Scientist-turned-performer Niamh Shaw has her sights on space

18 Jul 2014

Dr Niamh Shaw, scientist-turned-performer and artist in residence with CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory

Dr Niamh Shaw wants to go to space, and the scientist-turned-performer is making a show about it.

What kind of person wants to go to space? It’s a question that has been weighing on the mind of Dr Niamh Shaw, because she is one of them. She has long harboured dreams of being an astronaut, and now the scientist-turned-performer is developing a multimedia theatrical piece due out later this year in Dublin’s Science Gallery. Aptly called To Space, it explores how and why one might do such a thing.

Thoughts of space

Next weekend, Shaw will perform a ‘work-in-progress’ version of the piece as part of the Festival of Curiosity in Dublin and Cork. “It is a behind-the-scenes look at the people I have been meeting and why I want to go to space,” she explains.

Since childhood, she has been intensely interested in space and how to get there, but in 1980s in Dundalk there was scant opportunity to make it a reality, she recalls. “I didn’t admit it to anyone I wanted to be an astronaut.”

The secret is out now, though. For To Space, Shaw has visited the European Space Agency and is pondering some of the more philosophical aspects of wanting to leave planet Earth.

“I’m really interested in whether explorers consider ‘home’ differently to other people,” she says. “Maybe that is why they don’t mind leaving the planet we call home, even if in some cases they know they won’t be coming back, like in the Mars One mission.”

That’s about the size of it

It’s not the first time Shaw has drawn on her scientific interest to create a performance. She worked with Úna Kavanagh, who directed and co-created That’s About the Size of It, an autobiographical exploration of Shaw’s life and aspirations (including a hint of the astronaut dream) and the science of sub-atomic particles.

Tying it together involved visiting CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, and the show evolved as new developments – such as the July 2012 Higgs boson announcement – came to light and Shaw worked them into the performance.

From engineering to science, and acting

Shaw’s diverse interests were apparent early on – even filling out her CAO form, she found it hard to choose between engineering, science, communications and acting, she recalls.

Initially, agricultural and food engineering in University College Cork won out, but only just. “There were a lot of times during the engineering degree when I wanted to bolt and go to an acting course but I never had the guts to do it,” she says.

Shaw went on to complete a master’s degree in engineering and then a PhD in food science in University College Dublin. “I loved that,” she says. “You are like a detective, it was tough but brilliant.”

But the lure of acting was strong, and with doctorate in hand, she decided to leave the lab. “I had become involved in acting by then and thought I just need to pursue performance for a bit,” she says.

“So I stepped away from everything in engineering and science, which was terrifying, but I always was working, so I must have been doing something right.”

Lightbulb moment

Then, as she became comfortable around other actors, Shaw started to talk about the science she had learned.

“They found what I knew fascinating,” she says. “I realised I had forgotten how amazing science is and how it belongs to everyone and, if you can explain it in a straightforward way, it is beautiful to watch lightbulb moments going on for people. That really switched on something in my head and I wanted to be part of communicating science and to present concepts to people in a new way.”

Today, Shaw is artist in residence with CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory. She is also a comedy improv artist with The Craic Pack and she co-ran a Straight Talking Science workshop last year with UCD Science Expression that used improv training as a means to help scientists communicate more effectively. “I love to live in that world, where you can bring something that people think is beyond them and present it in a new way,” she says.

Start with STEM

For those who are drawn to several interests, as Shaw is, she advises that doing one degree may not be enough to carve out a career that sustains your interests and passions.

“Release yourself from that shackle,” she says. “You might want to do something artistic and you might want to do STEM. So start with STEM, but don’t forget about the artistic aspect. Your degree is always there and you will be amazed how that influences what you do, and you will find a way of merging the two.”

To … Antarctica?

While Shaw is immersed in her quest to go to space and intends to keep her focus skywards for some time, she also has her sights set on Antarctica.

“It might happen concurrently with the space projects, but Antarctica is another passion of mine and I would love to make a piece of work about it. That might be a few years down the line, but one day …”

Shaw will perform My Place in Space on 26 July in Dublin’s Smock Alley and To Space 2014, A Work in Progress on 25 July in CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory and 27 July in Dublin’s Smock Alley, as part of the Festival of Curiosity. A Fund-it campaign to support the show To Space closes shortly.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication