Dr. Niamh Shaw

We Irish girls need to see female role models in all aspects of life, business, arts, sport, politics, society, and science. This we know for sure. And we’re working on that.

But answer me this, did you ever, in your wildest dreams think that in your lifetime you’d see a red headed Irish woman in space?

Dr Niamh Shaw is, as we speak, arriving in the Utah desert to take part be a crew member on Crew 173 Mars analog mission with the Mars Society .

This is big, because we need to see Irish women say “yes I can”, throw their hair in a scrunchie and go get stuck into these massive, life and world changing events. And then, maybe, the next generation of Irish redheaded girls will not doubt, for even one second that they can do it, because they’ve seen it with their own eyes.

At the Shona Project, we have big plans to work with Niamh this year to encourage women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). But in the meantime, lets get to know her a bit better….


Niamh, why do you love science so much? What is it that ignites this passion in you?

I’m a very curious person, so I’m always looking for answers as I like to understand things and know how things work. I really like that state of confusion when I’m trying to understand things and science gives me the answers so I can figure things out for myself. 

How did going to space become a dream of yours, and when did it start to look like a reality?

I’ve always liked knowing things about space and that came from the house I grew up in. We loved science fiction. My Dad, before the internet, used to buy these big books called the Encyclopedia Britannica so we would look at those for answers and watch programmes like “Life on Earth” with David Attenborough and science fiction movies. When my brother John made his confirmation, he treated myself and our other brother to a trip to the cinema to see Star Wars; and I was sitting there just knowing that I wanted to be an astronaut and go to space. I didn’t do anything about it because I didn’t have anyone around me to show me how to get there and I felt that it was such a big bream that I shouldn’t tell anyone or they would laugh at me.

Now, I make theatre about science, while researching a show, I realised that I still had this dream and had done nothing about it. That was in 2011, and from then on I started reaching out, and following people on twitter and making connections. I became the artist in residence at Blackrock Castle Observataory and they introduced me to people working in ESA (European Space Agency). From there, I got on the space studies programme in 2015 and met loads of people. Now I teach on that programme and am going on this Mars Mission, so one person helped me go forward and once I started meeting people that are positive and “can do”, I’ve never doubted that I will do this.

Why do you think more Irish girls don’t pursue a career in STEM?

I think its the way that science and maths are introduced to us in school. We don’t really see maths or science around us the way we see Geography, History or English. When you get into secondary school these subjects are seen as separate, so you need to be labeled as good at maths or good at science as opposed to being someone who watches big brother, and likes music and oh, also likes science. You get put in a box which is offputting.

I also think you need to have an interest from a young age. It’s been proven by the Science foundation of Ireland  that most people who begin a career in STEM make the decision by ten, so its really about the people around you and if its normalised you will want to be a part of it. That’s why I didn’t try to become an astronaut, because I didn’t know anyone who was an astronaut and if you’re not around people to show you the world through maths, then you’re unlikely to pursue it. This is an issue with girls more than boys, because its an attitude to these subjects in girls schools that we’re passing on subliminally and how we talk about and frame it. We don’t sell it well, girls feel like they would be pigeon holed or stuck in a lab if they get into these areas.

Who is your favourite female scientist and why?

It would have to be Jocelyn Bell Burnell because she is an amazing women. She discovered pulsars and was passed over for the Nobel prize for that. Shes very unassuming and modest and absolutely passionate about encouraging people to pursue science. When you meet your hero and they superceded what you thought of them, you doubly admire them for the rest of your life. I was lucky enough to sit on a panel with her twice, and afterwards I thought “you shouldn’t have even been talking Niamh” shes so amazing. She gives a lecture saying that we are all made from star stuff and she can give it to children and adults, because she understands who shes talking to and makes it very clear so you don’t have to have a massive background in astrophysics of cosmology to understand.  I really admire her modestly and humility, as she can talk about something without showing off that she knows. She just wants to help you to connect with it. If you don’t understand, shes happy to take it back to the very beginning and I like that about her. (You can watch Jocelyn Talk about stars here)

What does a trip to space look like for you? How do you feel about it as a reality?

