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.

Newry

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.

Doctorate

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.

Promotion

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

The Process Scientist: Brian Moran, Pfizer Grangecastle

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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.

Inspiration

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

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.

Curiosity

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.

Rewarding

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.

Jobs

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.

Education

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.

Work

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.

Advice

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.

School

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.

Communicator

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.

The ‘Nano’ Tester: Professor Stefano Sanvito, CRANN

Professor Stefano Sanvito, Deputy Director of CRANN, pictured here in the Long Library at TCD
Professor Stefano Sanvito, Deputy Director of CRANN, pictured here in the Long Library at TCD [Credit: CRANN]
Lighter, stronger, more fuel-efficient airplanes; more powerful, better targeted drugs, and paper thin high-definition televisions – it has all become possible as scientists became adept at the manipulation of tiny ‘nano’ particles. The possibilities from nanotechnology are exciting, but it crucial that proper safety tests are in place. Professor Stefano Sanvito, Deputy Director of CRANN at TCD, wants Ireland to become a ‘hub’ for such nano testing.

Stefano, as the name suggests, is Italian, and graduated in physics from the University of Milan ‘about 15 years ago’. He was interested in science from when he was ‘very small’, and he has pedigree for the field. His father, who is now retired, was an engineer who worked in the sewing machine industry, while his grandfather worked in R&D for ‘big pharma’.

His interests, while at secondary school, were not only in the sciences, as he also developed a liking for philosophy. In fact, his first choice of career was to become a writer, and towards that end, he applied to study at the renowned Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. The standards for entry to the Scuola were, and are, high, with only about 6% of applicants gaining entry. Stefano didn’t make it, and then focused on his other big interest – physics.

He gained entry to the University of Milan to study physics and maths, but that was easy part. Though some 500 fellow students were also admitted at the same time, only about 50 of them would later pass the exams at the end of the year and make it into second year. It was a brutal ‘sink or swim’ test for the mainly teenage group of students. Stefano recalled that there was no help provided, no structure for students, and the pressure was immense.

He found the going extremely tough, especially the lab work, yet he passed his exams. That first year in college wasn’t at all enjoyable, as the work needed to get into the top 10% of the class was huge, while most of the physics course was of the ‘old school’ variety. It wasn’t until 3rd year, when began studying modern physics, and areas such as quantum mechanics, that things began to get interesting for him, and his talent found expression.

He doesn’t recall any event in particular that triggered a flourishing of interest in science at any stage of his life, but he did have a mentor, while at university that was a big influence on him. This was his fourth year supervisor, who oversaw his final year undergraduate project. He was a difficult man to deal with on a personal level, recalled Stefano, but he was a stimulating character and a talented high-energy scientist. Certainly, he might well have been a difficult colleague, said Stefano, but as a supervisor and scientist, he was fantastic. He also gathered around him many big names of science, which made things even better.

The final university year was an enjoyable experience thanks to his colourful, difficult supervisor. Then, with his degree in his pocket, he looked around for his next option. He wanted to continue in research, and do a PhD, but he wanted to do it outside Italy, and preferably in an English-speaking country. He chose to go to the UK, where he secured support from the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) to study ‘giant magneto-resistance’.

Military matters

The force called giant magneto-resistance was discovered in 1988 – independently, yet at the same time – by research groups led by Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg. The two men were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2007 for the finding. The term describes how the resistance of certain materials to electrical current drops dramatically as a magnetic field is applied. The word ‘giant’ was tagged on to ‘magneto-resistance’ part because the scientists wanted to describe something that was a much larger effect on current than anything that had ever been seen in metals. This giant magneto force has since been used to improve the storage capacity of computer disks, car sensors, and many other devices.

The MOD wanted to use giant magneto-resistance forces to develop a new ‘solid state’ compass, and that’s why they funded Stefano’s PhD into this area. A solid state compass is a small compass found now in clocks or mobile phones that are typically built using two or three ‘magnetic field sensors’ that pick up the Earth’s magnetic readings, and send that data to a microprocessor. They can provide a very accurate positioning method.

