessons, and there was a lot in it beyond the course. He was well liked enough for people to write him letters when he was retiring. When I did genetics, there was a class of 12 people, and three of those have been his [Dr Frewin] students, and [in] the year behind me we had another one,” said Aoife.

The role of the teacher is crucial, says Aoife, and she cited the example of the many people that say they can’t do maths. “The number of people who think they can’t do maths is too high – there are a lot of people that have been put off maths. They stop trying because they think they can’t do maths. The students underestimate their own abilities. Students should allowed have a bit of fun with maths. Games and puzzles for example,” said Aoife.

Recently, Aoife recieved a prestigious European Research Council grant – which are only given to the top tier of scientists in Europe – to try and identify disease causing genes. The aim she said is identify those genes that are vulnerable to changes in quantity. This might involve a reduction in the copies of genes, or too many copies. There is a certain amount of variation in the number of copies of genes between people, and it’s common. However, in some people in certain genes variations in gene quantities increase disease vulnerability.

This is an evolutionary approach to genetics, explained Aoife. The goal is to see which genes have tolerated changes in amount – high or low – over evolutionary time and which have not. The identification of those genes that have proven intolerant to change over evolution can provide a key to which genes are linked to disease today, the reasoning goes. “There is variation in [[gene] copies, because mutations happen,” explained Aoife. “DNA is a chemical that copies itself in cell division, and this is an easy mistake that happens a lot.”

Once the sensitive genes that have been linked to disease have been clearly identified, then it becomes possible to develop better and more precise ways to diagnose disease. Following on from that, if there are improved methods to diagnose disease at an earlier stage, then it should become possible for scientists to develop better disease treatments and therapies.


Aoife is also one of the best scientist-communicators in Ireland, and is regularly invited to speak in schools and at public lectures about her work and its implications for society. She believes that it is important that some scientists communicate with the public, but she also acknowledges that although she enjoys this activity, not every scientist will feel the same.

It is important that some of us do it, and there is support for that. I mean that it is recognised as a valid part of the job. A valid activity, that it is respected. Sometimes people might think it is a trivial activity. I don’t think that. I see science as part of our culture, we should all have access to that. A lot of people love music, but don’t have the intention of being a musician. It’s the same with science – people should have access to it,” she said.

For Aoife, science is about the ability to learn, to deduce, to understand something, even when it is not visible to the naked eye. It involves being able to think long-term, beyond our own lives. Science is exciting, interesting, dynamic, but it is a big mistake to try and push it onto people. It is also a mistake, she believes, for the Irish government, or any government to get too closely involved in deciding how funding for science should be spent. It would be better to fund the best people than to fund certain areas, she said.

She has some advice for young people that might be considering science as a career. “When I was young, I didn’t know you could be a scientist, I didn’t know any scientists. I didn’t know what I would end up being, if I studied science. My mum said to me, do what you enjoy the the job will follow. It’s very optimistic, but I kind of subscribe to that,” she said.

This article was first published in Science Spin, May-June 2013 issue.