What is Smart Futures?

Smart Futures is a government-industry programme providing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers information to second-level students, parents, teachers and careers guidance counsellors in Ireland. On this website you can:

  • Read career stories profiling people working in all kinds of STEM in our blog; browse STEM ‘Career Stories’ or look up a career by entering a keyword (e.g chemistry) in the search box (top left hand corner) 
  • Request a STEM volunteer to visit your school for free here or become a volunteer yourself!
  • Watch careers video with people working in areas such as food and sports science, cybersecurity, engineering, energy, app development, biotechnology, medical devices and lots more hereSTEM Infographic

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Career Stories: Shane Bergin, Physics Lecturer, TCD

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Shane Bergin talks to Smart Futures about his career as a Physics Lecturer in Trinity College Dublin

Your job title?

Physics Lecturer, School of Physics and CRANN, Trinity College Dublin.

What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?

I’m a nano-scientist – my research hopes to harness the souper-dooper from the nitty-gritty.

I started as a physics lecturer in Trinity College Dublin in October 2012.

My research team (NanoSurf) is busy freeing nanomaterials from otherwise aggregated clumps of uselessness – allowing their maximum potential to shine through.

My team and I report our scientific findings in written papers published in journals and at international conferences.

We also work with industry on possible routes to apply our research findings.

When I’m not in the lab, I’m busy teaching masses of undergraduate students on topics as diverse as ‘smashing wine glasses with sound’ to ‘why we get so cold when we get out of a hot shower’.

I’m also an active science communicator: recently, I ran a campaign DARTofPhysics to place physics statements and challenges on Dublin’s commuter trains.

Statements like ‘The Spire is shorter when the weather is cool’ sparked a city-wide conversation about physics.

Describe a typical day?

My typical day is a busy mix of lectures and laboratories with undergraduate students.

I also make sure to catch-up with my graduate (PhD) students working in the lab on our research. We chat about results, and try to understand what they mean by plotting graphs, applying theories and comparing them with what other scientists have reported.

Recently, I started working with the School of Education here in Trinity on new methods to teach physics lab-classes to our undergrads.

Collaborations with colleagues from different schools and departments in the university is really fruitful.

Some days I get to chat with visiting children from primary or secondary schools about science – it’s important to get beyond the ‘can you blow something up’ attitude to science lectures.

I also get to talk on the radio or at the Science Gallery in TCD about scientific topics.

Clichéd and all as it sounds, I love my job. I’m always keen to share this with others.

What’s cool?

The variety of things I get to do and the freedom I have to do it.

What are the main challenges?

Working in a university comes with a lot of administrative tasks – I hate doing them.

Also, the lack of female lecturer colleagues… The majority of lecturers and professors are men – based on lots of rubbish reasons.

The university is working hard to change this trend. I’m a real feminist when it comes to making the needed changes.

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

My dad is a scientist, so he probably influenced me most. Both my parents encouraged my brothers and I in all aspects of our education.

In school, I had amazing maths and science teachers. They made a HUGE difference. I would not be where I am today without their dedication to my classmates and I. Also, I think Transition Year helped me decide to be a scientist.

I had toyed with other college options, but the free-style curriculum and work experience in TY helped me make my mind up.

The best advice I was ever given on how to choose college courses is to forget about careers and pick a degree course that contains the subjects you like and are best at – you’ll be good at them, enjoy them and as a consequence be great at any job that needs them.

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Yes and no. I live and work in the centre of Dublin, which I think is amazing.

My work has taken me to places all around the world including three years in London. I loved every bit of that aspect (others don’t).

Job security is really poor. Most young scientists are on fixed-term contracts hoping to be given a permanent position.

It’s very, very competitive. Then again, most jobs at that level (in law, business, etc.) are too. Far more needs to be done to help research scientists move from the lab to the non-academic world.

Recent initiatives by government and industry have started to make positive changes here.

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?

For my Leaving Cert, I studied Maths, Physics, Applied Maths (BRILLIANT SUBJECT), Chemistry, Music, English, French and Irish.

I did the ones I was best at – simple. I worked hard for my Leaving Cert and hated exams.

My school had a great record in maths and science –this culture helped.

What is your education to date?

