Sharing fond memories as a student of STEM, Anne-Marie Kelleher highlights the importance of education in sparking her own curiosity for chemistry which led her towards a fascinating career. As the head of process and product development at Tyndall National Institute, she highlights how education helped shape her passion for material science and real-life, practical applications of chemistry. 

Kelleher is passionate about science and is keen to encourage and spark people’s curiosity about STEM subjects. 

Anne-Marie Kelleher, head of process and product development,Tyndall

Tell us about your role in Tyndall?

I joined Tyndall, formerly known as the National Microelectronics Research Centre (NMRC), as there was an industrial project that needed a chemist; the plan was to stay for a year, that was 26 years ago – the challenges and opportunities offered by working in a research institute such as Tyndall have made those years fly by.

The role that I now have is very rewarding, my team and I have the opportunity to work with talented researchers on a wide range of projects and topics fabricating semiconductor devices that are as small as 10nm for nanotechnology research, miniaturised inductors/transformers for power electronics, silicon microneedles for pain-free injections, radiation detectors as well as photonics devices for use in a wide range of applications such as optical communications and medical devices. 

The ever evolving research topics, the challenges of developing a pathway to transform an idea on paper into a physical device, and the opportunity to be surprised by the outcomes of experiments is what fascinates me about my work.

What influenced your decision to study chemistry?

I was extremely lucky that my secondary school, which had been opened only two years earlier, had fantastic facilities including those of modern science laboratories. It also had an amazing demo room as well as having a staff of young and enthusiastic teachers.

It was a community school, co-ed and all students were encouraged to try out all of the subjects, both academic and technical – therefore it was always ingrained in me that all subjects and career paths were open to both girls and boys, if they were interested.

Why did you choose to become a chemist?

My interest in chemistry was nurtured in secondary school and I remember deciding at age 16 that I was going to do a PhD in chemistry. In hindsight, I probably didn’t really know what that would entail but that was my goal, it led me to University College Cork to study chemistry through what was then the chemical sciences programme.

Again, I was incredibly lucky that the chemistry department was staffed with enthusiastic and interested academics, many of whom had experience in applied chemistry through work with industry as well as in the theoretical side of their subjects. This fostered my interest in material science and practical applications of chemistry, primarily in the areas of inorganic and organometallic chemistry.

What is exciting about the work that you do?

As a scientist you learn to accept that sometimes the outcome of an experiment will not be what you set out to achieve, however many of the most exciting discoveries or inventions were as a result of 'failed' experiments, so all results (aka failures) should be analysed and studied as you never know where they may lead.

I work in a research institute and an important learning for all of us is that in research, which by its nature is stepping into the unknown, is that it’s okay to ask questions like – Can I make…? Will this give me…? And that 'No' is also an acceptable answer.

The best achievements for us as a team are when we get a good result, this may be the production of a prototype of a novel device, completion of the first piece of work on a new piece of equipment, the happiness when one of the PhD students successfully completes their project or when we resolve a key issue that has put fabrication work on hold.

What do you think could be done to encourage more girls to study and work in chemistry?

I believe that the inclusion and promotion of science in both preschool and primary education is fundamental to encouraging our future scientists and engineers. Young children are fascinated by seeing how things work, they will ask questions without inhibition and they are happy to repeat activities – the perfect audience for science demonstrations!

Secondary schools need to actively promote senior cycle science to students and parents. There is still a pre-existing mindset among many people that science isn’t a great career choice for women and many students are encouraged to study languages or business subjects as it is perceived that these offer more career opportunities.

Delivery of information programmes that highlight the diversity of careers or occupations resulting from studying science or engineering would be useful.

However, I believe that you have to like and be truly interested in any subject that you are taking for senior cycle and therefore the teaching of science at both primary and Junior Certificate level needs to be done in a compelling and enthusiastic way as this is what will inspire our scientists of the future. Outreach activities supported by Tyndall and other institutes are crucial to the delivery of the primary school science programmes.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Study more at undergraduate level. You made the right choice in deciding to do a PhD in chemistry and it was probably as well that you didn’t have a very rigid view of what a career in science would entail as the world of science and technology has advanced so much in the past 20 years that you could not have imagined working on the projects that are currently running at Tyndall.

The most important thing to remember is that hopefully you will have a long career and loving what you do is what matters to ensure that you enjoy that time.