Like most people, my interest in science began at a young age, when for the first time I encountered a dark sky like I had never seen before. I vividly remember this night after witnessing a sunset for the first time, the sky gradually faded into the darkness, as the sky began to gradually fill up with a myriad of stars, as witnessed from the Burren in Co. Clare.
Stars of varying colours and sizes glittered the sky, with blurry patches here and there spotted in a milky coloured band arching from one horizon to the other. I was enthralled with what I was seeing and when I had learnt what I had saw, I became captivated to science. I dreamt of one day owning a telescope to peer through and to photograph those celestial vistas. My astronomical interest, however, has kept with me to this day and finally, in the past few years, I have managed to finance a home built observatory equipped with a relatively large computerised telescope outfitted with highly sensitive, cooled CCD cameras, all of which are rigged up to a remote computer for data acquisition and control. I can now fulfill a childhood dream of seriously pursuing astronomy as a hobby and acquiring meaningful scientific data.
At around the same age, I developed an interest in the biosciences. The seeds of this curiosity was firmly planted when a family member brought home a microscope from which he had borrowed from a friend. After collecting a jar of pond water from some ponds along the royal canal, we prepared some slides. Upon peering down the microscope, I could not believe my eyes. An unremarkable droplet of pond water contained an innumerable amount of tiny machines, otherwise invisible to the naked eye, and once again, like my encounter with astronomy, I wanted to photograph these microscopic landscapes and I began broadening my interest in science.
After completing my leaving certificate in 2003, I enrolled on the BSc Physics & Life Sciences degree at DIT. This particular degree was very practical based with significant emphasis on laboratory work. In the first year of the ordinary BSc degree, physics & life sciences, the core foundations of chemistry and biology, was introduced. In year one, I was awarded the best poster prize for biology and although I found the biology aspect very interesting, I chose to undertake the Physics programme, not only because I was interested in this the most, but because I knew that it would provide the theoretical foundations to pursue a career in optical imaging. At the time, I was, and still am a keen amateur astronomer and so optical systems were of great interest to me. In both the first and second years, a solid foundation in mathematics with emphasis on applications in science and technology was explored. The third year of the Life Sciences degree required a research project to be undertaken. I developed my own research project for this aspect of the degree, titled, “Investigation of the potential of an inexpensive spectrometer to acquire meaningful data using an amateur telescope”. The project was a success, confirming that the spectrograph could be used to acquire planetary spectra. Data was collected from both the Venusian and the Jovian atmospheres, in addition to the Earth’s atmosphere. Upon completion, I presented my findings in a presentation given at the School of Physics, DIT. In the third year we also had our first microscopy module which introduced me to many of the key techniques in the field of microscopy and laid the foundations for my ambitions in the area.
In 2007 after graduating, I continued with my education with the BSc Physics & Physics Technology degree, an extension of the preceding degree, graduating in 2009. I entered the third year of this degree after completing the physics and life science degree. In the penultimate year I had to undertake a group project. This project was based on assessing consumer applications of nanotechnology, which introduced me to the field. In the fourth year of this degree, I spent several months undertaking a research project which I carried out at the centre for Industrial & Engineering Optics (IEO) based at DIT. Whilst working for this group, I was able to demonstrate my abilities of working in the laboratory. The main aspect of this project was to chemically synthesize a series of polymer films and subsequently record a holographic diffraction pattern into each of the polymer films to create the holographic diffraction gratings. Finally, the optical properties of each grating were measured through a series of characterisation techniques such as phase contrast microscopy, atomic force microscopy and interferometry.
Between 2009 and 2011, I was employed at Astronomy Ireland where I developed excellent connections and developed my knowledge in the field of scientific imaging. Subsequently I took up a position as a research assistant for Dr. James Walsh at the FOCAS Institute, DIT.
In September of 2011, I enrolled on the MSc Imaging & Microscopy degree at UCD where I would embark on following my career path as a microscopist. The course was divided into two parts; the first six months was lecture based with practical sessions and demonstrations with examinations, whilst a practical research project was carried out for the remaining six months with a thesis and presentation. My MSc project was carried out in the Cilium research group of Dr.Blacque at the Conway Institute, based at UCD. The objective of this research project was to develop a Fluorescence-Recovery-After-Photobleaching (FRAP) technique to elucidate the motile properties of proteins, which in this case, were known to localise in a small compartment (the transition zone) in the cilia of small organisms; namely the C. elegans, a roundworm nematode. This presented a number of challenges given that C. elegans are highly mobile and active creatures. As a result significant experience was gained on the confocal microscope in order to refine and standardize the experimental approach. The motile properties of a number of proteins known to localise at the transition zone in C. elegans cilia were thus successfully elucidated using a state-of-the-art spinning disk confocal microscope. The results of this project have been compiled into a draft paper and which is expected to be submitted for review in the near future. In addition, work conducted as part of one of my modules on Selective Plane Illumination Microscopy (SPIM) has been included as a book chapter in “Imaging Marine Life: Modern Imaging Techniques in Marine Biology”, edited by Dr. Emmanuel Reynaud and published by Wiley. The chapter titled “Optical Projection Tomography (OPT): From sample preparation to the design and construction of the microscope, to imaging and image processing of the data” forms a crucial introductory material to the technique. Upon completion of this MSc, I took up employment at UCD as an imaging and microscopy technician. During this time I gained a wealth of practical experience working with sophisticated microscopy technologies and carrying out FRAP assays for the Cilium research group there. To this day, I continue to carry out my own electron and light microscopy imaging in the form of art – merging art and science. For the whole month of November I carried out an exhibition entitles ‘A Visual Odyssey into the Invisible world’ which took place for Science Week and beyond, at the National Botanic Gardens here in Dublin.