What is Smart Futures?

Smart Futures is a collaborative Government-Industry-Education programme promoting STEM careers to students in Ireland. It provides access to careers information and role models to students, parents, guidance councillors and teachers. It is managed by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in partnership with Engineers Ireland.

On this website you can:

  • Browse STEM ‘Career Stories’ about people working in all kinds of STEM-related roles or look up a specific career area 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: Colm Coughlan, Astrophysicist

colm_coughlan

Colm Coughlan talks to Smart Futures about his job as an Astrophysicist.

What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?

Deciding to study physics in college, publishing my first papers and getting a PhD are my main ‘career decision’ milestones to date.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

Honestly, the people who wrote the books and documentaries about science that I enjoyed as a kid (and still enjoy today!)

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

Yes! Working as a researcher allows you to set your own hours sometimes, however there is always a danger of bringing your work home with you too much.

How did you go about getting your current job?

I finished my PhD in radio astronomy and spotted an interesting position on an astronomy jobs website.

Describe a typical day?

I use a lot of maths and computer programming and spend most of my day working on a computer or figuring things out on an A4 pad or whiteboard.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

I have to use cutting edge radio telescopes to view extremely faint objects in the sky. I then use programming and maths to make images of the objects which I then analyse.

What are the main challenges?

Researching is always challenging as no one else has thought of the solutions you need yet, or attempted what you’re attempting. Every day has a new maths or computing problem that must be understood and overcome.

What’s cool?

I enjoy the maths, coding and science involved with my job as this where my main interests lie. My job also gives me the opportunity to travel!

What’s not so cool?

The long hours which are sometimes needed for my job is the main disadvantage.

What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

I’m particularly good at computing, coding and radio astronomy. Other researchers specialise in other types of astronomy or simulations.

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

For my Leaving Certificate I studied physics, applied maths, chemistry, maths, German, Irish and English. Studying maths and the physics was very helpful for my degree.

What is your education to date?

I have a joint degree in applied maths and physics, and a PhD in astrophysics from UCC.

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

The mathematical and computational skills that I developed over my degree and PhD are essential in my day-to-day research.

Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

I regularly attend data schools where new techniques and ideas are taught.

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

Publishing papers and getting my PhD have been some of the main highlights to date. Also, getting my first proper job as a post-doctoral researcher has been a very rewarding experience.

What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?

I am an optimistic and hard-working person. I also show great persistence when faced with a problem and don’t give up easily!

What is your dream job?

What I’m doing right now! Though honestly I think I’d enjoy lots of different jobs.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

You need to really enjoy maths as a subject and an interest in computer programming helps too if you’re considering this job.

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

The three most important personal characteristics needed for this job is the ability to motivate yourself, to work hard and to not give up when faced with a problem.

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

It depends on what you know already. If you are still in secondary school then work experience in a scientific or software company would be useful experience.

What is your pet hate at work?

When someone hasn’t taken their turn to get milk for tea!

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Career Stories: Jenny Hanafin, TechWorks Marine, Earth Observation and Modelling Manager

Jenny Hanafin

Jenny Hanafin talks to Smart Futures about her job as Earth Observation and Modelling Manager at TechWorks Marine.

What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?

I wanted to study marine science as soon as I could. Then deciding to move to the US to do my PhD, where I had an amazing time was another milestone. I then moved from research to a commercial job, based on my research experience.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

My PhD advisor and various colleagues over the years have been the biggest influencers on career to date.

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

Yes! My salary is pretty good, I have opportunities to travel, and even though it’s a private company there are opportunities to keep up with research.

How did you go about getting your current job?

It’s a very specialised field and I knew this company was expanding into the field so I approached them initially at a conference and then followed up when I was ready.

Describe a typical day?

