The Friday interview: Science Ambassador Niamh Shaw talks about how she chose her career, her work as a scientist, actor and communicator, and her tips on work experience and what to study.
Our Science Ambassadors include newly qualified and well established Irish scientists. They work in science and technology, love their work and want to help others learn about what it’s really like working in their particular areas of research and innovation.
What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
Making the decision to leave full-time academic research in 2003 to pursue a career in the arts was a huge decision and a very difficult time in my life. Throughout my college years I threatened to do it, but it took me many years and a lot of courage to finally do it.
Then, once I was established in the arts as a performer around 2008, I needed to find a way of adding science back into my career in some way. So I began again by meeting a career coach and we worked out a plan to become a science communicator and performer.
Who were the biggest influences on your career direction?
My science teacher in secondary school, Mrs Greer ignited my passion for science and showed me that I was a naturally curious person and a good scientist. She supervised my Young Scientist project, which also made me very proud that I enjoyed science.
My parents helped me a lot in making my big decision to leave full-time academic research.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Very much so. It had always been a big priority of mine to have a career which was as much about the way I lived as the actual job itself. Being freelance as a science communicator/performer, I have the perfect balance of job satisfaction and creative freedom.
How did you go about getting your current job?
I had to sit down and figure out how I could combine all the things that I like doing and am skilled at. I couldn’t figure it out on my own so I spent some time with a career coach and we broke my ideal career into small achievable short-terms goals to get me to my long-term goal.
It took me nearly two years to become a regularly paid freelance science contributor for a variety of radio channels while maintaining my career in performance.
Describe a typical day
I spend a lot of time reading science/technology journals and checking out websites, TV programmes and podcasts to keep up to date on latest research and trends. I then try to find one big topic from all this information and pitch maybe two or three of these topic ideas to the radio producer.
They then get back to me with what they like and we schedule a date for recording the piece. It’s normally recorded live so I need to be on top of all the content of the piece.
Sometimes you might get a call to have something completely new prepared to go on air the next day, so there is very little research time and it could be a late night getting everything together for such a quick turnaround.
I also try to keep my performance career going which could involve some contract work in voice over for eLearning websites, role-play work for company training or live entertainment performance. Again, this can sometimes be very last minute and you have to get on top of scripts in a very short time.
Travel is common and early mornings and late nights are an accepted part of the business. You need to stay in shape and keep healthy – I exercise every day, either in the gym or at home. You need to eat and sleep well to keep your voice in peak condition as much as your body and to keep illness at bay.
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
I am determined to make science accessible and available to everyone so I feel that this is my main career goal. My main responsibility is keeping on top of what’s happening in science and writing about it, or presenting it in a more accessible, popular science format. I do a lot of writing, creating, meetings, planning and producing everyday. Juggling a lot of different balls all at the same time.
What are the main challenges?
Your time very often doesn’t feel your own. You set your own schedule but since it is not a 9-5 career, it’s very common to keep working late into the night to meet deadlines etc. I use To-Do list a lot because it’s often difficult to keep on top of the different duties I need to fulfil within the day.
I get to work in many varied work environments and meet some very interesting people. I laugh a lot and am very much in control of what I do everyday.
What’s not so cool?
Financially, there is no job security, no pension, no sick leave, no holidays. Whatever I earn is down to me. That can sometimes be difficult, particularly in the current economic climate.
What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
I have always been a good communicator and this is an essential skill for everything that I do. I think having a good sense of humour helps a lot too and not taking yourself too seriously.
My combined backgrounds in science and engineering and in performance are also a huge asset in what I do, as I’m very comfortable communicating quite technical information in a fun and accessible way.
What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
I think in hindsight there was probably no specific course available for me to encompass the varied needs that I had for my career. I think that I would always have needed to have taken two separate and different courses, which is effectively what I did.
However, it would have been nice to have made the decision earlier and just strategized a bit more wisely. Having said that, I enjoyed all my learning so maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
For those interested in pursuing a career in science communication/science journalism, there is now a course in DCU available for all graduates of science/engineering/technology courses.
What is your education to date?
I did seven subjects in the Leaving Cert – English, Irish, maths, physics, chemistry, French and German – then did a degree in Engineering (bioengineering) at UCD. I continued my studies, completing a research masters in the same department. I got very involved in performance around this time and took many courses in acting.
A few years later I began a PhD in Food Science in UCD and after that I took a post-doc position in the Department of Food Science in UCC.
During that time, I got involved in acting again at the Granary Theatre, and after two years of full-time research work I took a big leap of faith, leaving science for a few short years to focus on training in acting.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
Logical thinking and problem solving, which I learned from engineering, have been an invaluable skill in every aspect of my career. I bring this approach to any situation requiring troubleshooting.
My skills in academic writing during my PhD and post-doc have also been a valuable skill in my career as science communicator.
Do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?
I hope to take the part-time Science Communication course in DCU in the coming years. It would be a useful addition to my CV.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
I was very proud when I received my PhD. Most recently, I am thrilled to be heading to CERN in Switzerland to meet some scientists in quantum physics and see the Large Hadron Collider.
The trip is part of a one-woman show I am currently writing which aims to explain the big science philosophies to the general public in a fun and accessible format.
I am very proud that I have reached a point in my career where I am genuinely combining both my passions in science and performance and getting closer to my goal of making science accessible and fun for everyone.
What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
I am a warm, caring person with a great sense of humour. I love technology and gadgets and approach everything I do with a passion and a fervour. I am very ambitious but principled. I like to know that I have always done my best.
What is your dream job?
As a child I used to say that I wanted to be a ballerina and an astronaut, so I would like to travel in space and perform a solo dance piece. I also want to travel to the South Pole to follow in the footsteps of Tom Crean and work for a few years in the one of the labs at Ross Point.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Be very flexible. Have at least three different freelance careers to ensure that you have a regular income.
What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Passion, curiosity, determination
What kinds of work experience is a good background for this position?
Exposure to the media, especially radio. Voluntary work at the Science Gallery might be a good introduction.