Garbally College, Ballinasloe (Leaving Cert). University College Dublin (BSc and PhD).
BSc (Industrial Microbiology) and PhD (Molecular Microbiology)
Since 2005: College of Science and Engineering, NUI Galway.
Senior Technical Officer
Favourite thing to do in science: I love getting involved in new projects, having to learn or invent a new lab technique and doing something nobody has ever done before!
About Me: I'm from Galway and am married with three children. I love music, movies, TV, sport, reading and science, of course!
I live in Loughrea, Co. Galway with my wife and three children (aged 9, 6 and 4) and our dog Dexter. Loughrea is a friendly town close to Galway city, with a lake for swimming and woods for hiking and biking.
I work in Galway city, in the National University of Ireland Galway, where I have been a scientist for 15 years. Before that, I studied Science in University College Dublin, specialising in Microbiology (looking at bugs, both harmful and useful) and I also got my PhD there (looking at a bug that caused pneumonia in horses and some vulnerable people).
I love to travel, with my family and with work, and have been to Hong Kong, Australia, America, Canada, Morocco and lots of European countries too. My favourite country to visit is Italy – I love the food, the football and the history!
I love movies (particularly the Marvel superhero movies), TV (Game of Thrones, Succession, Rick and Morty, The West Wing and The Wire), music (rock and indie), football (playing and watching) and reading (my favourite authors are Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Bill Bryson).
I also love doing outdoors activities with my family, and became a Scout leader a few years ago. We go on hikes and camp out a couple of times a year.
My Work: I use a robot called Janus to try to find cures for different types of cancer and other diseases.
I’m a Biologist working in Galway with people from different backgrounds (Biology, Engineering, Medicine, Chemistry, Computer Science, Physics and Maths) from all over the world (UK, USA, China, India, Thailand, Germany, France, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Russia) on lots of different projects.
Oh, and I also work with a robot called Janus…
We bought Janus in 2010 to help us carry out more experiments much faster and more reliably than would be possible by hand. A typical experiment would involve giving some cancer cells a chemical to see if they survive.
Janus allows us to carry out thousands of these experiments at the same time, as “she” can quickly add very small amounts of the drugs to thousands of cells, in lots of different compartments of the same plastic dish, or “microplate”. She can then keep track of where the different drugs have been added, and tell us which drugs have killed the highest numbers of cancer cells. Then we can take those interesting drugs and do more experiments, looking at the dosage, treatment time and even drug combinations.
This type of research is called “Screening” and we can also use Janus to screen samples from the environment, such as marine samples (e.g. corals and sponges) or even spider venom, for new medicines. Then we can work with Chemists to identify and make the new compound and Clinicians to see if it could be used to treat patients safely. We can also work with Stem Cell researchers trying to find new ways of getting stem cells to repair heart tissue, bone or cartilage.
My Typical Day: Every day is different, which keeps it interesting, but normally involves some labwork, some maths, some computer programming and some writing. And lots of cups of tea!
I get up around 7:30, get myself ready, then help my wife get the kids ready for school. I’m out the door at 8:50, hop on the bus at 9:00 and I’m at my desk or in the lab at 10:00.
I usually have my labwork planned a week or two in advance, so I know which project I’ll be working on. I get Janus ready for the day, running some tests to make sure she’s a happy robot, and then sterilise all surfaces, to prevent the cells becoming contaminated. If it’s a new project, I will need to do some programming to get Janus to do what we need.
I then meet with the researcher (normally a PhD student) who wants to run an experiment on Janus, get the cells and drugs they want to test, and place them on Janus’ deck area where the experiment can take place. This can take just a few minutes (she’s really quick), or if there are lots of samples, hours or even overnight while I’m at home in bed! If it takes a long time, I can just walk away and have some lunch, and if Janus needs me she can send me an email!
Once we have some results from Janus, we need to do some maths to see which is the best drug. It’s not very difficult to do, but if you have a lot of data, it can take some time. We always repeat experiments at least three times over different days, so we can be really sure of our results.
Once we are finished the labwork, the experiment is written as a research paper, with an Introduction (what we hope to find), Methods (what we did), Results (what we found) and Discussion (what it all means) sections. Hopefully, it will then get published in a Scientific Journal for other scientists to read.
I leave work at 18:00 and am home around 19:00 to spend some time with the kids or bring them to guitar or scouts, where I am a leader. I play football some evenings, or just watch TV or read.
What I'd do with the money: I would spend the money on filming equipment and give it as a prize to deserving schools or youth organisations who are interested in making science videos.
I run a science video competition called ReelLIFE SCIENCE, which encourages young people in schools and youth organisations (e.g Foróige clubs, youth groups) to become interested in science and technology, while improving their communication skills.
It actually started all because of ‘I’m a Scientist’! I took part in 2012 and used the €500 then as prizes for the first ever ReelLIFE SCIENCE in 2013. We’ve been going ever since.
Some schools and youth groups don’t have a lot of video equipment, so I would like to spend the money on some good quality equipment, which I can then give to deserving schools or youth organisations.
The competition is open right now for people who want to make a science video from their own homes. The one minute video can be about any aspect of science or technology – check out the video below if you get a chance.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Solid. Liquid. Gassy.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I love rock and indie music. I go to gigs as often as I can and got to see The Foo Fighters last year in the RDS. I had tickets to see The Pixies in Galway this year, but I'm afraid it is going to be cancelled :-(
What's your favourite food?
Italian or Indian
What is the most fun thing you've done?
That’s a tough one. It would probably be between white water rafting Snake River in the USA, flying a tiny two-seater propeller plane around Newgrange, or snorkelling off The Great Barrier Reef.
What did you want to be after you left school?
That’s an easy one. A scientist!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not much, although I did fail my first ever Science exam in school! I got a part in the school musical and had to spend a lot of time rehearsing instead of going to class. If you were unlucky enough to hear me sing now you’d know I made the right choice sticking with Science!
What was your favourite subject at school?
Biology but I love Ancient History as well.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Scientists get to travel a lot, either learning how to do new types of research or presenting their work to other scientists. I’ve been to the US (Washington & Atlanta), the UK (London & Cambridge), Germany (Hamburg & Heidelberg) and Spain (Valencia) with work. It’s also great to be able to publish your work, either as a research paper or even as a chapter in a book!
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Two things. My biology teacher in school, Mr. Fitzgerald, and reading a book about evolution called River out of Eden (by Richard Dawkins) when I was 17.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I would probably be working in IT.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To be able to work on interesting science questions for another 20 years. To have enough time and money to travel the world. To live a long and happy life with my family and friends.
Tell us a joke.
There are three kinds of people in this world. Those who are good at Maths, and those who aren't.
Click on the Video for a Virtual Tour of the NUI Galway Screening Lab
Images from the NUI Galway Screening Core