School of Chemistry staff and students tell us their story, and the influence and implementation Athena SWAN in the school and in the university, has had on their careers.
Dr. Gillian Collins - Lecturer in Physical Chemistry
I started working as a researcher within the School in 2011 and worked in a highly productive research environment with balanced representation of both male and female researchers. Personally, I never felt that gender would be a barrier to career progression, although this perspective changed at the juncture where career and parenthood met.
In 2017 after returning from maternity leave, I was appointed to a lectureship position in Physical Chemistry, which provided greater opportunities for career advancement and enabled me to diversify my skills. Returning to work after the long absence of maternity leave, establishing a new work-life dynamic and also taking up a new role were all well supported. The School facilitated a flexible return to work and I benefited from specific actions implemented through Athena SWAN. The Academic Returners Scheme allowed me to employ a research assistant to conduct laboratory experiments, which was helpful to make up for lost research output. I found practical policies such as ‘keep-in-touch days’ useful as they appreciate the realistic necessity to do some aspects of work while on maternity leave, but this time could be recouped and added on to my maternity leave. Senior staff were very supportive both in terms of providing advice and guidance in my new role as a lecturer and accommodating to childcare commitments.
Athena SWAN has created a more concrete framework around how to encourage positive working practices, for example ensuring that key meetings are scheduled within core working hours. The School is supported within the wider University, in particular I benefit from the convenience of the on-campus crèche facility. Returning to work from my second maternity leave in 2020 was a very different experience against the backdrop of the pandemic. It was clear to me that the ongoing activities of the Athena SWAN initiative fed into greater awareness of our home and work responsibilities, which at times became intertwined and severely hindered my ability to work productively. I received excellent support from the School such as the absolute necessity for flexible working.
An important aspect of seeing the implementation of Athena SWAN within the School, and University in general, is to create a more balanced workplace culture. This is quite relevant to our School as the academic staff are predominantly male. I think Athena SWAN has made an impact on cultivating long term positive change within the School over the years. There is continual dialogue from the committee to staff regarding activities, upcoming events etc. reinforcing not just gender-based issues but diversity in the wider sense, and this is contributing towards achieving a more inclusive work environment which values varied perspectives
Ms. Kasia Pyrz - Senior Executive Assistant
I am a graduate of Polish Philology from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland and emigrated to Ireland in 2002. In 2010 I graduated as BA Honours of Fine Art and Design at the CIT Crawford College of Art. In 2013 I achieved a Higher Diploma in Applied Psychology in UCC and won a PhD scholarship funded by the School of Medicine. Between 2013 and 2017 I was a researcher with an EU-funded transdisciplinary consortium iFAAM (Integrated Approaches to Food Allergy and Allergen Management). In 2017, I started to work as a member of Professional and Support Services (PSS); my current role is that of a Senior Executive Assistant in the School of Chemistry. Simultaneously, and with the support of the School, in 2020 I reregistered to finalise my PhD studies. Outside of work, I parent two children. In 2010 my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome; I have been attending to his additional educational needs and advocating for him since.
The Athena SWAN Charter has given me the language and opportunities to voice ideas and concerns around topics such as workload, well-being, flexible working hours, inclusion, and much more. Beyond conversations, my participation in the School’s SAT empowered me with insightful data and actionable goals. Far from being intangible, the Charter enables me to expect, and to influence the impact and implementation of policies and actions. As a full-time employee, a single parent, a carer, and a mature student, my flexibility needs tend to exceed the flexi-leave policy measures, which are currently available within this Institution. As a member of PSS, I cannot avail of the informal time management autonomy available to other colleagues so the benefit of a higher degree of flexibility and support within my working environment is of paramount significance to me. It as a necessary precondition for my fulfillment of overlapping and complex roles, rather than for the sole acquisition of a healthy work-life balance.
I recognize the existence of systemic structural challenges, at both institutional and national levels; in the face of such impediments, I applaud the School for its critical self-evaluation. While still at an early stage of the journey, its sustained focus on obtaining tangible improvements in terms of equality and gender balance has brought benefits to my career.
The School’s recognised prevailing culture of inclusivity and openness (Athena SWAN Bronze Award, 2018) was already evident when I joined in 2017. Belonging to a minority (one of two PSS having English as a second language), no occasion left me feeling as different. On the contrary, my diverse talents and pursuits were cherished and supported by my colleagues and line manager. In 2018, I led the School to a win in an all-University Well-being in the Workplace competition, during the National Workplace Wellbeing Day, for the promotion of a positive and supportive working environment. In 2021, during the pandemic and while working remotely, I have developed and facilitated a series of online art classes that highlighted various challenges of students and staff with disabilities. This initiative has seen me receiving an award at the UCC 4th Annual Athena SWAN President’s Symposium for the first place in Staff Category in the EDI Creative Narratives. Once again, I gained confidence and drive from a culture that believed in the talent and importance of my actions regardless of origin, gender, or employment seniority/status.
