As The Naughton Foundation Scholarship celebrates its 10th year, we catch up with past winners to see what they’re doing now, writes Ciara McDonnell.
Ten years ago, husband and wife team Martin and Carmel Naughton set up The Naughton Foundation Scholarship, with the goal of supporting Leaving Certificate students who would like to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at third level in Ireland. At the time, STEM subjects were seen as the less desirable of the Sciences, says Mr Naughton.
“Our reason for starting this program was to help young students in what were then seen as difficult and unattractive subject areas. When we meet these young researchers, engineers and mathematicians I am very happy knowing that we have invested in Ireland’s wealth creators of the future.”
What began as a relatively small support system for STEM students has grown exponentially, and this year, 10 years after its first award, The Naughton Foundation Scholarship has awarded over €4 million to 175 remarkable young people in the fields of science, engineering and technology studying at publically funded third level students all over the country. The scheme began across three counties in 2008 and has expanded to become a nationwide award with the inclusion of Dublin and Cork since last year.
Mrs Naughton says that as a couple, they couldn’t be prouder of the community that the award has fostered. “Ten years ago we envisaged a small scholarship program to help support local students studying the STEM subjects. We never imagined this group of over 200 students and alumni nationwide who are connected across the universities and STEM disciplines and we couldn’t be more proud of the unique community they are developing.” 26-year-old Ellen Cahill was awarded the scholarship in 2009. “My Mum actually encouraged me towards applying for the scholarship,” she says.
“I had always had an interest in STEM and knew I wanted to study engineering transition year onwards while in secondary school. I had started to look at different scholarships in order to help me to fund university and my Mum came across the Naughton Foundation though a Google search.”
Each Naughton Scholarship is worth €5,000 per annum for each year of a student’s three or four year undergraduate degree, something that was extremely helpful to Cahill who hails from Co Mayo, but chose to study engineering at UCD.
She says that the scholarship was key to her success at university. “During my undergraduate degree it gave me three things. Firstly it gave me such a person boost to have their support, and reassurance that I had the abilities to go on and be a great engineering,” she explains. “Secondly, I was part of a new network of people who had similar drive and enthusiasm to me. It was great to recognise a few faces around university and as I progressed through college. I’m still very good friends with one of the scholars from my year — we really clicked and have been great friends over the past few years. Lastly the financial benefit allowed me more freedom to take advantage of opportunities in college, my favourite being my study abroad year in California.”
In 2016 Micro Needle Slow-Mo, a MedTech start-up created by Cahill which delivers a slow, sustained release of therapeutic drugs won the overall prize in the UCD MedTech Innovation Sprint Programme and was presented with a €500 professional service prize fund to assist with further development.
“The UCD MedTech Sprint Award was fantastic,” she admits. “I’m still working hard on Micro Needle Slow-Mo as part of my PhD and have lots of work to do optimising and testing it to prove its worth.” Cahill also won the BOC award while in the second year of her PHD. “It’s an annual symposium run where all the 2nd year PhD students in our department present their work to date. I was competing against good friend and people who I really admire for their brilliant minds and fascinating research, so it was a shock and an honour to win that award.” Ellen says that contrary to popular belief, it is a wonderful time for a woman to be making it in the STEM arena.
“While women are still vastly under-represented in STEM, and particularly in academic STEM, awareness is growing for the greater need for diversity within these professions. It’s actually a great time to be a woman in STEM.” It is misrepresentative to highlight women within the industry, she cautions. “Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters what gender you are. I am surrounded by lots of people of the opposite sex but after that it’s much the same. I tend to approach things a little differently than my male counterparts which can be interesting, but in engineering we all have to prove ourselves through results, things working and problems solved.”
Sheila Courtney was one of the first scholars to be awarded by the Naughton Foundation back in 2008. She says that confidence is key when it comes to being a woman who is pursuing STEM. “If I were to give a woman who is interested in STEM any advice, it would be to have confidence in your abilities to learn and grow in STEM,” she asserts. “Be confident that this is an interesting and meaningful endeavour for women in Ireland. If you’re unsure, consider asking your school to reach out to female scientists or engineers within the community. Most of them would be delighted to drop into a classroom to discuss how and why they pursued a career in STEM and what they are doing now.”
Courtney says that she has received invaluable benefits as a result of her scholarship. “Looking back, I not only gained insight into entrepreneurship and business within a STEM context in Ireland through different scholar events but a broader circle of friends within the science and engineering community as well. This is in addition to the financial assistance during university which enabled me to focus my energy on my course of choice; Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering.”
After graduating Sheila embarked on an engineering graduate program at Bristol-Myers Squibb which she says enabled her to experience multiple roles across the business over a relatively short time span, before assuming a role within the Manufacturing Science and Technology group. “More recently I have been fortunate enough to be part of the start-up phase of the BioMarin site in Shanbally, Co Cork, where as a member of the manufacturing group, I’ve been involved in tech transfer, process validation campaigns and approval inspections.” So what would these powerhouses of young women say to someone who wanted to apply for the next round of Naughton Foundation Scholarships? Use the time you have in school wisely, says Sheila Courtney.
“While in school, enjoy the opportunity to give energy and attention to learning and exploring to develop and grow interest in and love for the STEM subjects!”
Ellen Cahill advocates energy and enthusiasm for what you love. “Go for it, you’ve got nothing to lose and lots to win. I’ve worked very hard at school and university but I really think that what I’ve achieved outside of the lab and library have had just as much of an influence on me.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved