Interviews with members of the MTU Postgraduate Research Education Community

MTU Graduate Studies Office collaborated with the Department of Media Communications to develop stories about postgraduate research education in MTU. Research can sometimes seem intangible and indefinable, so through this collaboration we aim to paint a clearer picture and provide insight into the what, the why and the impact of research education.

In this series, current students in the MA in Public Relations & New Media and MA in Journalism & Digital Content Creation tell the stories of research students, staff and alumni.

Interview with Professor John Barrett

by Dylan Morley, MA in Public Relations Student @dylanmor111, May 2022

Professor John Barrett, Head of Nimbus Research Centre in MTU, talks all this research, the importance of funding, why it is so important to the wider community and how we can make opportunities to study by reserach more accessible.

Prof. Barrett is a huge advocate of research. He believes research is core to human progress, especially with regards to technology. He describes research as being the generation of new knowledge.

“It could be anything from discovering a new state of quantum physics at the most fundamental level of research or new knowledge of, say, what brings a product to market, which would be at the opposite applied end of research. The research that is done in MTU largely has an application in mind. It is ultimately leading to something practical and useful for people and society.”

When it comes to his own research area, Prof. Barrett describes it as “digital smart technology applied to almost anything you can imagine. We take smart digital technology and we connect people and things to the internet and other areas like that. Looking at data collection, data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, wireless sensing, you name it. That broad spectrum of the modern digital world. However, we always keep in mind the potential impacts on people and society and we strive to make those impacts positive.”

Research and education always seemed the route that he was going to go down, rather than working in industry. “It was something that I preferred, rather than a career in industry. It just interested me more. I started out nearly 40 years ago and I haven’t regretted a minute of it. It is incredibly stimulating; you are always doing something that keeps your brain alive.”

Prof. Barrett is Director of the Nimbus Research Centre in MTU. This involves managing large research projects and 50 researchers, who encompass both full-time professional researchers and PhD students. “The team is split into two functions, those who primarily do longer-term research and those who do applied research projects for industry and transfer our research out to real-world applications. It is all in the areas of smart digital technology, particularly what we called the Internet of Things.”

Funding research is an issue that really hits home with Prof. Barrett, as it helped him to be where he is today. “I came out of college with a masters and PhD, and I literally could not have afforded to do this unless there was a scholarship. I would not be where I am today without having got those initial scholarships to pay my way. It is challenging to complete a PhD that lasts four years or more if you also have to work. Scholarships make a major difference as they allow students to conduct high quality research without the added stress of having a job at the same time”.

He highlights, however, that funding is become more difficult to obtain. “Winning funding for postgraduate research is becoming much more competitive as more and more research centres across Ireland and the EU are competing for a relatively limited pool of funding. ‘Excellent students with excellent supervisors in excellent research environments’ are needed to be competitive. MTU has a strong track record in winning competitive funding for research and we are developing strategy to continue that funding growth.”.

The reason why Prof. Barrett chose to come and work in MTU is simple. “MTU brought a better work/life balance. There is also a strong sense of collegiality in MTU and that is a characteristic that I hope we never lose,” he said.

This exchange between a current post-graduate student and one of our professors helps to highlight the importance of research and funding research to the benefit of not just academia but the positive impacts it can have on wider society. Prof. Barrett outlines the need for increased research funding, especially through scholarships for post-graduate students. He claims that the research helps to innovate, creating new jobs and making the world a safer place. He also outlines how MTU provides students and faculty with the right learning, teaching and research environment that enables people to excel within academia or in non-academic career paths.

Interview with Maeve O'Connell, PhD Student

by Róisín FitzGerald, MA in Public Relations Student, May 2022

Maeve O'Connell, PhD student, speaks about her journey into postgraduate research and how the Rísam scholarship made it all possible.

A lot of research had been carried out into a subject Maeve O’Connell was interested in, the effects of physical exercise on ageing -  but to a much lesser degree with nutrition.

As a healthcare student who had a keen interest in nutrition, it piqued Maeve’s interest when her lecturer approached her to consider a PhD to examine both nutritional and physical impacts on older adults. “One of my lecturers mentioned it to me, that she was going to do a particular project that I was working on and try to get funding for it and would I be interested. I looked at the proposal and thought that sounded perfect, especially with my nursing background.” 

