Teagasc is sowing the seeds for more women in STEM

24 Nov 2017

Jane Kavanagh, head of research operations, Teagasc. Image: Teagasc

A new publication from Teagasc highlights the diversity and backgrounds of women who work in research. Dr Claire O’Connell spoke to Jane Kavanagh.

When Jane Kavanagh from Teagasc was at a meeting in Brussels, a booklet called Queen’s Gambit: The Launch of a Research Career caught her eye. Published by the National Contact Centre for Women in Science, of the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, it was a profile of several female early-stage researchers.   

She brought a copy home and it immediately captured the interest of her young daughter, who was intrigued by the stories of the featured researchers. That sowed the seed of an idea in Kavanagh’s mind, and ultimately led to the launch this month of a new publication: Teagasc Women in STEM.

This publication features 77 women who work in the organisation’s research directorate, spanning the areas of animal and grassland; crops, environment and land use; food; and rural economy and development.

Women in STEM 

The document highlights the low numbers of women in STEM-related jobs (just 25pc) and the relative lack of information about STEM careers among teachers and parents who are advising school and college students about subject and study choices. 

“Innovation is crucial for the development and sustainability of the Irish agri-food sector,” writes Teagasc director Prof Gerry Boyle in his introduction.

“We need to encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM and to increase the gender balance on our research teams. Gender-balanced teams have higher collective intelligence, resulting in more innovation for societal benefit. More gender equality has economic benefits, too, with positive impacts on GDP that grow over time.”

Diversity of interest

For Kavanagh, who is head of research operations at Teagasc, what stands out among the profiles is the diversity of the women’s educational backgrounds and the range of work they now do at Teagasc, from research to communications to technology transfer.

“What fascinated me is the education and different qualifications – many of the women have a degree in science or agriculture and they have gone on to follow their interests, which brought some of them abroad as part of their careers,” she said. “Also, some work in the infrastructure to support research and they have that scientific understanding, which is important for the work they do.”  

The publication, which was launched earlier this month, has now gone to around 750 schools in Ireland, and Teagasc is already getting requests for school visits from the featured women, noted Kavanagh.

Fertile foundation

From her own experience, Kavanagh recommends that students with an interest in STEM consider a degree in agricultural science or science itself. “I grew up on farm and my mother is a pharmacist. She encouraged me to do science subjects at school and I loved them,” she recalled. “I went on to study ag science at University College Dublin and I loved the course from start to finish.” 

Following work experience with a fertiliser company, Kavanagh started working with Teagasc and has worked in several areas there, including PR and training, evaluation of research programmes, and developing strategic partnerships. 

“When you do a basic degree in agriculture or science, you are introduced to lots of different areas and you can find out what you like,” she said. “It gives you a good foundation on which to build, and lots of options.”

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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