Alumni Spotlight

Michael Coughlan - Applied Mathematician

4 Oct
Michael Coughlan

In a week when space has been at the forefront of everybody’s minds thanks to Elon Musk and his Mars plans, meet our graduate of the week, Michael Coughlan. While completing his Masters, Michael Coughlan and his team helped to solve a conundrum which has been plaguing researchers for years: the location of iron rich meteorites in the Antarctic. He is currently working towards a D.Phil (PhD) in Applied Mathematics at the University of Oxford at the Environmental Research DTP (Doctoral training partnership).

Course studied in UCC

I did a B.Sc. in Physics.

Best memory of UCC

I fell asleep once during a seminar. When I woke up I noticed that the post-doctoral researcher sitting on my left, and the professor (my academic supervisor for my final year project) sitting on my left were also asleep. I found it hilarious and realised then that even those at the top of academia are still human, and that really, we don't change much.

How has your time at UCC helped you to get to where you are now?

I found UCC to be a very social and diverse university, and my time there really taught me how to work and cooperate with others and how to network effectively and more importantly, easily and casually. Physics was intense. It taught me how to think critically and independently, and to be adaptable. It also gave me the skills to learn deeply in any field and gave me skills that are invaluable in research - particularly mathematics, coding, and experimental skills.

What is your advice to current UCC students

There's a great quote from a past dean of physics in Columbia: "you can learn an awful lot in college if you decide you don't have to get A's". College is a period when you can try a myriad of different things outside of just coursework that both develop useful skills and are a lot of fun, from media to politics to event management. Importantly, you can make a complete mess of these in college without harsh consequences. These mistakes are what make you good at things. I would tell students to take some risks and make mistakes while the stakes are still very low. That's where you learn the more important lessons.

What person/people at UCC had the most positive influence on you?

I would have to say my classmates, who still influence me. We were a work hard - play hard group of people in college who could have deep and entertaining conversations ranging from science to embarrassing drinking stories to conspiracy theories about faculty members being shape-shifting lizards. Many have continued in academia to become great scientists. They have kept me interested and motivated as a scientist and created the most entertaining nights out that I've ever had.

Were you involved in any Clubs and Societies

I was involved in the Tradsoc as a musician. Cork has a thriving music scene comparable to any great city in the world. I was heavily involved in the canoe club, where I made lifelong friends and had some of the greatest adventures of a lifetime, while simultaneously learning some of my most profound and important lessons so far. Also some of the parties were insane. Since graduating I've remained active in the club when I'm back in Ireland. I've also contributed and guest hosted "Black Holes and Revelations", a science program on UCC radio with a few of my classmates from physics.

Favourite UCC legend or superstition

I heard an urban legend early in my degree that the basement of the Kane building was full of nuclear waste, left over from an era when the American government was encouraging research into small scale nuclear energy generation at UCC. I found out towards the end of my degree that at least the first part of the legend was true. Fortunately the last of it was disposed of around the time that I graduated.

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