Furthermore, having identified leadership as my main growth need, I was actively supported in achieving a digital badge in the First Steps to Management programme (2020), and in becoming a Lead Worker in the School’s COVID Management Team (2020).
The School’s informal policies of flexible working hours, and of holding all meetings in core hours help address real-life issues as experienced by parents and carers, especially in unprecedented times of the full-time caregiving and homeschooling during the pandemic. The School has recently supported my resumption of a part-time PhD registration.
I look forward to further use of the Charter’s remit and the SAT’s action plan as forces for genuine change. My story is just a sample and a promise of what could be achieved, should greater recognition of needs, and degrees of flexibility and support become established as a foundation of work relations concerning all professional groups in the University.
Dr. Ryan Alam - PhD Graduate in Pharmaceutical Chemistry
How did your education to date lead to your current degree programme?
After completing my Leaving Certificate in 2009, I undertook a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI). During this formative time I developed a strong interest in the chemistry of pharmaceutical compounds. Thus, following on from my formal qualification and registration with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI) as a pharmacist in 2014, I obtained a Masters degree focusing on the Analysis of Pharmaceutical Compounds at University College Cork (UCC, 2016). On reflection, I strongly believe that the research component of my Masters degree reaffirmed my keen interest in chemical research and emboldened me to subsequently pursue a PhD in Chemistry.
What does a typical day in the life of a student look like?
As a student my day consistently begins first and foremost with a cup of coffee! Thereafter, I spend a lot of my time in the laboratory where I set up chemical reactions and attempt to isolate and analyse any resulting reaction products to confirm their chemical identity and purity. When I am not actively working in the laboratory, I mostly read the chemical literature (especially when troubleshooting an issue that I might be having with my work!). Apart from my own research endeavours, I also demonstrate practical laboratory sessions for undergraduate students in the Chemical Sciences and related disciplines.
What do you enjoy most about your course and Chemistry in general?
Nature has evolved over millions of years to develop systems that are capable of elegantly utilising the simplest of chemical building blocks to create molecules that possess exquisite structural complexity which serve as a major driving force for creativity in chemical synthesis. As an aspiring organic chemist, Nature’s near effortless approach toward the assembly of what are often exceptionally intricate molecules never ceases to amaze me. I think that the creativity and freedom organic synthesis affords me as a researcher is what I enjoy above all else.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
If I had an opportunity to give my younger self advice, I would tell myself to “get involved” and “always try to say yes”. Having a willingness to push the boundaries and go outside your comfort zone can go a long way in helping you to develop on both a personal and professional level.
What were the most significant challenges/difficulties you faced and how did you overcome this?
One of the most significant challenges that I faced when I decided to pursue a PhD in Chemistry was obtaining funding for my research, as I knew very little about the practical aspects of this key process at the time. Thus, to remedy this shortcoming I made every effort to speak with academic staff and researchers who had previously engaged in this process. With their help I was able to identify a suitable funding stream, prepare an application, and successfully acquire the essential funding that I required to carry out my research.
Without a doubt I very much enjoyed my PhD. However, there were times during this period that were quite trying. For example, when a specific chemical reaction was not playing ball and/or the purification of a reaction product proved nigh impossible! In retrospect, I think having a good support network (including but not restricted to my research supervisor, colleagues, and friends) in and outside of the laboratory was essential!
Good Practice - Accessible Laboratory
Laboratory practice is an essential component in the education of science and in particular the discipline of chemistry. Indeed, the practice of chemistry in a laboratory setting is an essential element of the accreditation of our degree programmes by the Royal Society of Chemistry. In the School of Chemistry, students participate and experience the world of real-life chemistry through experimentation in our laboratories. However, on a survey of our practice it became evident that access to the laboratory was limited for some students. This good practice case study showcases the School of Chemistry commitment to Equality Diversity and Inclusion in the survey, design, funding and installation of the first wheelchair accessible chemistry laboratory space for use by undergraduates.
The School of Chemistry offers the practice of chemistry for ca. 900 students in a laboratory setting each year. Despite this number, we identified a gap in that we were unable to cater for students with reduced mobility. Furthermore, the lack of specialist facilities has likely deterred students with disabilities from applying for our degree programmes.
A new lab space was designed through consultation with published literature for best practice and implemented through consultation with Buildings & Estates and the technical team in the School of Chemistry responsible for the space (Dr. Aoife O’Sullivan, Dr. Ian O’Connor and Dr. Tom O’Mahony). Funding for the project (€16,277) was sourced by Dr. Ger McGlacken through the Disability Support Service at UCC and the project was delivered for the start of the 2022-23 academic term.
The School can now offer the full laboratory experience using a custom laboratory bench, sink and air extraction system which is wheelchair friendly and will have a legacy for years. It is our hope that this will encourage Diversity and Inclusion and is a direct example of the Schools commitment to the principles of Equality Diversity and Inclusion.
Impact: The lab space is now complete with lowered bench and plumbing, along with a mobile extraction unit. This intervention opens the avenue for more students to experience the practice of chemistry.
Scoil na Ceimic
University College Cork,