Niamh McNamara

PhD student, University of Edinburgh

And - Boston Scientific Corporation College bursary award winner


Seek out those who will help you nourish that passion.

What do you do?

I am studying brain regeneration and repair following injury to infant brain before, during or slightly after birth, which can result in a lifelong debilitating condition called cerebral palsy. Day to day, this involves identifying where the gaps in our knowledge are, asking specific questions to address these gaps, then coming up with and doing experiments to try and find answers to these questions. As well as the focused research project, a PhD involves broader learning and training in transferable skills, for example attending and presenting at seminars, teaching and supervising students, and outreach opportunities to engage the public in your research.

Why did you choose this field?

My interest in biomedical research largely stemmed from seeing my grandmother suffer with Parkinson’s Disease; I became particularly interested in neurodegenerative diseases and the idea that if we try and understand how the disease actually happens, what is going on at a deeper level, then we can design treatments aimed at promoting repair of the brain. In summer 2018, I was lucky enough to have the most amazing opportunity to volunteer at a rehabilitation camp for children with cerebral palsy in Uganda, and I became both fascinated by the condition and devastated at the lifelong impacts it has on a child and their family. This experience inspired me to pursue my PhD in brain repair in cerebral palsy so that I might be able to help contribute to research that may eventually lead to new treatments.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

I won the inaugural Boston Scientific Corporation college bursary award, which sought to select students based on their potential to pursue a successful career in STEM. I never for a second thought I would win; I just applied because my mother’s manifesto is “if you’re not in, you can’t win!”. I don’t think I realised to what extent at the time, but winning this award gave me so much confidence in my ability to succeed as a woman in science. As well as that, it gave me the opportunity to complete summer internships in the Research & Development department in the company, which provided me with invaluable experience and hugely helped me in gaining subsequent scholarships and opportunities, and ultimately, my place on my PhD programme.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love how dynamic it is! It requires you to draw on so many different skills. As a child I really loved arts and crafts and creative writing, and in a way I now get to harness some of that creativity in designing experiments and scientific writing. At the same time, you also require logic and problem-solving skills to try and delineate what’s the best approach to an experiment and what kind of results you might expect. Then you also have to learn to be an effective communicator so you can distil findings you have uncovered to other scientists, in and out of your field, and to the public. So I suppose I wake up looking forward to a day that might look completely different to the day previous!

Best advice for next generation?

Believe in yourself! I’m the first person in my entire family to have ever pursued science, and was the only one in my (albeit very small!) year in an all-girls school that wanted to be a scientist. But I was relatively unperturbed by these facts and figured I could do it anyway. I did have fantastic science teachers in school (all female!) who really encouraged my love for it, so I’d tell girls to seek out those who will help you nourish that passion and help you to grow as a scientist!

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

My Chemistry and Physics teacher in my last two years of secondary school, Ms Reynolds. She was such a phenomenal teacher and scientist and really helped encourage the process of scientific thought and reasoning, but she was also the one who made me realise that science had a lot of creativity to it as well. I was invited back to speak at a school graduation event when I was studying my undergraduate and, bearing in mind she was a woman who rarely expressed any sort of excitement, she came up to me afterwards beaming and exclaimed “ah my little scientist!!” And I felt so lucky to have made her that proud!

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