Dr Muireann Irish is one of 30 Superstars of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), a group of women in science who are working to raise the profile and awareness of STEM careers, especially for women.
Dr Irish’s research looks to better understand the way which our memories work in order to increase our understanding of dementia.
Dr Irish kindly took time out of her day to answer some questions about her work, career and to give some advice for kids interested in a career in STEM.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What work do you do and why do you love it?
I am a cognitive neuroscientist and an Associate Professor of Psychology at the Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney.
The field of cognitive neuroscience revolves around studying how the brain enables us to accomplish incredible acts of thinking.
In particular - I am fascinated by memory. I spend my time investigating the brain structures and networks that enable us to remember the past in vivid detail and to imagine what might occur in the future.
I study how memory and imagination are disrupted in dementia. It is an absolutely fascinating area of neuroscience and I genuinely look forward to going to work every day!
How old were you when you first developed an interest in STEM related activities?
My mother was a science teacher. I grew up listening to terms such as ‘photosynthesis’ and ‘condensation’. I would accompany my mum to collect lichen samples and she would explain various biological concepts to me.
I used to love drawing on graph paper and seeing my mum use carbon paper to create copies of diagrams – this was before all the technology that we are so used to today!
I also loved visiting the science labs in my mum’s school and seeing the Bunsen burners, and the skeleton in the classroom. It all seemed so mysterious and exciting to me!
I didn’t ever think that I would be a scientist. I had originally chosen to study medicine at university, however, my mother reminded me that I am squeamish about blood and so I changed my application and decided to study Psychology instead!
Was there something particular that drew your interest to STEM?
At the same time that I was deciding on my career path, my grandmother began to show signs of memory loss and it soon became apparent that she had Alzheimer’s disease.
This was a devastating discovery for our family. She had an amazing memory and could list all of the names, dates, and birth weights of the children who had been born under her care when she was a midwife. It was a cruel twist of fate that she should lose her memory and I remember watching in horror as she struggled to recall events that we had shared together and became increasingly confused and disoriented.
I had started to study Psychology at Trinity College in Dublin, and in my 3rd year, I completed a Cognitive Neuroscience course. I remember sitting in the lecture theatre and having an overwhelming feeling of “this is where I belong – this is me”.
How did you come to work in your current field? Did you plan it for a long time?
My career is testament to a series of leaps of faith and some very good fortune, rather than having a clear plan.
For my Honours dissertation at University, I had originally chosen to study circadian rhythms in relation to arousal, but as luck would have it, before the paperwork was completed, I attended a guest lecture on memory by a neuropsychologist who was interested in using music to boost memory function in dementia. The speaker happened to mention that he wanted to recruit a student to work with him on this project and I couldn’t believe my luck! I jumped at the opportunity and was able to complete my honours dissertation on a subject very dear to my heart – using the potential of familiar music to improve memory retrieval in Alzheimer’s disease.
I presented my findings at a number of national conferences and wrote my first scientific publication as a result. It was a fitting tribute to my grandmother, who passed away during my honours year as I was completing this project.
I decided that I needed to keep exploring memory in dementia and again I was fortunate enough to be offered a PhD scholarship to do so. I completed my PhD in 2008 and then took some time away from academia to see some of the world by travelling through South East Asia and New Zealand, arriving in Melbourne in 2009.
Again, I had no definitive plan for my career and I worked in two part-time research assistant positions, due to visa restrictions. Finally, I secured a permanent visa and began to contact researchers that I would like to work with. Once more, fate intervened and one of the most eminent researchers that I contacted replied to say that he had a postdoctoral position exploring memory in dementia and to come to Sydney for an interview! I moved to Sydney in 2010 and have never looked back!
Can you describe a typical work day or week for you?
I now run my own research team, the Memory and Imagination in Neurological Disorders group (MIND).
The team consists of four PhD students and one research assistant, so a lot of my work revolves around supervision and directing the group’s research activities.
I arrive into work at 8am and will check my emails and then check in with my team. Then, I typically work on manuscripts or grant applications or I might help to review my students’ work.
I often have a lot of meetings during the day, as I collaborate with a number of different people. Sometimes this will involve walking up to the University of Sydney main campus or skyping collaborators overseas.
I am also actively involved in the promotion and mentoring of women in science and I sit on the University of Sydney Science in Australia Gender Equity committee (SAGE); an activity I am very passionate about. Sometimes I conduct neuroimaging analyses and I love the thrill of finding associations between different brain regions and discrete aspects of memory.
I finish work at 4pm and I always try to leave on time as I collect my little boy, Fionn, from day care. That is the best time of the day - just as I walk into day care and see his little face light up as he runs towards me! Then we go home and swap stories from our days. He is starting to show a real interest in science and the brain and so I hope to cultivate this curiosity and excitement as he grows older.
What is the best part of your job?
One of the best parts of being a scientist is the fact that I am in a position where I can discover and contribute new knowledge that can have a lasting impact on the field.
Every time we publish a new paper, it is another step towards understanding the enigmatic puzzle that is the brain. This is an incredible privilege and I am eternally grateful for the generosity of our research participants who so graciously give their time to help our research.
It is a powerful motivator to be entrusted with an individual’s most prized possessions - their memories – and to hear of their hopes and fears for the future. To listen to the defining events from someone’s past and to view the grey and white matter of the brain that gives rise to these sophisticated endeavours, is a truly humbling experience, and one which never ceases to impress upon me the frailty and beauty of memory.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
There have been a number of career defining highlights for me but the one that stands out to date was being awarded a 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Rising Talent award. This award is given to only 15 early career female scientists around the world each year in recognition of outstanding contributions to science.
As part of the award, I flew to Paris earlier this year for the awards ceremony and it was wonderful to meet this incredible cohort of women from all around the world and to spend the week together. We benefitted from mentoring and communication workshops and participated in a roundtable discussion on gender equity at UNESCO headquarters. It was an uplifting and incredibly empowering experience and I feel very grateful that I was selected for this honour.
What are your goals for your future work?
I really love the direction that my research has taken and I am keen to keep exploring how memories are represented in the brain and how damage to specific regions of the brain impacts memory function.
I plan to branch out to explore memory disruption in different clinical populations and to incorporate new neuroimaging techniques to enable me to look at functional network integrity in these populations.
I hope to build upon my successes to date to secure further grant funding to ensure the longevity of my team and to enable my students to go from strength to strength.
Ultimately, I view it as my responsibility to ensure that the next generation of young scientists has every opportunity to succeed and so I am committed to investing in my team to ensure they can continue to make significant advances within this field. If I can propel them to new and exciting discoveries, then I will be satisfied that I did my job well.
Do you have any advice for kids who are interested in a career in STEM?
My advice is very simple – if you are interested in STEM, please pursue it!
There are so many negative messages about careers in science but I really believe that being a scientist is one of the most rewarding and exciting jobs that you can do.
Passion and motivation are essential to this career and some of the best scientists are simply curious at heart. I would also suggest to talk to others who are just a few years ahead of you to find out how they got to their current position and to ask for their advice.
Talk to your science teacher, ask questions, and participate in Science Week activities. There are so many wonderful resources out there – often you just need to ask one question to start uncovering new and exciting possibilities. This is what science is all about!
I was amazed and inspired by Dr Irish’s story.
Her career has been inspired by a very personal experience. Her skills have taken her from her home country in Ireland and allowed her to relocate to the other side of the globe!
She has presented her findings to conferences all over the world and her work has enabled her to meet people she would never otherwise have come across and to share their stories.
What an exciting and varied career!