What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
The role of chance and openness to circumstances, were as important in my career as the conscious and deliberate choices. Science was an important choice in both school and college.
But after college the fact that there was a postal strike in Ireland meant that I could not make the final arrangements for a job I had accepted in Canada.
It was in the late 1960s and a transatlantic phone call would have been too expensive. So I took a temporary job in medical physics in Scotland and this determined my future career for 40 years.
This mixture of deliberate, worked-at choice and good luck /chance has happened over and over again. Sometimes it has been a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but just as often it seems random.
The management roles I took on from the age of about 40 onwards weren’t planned. Science provided a good background and circumstances gave me the push to take them on. They were generally difficult but rewarding.
It is a good idea to plan, but is also a good idea to be open to what the world, nature or destiny may graciously lay at your feet. This can seem like a poisoned chalice, but look at it and inspect it anyway; it is amazing what can happen. Clouds can have silver linings.
Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
My parents were open to the idea of science as a career, which would have been relatively new at the time. Thereafter I made my own way.
I wanted a career that would contribute in a positive way to individuals and society and thus social motivation was important.
I don’t quite know where this came from but it was in the air in the 1960s when I was in college. I think people of my parent’s generation felt the need to give back to society.
In addition, physics at that time had a kind of glamour that is today enjoyed by biomolecular sciences and genetic engineering. If one was interested at all, it was hard not to be pulled in by the glamour that attached to physics at the time.
The potential risks and evil that can also be delivered from the same source had not been well articulated. It was only later that the scale and subtlety of this became obvious. That was a lesson in itself that further shaped my career.
I now regularly spend time working for the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which, incidentally, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Giving a paper on an exciting topic to which my own work has contributed.
Sorting out a serious scientific, engineering or safety problem for a colleague in the hospital. The hospital can be somewhere in the third world and the work may be done for the UN.
Finishing a report or manual for the UN that will be used in hospitals throughout the world.
What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
For the Leaving (1961), I took maths, English, Irish, Latin, geography, physics and chemistry.
These were important for my subsequent career, although they did not quite match what I did initially, which was to join the Franciscan Order for a few years.
However, possibly surprisingly, the Franciscans were open to my doing science at college. Thus I did physics and maths, but in the company of people doing languages, literature, philosophy and history etc. From this grew a life long interest in the humanities, particularly in philosophy and literature.
I left the Franciscans but they gave me an interest in applying science in a way that did not damage the world. I also got the beginnings of a free floating and un-churched type of spirituality.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
Several things, ranging from the very first job I got in medical physics after college. This was a rewarding achievement.
Later on, setting up and establishing a medical physics and bioengineering department at St James’s Hospital that functions well for the health service and for Trinity College. Running an MSc course for young medical physicists was a satisfying challenge. I was proud to be appointed a professor in Trinity.
Later I was appointed dean of the faculty of health sciences and director of graduate studies there. It was rewarding that people felt a scientist could undertake these roles, as science is often assumed to be either nerdy or narrow.
I particularly enjoyed the latter and learned much from the people setting up new postgraduate courses in all kinds of subjects including psychotherapy, molecular biology and health service management.
What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
Both imagination and courage are important. Imagination to be able to see and appreciate what is in front of you and the courage to act accordingly. This is not always easy to do, even in science.
Enjoying people is important in any task with a high level of management, which some of my later jobs had. It is also an asset in science.
What is your dream job?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had it already. I feel I had a special job and was lucky to have employers I was able to persuade to allow me shape it so it was possible to work well in it.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Curiosity, imagination, numeracy, liking aspects of science, wanting to put it to socially responsible use.
What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Liking people, being able to work as part of a team, a commitment to service of other people. Creativity can be important.
In radiotherapy physics, which is a distinctive subset of medical physics, a capacity for careful attention to detail is essential.
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Some education and training in, and aptitude for science. Work experience in any aspect of hospital life; even better if you can get work experience in areas such as a medical physics unit, radiology department, anaesthetic or intensive care department.