Uncovering Irish women’s role in reaching for the stars

5 Oct 2018

Dr Niamh Shaw stands next to an image of Kathleen Lonsdale. Image: Dr Niamh Shaw

During Space Week, Dr Niamh Shaw is exploring the power of curiosity among women scientists. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

What can we learn from the stories of Irish women in science about the power of curiosity and overcoming the odds? That’s a key question that Dr Niamh Shaw will explore as part of Space Week.

Working with Epic, the Irish Emigration Museum, Shaw has been studying the lives of various women in or from Ireland whose scientific studies have had an impact on our understanding of the universe, and she is identifying some common threads.

“The Irish Emigration Museum has a fantastic collection of the Irish diaspora and they approached me to look at the scientists,” explained Shaw, who will be speaking at Epic in CHQ, Dublin, on Wednesday, 10 October.

“I’ve been working with an amazing historian there, Dr Angela Byrne, and I’ve been looking at the lives of many outstanding women.”

‘These women overcame the odds and with wilfulness, strength and determination they would not be defined by other people’s successes or norms’

Determinedly curious

The scientific women that Shaw has been studying include astronomers Annie Russell Maunder, Rose O’Halloran and Agnes Mary Clerke; astrophysicists Margaret Lindsay Huggins and Jocelyn Bell Burnell; computer programmer Kay McNulty; and X-ray crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale.

“They were so single-minded. They defined their careers based on who they were and what they wanted to be,” said Shaw. “They overcame the odds and with wilfulness, strength and determination they would not be defined by other people’s successes or norms.”

In her talk next week, Shaw will look at the science and humanity in the stories of some of these women, and she will explore the power of curiosity in their lives and in her own.

Taking off for Space Week

A scientist and engineer turned performer and artist, Shaw’s work reflects on her dream to go to space. She recently spent time at a simulated Mars site in Utah and wrote and performed Diary of a Martian Beekeeper, which highlights the human side of space exploration.

During Space Week, Shaw will be doing shows for children at Kildare libraries and at An Cosán, and she will host a Q&A at Engineers Ireland with European Space Agency scientist Dr Matt Taylor, who worked on the Rosetta mission.

A women joyously leaps in the air with arms and legs outstretched in front of a bottom-up view of rocket thrusters.

Image: Dr Niamh Shaw

Shaw has also been invited to speak at high-profile international events in the coming weeks, including the Cross Industry Innovation Summit at Space Center Houston in Texas and Wired Live in London.

She welcomes the recent announcement of SpaceX planning to send Japanese billionaire businessman Yusaku Maezawa and several artists around the moon. “I want to go to space as an artist, and this news helps people understand what I am trying to do.”

Space Week Ireland runs from 4 to 10 October and is organised by CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory with the support of Science Foundation Ireland and ESERO Ireland. For more information and to book places where required, visit www.spaceweek.ie.

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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