“I was really lucky that it happened because otherwise I wouldn't have considered it.

Maeve explodes the myth of the lonely PhD student spending long hours doing solitary work. “There's a bit of a stigma there, but that’s not the case. Our department is the Biological Sciences and we are so lucky to have our own building, which is called the Create building. I think there must be 20 researchers based there. And it's actually very social.”

She stressed the importance of having the right frame of mind when approaching such a major life commitment. Having a positive outlook and being organised were essential for Maeve when it came to project managing the PhD. “It’s very important to have a healthy mindset and set your boundaries.”

The scholarship funding not only enabled Maeve to do the PhD, but funding timelines also placed a definite deadline to complete the entire project. The scholarship provided three years and three months of financing, and this was the motivation for her to complete her PhD within that timeframe. “I just knew, being a little bit older, that I couldn't be without money, so I put the skates on towards the end, as in I have to get this done. It's doable in three years.”

Practical reasons, such as paying for accommodation, also crystallised her decision in wanting to complete the PhD within the funding period. “I don't have family living up in Cork City. So, I was renting and that put pressure on me as well. I just didn't give myself a choice. I was like you have to get this done.”

MTU Cork’s Rísam scholarships are one of the options available to many of the PhD scholars. For Maeve this option worked well, however the process to be accepted into the scholarship programme is competitive. Maeve said: “They allocate a certain amount of funding to the Rísam PhD scholarships, there were five given out the year that I did it and that was more 50 applicants, so they are quite competitive. 

“They try to strike a good balance, as in they try not to have too many scholarships from one academic department. They look at the quality of your research proposal, your academic background, and maybe lecturers’ history as well. Of course, it must be important research that’s actually meaningful.  I was lucky to get one of those internal scholarships. They cover your fees; they give you a stipend to live off every month. And then they cover a certain amount of expenses on top of that as well.”

Maeve thinks one way that research postgraduate degrees could be made more attractive to applicants is by highlighting the opportunities for part-time academic work. Students then have the ability to supplement their income on campus. While she undertook her PhD, she she also had at least four hours a week of teaching lab work or tutorials and exam invigilation was also available.

Maeve feels that the scholarship programmes are vital to allow the research to happen and without the funding, the quality of the research may suffer as the studies being undertaken may be more rushed. It is possible that the greater good of society is influenced positively by the scholarship programme.

Maeve spoke about the positive benefits of research to humanity in further detail. “It leads us to develop solutions to problems and to questions we might have. It allows for the identification of markets, which leads to the development of products and services that we need that are beneficial to everybody. In my case it was the identification of health problems and the solutions to them.

“I identified some nutritional issues in our older population and then, through my research, I guided the development of initiatives to deal with these issues. Disease and mental health problems have been addressed and progressed through research.”

Companies should consider funding a PhD student, as invaluable information can be discovered if the research relates to their products. “It gives the company or organisation an opportunity to learn about their product or service and how effectively it performs. If you have a research student working with the company, they will usually attend scientific conferences that publish findings in research articles.…this can highlight what the company is doing, if their product or service is found to be effective, that it does what it's supposed to do - that's good marketing!”

Finally, there are pitfalls and disappointments associated with researching a PhD, particularly around getting one’s research published and the rejections a student will have to go through before finally getting into print. However, Maeve describes the rewards as one of the reasons to consider taking up a PhD at MTU Cork.

 “I find research very rewarding. In particular, when you come up with a new finding or when you get an article accepted in a journal, then it is very satisfying because you feel like you're contributing something to the area and you feel like you're doing something right and you're actually coming up with something new, which is very rewarding.”

A passion for Maeve O’Connell’s research subject sparked a complete change of direction in her life from studying nursing to becoming a full-time PhD student. Maeve is now a published author and researcher at UCC.

Anyone considering following Maeve O’Connell’s example and undertaking a PhD should visit this page on MTU Cork’s website for further information.

Interview with Aidan Duggan, PhD Student

by Dylan Morley, MA in Public Relations Student @dylanmor111, May 2022

Aidan Duggan, a PhD student researching artificial intelligence (AI) technology and an Advance CRT scholarship recipient, outlines what reserach means to him and the important role it plays in the wider community and society. 

