DCU physics grads
DCU applied physics graduates Cleo Harvey (l) and Tessa Ronan (r) with Jocelyn Bell Burnell (centre) at the graduation ceremony

DCU physics grads gather top awards

9 Nov 2015

DCU applied physics graduates Cleo Harvey and Tessa Ronan have scooped big awards for their studies.

When Cleo Harvey and Tessa Ronan received their degrees at a graduation ceremony in Dublin City University last week, they got a special mention from president Professor Brian MacCraith.

Both young women had not only graduated in applied physics from DCU, they had also scooped extra accolades – Harvey won the Undergraduate Award for her research and will attend the UA Global Summit this week and Ronan received a €50,000 scholarship to do a master’s degree. Yet neither woman had started their third-level studies in physics.

Signals from chemicals

Harvey was interested in engineering and physics in school and started studying science education when she went to college. After a year though she switched to applied physics in DCU and during her third-year work placement with Ocean Optics she became interested in approaches to detecting chemicals.

So, in her final undergraduate year, she did a research project at DCU under the supervision of Prof Colette McDonagh, using gold nanoparticles to sniff out chemical residues. “We can detect trace level amounts of explosives and drugs at really low levels by using these gold nanoparticles,” explained Harvey. “When they are in close contact with different drugs or explosives, we found we are able to detect certain signals.”

McDonagh suggested that Harvey submit her report on the project for the Undergraduate Awards, and Harvey got the phone call saying that she was a programme winner in Mathematics and Physics while she was doing experiments in the lab in DCU, where she is now doing a PhD on nanomaterials.

She was also awarded the Earnshaw Medal by the Institute of Physics for her study, and she has advice to those choosing their subjects for Leaving Cert: “Go with your gut on what you think you like for picking subjects, go with the flow with that and whatever you think you are interested in,” she said, adding that people should not be worried if they don’t know what they want to do. “I switched over and other people in my class as well had started out in something different, so keep going with what you are interested in and something will fall into place.”

Boost for studies

Ronan was another who made a switch early on – after her Leaving Cert she started with business and economic studies but soon moved to applied physics at DCU. She recently became the fourth person and the first woman to receive the Pat McMahon Master-Level Scholarship, which is awarded as part of the San Jose-Dublin Sister City Programme “twinning” relationship.

Ronan is now studying Electronic Systems in DCU and the scholarship will involve a a study and work placement in California with San Jose State University and the award’s corporate sponsor, Cypress Semiconductor.

Ronan declined two PhD scholarships to undertake the master’s scholarship and said she will wait and see whether she goes on to do a doctorate or move to industry. And, like Harvey, she encourages young students to follow their interests. “Follow your heart, work hard at it and don’t give up,” she said.

Graduating with JBB

Harvey and Ronan had the additional honour of sharing their graduation day with legendary astrophysicist and Inspirefest 2015 speaker Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was awarded with an honorary doctorate from DCU.

“We had seen her in Oxford before at a conference for undergraduate women in physics, where she also gave an inspiring speech,” said Ronan. “It was great to get to talk to her before the graduation.”

Jocelyn Bell Burnell speaking at Inspirefest 2015

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Join us again from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Get your Super Early Bird tickets now.


Claire O’Connell
By Claire O’Connell

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology from University College Dublin and a master’s in science communication from Dublin City University. She has written for Silicon Republic and The Irish Times and was named Irish Science Writer of the Year in 2016.

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