I went to the Patrician Secondary School, Newbridge and studied Physics and Chemistry of Advanced Materials (now Nanoscience) at Trinity College Dublin. I then completed a PhD in Physics, also in Trinity College Dublin and a Marie Curie Fellowship, in the Dept. of Chemistry, Imperial College London.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

All of them – I teach some of them to younger students now.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Science research and lecturing needs people who are curious, creative, stubborn (they like problems that take ages to solve).

You need to like communication – you’ll be teaching, writing, debating and discussing science all day, everyday.

If you like to be challenged intellectually, are creative about ways to solve problems,  like working with teams people from the four corners of the world, then science is for you.

It’s more David Attenborough than Sheldon Cooper.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

You would need to have a degree in science and a PhD in your area of expertise.

After that, it’s about working with the best people in the leading labs… then, you have to get money (from industry or the science funders) to start your own research group.

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Career Stories: Joseph Roche on a Mission to Mars

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Dr Joseph Roche, research projects coordinator at the Science Gallery in Dublin, talks to Smart Futures about him being short-listed for a one-way trip to Mars.

Describe your typical day

There is no such thing as a typical day. It varies between science research, education and outreach, media work, and travelling.

On an average day in the Science Gallery , I attend meetings about research projects, and give talks to students and tours of the exhibition.

If I’m travelling I attend meetings, give talks and teach workshops.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

The variety! It allows me to do so many things. Before I took this job, I was extremely close to becoming a management consultant.

Luckily, this job in the Science Gallery came up and allowed me to do all the things that I wanted to do.

What are the main challenges?

A lot of my work is coordinating research projects that span several European countries. They are funded by the European Commission and require a lot of admin work.

What subjects did you take in school?

Towards the end of school I realised that physics was my favourite subject. At the last minute, instead of going into art, I went into science.

You’ve been shortlisted by Mars One to travel on a one-way trip to Mars. Why do you want to go?

When I first heard about Mars One, I thought it was a ridiculous idea. It’s a not-for-profit organisation in the Netherlands trying to get into the field of space exploration, in particular exploring Mars.

There’s a big obstacle to space exploration when it comes to Mars: the return trip.

We know the technology exists, in theory, to put humans there but we haven’t figured out how we’d get someone back. Mars One removed that obstacle from the equation. They looked for people who were willing to spend the rest of their life on Mars.

For some people that seems like a difficult thing to do. However, for someone who has spent over a decade studying science and astrophysics, the opportunity to be the first interplanetary scientist is something that I wouldn’t be able to turn down.

What advice would you give to wannabe astronauts?

For years, the only way to become an Irish astronaut was to go through the European Space Agency (ESA) . When Mars One came along I had to apply.

It seems I might have got on the shortlist due to my background in science so, my advice to anyone thinking of a career path like this, is to study science.

Follow Dr Joseph Roche on Twitter: https://twitter.com/joeboating.

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Career Stories: Ellen Byrne, Festival of Curiosity

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Ellen Byrne talks to Smart Futures about her career as the co-founder and creative director of the Festival of Curiosity.

What is a creative director?

I have the pleasure of being the creative director at one of the most exciting festivals of science, culture and curious technology in Europe.

As the creative director, I get to work on the design and development of all elements of the festival.

This includes everything from conceptual (what we are, our mission, long-term strategy) to developing, curating and producing events, to marketing, PR, and web design.

As we’re a small team we all get to do a lot of different exciting things, no day is ever the same!

What happens at the festival?

The Festival of Curiosity is Dublin’s annual festival of science and culture. It happens during the summer in July, over four days.

By day, we transform Dublin’s city centre into a curiosity filled hub with free day-time adventures for all the family.

This includes robot-building, adventures in electronics, a curious trails treasure hunt across the city, street performers and the curiosity carnival (the first science playground in Dublin).

By night, we have the Curious Mind series of events where we have great role models as speakers.

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?

Along with Irish, English and maths, I did French, technical drawing, physics and biology.

I have always had a love of science and was the only girl in my physics class.

One of my favourite bedtime stories was the science of sleep from the encyclopaedia.

Since I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, I picked subjects to help me with that.

I loved art but didn’t choose it as I thought it wasn’t a career path that I was going to go down.

What courses or training did you do after college?

Pharmacology in UCD! I think any degree in science is a great passport for lots of different jobs and for travel.

