Research heroes who paved the way for Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin

7 Jul 2016

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin at the launch of City of Physics 2015. Photo via Naoise Culhane

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin tells us about her research heroes, starting with great science communicator Richard Feynman.

As an undergraduate student, my research hero was Richard Feynman. I first came across him in our quantum mechanics modules, where Feynman diagrams allowed us to visualise calculations of the electromagnetic forces at play in particle interactions.

At this point, I was very interested in particle physics but, after a few months on a student-ship at CERN, realised I enjoyed the theoretical, mathematical elements over the experimentation. (Damaging an expensive piece of equipment while trialling an experiment may have had something to do with this!)

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Feynman, a theoretical physicist, was renowned as an excellent communicator and his lectures for undergraduate students at Caltech were so popular, even his academic colleagues attended. I very much admired Feynman’s ability to talk to all types of audiences and share his passion for his subject. I also found it interesting that, alongside his illustrious academic career, he had many other interests and talents – including painting.

His communication of physics impacted my thinking on the importance of scientific literacy in society and I feel he paved the way for many excellent science communicators we have today.

Examining education

When my research interests migrated to science and mathematics education, I was introduced to a whole new range of research role models.

Beginning my postgraduate studies, I was very much influenced by Deborah Ball – a former primary school teacher who is now president elect of the American Educational Research Association. Having taught for 15 years before beginning her research career, her work provides great insight into the teaching and learning of mathematics, and her framework on ‘Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching’ has provided the basis for my own research on professional development for maths teachers.

I also admire the work of Jo Boaler, who highlights the benefits of communication in the mathematics classroom and who also emphasises the importance of equity (particularly with regard to gender) in mathematics classrooms.

‘Richard Feynman paved the way for many excellent science communicators we have today’

As a physics graduate, I have particularly admired the work of education researchers who have a background in the sciences. Thomas Guskey, for example, is a leading researcher in teacher professional development and, after graduating as a physics major, taught for a number of years before commencing his research career. Similarly, Alan Schoenfeld, a former mathematician, is a leading name in mathematics education research and, in his work, investigates how we can support better teaching and learning in the subject.

Researchers such as Eric Mazur, Leone Burton and Noah Finklestein have all contributed to the conversations on how our approaches to teaching and learning in the sciences and mathematics can be adapted and modified for the benefit of our students. Academics such as these have led the field in investigating the best practices in teaching and learning mathematics at all levels of education, and are role models for research on science and mathematics education worldwide.

Following Richard Feynman

In UCD, I am delighted to be a member of the Mathematics Education Research Group in the School of Mathematics and Statistics. Research from international literature in science and mathematics education guides our own investigations on the teaching and learning of mathematics in Ireland and our research into teacher education.

Following Feynman’s example, we hope to continue communicating our research findings with students and educators at all levels of education and to contribute to conversations, with parents and policy-makers alike, on our developing approaches to the teaching and learning of mathematics in Ireland.

By Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is a lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics in University College Dublin. She is also an accomplished TV and radio presenter who has been promoting and communicating science since she graduated with her BSc in Theoretical Physics in 2005.

This article originally appeared on the Irish Research Council blog