Creating the Future: Prof Sheila McBreen on the wonders of gamma-ray bursts

1 Aug 2023

Ann O’Dea and Prof Sheila McBreen. Image: © Connor McKenna/

In the latest instalment of Creating the Future, Ann O’Dea speaks to Prof Sheila McBreen, one of Ireland’s leading lights in astrophysics and a recent recipient of an SFI Frontiers for the Future award.

Creating the Future: Meet Ireland’s Research Leaders in association with Science Foundation Ireland.

A recipient of many awards in her relatively short career, Prof Sheila McBreen of University College Dublin (UCD) was recently one of the chosen researchers in the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Frontiers for the Future programme. She aims to build and launch a new Irish satellite to detect gamma-ray bursts and build out the Irish space sector’s research capacity while she’s at it.

McBreen is a professor in the School of Physics at UCD, having completed her PhD in 2004 on the subject of the prompt emission of gamma-ray bursts. After graduation, she worked as a research fellow in the European Space Agency (ESA) in The Netherlands, and in 2006 was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Union, moving to the Max Planck Institute for extra-terrestrial physics (MPE) in Munich.

With much of her research focus on gamma-ray bursts, her stints at ESA and the Max Planck have stood to her in her work back in Ireland, and she points to how critical those international collaborations are when it comes to the area of space.

“They’re absolutely crucial,” she says. “Space is not an area where you can work alone, it’s all about teams and it’s vital to be part of the space agencies. When it comes to the large missions, you need to be part of an international team. These missions are very expensive and can be 20 years in the making.”

In a wide-ranging interview, she tells us about the EIRSAT-1 satellite project, her own research into gamma-ray bursts, and she has plenty of advice for aspiring physicists and astrophysicists.

Her own impressive career has not stopped her from finding the time to advocate for those women coming up behind her in the sciences. She was the inaugural chair of the Women in the Sciences committee (WITS) at UCD, a member of the group of volunteers in Ireland that lead to the introduction of Athena SWAN to Ireland, she served on the national committee on Athena SWAN for three years and on the UCD Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion UMT subcommittee in UCD also for three years. She led the first School of Physics Juno Successful Practitioner application.

Notwithstanding the challenges, McBreen has seen much progress in recent years, with the introduction of basics such as maternity leave for researchers, but of course she knows there’s much left to do. “These days, we have maternity leave cover, we have a research semester for colleagues who are on maternity leave. I do think the situation is improving but I think we can’t be complacent.”

Physics has notoriously been a black spot for gender equality, although the record is a little better when it comes to astrophysics, but McBreen is encouraged by what she sees in recent years. “At UCD we now have three females who are professor or above, we’re on our second female head of school, Prof Emma Sokell, and we have three new colleagues who were hired through the Ad Astra programme into physics, so I think there’s eight of us now, which is fantastic. That’s progress.”

And with colleagues like the dynamic and energetic McBreen as a role model, one can’t help but feel optimistic for a female future in all things space research.

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