Inspiring next generation of female talent in the STEM field

An impressive line up of women in the STEM field will share their experiences at this year’s iWish conference, writes Ciara McDonnell.

Sinead Reen has followed a successful career in STEM.

When RTÉ’s Joanna Donnelly was sitting her Leaving Certificate, she only cared about a handful of the subjects she was sitting exams for. “As far as I was concerned, anything that was not science-related, was a total waste of my time,” she says.

As a youngster, Donnelly lived and breathed maths and science, and while she didn’t leave school intending to study weather, finding the science behind weather patterns at the end of her degree was one of her happiest career-related discoveries.

“I knew that I only loved maths and science. Everything else was a total waste of my time, as far as I was concerned. I knew that whatever it was I would do would have to be related to science.”

As a Mum to a teenage girl, and a wide-ranging and varied career path to draw on, Joanna will be one of the most popular draws at iWish as it takes over Cork City Hall on 7 and 8 February.

Now in its fifth year, iWish seeks to motivate and inspire young women, by opening their eyes to the unending possibilities of a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

Over two days in Cork, and then another two days in Dublin, iWish will host panels and talks from the likes of Brenda Romero, an award-winning game designer, artist and Fulbright scholar who is considered to be one of the female pioneers of the tech industry as we know it and Captain Sinead Reen, who was Ireland’s first master mariner.

Reen plans to use her time on stage to show school-going girls that even though an industry may seem to be male-dominated, things are never as they seem.

“I think the most amazing things with careers in STEM is that you can’t judge a book by its cover,” she tells me from her current post as head of department of Maritime Studies at the National Maritime College of Ireland in Ringaskiddy.

“You wouldn’t pick the women who work with STEM in a line up! We had all the new female students into the boardroom to reassure everyone about going away to sea.

When you looked around the room, it could have been any meeting in any industry — you certainly wouldn’t have thought that these women were working on different kinds of ships all over the world.

Reen fell in love with seafaring aboard The Asgard II, a national sail training vessel.

“As a reward for doing the Leaving Cert I got to go onboard this ship for 10 days and we did the Tall Ship races. It was such fun and I found my love of the sea. I loved being out there, looking out at the everchanging scenery.”

As the first female elected to become president of the Irish Institute of Master Mariners, the professional body for Shipmasters, in 2015 and the first female cadet to train as a Master Mariner in the National Maritime College of Ireland, Sinead broke the mould for female sailors and it’s a mantle she was highly aware of at the time.

“Before I was fully qualified, I definitely felt pressure to finish,” she admits.

“I felt that I would be letting myself and others down if I didn’t make it. I like to promote it as a career path, because it is a wonderful one. I feel that while we are starting to break the stereotyping, we still have a way to go. It’s still not a career that is promoted for women; only about 2-3% of seafarers are female, which is very low.”

Sinead is looking forward to meeting the young women who attend iWish this February. “I want them to know that even though as a woman there are challenges in my industry, nothing is insurmountable, and there are supports there from both men and women. The women who go to sea are not hairy bottomed sailors, they are exactly like you and me.”

Joanna Donnelly.

Above all, Sinead hopes to share her belief that there are many twists and turns and opportunities in life, that may not be glaringly obvious.

“Conferences like this are a fantastic way for them to realise that there is something else out there. There might be something beyond the horizon of what they might have seen in university prospectus’.

"A description of a course doesn’t always read like the job, and I’ll have an opportunity to maybe show them that there’s another star in the sky, if you just look up.”

This is a sentiment that Ruth Buckley, head of ICT and Business Services in Cork City Council and co-founder of iWish, agrees with wholeheartedly.

“A lot of our audience are young girls and they might not get a perspective like this elsewhere. For the first time, they get to see how much creativity and design is involved in STEM and it’s like a lightbulb moment. It’s such a privilege to witness it.”

Along with Gillian Keating and Caroline O’Driscoll, Ruth founded iWish in response to the fact that women make up 50% of the workforce, and yet only 25% work in jobs that use STEM skills.

“The thing is,” she enthuses. “STEM is everywhere. I think the girls are getting to see role models and future employers as well as the huge variety of career paths in STEM.”

The hope is that all girls who wish to engage in a career involving STEM will leave the conference feeling that they can, says Buckley.

“We will get to hear the stories of how some of these dynamic women got to where they are today. People often don’t start out where they end up, and the story of how they got there is incredible.

Girls in the audience may not be aware of some of the alternative ways into where they want to go. They will see that not only are there all of these amazing careers open to them, but there are lots of different ways into them

Joanna Donnelly found her career track while writing her thesis on air pollution and weather. While researching, she found herself at Met Éireann, and instantly knew it was the place for her. “Weather is not to do with geography, it’s all science based,” she explains.

“I love how obsessed we all get about snow here in Ireland. The truth is, I find it kind of boring, because scientifically, it’s just rain and a bit of cold weather.”

Donnelly says young people ask the best questions.

“I get caught up with the enthusiasm of how they see the world and their hopes for the future. I always find myself enlightened by them, and any day where I get the opportunity to talk about science with young people is a good one!”

Ruth Buckley says that each year, the young women who attend iWish show her that the future is bright.

I am full of hope for the next generation. I desperately want them to stretch and to believe in themselves.

"I look at the girls who come to iWish and I hear that Louis Armstrong song ‘What A Wonderful World’ in my head, because that’s how they make me feel.”

iWish 2019 takes place at Cork City Hall on February 7 and 8 and in RDS, Dublin on February 11 and 12. www.iwish.ie

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