Aidan Duggan is a huge proponent of research. He believes research is about investigating an issue and helping to solve that issue, or at least contributing to existing knowledge. “Research is really all about answering questions, about coming up with a very interesting question that has not been answered before and then trying to figure it out by spending the next year, or four years in my case, to answer it.

“Research is about pushing the boundaries of knowledge, finding out stuff that people do not already know and ultimately the output should be that you’re adding your piece to the knowledge community.”

Aidan is very passionate about his area of research. His PhD is about trying to use artificial intelligence on satellites in outer space. He says artificial intelligence is very good at processing data and analysing data. “It is a relatively old technique, it is around the same age as satellites, but it has not been used much on board satellites yet. There was lack of technology to support the use of artificial intelligence. My question is ‘can we use artificial intelligence techniques to process imagery on-board a satellite?’”

Having spent almost 20 years working in industry, Aidan decided to go back to college. He wasn’t challenged with his career and felt he needed a change of scenery. “I have a curious type of personality, an engineering brain. I got to a crossroads – I’d been working for a long time and I had got the good job and the titles, but I was bored. My career was just not doing it for me anymore. One day, I came across this Masters in Artificial Intelligence course in MTU and it was the first year of it. It immediately grabbed my attention and I thought that is what I want to do. I took to it like a duck to water and from there, I have not looked back.” 

As a current PhD student, Aidan describes the impact that research has on society as huge and believes it does not get enough publicity. “Research impacts everything we do at nearly every level, be that at undergraduate, masters or PhD. Technology progresses through research. For the impact that research has on society, it does not get enough press. You may only hear a snippet of information on the radio or TV every once in a while from an entrepreneur or a professor on the positives of research. When, in actuality, it has an enormous impact across the board.”

Research funding and scholarships made the decision for Aidan to go back to college a little easier than if he had had no funding. “If I did not have a scholarship, I may not have made the decision to pursue a career in research. It would have made the decision a lot harder, that is for sure.

“It helps that I am a bit further down the track in life, but for young people who have not got certain resources, it is going to make a huge difference. The stiped that I receive is €18,500 and while that is not going to make you any money, it provides you with enough to survive. To be able to focus on your education and research, so it makes all the difference.” 

Aidan thinks funding and scholarships should be made more accessible to research students. “Like research itself, the funding part is not very well publicised even though, it is a huge problem facing researchers and students all the time.”

“Funding and grants can bridge the gap by allowing people the opportunity to take on research projects and produce good quality research. From the funder’s point of view, like the Science Foundation Ireland in my case, they are building up their reputation and a huge knowledge base under their umbrella and that will pay dividends in the long run. 

The decision to choose to come back to MTU to study by research was an easy one for Aidan. He wanted to be one of the first people to get qualifications from the college when it was first Cork Regional Technical College (RTC), then Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), and now Munster Technological University (MTU). However, the standard of education was also a determining factor.

“To be honest, the quality of the lectures is what I think sets it apart from everywhere else. The staff are fantastic, and I could not imagine a better supervisory team for my PhD. Diversity also plays a significant part. The college has changed from when I did my undergraduate degree many moons ago, with people from all over world coming together to learn with and from each other. I think this is a real strength and asset for MTU,” he said. 

This interview highlights the importance of research within our academic institutions and how it can have a profound impact on society and our everyday lives. Through Aidan’s personal journey with the college from undergraduate to masters and now PhD level, we see the imprint that MTU has on individuals, their education, and their careers. We also see from Aidan how important it is to fund research, investing in researchers by offering them top-level scholarship opportunities, so they can conduct quality research that gives back to academia and advances society.


Interview with Dr Joe Harrington

by Maeve McTaggart, MA in Journalism and Digital Content Creation Student @maevemctaggart, March 2022

MTU’s School of Building and Civil Engineering is headed by Dr Joe Harrington, who talks scholarships, life-skills and the practical lessons learned through researching at MTU.