Stefano’s PhD was awarded by the University of Lancaster, but he spent two out of three years working towards his doctorate based at an MOD site near Malvern, Worcestershire, a town of about 28,000 people located approximately halfway between Birmingham and Bristol. This site was home to the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, the group that had famously developed the radar, which helped the RAF win its life or death struggle with the Luftwaffe in the 1940 ‘Battle of Britain’. The group had moved from the south of England to Malvern in 1942, where they worked under the protection of the 600-metre tall Malvern Hills. The British had, by 1942, become concerned about the threat of a ballistic missile attack on its military bases in southern England from Nazi- Occupied Belgium.

At Malvern, Stefano did ‘atomistic simulations’ for ‘sandwiches’ of different materials. In other words he analysed how magnetic affected current running through various materials. It was possible to get a different current in a material when the magnetic ‘configuration’ changed. This Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007 was awarded to Fert and Grunburg for being the first to demonstrate that an electrical current could be hugely changed by changing the magnetism of a magnet. This knowledge was used to build improved computer disk drives, and today every computer or disk drive is based on this principle, in a market worth $ 7 billion. It’s an example, said Stefano, of how basic research can lead to economic gains.

American dream

After his stint in Britain, Stefano was very keen to follow a long held dream to work as a scientist in the USA. He felt the best time to do that was after the PhD, and as a post-doctoral researcher. “There is excellent science in Europe, but there is a ‘can do’ attitude in the US that has no match anywhere in the world – maybe Israel – and I wanted to see that in action,” said Stefano. He applied and was accepted to do research at the ‘top 10’ listed University of Southern California Santa Barbara, and found it “the absolute best place”.

He found the scientific culture to be fantastic, the climate was superb, the mountains and sea were nearby, he was mingling with Nobel Prize winners – USC Santa Barbara had three winners in his few short years there alone – and his office was 100 metres from the beach. He spent two and a half years living out his California dream and while in the lab he was working on putting magnetic impurities into semi-conductors and seeing what happened.

Ireland calling

California would be hard to top, but his next move was crucial, as, after the post-doc Stefano was seeking his first staff job as a scientist. He researched the options, and saw an ad for an opportunity to work at the CRANN Institute at TCD in Dublin where he knew a renowned researcher was based – Professor Michael Coey. The package was attractive in terms of equipment, funding and personnel resources. The couple were keen too, to return to Europe, any part of Europe, in order to raise their family. Ireland seemed a good bet.

In 2006, Stefano and his wife, and two boys moved to Dublin, where he was appointed as Associate Professor in Physics, later becoming Deputy Director of CRANN in 2009. He began working closely with Professor Coey, but set up his own research group. Stefano’s group was focused on investigating the properties of nano materials. More and more companies were making nano-devices, and using nano-materials, and he developed a testing service, based on unique mathematical algorithms built into simulation software programmes, which are available to download, for companies located all over the globe.

“I have to admit that I moved to Ireland because of serpendity,” said Stefano, who is now well settled here with his family. “I wanted to move back to Europe, and my position at Trinity was the first one I could secure. However, I probably wouldn’t have moved to any other place in Ireland except Trinity because of the reputation. A second factor to steer my decision was SFI [Science Foundation Ireland]. SFI essentially started those days and it was clear that they could provide great opportunities for young scientists. I am afraid that this is not the case any longer,” added Stefano.

Ireland had a good reputation in science when Stefano arrived here seven years ago, but he said hard won reputations can be easily lost. “What really differentiate good and bad places academically is the reputation. Of course other things matter, but the reputation of a place, or your colleagues, of the commitment of the state and the society is what makes a University attractive. It takes ages to construct a reputation, and it takes very little to lose it.”

Future

As for the future, Stefano belives that nano researchers will become increasingly able to systematically predict new materials and new material complexes ahead of experiments. Nano science will not stop there, of course, and be believes the next stage after that will involve researchers making predictions about materials with applications in mind. For example, scientists might predict a new material – that does not yet exist – for making magnets that can be used in electrical moters. Then people will make it in the laboratory. These new materials will be predicted and designed using computers, and new software.

This means an age of vastly superior new materials – designed exactly for purpose – lies ahead of us. Tehse new materials will need to be tested before they can be applied in the real world. CRANN is already known for its ability to simulate tests on nanomaterials, and Stefano wants to extend that expertise to a range of new nanomaterials coming online. This can help manufacturers by proving whether certain nano materials are really up to scratch, whether they will work in nano-devices, while also assuring the public about ‘nano safety’.

First published in the March 2013 edition of Science Spin.