Here at Shona, we love when we get to meet someone who is stepping outside of what the world considers “the norm”. It’s so interesting to have the opportunity to chat with women who are doing cool, unusual, and interesting jobs. So, we were only delighted when our friends at UCD School of Mathematics and Statistics and UCD School of Computer Science introduced us to their new project ‘Role Models in pSTEM: You can be what you can see’.
The ‘Role Models in pSTEM: You can be what you can see’ project was created to highlight contemporary, positive role models for young women in the subjects of physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering. The project hopes to make more young women aware of the very many career paths and opportunities available to them by pursuing these subjects. Following the UNESCO framework of factors influencing girls’ and women’s participation in STEM, the interviews explore the backgrounds and influences of each of the role models and highlight what they enjoy about what they do. The project was designed by Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and Dr Catherine Mooney, who work in the fields of mathematics and computer science, and was funded by the HEA and Institute of Physics.
So, we are delighted to introduce you to some incredible role models over the next couple of weeks. Today, we have Dr. Sarah Markham who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Limerick funded by the Irish Research Council.
Question 1: Could you tell us what you do and What drew you to your role as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Limerick?
I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Limerick, funded by the Irish Research Council. The aim of my research is to design and build a prototype ultrasound transducer using natural and biodegradable materials. The transducer is the part of an ultrasound machine that makes the ultrasound waves and detects returning ultrasound waves allowing us to create images.
I always joke that I am an accidental physicist. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a physicist and in fact, as a child, I didn’t know anyone who worked in a STEM role. I got to the end of my school years and realised that the job I had been considering (studying to become a doctor) probably wasn’t very suitable as my knees went all wobbly at the thought of surgery. So I followed what I liked and pursued physics in college and that’s how I stumbled into what I would consider one of the best jobs in the world. As a researcher, I spend my days tackling problems that nobody knows the answer to. It is equal parts exciting and challenging. Everything is constantly evolving; I’m constantly learning something new (be it theory, or how to use a new instrument), so no two days are the same. And the best part about it is that you get to be part of defining the future. Our understanding of a material or a process can, and often is, the first step towards new or advanced technology.
Question 2: Were you drawn into studying STEM subjects in Secondary school?
Yes, I always loved STEM subjects… actually that’s not true. When I was in primary school, I thought I didn’t like maths, because I found it difficult to memorise my times-tables and I didn’t enjoy it. Thank goodness I was lucky enough to have a teacher in 5th class who loved maths and would put logic/algebra problems on the board for us to do if we finished our work early and if you solved the problem you won a small prize. It turns out that I did in fact love maths (and was quite good at it). That one teacher sharing their passion for the subject completely changed my mindset towards maths, and I hate to think how things could have been different if I had continued on believing I wasn’t good at maths, and that I didn’t enjoy it. From that point on I continued to enjoy all STEM subjects, but I equally enjoyed hands-on subjects like woodwork.
Question 3: Were there any particular difficulties or challenges you had to overcome in terms of your study or work?
I quite often find it difficult to remember facts or even equations. Given the equation, I am quite happy to implement it, but trying to recall it is definitely a challenge for me. To try to combat this, I became very adept at notetaking. I always carry a notebook (or three) and even things that seem trivial to others I write down as chances are I won’t remember them otherwise. It did mean that at times during exams, I wouldn’t be able to remember an answer or an equation I needed, but in the long run, I think it has benefitted me. Being diligent about notetaking in the lab is actually a really important skill, and often means that I will write down something that at the time seems inconsequential (e.g. that there was a slightly different noise when I loaded the sample into the machine) but can be very useful in problem-solving or spotting anomalies down the line.
Question 4: What do you wish someone would have told you when you were younger?
That failing is ok and normal. I always felt that I had to be top of the class, that everything had to be perfect. It is ok to strive to do as well as you possibly can but believing you need to be the best, or do everything right is, not only an immense pressure to put on yourself but in the grand scheme of things – unattainable. And that belief then makes it harder to accept the times when you do fail and things do go wrong. One of the best and most important things I learned by doing a PhD in physics is that I am guaranteed to fail at least some of the time. And that’s ok. It’s also ok to be disappointed when that happens, but to learn from the experience and keep going after failing is how you succeed.
Not every day is easy. If it was, I think I would be incredibly bored. But I am really glad that I chose to study physics.
So, we don’t know about you, but we definitely would love to hear more about Dr. Sarah and her career. Sure you know us at this stage, of course, we have you covered!
Check out the video below, courtesy of Dr. Sarah and our friends at UCD College of Science.
More videos and resources are available at: https://www.ucd.ie/mathstat/rolemodelsinpstem/
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