Sinead O'Keeffe, research fellow
Sinead O’Keeffe, research fellow, University of Limerick. Image: Sean Curtin Photo

Careers in research: A ticket to see the world

9 Mar 2017

There’s more to engineering than industry – there’s a whole academic side too, and research plays a huge part in it.

This Engineers Week, we’ve looked extensively at the industry applications of engineering. Now, we turn to academia and the part engineering plays in research.

Here, Dr Sinéad O’Keeffe, a research fellow at the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering, University of Limerick (UL), talks us through her work with optical fibre sensors.

What is your role within this organisation?

I am a Royal Society-Science Foundation Ireland university research fellow at the Optical Fibre Sensors Research Centre within the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering at UL. In this role, I am responsible for managing research projects and supervising postgraduate students towards their PhD.

The fellowship, one of five awarded in 2016, provides me with the opportunity to build my own research group and further strengthen my research outputs in the area of optical fibre sensors for oncology.

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day in the job?

Every day is different.

I spend a lot of time off-campus attending meetings, presenting at conferences and doing experiments at the Galway Clinic and the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre, which we partner with on projects.

At the university, the days are often spent meeting with PhD students, mentoring them in their research and helping them with any issues they may have. I also spend time in the lab, fabricating and testing sensors.

A lot of time is also spent writing and reviewing journal papers and preparing funding applications.

What types of project do you work on?

My research focuses on the development of sensors using optical fibres, with a particular focus on applications in radiotherapy. My group looks at developing optical fibre sensors to monitor the amount of radiation that cancer patients receive during their treatment.

In radiotherapy, doses of radiation are applied to the affected area in order to eradicate the cancer cells. However, the consequential damage to surrounding tissue can have an adverse effect on the patient. The miniaturised sensors we are developing can be used to accurately monitor the radiation dose at various points of interest inside the patient’s body.

We are also investigating the use of optical fibre sensors to monitor the biological parameters of the tumour to determine how resilient it is to the radiation. Knowledge of this information will allow the radiation oncologists to develop improved personalised treatment plans for patients, ensuring an effective dose is delivered to the target area, with minimal side effects to vital organs.

In addition to my research activities, I am also a member of the IEEE Sensors Council and on the organising committee of the IEEE Sensors 2017 Conference. I am currently organising the 2017 edition of the IEEE Sensors Summer School, which will focus on optical fibre sensors.

What skills do you use on a daily basis?

As a researcher, one of the main skills required is problem solving. Every project brings new challenges, and different applications require different solutions, which can further add to the task.

The cross-disciplinary nature of my research requires a broad range of skills, from fundamental engineering to a good understanding of the relevant health application, such as radiation therapy.

Project management and communication skills are also very important in leading a research project.

Scientific writing is an essential skill, allowing you to present your results in a meaningful way and to provide a convincing case when applying for project funding.

What is the hardest part of your working day?

It’s not an everyday occurrence, but the hardest part of the job is when your research proposal is rejected for funding. External funding is very competitive, and it is very disappointing when you have a good idea and you can’t secure funding to realise it. You become quite resilient, though. If you take the rejection as constructive, you can build on it and, usually, you eventually get there!

Do you have any productivity tips that help you through the working day?

I always find it useful to make a to-do list. When there are a lot of different tasks to be done, I think it is always beneficial to take some time out to make a list and set priorities.

When you first started this job, what were you most surprised to learn was important in the role?

I was surprised by how important networking was in research. My research is highly interdisciplinary and so it is vital for a successful project that I have a well-established network in the multiple disciplines – from both academia and industry – to collaborate with. It is also so important for highlighting your own research in the community and raising your profile, especially as an early-stage researcher.

How has this role changed as the tech sector has grown and evolved?

The recent and ongoing advances in optical fibre technology, driven by the telecommunications sector, has allowed for exciting developments in optical fibre sensors. There are now a wide range of different types of optical fibres, sources (lights) and detectors with improved specifications and at a lower cost. This means that we can now explore the development of low-cost sensors that were not possible only a few years ago.

What do you enjoy most about the job?

I love the variety that comes with researching the area of optical fibre sensors. While my current project focuses on medical applications, previously I have been involved in developing sensors for environmental, food and nuclear applications. There is always something new to learn and experience when developing sensors for different applications.

I also enjoy the opportunities we get to travel to present our research at international conferences. You get to see places that you might otherwise never get to visit.

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