I spend most of my day on my computer, analysing data, writing reports and keeping up to date with my projects. There are regular progress meetings with my team and my boss as well. Occasionally I go to meetings or conferences in Ireland or abroad.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

I manage projects, so keeping people and work on track for deadlines is important. I also spend time looking for new business or funding opportunities and I then write proposals for these grants.

What are the main challenges?

Planning! Research is very different to business. When you start researching a topic, you know it could lead you anywhere and even though you have an idea of how long it will take, you need to plan in case it takes longer than expected. In business you need to have a much better handle of timelines and workloads in order to plan.

What aspects of the job do you enjoy?

I love what I do! I have a great interest in what I am doing and this makes work very enjoyable.

What are the challenges facing your profession?

I would have preferred to stay in research or academia, but those jobs are pretty scarce.

What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

The main skills I bring are a mix of good technical skills, a wide range of experience and the ability to work with others.

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

For my Leaving Cert I took all three science subjects physics, chemistry, biology as well as higher maths.

What is your education to date?

I have a bachelor of science in Marine Science from NUI Galway and a PhD in Meteorology and Physical Oceanography from the University of Miami. Both of these degrees have been very important in my career to date.

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

During my PhD I had lots of opportunities to travel, to meet new people and to find the topic I wanted to follow for my career.

Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

I have taken many training courses in writing scientific papers, public speaking and managing teams. I’m always open to learn a better ways of doing things.

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

Getting my proposals funded has been the most rewarding thing to happen in my career to date.

What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?

The personal qualities that help the most in my career are focus, determination and self-motivation.

What is your dream job?

Jacques Cousteau’s job would be my dream job!

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

A PhD is more than a qualification, who you choose as an advisor and where you choose to do it is very important, as your experience depends a great deal on them. I spent a lot of time researching universities, research groups and potential advisors before deciding and it really paid off. Once you are on your way, just keep networking! It’s as important in science as any other career.

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

Being able to learn and keep on learning, being able to work alone as well as in a team and not being afraid to take on something new.

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

Scientific data analysis and placement at environmental companies would both provide good experience for this type of position.

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Career Stories: Ciaran Garry, Abbott Ireland, Warehouse and Support Sevices Manager

Ciaran Garry

Ciarán Garry, a Warehouse and Support Services Manager with Abbott Ireland talks to Smart Futures about his career in healthcare manufacturing.

What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?

My role includes managing all of the areas that oversee materials and services needed in manufacturing. It involves staging (which is the preparation of items for use in manufacturing) of all materials.

Cleaning and sterilizing of equipment also needs to be done, as well as storing and preparing equipment. The finished products and materials then need to be shipped from Abbott.

Managing the budgets for running these departments is also one of my main responsibilities.

Describe a typical day?

A typical day involves addressing any issues with my team leaders that may be occurring i.e. issues with production.

Management of employees also needs to be addressed on a daily basis. I hold regular meetings with my team who provide updates on projects, work schedules, ideas, and improvements. Throughout the day I plan for the future. Identifying potential issues and solutions is happens constantly.

What are the things you like best about the job?

My roles change on a weekly basis. My main responsibilities stay the same, but I am constantly involved in different projects.

I guide and advise my team on what challenges we face and see how we can address and overcome issues.

My team and the site senior management trusts me to work responsibly. I enjoy this part of the job as it is difficult, but also very rewarding.

What are the main challenges?

Working to tight deadlines can be very difficult. Making sure all work is completed on time brings daily challenges. There are also challenges with materials that we face each day and finding solutions to these is one of our main roles.

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

My mother and father were a big influence on me. I inherited a good work ethic from them. I was encouraged to get a third level qualification which would open doors in time. I have seen how different people succeed at work and one thing stands out, if you are dedicated and work hard, you will be successful.

Managers have had a big influence and impact on my career. In some cases they have noticed how good I was at certain tasks without me realising it. They encouraged me to take risks and roles which were outside my comfort zone.

Becoming knowledgeable in different areas is also important for personal development. It is good to challenge yourself. People who try their hand at new things are appreciated and respected.

