Getting to the heart of probing questions at Science Gallery

30 Sep 2016

Dr Mairéad Hurley. Image: Freddie Stevens

As Science Gallery hosts Probe at Trinity College Dublin this evening, Claire O’Connell caught up with coordinator Dr Mairéad Hurley.

Dr Mairéad Hurley has a lot on her plate. Not least because this evening (Friday 30 September), Trinity College Dublin will host a free public event called Probe: Research Uncovered at Trinity College Dublin to highlight how research in Ireland is addressing problems faced by society, and Hurley is coordinating the diverse extravaganza.

The Science Gallery-led event – which will feature talks, music, films, food, experiments, workshops and even a ‘get personal’ tent – marks European Researchers’ Night and is funded by the European Commission under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

‘We want people to understand that the research is for them, and we want the conversations to happen’

Future Human

Inspirefest 2017

The idea is to put the spotlight on the grand societal challenges that the European Commission wants to tackle through research, according to Hurley.

“We want to highlight how the research done here in Ireland is addressing those societal or ‘wicked’ problems,” she explained. “The design of the event means you don’t have to spend a lot of time walking across campus or going to unfamiliar settings – the set-up is open for people to go around to the venues dotted around Front Square, see what interests them and have conversations. We want people to understand that the research is for them, and we want the conversations to happen.”

It’s happening at Probe

Probe will feature various happenings, such as the launch of a food-sharing initiative by ShareCity and a cookery demonstration of a menu where ingredients are pollinated by insects.

The law will be under scrutiny too, as an expert panel will spearhead a discussion on key cases that have changed Ireland. “It will be looking at how law can shape our society, and asking questions about whether the law is a quick enough mechanism to react to the needs of our society – something that is pertinent at the moment,” said Hurley.

Bioethics, migrant risk, birdsong, robots and hidden treasures of the library will feature in Probe, as will a messaging bank for people with neurodegenerative conditions such as motor neurone disease.

There will be rapid fire Thesis in 3 talks and the duo behind the Women are Boring blog will be talking about their experience of highlighting women in research.

Hurley will have little time to draw breath this weekend after the event packs up though. As the concertina player in The Truckley Howl, she has some sleeve notes to work on for their new album, due out in November.

A galaxy of experience

Cosmic Horseshoe galaxy

This unique image of an ‘Einstein Ring’ captured by the Hubble Space Telescope required the fortunate alignment of the foreground and background galaxies, earning it the nickname ‘The Cosmic Horseshoe’. The Cosmic Horseshoe is just one of the galaxies Dr Mairéad Hurley worked on. Image: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

Music is “a big thing” for Hurley and has run alongside her career, which started with a degree in physics and astronomy at NUI Galway. Next stop was a PhD astronomy in Dublin City University.

“I was using some of the biggest telescopes, Keck and VLT, to study high red-shift galaxies which had been gravitationally lensed, meaning you can see those galaxies in a lot more detail than would otherwise be possible. They allow us to learn a lot about the early universe and how galaxies can build up.”

Hurley went on to do a professional diploma in education at University College Dublin, and she worked as a science and maths teacher in Ireland and in Australia, where she also taught music outside the school system.

‘Just because your degree is in a certain niche field, that is not the only avenue open to you’

Last January, she started coordinating the Science Gallery’s European projects. That means working on public engagement initiatives such as Probe, helping to provide opportunities for artists to do residencies in organisations such as the European Space Agency, and preparing for a BrainHack hackathon next April, where scientists, artists and designers will get together for a weekend in Science Gallery working collaboratively using brain-computer interfaces.

Another EU funded project, Hypatia, plugs into Hurley’s love of education. “It is aiming to provide STEM education that is non-gender specific and to open teenagers up to the opportunities that can come from studying STEM,” she said.

“Science Gallery Dublin will be engaging teenagers to contribute to Hypatia next year, asking them for their input and sharing the results with learners and educators across the country and across Europe.”

Skills stand to you

Reflecting on her own career path to date, Hurley wants people to remember that it’s important to be enthusiastic and to see the importance of the skills you have developed so far through study and experience.

“Just because your degree is in a certain niche field, that is not the only avenue open to you,” she said. “The skills and training you have had can stand to you in so many other areas.”

Probe takes place this evening at Trinity College Dublin from 5pm. The events are free but some require tickets.

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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