‘People ask me all the time what history has to do with STEM’
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‘People ask me all the time what history has to do with STEM’

13 Nov 2019

Dr Mark Loughrey of APC Microbiome Ireland discusses his journey from nursing to research – with a PhD in history along the way.

In celebration of Science Week, we’ve been hearing from people in STEM who may have travelled non-traditional paths in their careers or have maintained diverse interests.

A great example of that is Dr Mark Loughrey who works at the APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre in University College Cork (UCC), exploring aspects of inflammatory bowel disease.

But Loughrey’s journey began with his studies in nursing and has also seen him accomplish a PhD in history. He spoke to us about the ways in which he weaves his passions together.

How did you set out on your career journey?

I did my Leaving Certificate in the mid-1990s and set about trying to get into nursing school. It took me about a year of seemingly never-ending applications, interviews and rejection letters before I finally got accepted into nurse training at St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. 

There were 52 student nurses in my class, with only two men. Having come from an all-boys primary and secondary school, I guess that could be regarded as a little unconventional. We worked at the hospital, lived at the hospital, studied at the hospital and ate our meals at the hospital. 

We had a curfew, we had uniform checks, we had to leave a forwarding address if we slept elsewhere for a night. But it was a great time. There was a sense of camaraderie and I learned a good deal about nursing and a great deal about life in general. I come from a large family so it was also the first time I had a bedroom of my own! Small things like that meant a lot then.

Close-up image of man with beard against a red wall.

Image: Mark Loughrey

Would you describe your career path as conventional?

When I qualified, I had a chance encounter with a nurse who was working in intensive care (ICU). I hadn’t considered that particular clinical area before but she told me about the day-to-day goings-on in an ICU, and I was sold. 

I commenced a postgraduate course in critical care nursing at University College Dublin (UCD) and worked in ICU for a number of years in Dublin and Cork thereafter. 

ICU was daunting at first but the support from UCD was exceptional. It’s a clinical area that very few people ever get to see and, like any other area of nursing work, it affords you the opportunity to make a positive impact on people’s lives – especially people who are right on the edge of life. 

During my time in ICU I became interested in nursing research. I began working the night shift and studied for a master’s degree by day. That degree opened a lot of doors for me and I left ICU to work in research at UCC. 

I’ve been here ever since, most recently at APC. If I sound like I had it all planned, I didn’t – the road only revealed itself to me as I travelled it.          

What do you like to do outside of your STEM work?

Outside my STEM work my main pastime is music – both live and recorded. Music is very healing. It keeps us healthy and strong and gives us the wherewithal to go out into the world and do all of the other things that we have to do. 

I don’t know where I’d be without music. I cannot just hear music, I have to listen to it. In particular I like Americana. 

I also have more than a passing interest in horror movies. I get that from an older brother. What makes us scared and why do I like being scared? I’m still looking for the answer.

Do you have any passions that aren’t strictly STEM-related?

My other major interest in life is history. I was very fortunate to receive a scholarship to UCD some time back to complete a PhD in history. I wrote a book on foot of that PhD – a history of the Irish Nurses’ and Midwives’ Organisation (INMO). 

People ask me all the time what history has to do with STEM; after all, STEM tends to look to the future, while history looks to the past. I understand that but, remember, we can’t fully grasp where we are going if we don’t know where we have been. The past and the future aren’t arranged in opposition – they dovetail. 

History and STEM aren’t as different as some might think. Both disciplines consist of people who are trying to understand the world a little better, both disciplines have a distinct way of going about that task and both disciplines are trying to communicate their findings to the world in a way that might make a difference. 

The questions might be different – very different – but the rest is largely the same.  

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