I guess its becoming more and more realistic. When I first started, I would almost start crying when I thought about it because I had this very romantic idea of seeing the earth from a distance. Now, while I will cherish the idea of that moment, I’m beginning to understand more and more about the logistics of how you get to space. The reality is that there are a huge amount of people who get you to that lift off moment, who you work with for 2 years at least in training, learning all about how to survive moment to moment in a spacecraft with everything that could go wrong. So its less of just one moment in my life but more of a lifelong pursuit and a career that is more grounded now.

I admire the people who help astronauts to get to space, as much as the astronauts themselves whereas before I had them on a pedestal. Now I know that they’re just one of a lot of really accomplished people who make it happen. They’re just the tip of the iceberg with loads of stuff going on below, so I’m more interested now in the mechanics it, than the astronauts themselves, which is nice because that’s where all the innovation and technological discoveries happen and that is just as important to me.

I feel that it’s a difficult thing to achieve and requires a huge amount of tenacity, self determination and strength and a lack of ego and ability to appreciate everybody who helps you get to your goal.

How would a 15 year old Irish girl who’s never been further than a family holiday in Majorca start planning to follow in your footsteps?

If you have an interest in space, that’s the first thing. If you love doing something it shouldn’t be difficult or a drudge. If somebody wants to do what I do they’re probably reading about it, following whats going on online etc. I would say to study the sciences, such as engineering, or some of the more specialist subjects like astrophysics or cosmology or astro-biology or aeronautics or astronautical engineering. Any of those STEM subjects are a massive advantage.

Its also about being a very well rounded individual, as its so important not to be so absorbed by your dream that you miss the journey. Its not about the end result, its about getting from A to B. So, enjoy meeting people, enjoy the learning, enjoy everything. That way, whatever way it ends, is where you’re supposed to be. If you force somethings too much you can miss the opportunity due to a small but vital step that would take you in another, and maybe better direction. Talk to people and ask questions. The nicer you are to people, the more they will help you. And let them help you!

What would you say to any young girl who wants to pursue an unusual career of any type and who lacks the confidence to get started?

If you do nothing , you won’t get anywhere. Anything, anyone achieves is usually over a sustained period of time of steady, slow consistent steps. You don’t have to have a massive plan, or make massive or sudden changes, its about moving forward but not so fast you’re not comfortable. I also think that we all know deep down from an early age what we want to do and sometimes we can get sidetracked by other peoples ambitions. You have to be very careful about being influenced by friends of yours and adopting their ambitions. Sometimes girls will apply to the same college and the same course as their friend, just so they can stay together and that’s not a wise thing to do.

You need to see a much bigger picture. If you want to become a baker or a hairdresser or an engineer, the first thing you need to do is find out who is the absolute best person in the world in that field. Read about them and find out about them and see what they did, and what their path was. Don’t restrict yourself just to Ireland because the best schools for baking, hairdressing or engineering might not be here so think really really big. Start writing to these places and asking questions. We have a tendancy here in secondary schools to just follow the system and that might work for some people but if you want to do something unusual, this might not be the best way. You have to accept that you probably can’t follow a beaten path and it might be very different. It might take a long time, but don’t explain yourself to people, you just need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, so by being outside the norm, stop looking for acceptance and understanding. You will meet new people in your chosen area and they will get it and understand and won’t ask you the same questions. Get yourself in the room, with the right people. Use your TY year for this if you can.Keep diaries, write down your goals, don’t compromise.  Don’t be lazy and make obvious CAO choices, ask yourself why you chose that course, at that college.

Good luck, and I will always be here, and try to help with any queries ever.

You can follow the Mars mission at www.marsmission173.com

You can follow their youtube channel here.

You can learn more about Dr. Niamh Shaw here.

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