Everyday life is built on invention - and rarely our own. Without the equations created by strangers, how far could you get from your bed in the morning? How much space is saved in your brain by ignoring the seemingly mysterious mechanisms of how your food gets to the kitchen table? Thousands of miles before it reaches us, our food is being grown and nourished with fertiliser - another invention, one without which whole supply chains would grind to a halt. And to reach your home at all? It must be imported, travelling by ship into our harbours then docked and unloaded before reaching your closest supermarket. Have you ever thought of the many inventions that hold up our daily lives like this? Researchers at MTU have.

An essential ingredient in fertiliser is phosphorus, a finite resource whose European supply is imported primarily from North Africa. To run out, or to lose access to ‘P’, would disrupt food production across the globe. Finding a way to recover phosphorus from wastewater was a recent project of the School of Building and Civil Engineering and their more than 12 European partners. The resulting fertiliser is now used to grow plants in MTU laboratories and at a growing site on the MTU Bishopstown campus.

To reach us, our food travels down rivers like our own lovely Lee - the bed of which must be dredged to create the space and means for ships to enter the Port of Cork. Through his research into sediment matter in rivers and estuaries, Dr Joe Harrington informed the guide document that dictates how dredging is done. Without this process, no Irish shipping imports - some ninety percent of total goods that come into the country - could reach port.

The researcher and Head of the School of Building and Civil Engineering has been working at MTU for nearly thirty years, carrying out research and supervising students as they complete their postgraduate degrees and PhDs. In this time, he has observed what brings people to research, what students can learn and the impact research at MTU can have in Cork and beyond.

“Many of our projects now are international projects, where you’re not necessarily just working with people with a similar background or life experience to yourself. You’re learning from your team, from a diverse range of people, as much as you are from your research.”

The questions students solve within their fields can have a wider impact than just getting them their degree, it has implications for communities outside MTU too. “Students who work on larger projects develop an understanding that any problem or challenge is multifaceted and multi-dimensional,” Dr Harrington explains, “it may be a social problem or an environmental problem, it may have economic and social impacts for the local community.”

Often, research students from the School of Building and Civil Engineering will spend time in these communities, visiting harbour sites and buildings, interacting with workers at water plants and gaining knowledge beyond their project alone.

The School of Building and Civil Engineering works on a number of European projects and carries out research for various industry bodies and departments of the Irish Government. Their results can impact public policy and planning, or generate entirely new ways of thinking.

For researchers to achieve these outcomes however, the elephant in the laboratory is money: where to get it, how, and how much. “Securing funding is absolutely essential if you’re going to build a sustainable research programme,” Dr Harrington says, “there are no two ways about it.” Many research projects at the School of Building and Civil Engineering are internationally funded, by the EU or other bodies.

“Funding effectively pays the student, it gives the student a stipend to do the work and provides the money necessary to complete their research, it gets them to conferences for example” he says. MTU offers research scholarships that enable students to undertake questions and programmes “where there isn’t funding readily available nationally, when the work is relatively new, or the researcher is new.”

Dr Harrington understands these scholarships as symbiotic to innovation, to building new research and supporting those who wish to undertake it. It creates sustainable pathways for young researchers and allows them to focus on the task at hand, not whether there is enough money to achieve it.

There should be no barriers - especially financial - to research, as long as someone meets the basic criteria to enter the programme. Dr Harrington says: “research is about questioning, a student needs to be open-minded and inquisitive and from there, the rest will come to them.

“Academic intelligence is a given, but emotional intelligence allows students to work and empathise with a team, understanding that the practical skills learned are as important as ‘soft’ skills like communication.

When a student leaves MTU, that student comes out as a much more rounded individual, one who has developed personally and professionally over their research journey.

“There’s nothing better for your confidence than standing up at a conference somewhere in Europe to do a presentation in front of 200 people who are experts in their field, for example,” Dr Harrington says, painting a picture that is seventy-three percent of the population’s biggest fear. 

Presentation skills go deeper than just how to compile slides and the practical skills students learn also teach life lessons that go beyond their research questions, like how to overcome fears of public speaking, or how to get out of your comfort zone. 

While students learn to push through hard times, the times Dr Harrington describes as “when you don’t think you can see the wood for the trees,” it is passion and an open mind that will get them through. Even if those trees are a crowd of two-hundred experts at a European conference, it is their love for their research that will get students through.

Article featured in EXPLICIT Volume 23, MTU Cork Students' Union Magazine

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