Published 29 August 2019 by Ulrike Böhm
Women in Research at #LINO19: Niamh Kavanagh from Ireland
Photo/Credit: Niamh Kavangh
This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists who participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).
#LINO19 Alumna Niamh Kavanagh from Ireland is a PhD student at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, Ireland. Optical communications has proven to be the key to instantaneous global communication. The ability to connect and collaborate with anyone, anywhere in the world, has completely revolutionised science, technology and society as a whole. The goal of Niamh’s research is to develop next-generation optical communication systems in order to stay ahead of society’s ever-increasing capacity demands. Enjoy the interview with Niamh and get inspired:
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I must admit that I wasn’t especially passionate about science as a child, as far as I can remember. I liked to read a lot, I enjoyed learning and I liked maths. But it was really in secondary school that I started to consider science as an option, I had a great physics teacher who didn’t mind me asking lots of questions and that helped me enjoy the subject a lot. I also loved to see how fundamental science had practical, real-world applications that were making people’s lives better. However, I think I chose physics for quite practical reasons; I thought a degree in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) would give me lots of options to have a good job and an interesting career.
Who are your role models?
My parents (Elizabeth and Pascal Kavanagh) were my first role models. I come from a working class background and they taught me the value of hard work, kindness and commitment.
In my own field of photonics, my most important role model is my supervisor, Fatima Gunning at Tyndall National Institute. She is a wonderful example of a brilliant physicist who knows the importance of empathy and I think that is rare. Arti Agrawal is a director in the university of technology in Sydney and a great advocate for diversity. In the wider field of STEM, Linda Doyle created her own title as Professor of Engineering and The Arts (what an amazing combination!) of Trinity College Dublin. Jessamyn Fairfield is a physics lecturer at NUI Galway and stand-up comedian. Niamh Shaw is a space explorer and artist in residence at Blackrock Observatory. I think these women are breaking barriers, blending the boundaries of STEM and I find that so exciting!
There are so many brilliant scientists who are bravely outspoken about the issues that face marginalised communities in STEM and they are certainly role models for me. Shubhangi Karmakar is a medical researcher, artist and activist who is creating platforms to give a voice to people from minority communities. Angela Saini is a science journalist who has written two amazing books, Inferior (about gender science) and Superior (about race science), that have changed my perspective on the world. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire and has taught me so much about challenges facing Black women in STEM and I’m so grateful for the work she shares.
In the grand scheme of things, the year I was born, Mary Robinson became the first woman to be president of Ireland, she was also UN High Commissioner and today she has a podcast about how climate change is a feminist issue! I think Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old climate activist, is an amazing role model. Also, Sinéad Burke is an Irish educator, contributing editor at British Vogue and the first little person to attend the Met Gala. Finally, Caster Semenya is a huge role model for me right now. I think her fortitude, determination and grace in the face of such adversity and discrimination is truly amazing.
There’s so many more that I could mention. I hope that I can make as positive an impact on the world as these inspiring role models.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I am very enthusiastic about communicating my interest in science! Since beginning my PhD in 2014, I have taken part in over 100 outreach activities with the general public and students of all ages. My aim is to make complex physics concepts clear, relatable and memorable. I want to ignite curiosity, inspire interest in physics and encourage young people, especially young women, to consider careers in STEM.
I have had the opportunity to take part in lots of cool outreach activities that have taken me all over the world. But certainly, the coolest experience that I’ve had has been performing my own science stand-up routine on the Comedy Stage at a large music festival in 2018 with a group called Bright Club. That was so much fun!
