Where were you born?
I was born in county Dublin, Ireland. When I was a teenager, my family moved to a rural village in Co. Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland. I went to school in Tralee. I was never particularly good at languages, but I really enjoyed maths, so I decided to study science at Trinity College Dublin.
How did you become interested in science?
During my time at University, I went on holiday to Washington DC, where I visited the Air and Space Museum.
After a visit to the planetarium there, I was completely fascinated by the stars and space. In my third year, I was lucky enough to be selected to travel to the Kennedy Space Center as part of a program run by the Irish Government (the FAS Science Challenge). We took classes in space science, astrophysics and engineering, and participated in a project to build a weather balloon payload, designed to image the Earth from 20km.
After this experience, I really wanted to study space science. Here's a photo of me at the Hubble training facility in NASA/GSFC wearing astronaut gloves.
What are you working on now and where?
I’m now workin at the Space Sciences Laboratory in Berkeley, USA on the RHESSI mission. Before this I did research at Trinity College. I spent quite a bit of time at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, learning from experts there. This field has many perks, but for me, the biggest one is travel! This year alone I have travelled to Washington DC, Florida, Hawaii and Belgium, all in the name of science. For example, last summer I went to the Haleakala observatory in Hawaii, which is at 10,000 ft.
Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, Hawaii
Do you enjoy your work?
My work is really interesting. I study solar flares. During a solar flare, material can be heated up to more than 15 million degrees! Yes, I said a MILLION! It is my job to try to find out how the material cools back down. I use a special instrument called a spectrometer to do this. This lets me look at many different temperatures (or “colours”) at the same time. It is like shining white light through a prism to see all the colours of the rainbow. In the Sun’s case, the rainbow is not made up of visible light, but of ultraviolet light.
What do you do in your spare time?
In my spare time, I love playing traditional Irish music. I have been playing bagpipes since I was 11 years old (and have even played at a Solar Physics conference!). I also love traditional Irish Dancing. When I haven’t got my jig shoes on, I like to try to encourage young people to become interested in science.
I help to run open nights at the Dunsink Observatory in Castleknock, Dublin and I work in the Science Gallery in Trinity College at weekends. Something I would love to to, but have yet to get around to, is flying. Since I was a child, I have wanted to fly planes – big ones, small ones, it doesn’t matter. All of the travel that I am doing helps!
Here I am playing the bagpipes