Last September I chatted with former Rose of Tralee and overall genius Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain
Intelligence, ravishing personality and radiant beauty are just some of the many glowing qualities that broadcaster and overall science and maths genius, Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain, holds. Last week, while speaking with the former Rose of Tralee, I was reined in by her charming demeanour and well-spoken voice making it easy to see why she has indeed become a national treasure since winning the competition in 2005.
A native of Co. Mayo Aoibhinn credits her passion for science and mathematics with the surrounding rural landscape that she found herself growing up in as a child. “Living in rural Ireland and looking at the night sky gave me a really good view of the constellations”, says Aoibhinn philosophically. “Looking at the stars gave me an awareness that this is all bigger than you and the earth and I was fascinated by the thought of a solar system and galaxies. This really was my initial draw into physics”
Aoibhinn’s passion for physics resulted in her studying Theoretical Physics in UCD and receiving a First Class Honours Degree in the subject. Her overwhelming love for the subject saw her work as a teacher of both Maths and Science in Tallaght, Dublin, something which she had to give up due to deciding to complete a Phd in Maths Education in Trinity College Dublin. This was not an easy decision for Aoibhinn who is obviously passionate about encouraging young people to develop their knowledge and explore ideas.“Oh yeah I loved it, I loved teaching and there’s always that draw back to the classroom”, Aoibhinn says enthusiastically. So was it hard for her to leave teaching? “It was difficult, but it would have been difficult to complete a Phd part-time and that was the best decision for me at the time”
Since winning the Rose of Tralee in 2005, Aoibhinn’s passion for the fields of Maths and Science has been allowed to flourish. She has co-presented the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition with Ray D’arcy and was ambassador for Dublin City of Science 2012. She has also been a key facilitator in the Project Maths Programme.
For Aoibhinn however one the most exciting adventures she has had in Science has been her role as lead presenter on RTE show The Science Squad. The programme which she co-presents along with Kathriona Devereux and Jonathan McCrea is entering its third series this October and is something that Aoibhinn takes great pride it. “I’m really proud of it. I’ve learned a lot about all different types of science in all different fields”, says Aoibhinn, who as part of the third series got an opportunity to travel to Uganda to find out about a rainwater project, that, if successful could result in heathier pregnancies and births for women in the country.“I’ve learned so much about how research can impact all people around the world, in particular through the social project in Uganda. I’ve learned about plants which mightn’t exist in 50 years’ time here in UCD and about plants that will grow in the space station in UL. There really is a plethora of research around Ireland”
While Aoibhinn is obviously completely infatuated with all things science and maths related, I ask her why the figures for girls studying both subjects in university is lower than that for males.“Well the numbers are improving, but research does show that there is a requirement for female role models. I mightn’t have had a lot of role models, but I watched a lot of Sci-fi films and read books and within those there were a lot of female characters” chuckles the Mayo woman light-heartedly.
For Aoibhinn encouraging both girls and boys to take an interest in maths and science should begin at an early age. “Talking positively about it and giving a positive experience of it in primary school helps”While in conversation with Aoibhinn it is clear that she prefers a hands on teaching approach encouraging young people to explore ideas for themselves, rather than the usual run-of-the-mill rote learning method generally pushed in Irish schools.“It’s important that we encourage more qualified teachers, who aren’t afraid to take risks and while I miss it, it’s important to research so more teachers can learn”, states Aoibhinn who is currently working in UCD as a researcher.
Having put teaching on the back burner while completing her Phd, Aoibhinn managed to expand her broadcasting CV. Having previously worked on shows such as The Panel, Fleadh Ceoil and The Reel Deal, Aoibhinn believes broadcasting provided the perfect equilibrium for her strenuous study lifestyle.“To be honest I enjoyed having a different mental space” admits Aoibhinn “Broadcasting does require socialising a bit more which is a real antithesis to the life of a researcher. It gave me more balance”
Aoibhinn’s broadcasting work covers a wide range from current affairs and the Irish language to entertainment and travel in the show Getaways. Now an esteemed name in Irish media does the Connaught native shy away from her Rose of Tralee roots or credit it for her success?“I’m always appreciative of my involvement in the festival, otherwise I would never have thought of media work. I fell into it by accident and it’s something that has just grown and grown which has been delightful”, says Aoibhinn who is obviously humbled by her success in the media.
In the last couple of years Aoibhinn has added the medium of radio to her list of broadcasting achievement’s which she believes complimented her studies extremely well “Radio is a great medium and is really intimate. Oddly enough it relates well to the life of a researcher due to facts and qualitative research. There is a real cross-over between media and the life of a researcher in that respect”
“I love doing radio” continues Aoibhinn “I did some work on Newstalk and Radio na Liofa and had my own show on Radio 1 last year which was great”
Having mentioned her work on Radio na Liofa I immediately ask Aoibhinn about her opinion on the Irish language as she is fluent in our Gaelic tongue. “To be honest it’s not something I’ve engaged with in recent years, yes it’s my first language, but I’m not actually from the Gaeltacht” explains Aoibhinn earnestly. “And I do actually find that that’s a point I’m reminded of sometimes!”While speaking about the Irish language it’s obvious that Aoibhinn doesn’t believe that the Irish language should be limited to those who are only from Gaeltacht regions. “It’s a point I had to work on and I don’t think that we should only encourage people from the Gaeltacht and those who speak grammatically correct Irish to only speak the language”
Aoibhinn’s interest in all things Irish is indicative in her membership of Comhlatas Ceoltoiri na hEireann along with her brothers while growing up, while her mother was principal of the local Gaelscoil making it easy for her to be immersed in the language. For Aoibhinn however the language is primarily about culture “In secondary school learning Irish should be about our culture; music, dance and storytelling. We are focusing on the language too much”
As my conversation with the striking Ms Ni Shuilleabhain comes to an end I must admit that in her I have found a new girl crush. Her beaming personality and brainy ways have only been enhanced since her Rose of Tralee win. While a few years ago girls may have struggled to find a role model in maths and science, now all they have to do is take a glance across the river Shannon to Co. Mayo to admire what Aoibhinn has achieved.