quantum optics
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Do you want a career in photonics?

2 Feb 2018

A new booklet from IPIC highlights the career opportunities in photonics, featuring several women working in the sector. Dr Claire O’Connell found out more.

What does a physicist do? If they work in the area of photonics, they might be ensuring communications systems continue to meet our needs into the future, or improving the ability to sense a problem in the environment or to diagnose disease.

A new booklet to be launched next week seeks to showcase a range of careers in photonics – a branch of science and engineering that looks at the applications of light – and to encourage more students to study physics in secondary school.

One of the drivers for the Little Book of Photonics Careers is the relatively low number of students studying physics, a key area for the Irish Photonic Integration Centre (IPIC). IPIC is a Science Foundation Ireland-funded centre that researches light-enabled technologies to improve areas such as telecommunications, environmental monitoring and medicine.

“We were looking at the people coming in doing PhDs, and we don’t have this constant flow like in the biological sciences,” explained IPIC outreach manager Dr Sinéad Ryan. “And you can track that backwards into secondary school.”

Sobering stats

The statistics from the Institute of Physics are indeed sobering. The number of students taking Leaving Certificate physics in 2017 dropped by 2pc in 2017, girls comprised just over a quarter (26pc) of the Leaving Certificate Physics cohort in 2017 and a quarter of all second-level schools do not offer physics at Leaving Cert level.

Through a series of initiatives, including the new booklet, IPIC is looking to engage with not only students, but teachers and counsellors, according to Ryan.

As a neuroscientist who came to work with IPIC relatively recently, she has been on a learning curve herself. “We have an idea of what an engineer does, doctors, solicitors, but what does a physicist do?” she said.

“In the last year, I have seen where physics can take you in telecoms, biomedicine, cloud computing and autonomous vehicles. So, we wanted to open up the subject of photonics and develop a showcase.”

Women lighting the way

The new booklet features 17 profiles, including several women working with IPIC.

Current researchers include:

  •  Tyndall National Institute biophotonics PhD student Andrea Pacheco from Columbia, who is developing a device to monitor oxygen levels in the lungs of preterm babies
  •  Agnieszka Gocalinska, who develops materials at Tyndall that can be used to make transistors, solar cells or lasers
  • Prof Colette McDonagh, professor of physics in Dublin City University, who is developing new technology for biosensing

Dr Sinéad Ryan, IPIC outreach manager. Image: IPIC

Those who are now working in industry include:

  • Dr Caroline Lai, who is helping to design next-generation data centre technology with Rockley Photonics in California
  • Dr Laura Horan, who is designing new sensors for assisted and autonomous driving with ZF TRW Automotive in Germany
  • Dr Monika Zygowska, a senior scientist with Johnson & Johnson Ireland
  • Una Buckley, an engineer with Dell EMC Ireland who is working on data storage and cloud computing to ensure we can store messages, photos and videos on our phones and tablets

Ryan was not short of positive responses from students, staff and alumni of the centre. “We were very conscious that that we needed to ensure female representation, and we were delighted with response we got,” she said.

The booklet will be formally launched next week, but you can download a PDF from the IPIC website.

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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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