Shane O’Donnell backing his gut instincts

You’re called up by the Clare senior hurlers. You stroll into the dressing room your first night and you want to make friends. Shane O’Donnell, hat-trick hero of the 2013 All-Ireland final replay: you’ll chat to him, maybe about what he’s at in UCC.

Beware. O’Donnell says even a sketchy outline of his PhD in food science can reduce hardened defenders to silence.

“Ah, they don’t even slag me really any more,” says O’Donnell.

“Over the years one or two of the lads would ask me about it and after I talk for about 15 seconds the eyes glaze over and they turn around and walk away. That’s about the extent of it, really — they wouldn’t care about what I’m doing.

“It’s food science which is the broad subject. Genetics plays a part — it plays a part in everything, after all.

“I’m working on these specific sugars, different carbohydrates — you’d know some of them, sucrose, lactose that would be in milk. There are 11 of them and bacteria break them down and they react in people’s guts.

“I’m in the first year of a PhD, so it’s more about finding your feet, finding out how to do things as much as anything. It’s going well so far, I’m busy, which is important, and it’s pretty much all lab-oriented.

“There are written assignments, obviously, lit reviews and so on, but nearly everything is based on the lab, it’s got to be primary research. Everyone in the lab I’m working in is brilliant, they’re very helpful, there’s a mixture between PhDs and post-docs, and the latter are obviously very experienced.”

O’Donnell is stationed in Moorepark in Fermoy at present: “We’re APC-affiliated, that’s the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre in UCC, and that’s really cutting-edge, it’s second in the world in terms of probiotic work and fourth in the world in gut bacteria.

“They do huge research and our lab is basically an extension of theirs, it’s APC 2, in Moorepark. A different location, basically, it has a very good reputation.”

The research has a practical aim, mind. As O’Donnell puts it, his studies “wouldn’t be that blue-sky at all”.

“I’d be looking at how sugars affect people differently. IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) is the disease of choice, the stereotypical gut disease for people, that’s what they think of when they think of gut disease — pain and bloating and so on.

“That’s where most of our work is targeted, the bacteria, the gut microbiota, are what cause all that, so the sugars I work with — the carbohydrates — overstimulate certain bacteria in the gut and how they react in different people.

“Down the line you have mouse-model trials and all of that, but it’s fairly standard at the moment.”

What isn’t as standard is the balance of demands — advanced research and elite sport.

“Anyone with a decent job or serious commitments knows that balance is difficult. In fairness, there’s good flexibility with the PhD, I can be in there from nine to nine one day and leave at three or four the next day — but that time still has to be made up down the line, they’re decent in letting me off but that’s on the understanding that you’ll make up that time later. There’s no free pass.

“The time commitment obviously gets harder again after this year, but I’m lucky with the set-up I have. Dr Catherine Stanton is my supervisor and she understands the commitment to hurling. We work around it — she’s brilliant in facilitating me.

“You’d enjoy the training, the games, obviously, it’s the travelling is the effort. Driving up and down can take it out of you — the sight of roadworks in Buttevant isn’t something you’d enjoy — but it’s worth it.”

Making a call about life beyond the PhD is something O’Donnell has parked for the time being. “That’s for down the line, I’ll figure out if I want to stay in research, if it’s for me. Everyone always says ‘don’t make up your mind just coming out of a PhD’ because for the couple of months after you finish you’ll just hate it, having dealt with all that stress of finishing the PhD.

“At the moment I like being in the lab, the technical research element of it but whether I’d want to commit my life to that after four years of it, I don’t know. If not, you could end up in industry.”

O’Donnell is full of praise for UCC’s Quercus programme: “It was brilliant, even the people you’d meet on it would be really interesting, friends you’d make — we still have Facebook and WhatsApp groups and stay in touch.

“Professor John O’Halloran was amazing to us, and very good to me personally, he was very good to bounce ideas off and it was a big advantage to have him as a referee on my CV. I’d have spoken to him when things were tough for me in college and he made a world of difference.

“Michelle Power, another coordinator, and Paul Ross, my other supervisor, were very good too. They were unbelievable.”

Well, considering the heartbreak he caused in Cork back in 2013, that kind of forbearance seems superhuman . ..

“Lads would hop a ball off you the odd time, obviously, but it was never anything other than slagging. Good-humoured. And Cork people have won more than enough anyway, they don’t mind when another county gets a look in.”

If the food science doesn’t work out, there’s always diplomacy.



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