I like puzzles and abstract concepts. But, for years, I never thought I was a ‘maths person’.
I failed a trigonometry test in the Leaving Cert Christmas exams, but was lucky enough to meet up with some classmates with whom I started to study. Talking through the work with them, I got it in a way I hadn’t been able to do in class. I got a C in the mocks and an A in the Leaving Cert. I often tell young students that story because I think it’s important to know that mathematics, like all other subjects, takes practice. I believe that talking through mathematics and working on challenging questions helps you learn.
I thought I’d study communications but our career guidance teacher Sister Mairéad encouraged me to consider a maths-based course. I travelled up to UCD on my own for an open day, meeting lecturers who are now my colleagues. I was still worried I ‘wasn’t good enough’, but I was really interested in topics like astrophysics and fluid mechanics.
l was lucky to grow up in rural Ireland in Carnacon, Co Mayo — the eldest, with five brothers. My parents were teachers. All the neighbours knew each other. I don’t think I was a precocious child, I actually think I was quiet. We spent a lot of time outdoors — building dens, cycling over to our cousins’ houses. The village had a school, community centre, church, two pubs, a phone box, and a shop. That was all we needed.
I don’t believe in fate. I do believe that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
I have a dual career — maths and media — which happened completely by accident resulting from my dad having entered me for The Rose of Tralee in 2005. I had a bit of a row with him for putting my name forward as I hadn’t planned it. I was only 22 when I won.
I’d just graduated with my degree in theoretical physics. I’m not interested in the argument that the competition objectifies women. That belittles the accomplished, talented girls who take part in it every year. It is difficult to explain exactly what it means to participants, but the part that viewers see on television is only a tiny snippet of the whole event. I spent the year I won representing the festival and Ireland all over the world. It was an intense year, full of rich opportunities and experiences.
That led to offers of television work, which petrified me at first. I was not used to public speaking and was incredibly nervous.
After that, I taught maths, applied maths and physics for a number of years. I recently got my PhD in maths education, and am fortunate that being an academic allows me a certain amount of freedom to work on other projects too.
I especially enjoy promoting science. That’s why I present shows like the new series of 10 Things to Know About, showcasing Irish scientific research. It’s really important to get rid of the old image of scientists as men in white coats with terrible hair .
I’m quite good at compartmentalising work and time off, but I’m not good at acknowledging that energy is a finite resource and that you need to consider how best to spend it.
The best advice I have ever received was from my grandmother, who is also one of my closest friends — manners maketh the man/woman.
The trait I most admire in other people is being balanced.
I’m not sure if I’m ‘grounded’, but I am pragmatic.
One of my biggest faults is getting messy when I’m busy.
I’m proud of our education system but, if I could change one thing in Irish society, I’d separate it from religion. Society has diversified.
I don’t believe in an afterlife. I’m not a religious person.
I’m more of a lark than an owl, but I really do need my sleep. I try to get to bed early.
I spend my down time pottering. Literally. I love having ‘nothing to do’ but mooch around fixing things, reading a book, taking a stroll. Maybe even playing a few tunes on my concertina….
If I could be someone else for a day, I’d be the astrophysicist Cecilia Payne, on the day she realised that stars are not like the Earth but are made of helium and hydrogen gas.
Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, with Jonathan McCrea and Kathriona Devereux, presents another series of the award-winning 10 Things to Know About, starting on RTÉ 1 television at 8.30pm on November 14.
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