You can apply problem solving and critical thinking to so many different areas. When I lived in London I was really inspired by the Science Museum. I was working in pharmaceutical market research but I struggled with the fact that I was creative.

I used to write short stories, draw and take photos. I felt that they were hobbies since I was a scientist and should be doing something more scientific. After a while, I realised that when I combined both of these things, I could do a job I really loved.

After seeing there was a masters in Science Communication in DCU, I gave up my job in London and came home to complete the masters and work on Science Week .

From there, my career naturally progressed.

What kind of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Anything in a fast-paced environment that involves problem solving!

What do you wish someone had told you before you started out?

Don’t silo yourself! Creativity, problem solving and science can go hand-in-hand together.

Sometimes we think that science and engineering is one thing and creativity is another thing. Follow your curiosity and see how you can combine them.

What inspired your love of science and engineering?

I was a really clumsy kid and used to break everything. I was always trying to put them back together. Because of that, I got to look at the inside of a lot of different things.

I was also lucky to be surrounded by really strong female role models and teachers. One of my sisters was doing engineering at the time and another was training to be a science teacher.

Also, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and Jocelyn Bell Burnell are my three absolute heroes. The three of them are just fantastic!

Ellen Byrne on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NellieNeutron.

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Career Stories: Dominic Doyle, Senior Optical Engineer, ESA

Dominic Doyle talks to Smart Futures about his career as the Senior Optical Engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA).

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(Picture of Dominic Doyle as reflected in the Herschel Telescope during its final preparation for launch in the cleanroom at the launch site in French Guiana).

Your job title?

Senior Optical Engineer with the European Space Agency (ESA).

What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?

To lead research and development of optical technologies useful for telescopes and instruments in space. Optical materials such as glasses and coatings must be able to survive without failure in the vacuum and cold of space.

To help manage the manufacturing and production of real hardware to be flown in space, e.g. the Herschel space telescope. I was involved in the mission and it was at 3.5m diameter the largest optical telescope ever flown in space, and was developed and built in Europe.

Describe a typical day?

I am part of a team managing an optical cleanroom laboratory at the ESA-ESTEC facility in the Netherlands, where about 2500 scientists and engineers are working.

Daily we are busy with making measurements and analyzing the performance of optical components to verify that they will meet our very demanding requirements.

I also participate in other teams of engineers and scientists that are working on specific spacecraft development projects such as for example the Euclid telescope observatory that will be launched in 2020 to study dark matter in the universe.

What are the things you like best about the job?

I love working hands on with hardware that will actually fly in space. Sometimes we even get to examine and investigate samples or components that have returned from space – that is even more fascinating and exciting.

What are the main challenges?

Like most jobs it’s the boring bits like administration and having to write reports every month about what you have been doing to justify your time.

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

A number of people and things influenced my career choice. One was growing up during the time of the NASA Apollo moon missions in the 1970’s. That was really inspirational.

Second was having a great physics teacher in secondary school.

And third was coming into contact during my first job with scientists working on space physics as part of their research.

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Very much so. While moving from Ireland to work in The Netherlands was in the beginning a big challenge, I have enjoyed getting to know a different culture and language.

The multinational composition of the workforce in ESA has also been extremely stimulating and enjoyable.

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?

I took science subjects, maths, maths-physics, physics, chemistry and biology, and certainly this was the right choice to pursue a career in science and engineering.

What is your education to date?

I did an MSc by research while I was working in my first job after graduating with a BSc in Applied Sciences.

The fact that I was working in a university made this much easier in fact.

Doing hands on research really appealed to me and led to the opportunity to travel to the arctic (in mid-winter) to make high precision optical observations of the airglow and aurora.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

Working on the development of optical instrumentation, and then using it for my research led me to consider optics and optical engineering as a further career.

This combined with my fascination with space science and an interest in astronomy led me to respond enthusiastically to the offer of a post with ESA.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

The most important qualities needed for working in space science and engineering are; good analytical approach to problem solving, an inquisitive attitude to challenges and an interest always learning something new from every situation, motivation to work in a multinational and multilingual environment and an open mind!

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

As a trainee or assistant in a laboratory performing either routine or research work in some scientific or technical field where high precision measurements and close attention to details are required.

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