STEMM Profile: Associate Professor Muireann Irish | ARC Future Fellow | Brain and Mind Centre and School of Psychology | The University of Sydney | Sydney | NSW

Muireann with team
Associate Professor Muireann Irish with her team [Image: University of Sydney]
“Everyone’s academic journey will be different and it can be extremely damaging to constantly hold yourself up for comparison to others”

Muireann Irish is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Psychology at the Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney. Originally from Ireland, Muireann completed a Bachelor degree in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, then a PhD in Cognitive Neuropsychology before relocating to Australia in 2010.

Since then, Muireann has produced more than 75 publications and has received over $2.5million in competitive funding from such sources as the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, The Brain Foundation, and Alzheimer’s Australia.

Muireann’s research focus is the cognitive neuroscience of memory. She has always been interested in how we remember the past, however, it was her grandmother’s experience of Alzheimer’s disease which prompted her to specialise in exploring memory changes in dementia. Ultimately, she hopes her research will inform the development of new interventions to improve quality of life and wellbeing in dementia.

The quality of Muireann’s work has led to her being awarded a number of prestigious awards including a 2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award, the 2016 NSW Premier’s Prize – Early Career Researcher of the Year; 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO International Rising Talent Award. She is committed to the promotion and retention of women in science and was recently named as one of 30 ‘Superstars of STEM’ to provide positive role models to young girls to pursue a career in science.

What would you say is your most valuable personal attribute that has helped you succeed?

Ever since I was a child, I have always been extremely determined. My father always comments that I would never let a new skill beat me, even if it meant falling multiple times, I would eventually master the task. I think this determination has been a key factor in me succeeding in my field – scientific research inevitably contains low points but without these challenges we wouldn’t appreciate the victories when they come along.

If you have had a career disruption, how did you manage to stay productive during this time – what helped you the most?

My little boy Fionn was born in 2014 and I took 6 months of maternity leave. This was a wonderful time but also quite stressful as I was so conscious of maintaining momentum in my research that I found it difficult to switch off entirely. I would regularly check emails and try to stay on top of various projects that I was involved in. In hindsight, I regret not allowing myself the space and time to enjoy my maternity leave more and now that I am facing into my second period of maternity leave (due in May 2018) I plan to approach this very differently.

What are you most proud of in your STEMM career?

While I have attained a number of prestigious awards that I am extremely proud of, I think the most pivotal moment in my career to date was my securing a continuing position as Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. This appointment occurred much earlier than I had ever anticipated (~6.5 years post-doc) and I felt that I had emerged victorious on the other side of the leaky pipeline.

What advice would you give early career researchers – especially women – in science today?

I think it’s important to realise that we can all play an active role in shaping our careers. Women tend to be particularly risk averse but some of my riskiest projects have been my greatest successes, so I always advise women to step outside their comfort zone and to take risks. Also, I strongly advise keeping the lines of communication open with your supervisors – set aside time to talk about your career goals and aspirations, and volunteer for opportunities even if they frighten you. These are the best ones!

How can we change the scientific work culture to improve work/life balance?

For me, it’s all about productivity and not hours punched in. I have never been a fan of “presenteeism” – I try to play to my strengths and maximise my productivity by working from home regularly. Similarly, I extend this flexibility to my students. We all have different working styles and I think we need to encourage more flexibility within the academic system to facilitate this.

How do you cope with loss or rejection (e.g. rejected papers, non-funded grants, loss of personnel)?

When I first started as a postdoc, I was plagued by self-doubt and took the sting of rejection very close to heart. Over the years, however, this has definitely eased and I can now draw a sharp distinction between the rejection of a paper and my own personal worth. Rejections merely reflect the fact that the paper may not have been appropriate for the chosen journal, or the grant idea may not have been sufficiently worked up. If we want to produce the best scientific outcomes possible, then we need to embrace the constructive criticism of our peers and understand that rejection of work is not a reflection on you as a person.

If at times your confidence is a little shaky, where do you turn?

I think all scientists need supportive networks to discuss the ups and down of academia. In 2017, I was extremely fortunate to be selected as 1 of the 30 inaugural “Superstars of STEM” – a program run by Science & Technology Australia to promote the visibility of female scientists in the media. Over the last 6 months, the Superstars cohort has formed an incredibly tight bond – we check in regularly with each other, share our highs and lows, and turn to each other for advice. It is akin to have 29 cheerleaders to turn to for affirmation and support.

Self-awareness is also crucial – if I am starting to doubt myself or if imposter syndrome begins to creep in, then it is a signal that I am not taking appropriate care of myself in other domains. This may mean taking a day off, getting more sleep, spending time with my family, and just stepping back from work to recharge mentally and physically.

What is the most important advice you have ever been given?

The best piece of advice I ever received is very simple, “Stop comparing yourself to others”. This is such an important principle to abide by in all aspects of life. Everyone’s academic journey will be different and it can be extremely damaging to constantly hold yourself up for comparison to others.

Do you mentor others? How do you manage your time to ensure you can efficiently and effectively mentor?

I am actively involved in mentoring PhD students and postdocs, in a formal and informal capacity, as well as sponsoring individuals when suitable opportunities arise. I schedule regular meetings, either in person or via Skype, that are typically centred around a topic of interest, e.g., work-life balance, career planning, outreach. I also set aside time to review grant or promotion applications, to include ECRs in conference symposia, and to recommend ECRs for positions or talks. These are all the things that were so helpful for me when I was first starting out as a postdoc and I get a great sense of satisfaction in seeing the opportunities going to enthusiastic and capable students.

What inspired you to do science? Have you always liked science?

I grew up in a house that placed a strong emphasis on learning and discovery. My mother was a Science teacher and my Dad was an Art teacher so our bookcases were full of beautiful collections of books on the human body, art, architecture, sculpture, and history, as well as a set of intricately bound encyclopaedias that I regularly consulted. For my 11th birthday, my Dad presented me with my own encyclopaedia which I absolutely loved – I immediately started researching projects on any topic that interested me from snakes to space travel and Greek mythology.

When I was 17 my Grandmother was diagnosed with dementia and I desperately wanted to understand what was happening to her and how I could help. I decided to study Psychology at university and conducted my honours dissertation on the use of music to ameliorate memory deficits in dementia. What began as a curiosity to discover has led to me finding my true calling as a scientist on a topic for which I have a personal passion.

Twitter: @Muireann_Irish

LinkedIn: Muireann Irish

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