Experience of a plant scientist analysing complex human data

By Astrid Wingler, Professor of Plant Biology and Chair of Self-Assessment Team, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES)

Professor Astrid Wingler, BEES

Writing a departmental Athena SWAN application requires in-depth data analysis on diverse aspects, such as staff recruitment, career progression and student degree attainment. As scientists, we’re used to dealing with lots of numbers in large Excel spreadsheets, so all of this should be easy; but things did not turn out as straightforward as expected.

There was a lot I had to learn about School of BEES and UCC, especially as I’ve only been here two years and the procedures at UCC still confuse me. For example, it turned out that the students on the nine different undergraduate BSc programmes we offer in BEES are registered using 21 (!) different degree codes. I would never have been able to work this out myself, and I am grateful for the patient support provided by the Systems Administration Office.

 All data for the application have to be gender disaggregated, but how does one decide who’s “female” and who’s “male”? Am I really dealing with “gender” here, or are we just making assumptions about a person’s sex based on their name? As a plant scientist, I’m not used to dealing with gender issues, and I’m feeling slightly uneasy about having to pigeonhole humans according to assumed gender.

Plant Science staff and students at Tozer Seeds as part of a field course earlier this year (https://www.ucc.ie/en/bees/news/plant-science-london-field-course.html)

I also learn that staff questionnaires and the questions asked in focus group discussions need “ethics approval”. Well, I’m used to considering biological safety issues, but questions of morality rarely arise when I’m doing experiments with plants. All questionnaire responses need to be anonymised, which isn’t necessarily that easy. How can the responses be presented accurately and without hiding important statements, while also ensuring that individuals cannot be identified? And how does one present the responses that cannot be summarised as numbers to provide an accurate reflection of the “culture” in our School? I’m trained to focus on numbers and to make simple statements using scientific language backed up by statistical analysis. So how does one describe “culture” and does this really matter?


As my head starts to smoke, I ask myself what motivated me to get involved in Athena SWAN. I realise that it’s not numbers that drive me, but the desire to improve the experience of students and staff, whatever gender they may be. Behind those numbers hide very personal stories of success and achievement, but also of frustration and failure. The numbers are just the starting point to get us thinking: What kind of support does a student need who worries about career prospects? What impact does maternity have on the career of a researcher? How does a colleague cope with having to look after children or elderly parents, in addition to having a huge teaching workload?

I assume that thinking about all of this is an important first step, and that by trying to find solutions to the issues raised as a result of our Athena SWAN application we show that “culture” really does matter to us in the School of BEES!

Dr Ann Kelleher, Inspiring Women @ Tyndall 2017

Ann Kelleher needs little introduction.  A UCC doctoral graduate in electrical engineering from Co. Cork, she took a hiatus early in her academic career to get some industrial experience.  She is still on that hiatus, 20-odd years later, and is now corporate vice president and general manager of the Technology and Manufacturing Group at Intel Corporation.

Recently, as part of the Inspiring Women@Tyndall series, she spoke about her journey from Co. Cork schoolgirl to Intel VP, and outlined some key lessons learned along the way:

  • Diversity and inclusion are critical, from both moral and business perspectives, and are a legal imperative, but meeting the legal requirements ought to be a baseline, not an aim.
  • Never give up – persistence wins. Conquer your shyness to get the job done.
  • Start from a point of positivity, where everything is possible. A negative viewpoint will only hold you back.
  • Focus on what you can control.
  • Be heard – your opinion matters. Find your own way of having your voice heard (and it’s not simply talking louder).
  • Rather than focussing on your flaws, look for where you shine.
  • Know yourself – your core values, your strengths and weakness, your attributes.
  • It’s all about (working) relationships: build your ‘emotional bank account’, be kind, be helpful. It is okay to ask for help.

And she finished with some words that have inspired her:

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” George Bernard Shaw

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Buckminster Fuller

Inspirefest 2017

UCC Athena SWAN’s administrator Anne Marie Curtin attended Day One of Inspirefest 2017.

How We Learn and New Pedagogies.  Tech and Society.  Surviving Fake News.  Games, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.  These were some of the topics to be covered on day one of Inspirefest 2017.

The format was a mix of fire-side chats and talks.  The first fireside chat, which took place just before the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD addressed the audience, was with Dr France A Córdova, Director, National Science Foundation.  She wove a wonderful tale of relentless upward movement through the ranks but made it sound effortless – being invited to head this, asked to direct that – it was quite magical.  And behind the affable exterior, you could sense the towering intellect, depth of understanding of her subject matter, professional brilliance and invaluable curiosity that had facilitated this.  As she said: “If you don’t have curiosity, you don’t pursue knowledge deeply.”

In Tech & Society, Dr Michelle Cullen of Accenture, who brought us ‘Women on Walls’, reminded us of the stark reality that ‘we become so used to inequality we don’t see it’, that the 1937 Constitution of Ireland “erased with the stroke of a pen” the inclusivity & visibility of women, that “visibility matters.”

Multiple speakers came and went, filling the space with ideas, advice and innovation.  A fireside chat between Raju Narisetti, CEO, Gizmodo Media, Anne-Marie Tomchak, UK editor, Mashable and John Kennedy, editor, Silicon Republic advised that the way to survive fake news is, at its most basic, to read the article first.  They advised that the way to be able to tell the difference between good and bad journalism is to educate yourself, and to do so outside of your comfort zone, to explore beyond the confines of your personal ‘bubble’, and to be wary of reinforcing your biases – intentionally broaden your horizons and challenge your beliefs.

And DEBRA Ireland reminded us why we do all this research – to simply make someone’s life a better place to be.

The speakers showed criss-crossing professional paths linked by two things – passion for their craft and determination to find a path: the communicator and performance artist who is on the road to becoming an astronaut (Niamh Shaw), the ballet dancer who became a bioengineer and then brought science and the arts together yet further through the creation of Raw Science TV (Keri Kukral), the journalist who loved both gaming and storytelling so much she became lead writer for Tomb Raider (Rhianna Pratchett), or the soft robotics engineer who learned to use a sewing machine to make a life-saving heart cuff to prevent strokes (Ellen Roche).

Lessons learnt?  Diversity is key, be it diverse paths in a career, diverse sources of information or diverse views around a table.  As David Moloney, Director Of Machine Vision Technology, Intel Corporation put it, “Bias is our single greatest challenge… diversity is our greatest ally.”  Inclusivity is equally important and must be practiced by all; we must as individuals take responsibility for change.  To quote Michelle Cullen, “Inclusion starts with I.”  Curiosity is absolutely vital, and you must be determined, courageous and unafraid of failure, for, to paraphrase Eimear Noone, conductor and composer for World of Warcraft, you cannot be good at something without first being very, very bad at it.

But let us end at the beginning, with the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, who said “Greater diversity makes for a stronger science and technology sector. … Let us hope that events like Inspirefest will continue to inspire us to wonder.”