Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin furthers her quest to broaden the science conversation

17 Nov 2017

Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin with her SFI award for Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication 2017. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin has just won a major award for STEM communication. The broadcaster and UCD maths education academic spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Science Week

When it comes to balancing, Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is a class act.

Not only does she expertly bring science and maths to the wider public through popular science programmes such as 10 Things to Know About and initiatives such as City of Physics, but she also balances a busy academic career with her media work.

This week, she won well-earned recognition, picking up the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication award at SFI’s annual summit in Croke Park on Monday.

‘Talking about my summer at CERN for five minutes on live TV with over a million people watching was a bit of a baptism of fire in science communication’

Ní Shúilleabháin said she was “incredibly honoured and really surprised” to receive the accolade, which recognises an outstanding contribution to the popularisation of science. She was keen to stress that it was “one to share” with her colleagues and the many volunteers who work on Maths Sparks, an SFI-funded University College Dublin (UCD) initiative for secondary-school students.

“I’m very grateful to them, and to Prof Feely in UCD, who put me forward for the award. She is a good mentor and a wonderful leader.”

Stargazing into science

Ní Shúilleabháin has had an interest in physics since childhood. Her curiosity was kick-started while stargazing in Mayo with her father.

“I wanted to know more about the constellations. And when I found out that when you are looking at stars you are looking back in time, because it takes so long for the light to travel to us, that blew my mind and made me want to study physics,” she recalled.

She went to UCD and soon found a treasure trove of other fascinating subjects in theoretical physics, such as fluid dynamics and particle physics. While an undergraduate, Ní Shúilleabháin spent a summer working at CERN in Geneva, and spoke about her experience when she took part in the Rose of Tralee competition in 2005, winning the overall title.

“Talking about my summer at CERN for five minutes on live TV with over a million people watching was a bit of a baptism of fire in science communication,” she said. “After that, the media opportunities kept coming up.”

That side of her career has seen her star rise with regular appearances on The Panel and Getaways as well as a stint on Celebrity Bainisteoir. Ní Shúilleabháin has since returned to her scientific roots as a presenter of Science Squad and 10 Things to Know About, which is currently airing on RTÉ.

“I take my role as a scientist and as a science communicator in the media very seriously,” she said. “I’m in a very privileged position, I can talk about these things in the public arena and I get to visit schools and give public talks.”

Passion for maths education

However, the driving force for Ní Shúilleabháin is her academic work, and her passion for maths education and inspiring the next generation of maths teachers.

‘It’s great to see how we are becoming a country that talks more about science’

She worked as a teacher herself and then did a PhD in education in Trinity College Dublin before taking up her role in UCD, where today, as an assistant professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, she has an active research career while teaching maths and maths education to science and business undergraduate students.

“The academic side is the most important part of my work,” she said. “I find it very interesting to read research and do research in maths education. That always takes precedence for me. It is my main career and I consider myself lucky that I can do the media work, too.”

Science engagement

Ní Shúilleabháin welcomes the growth of events that encourage wider public engagement with science in Ireland, including Science Week, the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, Sci:Com (which Ní Shúilleabháin will MC early next month) and the Festival of Curiosity. “I consider these parts of my calendar and it’s great to see how we are becoming a country that talks more about science,” she said.

So, what are Ní Shúilleabháin’s tips for those who want to engage a wide audience on topics to do with science, technology, engineering and maths? “That’s a broad question and I think it’s important both for educators and scientists,” she said.

“I think you need to involve people in a conversation, make things interesting for them, talk in a way that people can access and understand the information – and you also have to be open to dialogue.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication