What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
My favourite subjects in school were the sciences and maths, so for my Leaving Certificate I chose to do chemistry and biology.
At the time, I had imagined following in the footsteps of my sisters by pursuing a medical or chemistry-based career. However, when I heard more about engineering, it seemed like the right route to follow.
I found experiments in mechanical, electronics and structural engineering great fun and also challenging as they related to everyday problems.
Choosing an undergraduate final year project in the area of photonics (the science of generating, controlling, and detecting photons) gave me an insight into the world of research and certainly contributed to my choice of PhD in photonics at the Tyndall National Institute.
Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
My interest in science began with my sisters explaining their schoolwork to me and smuggling me into their labs at college. My parents have always been a great support, even when I gave up work to be a PhD student.
The team I worked with during my final year project at Trinity College gave me great support and bolstered my interest in photonics. My current PhD supervisor has been very encouraging in pushing my research to the next level as I finish up.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
I think that until relatively recently, people envisaged PhD students almost as hermits who did little else but research. Of course when an important deadline is on the horizon, you expect a few late evenings but generally your time can be organised easily.
Though I am based in the Tyndall Institute, off University College Cork’s main campus, I can avail of all student facilities, such as the free gym, excellent library, subsidised food and a wide variety of societies.
Since I am a student, I cannot afford many holidays but I do get to travel often to conferences and meetings around Europe.
Describe a typical day
In ways, the work I do is more like a job than a course, which I prefer as I came from a working environment back to college. My time is shared between my desk and the optical systems laboratory.
I use my computer to research relevant publications and to do mathematical modelling of the systems I work with. In the laboratory I do my experimental work, setting up, characterising and testing components and systems.
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
I do most of the experimental work in the PSG Broadband Access group, setting up and testing optical systems and devices.
This involves putting together a system using optical fibres and semiconductor devices, in order to transport 10 GB/s or (10 billion bits of information per second) over up to 100km.
I then compile results from these investigations into publications for presentation at conferences and inclusion in research journals
I love experimenting. Receiving a new component to test is always interesting as so much is unknown.
Currently I am looking at devices for use in high-speed optical networks to produce the ‘upstream’ data that a customer wants to transmit e.g. uploading photos. I have access to some unique devices in the world, and it is amazing to see how they are fabricated and what they can do.
What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
I think I am a strong team-player as I am quite diplomatic, sociable and willing to help people out, if I can.
I get things done – whether it’s ordering equipment or filling the dishwasher… I am very dedicated to my work and so I work carefully on the experiments I do and the papers that I write
What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
Leaving Certificate (all Honours): English, Irish, Mathematics, French, Biology, Chemistry and History. Though I had a great interest in languages and History, I think that my interest in Maths and sciences swayed me more and I chose to do engineering at Trinity College, Dublin.
Originally I was thinking of pharmacy or chemistry when I originally chose my subjects – if I had known I would end up in engineering I may have chosen applied maths and physics. However, this choice did not hinder my chances at university, as we studied both subjects in detail in first year. Indeed, as I had the option of mechanical or structural engineering in undergraduate and am exposed to materials research now, I found my chemistry study very helpful.
What is your education to date?
I went on to do a degree in general engineering at TCD, specialising in my third year in electronic and electrical engineering.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
My final year project at TCD involved photonic device characterisation and it was instrumental in garnering interest in the area. It involved writing a thesis-type report, which counted as 20 per cent of my final grade.
This approach to experimental work was great preparation for what I do now. We also had modules that covered optoelectronic systems, which opened up a very interesting area to me.
What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
I am very patient and have learned to be more organised through my PhD work. These are important qualities as experiments do not always work out as you planned.
I love to work with other people and it helps to be open to suggestions, as well as to suggest ideas that may help others out. I am inquisitive and like getting things done properly – without this, I would not have the drive to do research
What is your dream job?
I would love to be leading a successful research group, whether academic or industry-based. Though it would be a tough job, the constantly evolving and adapting world of research would keep me on my toes. If all else fails, I think I could become a musician.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
To do a PhD, you really have to love the subject and also the specific area you will work in. If you have no interest in programming, then a role that involves computer modelling may not be for you. Research requires a lot of planning, organising and ‘thinking outside the box’, so your path is not always set out.
Working as part of a team is essential so that thoughts and knowledge may be shared. If you think that electronic or electrical engineering would interest you, you should at least have an interest in maths, applied maths or physics.
The reward for all that study is getting to work on challenging experiments and getting professional recognition on the world stage.
What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Patience, determination, diligence
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Ideally to enter a photonics PhD, you would have a background in electronic engineering or physics. An industrial placement during your course would gain you excellent experience.
Otherwise, positions for summer students are common, e.g. through the Erasmus programme you may be placed with a research group. A lab-based final year project would also be beneficial