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

I am married and have three young children, so I have a very busy life. My role in Abbott is very demanding, with a lot of responsibility, as my teams cover production 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I love to exercise but fitting this in with a hectic family life is challenging. I am part of the local GAA team’s management and help train underage players.

I like working for Abbott because it is a very respectable company, which ultimately helps people live fuller lives through better health. The opportunities for advancement in Abbott are huge.

What is your education to date?

I studied physics, chemistry, Irish, English, maths and German in school. After my Leaving Cert, I did a certificate in Science in GMIT Galway, and then did a diploma in analytical chemistry, before finally completing a degree in fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals, in Kingston University, London.

My career has changed over the last ten years, moving from operations and technical lab based roles through to quality and finally to supply chain .

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

Initially my diploma and degree were important to my technical roles. Parts of my current role requires an in-depth knowledge of the business and how it operates. Understanding the limitations and requirements of areas you work closely with is very important. This is mostly learned through experience.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Make sure it is what you want to do and it is your decision. You have to be happy in your job, or it won’t work for you.

College is a fundamental requirement nowadays and many people are going back to get third level qualifications. It is important to work hard and be dedicated.

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

In an ideal world a person would have a background in supply chain, but sometimes this can be substituted with experience, attitude and ability. If you are not seen as competent or capable, you will rarely be offered new opportunities.

If people talk highly of you, then other people are more willing to trust you and give you a chance.

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Career Stories: Rosa Doran, Astronomy Educator

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What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?

I don’t think I can give a short answer to this.  I think the most important one was the decision to observe the world around me and hear what nature and the universe is telling me every day. This is what really shapes my decisions, being awake to life!

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

I adore every minute of my life and I am very happy with what I do. I have the opportunity to meet so many interesting people and to know so many different places and cultural habits.

I am one of the lucky people to whom work is not a means. I learn new things every day, and I have a feeling that I am contributing a little bit to make the world a better place. What else can one wish from life?

How did you go about getting your current job?

I was doing a PhD in black hole astrophysics when an opportunity appeared to start a non-profit association devoted to public outreach and education. 14 years later here I am, working for an organisation that started with 25 people and is now coordinating a movement that gathers over 20,000 people worldwide.

Describe a typical day?

I could never have a typical day. It is not in my nature. No two days are alike. Isn’t that awesome?

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

Usually I am the public face of NUCLIO. I have to make sure all the projects are moving forward as well as finding new opportunities for the future ahead.

I also make sure all volunteers are comfortable with their tasks and try to find more help whenever it is needed. Designing and following our strategy is another one of my main tasks, although it is difficult when the organisation is moving as fast as NUCLIO. Luckily I have amazing people supporting our organisation.

What are the main challenges?

The main challenge is supporting all the educators in need of help. This involves finding solutions for the different needs of people in the different corners of the world and keeping all the reports updated.

What are aspects of the job that you like?

Meeting people and being able to make a difference are the best aspects of my job.

What are the challenges with your job?

Competition is the biggest challenge. Especially when we find people that could help us so much and would make a huge difference to our organisation but instead provide competition.

What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

I think my communication skills are the main skill that I bring to the workplace.

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

Maths and physics were the two subjects that had the biggest influence on my career to date.

What is your education to date?

I have a Masters in high energy and gravitation, where I studied black holes and I’m doing a PhD in science education.

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

I have many highlights, but one I won’t forget was being able to gather over 3,000 people to watch the annular solar eclipse in 2005.

Giving a presentation to 200 girls in India, giving a talk to children in China and training teachers in Principe are also high points in my career to date.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Choose a job where you can make a difference. Richness is feeling proud, not having a big bank account. Money is volatile, knowledge is not.

What are some of the most important personal characteristics required for the job?

Knowing how to collaborate and spot good opportunities are really important for my job.

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

Community work, communication training and working with school students would all be great work experience for this position.

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