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I really want to improve the culture of STEM to be more inclusive of everyone who is curious and interested. I am a passionate advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion. I am a member of several Empowering Women, Athena Swan and Diversity committees which are pushing for positive change locally, nationally and internationally, and I have been invited to international conferences to speak about these important issues. In November 2018, I was featured in a national documentary about gender equality called “The Big Picture: A Woman’s World” in which I spoke about some of the challenges women face to reaching their full potential in physics. I am also an award-winning mentor for my work with disadvantaged girls through the Irish Teen-turn initiative. All of this work makes me feel very proud. But the highlight has been helping to set up House of STEM, Ireland’s first network for LGBTQ+ people in STEM. As co-chair of this network, I helped to organise the first international LGBT STEM day on 5 July 2018, which reached 75 million people worldwide! That day I was full of pride; in myself, in my work and in my LGBTQ+ community, I’ll never forget it.
What is a ‘day in the life’ of Niamh like?
One of the goals of my PhD is to build a new type of optical communications system, so I spend a lot of time in the lab doing that. Basically any time you send information over the internet, you’re using an optical communication system. Computers talk to each other in a binary language of 1’s and 0’s. We turn this digital information into pulses of light using lasers, e.g. turn the laser on for 1 and off for 0. These pulses of light travel around the world (across continents and under oceans) through optical fibres, this is why the information can go so far so quickly. What I’m trying to do is make a new system that’s based on new types of optical fibres that could allow us to send more information, faster than ever before. So my job involves a lot of time in the lab, designing the system, running tests and tweaking equipment to get the best performance. There’s a lot of other aspects to my job outside the lab too, I have to read a lot of papers to learn about my field, write papers of my own to communicate my findings to other researchers and attend lots of different trainings so I can learn new skills. The communication side of things is a big part of my job, I present at conferences all around the world to share my work with other researchers but also I communicate with people outside my field; I visit schools, take part in public events and do interviews like this! I think it’s important that the public can stay informed about science if they’re interested and I want to make that as accessible to as many people as I can. I’m very passionate about diversity and inclusion within STEM so I do a lot of work around that also.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I chose to study science to satisfy my curiosity, fulfill my hopes of having a good career and find the place in life where I could make a difference. Essentially, I want to understand how our world works and how we can change it for the better.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I do lots of different things! I’m a professional stilt-walker, a black belt in Tae-Kwon Do and I love music. At the moment I’m obsessed with Janelle Monae, Lizzo and Sigrid. They are helping me through the tough process of writing my thesis!
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
If you’re interested in STEM please get involved! There are lots of different initiatives to support young people, and young girls especially, who have a passion for STEM. Try to talk to anyone you know who works in a STEM-related job. Ask at your local university or Tech Company to see if they have outreach activities or support structures that you can get involved with. There’s a lot of national initiatives in Ireland, for example, around Science Week and Engineers Week where there are lots of events on around the country, so keep an eye out for something similar where you live. The internet is an endless resource, where you can find anything about anything, so take advantage of that!
There is no gender disparity in curiosity, commitment and capability. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for recognition, compensation and opportunity. But I think it’s important to realise that women don’t need to change themselves so that they can benefit from STEM. Instead, we need to change the culture of STEM so that it can benefit from more women.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics?
Achieving equality in physics, so that physicists of all genders, races, sexual orientations and diverse backgrounds are included and can reach their full potential within the field.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
The first thing is to address individual accountability. I think it’s very important that we all reflect on our own implicit biases. But also, unconscious bias training needs to go hand in hand with privilege awareness. Everyone has privilege in different ways in different spaces and each of us should be aware of how we can use that privilege for good.
The next things is to push for real systematic change, for example on a departmental and institutional level. Are our decision-makers diverse? Are our recruitment and promotional procedures attracting and retaining a diverse range of people? Do we have pay transparency and other self-checks to prevent our implicit biases contributing to systematic oppression?
Then finally, there needs to be a real commitment to changing the culture of your organisation to be more diverse, equal and inclusive. For example, is everyone safe in this space? If not, harassers need to be educated or removed. You cannot bring keep bringing fish into shark-infested waters and be surprised if they keep disappearing.
The culture needs to be changed and this needs to be an ongoing commitment so that all people are truly safe, included and valued, not pushed out over time. As the saying goes, the water in the pipeline cannot fix the leaks.