What is your scientific background?
I chose to study Psychology through Science in UCD. I then went on to complete a Research Masters degree in UCD with Professor Aidan Moran as my supervisor. I researched ‘Cognitive Styles and Cognitive Strategies in Track and Field Athletes’ for my MSc research thesis. I’m a former Irish track and field sprinter too and one of my little claims to fame is that I still hold the Irish U13, female 60m indoor sprint record! So I was naturally drawn to study ‘my own kind’, namely, track and field athletes, for my Master’s research project. For my Ph.D., again supervised by Prof. Moran, I examined the ‘Psychological Understanding of, and Responses to, Sports Injuries in Elite Athletes’. I tested athletes from a number of team and individual sports for my Ph.D., both team and individual athletes, those who were and who were not injured. The psychological impact of injury on athletes’ mental states is something I remain very interested in too. I had a number of injuries during my sprinting career. I also had a serious illness episode 5 years ago, so I can absolutely say I’ve experienced directly the impact illness and injury can have on a person, both physically and mentally, and how the psychology of understanding it is so important, especially, in my opinion, for me in my applied work as a sport psychologist, in order to be able to best advise the athletes I work with now too who are also often injured etc.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
I was very lucky to have some great science teachers in my secondary school, Mount Temple Comprehensive in Dublin (yes, where U2 went to school too!). Mr. Randal Henly, my chemistry teacher, and Mr. Jonathon Shackleton, my biology teacher, were both passionate about their disciplines. Mr. Henly wrote chemistry books and one of his texts was the main text for the Leaving Certificate, our state examination. I always thought it was cool to have the author as our teacher! Mr. Shackleton was the cousin of the famous explorer, Ernest Shackleton, so that was a nice connection too. I also had a fantastic family friend, who was our General Practitioner, Dr. Tom Elliott, who ignited a great interest in psychology and medicine in me from an early age. When I went to college in University College Dublin (UCD) I placed Science as one of my top two course choices of study on my college application form, so that I could study Psychology through the Science pathway in UCD at that time. Unfortunately, that is not an option for undergraduate students now in UCD. I had some excellent lecturers in UCD too, with Professor Aidan Moran being the most influential of them on my science and psychology career. I call him my ‘Academic Dad’. He was, and continues to be, a great mentor and friend of mine, advising me on all aspects of my psychology, and especially my sport psychology, career. Finally, I could not leave out my big sister, Trish (Dr. Patricia Hurley). She is four years my senior and she also opted to study Science in UCD, completing a joint honours degree in Pharmacology and Genetics. So, from a female point of view, I would have to say she was perhaps the one who influenced my decision to work in the area of science the most. She remains my top ‘go-to’ female today too. We are very close. I ‘majored’ in Psychology for my BSc undergraduate degree, but I also ‘minored’ in Pharmacology and still have a great interest in the whole area of psychopharmacology to this day.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I was lucky in the early part of my life to have some fantastic mentors and teachers, as well as close family members and friends who ignited a passion in me for research and data analysis, critical thinking, problem-solving and just a general interest and curiosity in people and their behaviour. I saw the ‘sciencific pathway’ as the best option for me to explore those early passions, allowing them to grow and ultimately allowing me to forge a successful career path. I’m confident I made the right decision (although the field of Law was a real possibility too as I actually placed it as my top academic course choice on my college application form! – but then, I now see Law and Psychology as having a lot of things in common too – I believe Law is a type of science as well!).
How did you choose your field of study?
I would have to say that my family friend, Dr. Tom Elliott mentioned above (TJ to us as kids) and Prof. Moran really helped me to decide upon Psychology ultimately as the field I wanted to spend my working life in. I like to think they saw the ‘Psychologist’ in me long before I did, or even before I knew what a Psychologist or Sport Psychologist actually did. I’m a chatter-box (my Dad always says I could talk for Ireland, as well as having run for Ireland!) and I was always asking questions-I still do! That questioning quality is important for a scientist of any kind to have, in my opinion.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
At the moment I am working on a number of topics in my specialty field of Sport Psychology. I have recently become very interested in the area of Resilience Training. I see it as a better way to help athletes develop their mental skills in order to cope with the challenges that a career in sport and performance presents – better than advising them to be ‘mentally tough or strong’ in my opinion, for example, because life presents us with difficult situations all the time and being able to talk about how we feel and, yes, crying at times, if that helps, should be encouraged, rather than having athletes, males especially, being presented as ‘weak’ for doing such things. The ability to overcome barriers, reassess goals in times of failure, seeking out social support, asking for help and being willing to try other ways of doing things are all considered characteristics of being resilient and should be applauded. A number of my sport psychology colleagues in the UK are working extensively in this area of resilience, such as Dr. Mustafa Sarkar and I am excited to see what the research in this area of psychology uncovers in the future.
I am also passionate about my work in the area of sports injuries in athletes, and retirement issues too, that can arise after a life spent as a professional athlete. Such challenges and transition periods can be very difficult for athletes to cope with. They can impact on their mental health and wellbeing. I would like to think that these are the areas in which I can make a difference in the future through my work and research too.
I am also currently writing a book, the first text to combine the areas of sport psychology and cyberpsychology. The potential impact of technology, such as virtual reality, and social media, for example, on athletes’ preparations for elite sport performance is an area where little research is being carried out. However, new technological developments play huge roles in athletes’ lives today. The whole area of technology and the impact of the digital age on human behaviour and performance interests me very much. We are all impacted on by new technologies. As a sport psychologist, I want to be able to understand this field in order to use that knowledge to inform the undergraduate students I lecture in the field of Sport and Performance Psychology about it, as well as being able to advise them on areas for their own research projects. I also lecture Research Methods and Statistics (RMS) in my position as an Assistant Professor in The Institute of Art, Design, and Technology (IADT) in Dun Laoghaire in Dublin, Ireland. Lecturing in any area requires that you keep up-to-date on the latest research in that field and in this regard, lecturing RMS means I have to remain up-to-date in the latest research methodologies and data analyses used to gather data, as well as how to communicate the findings to as wide an audience as is possible. My lecturing preparation work also informs my own research projects then too, so it is a win-win scenario for me really.
What are your biggest achievements, and what are your biggest failures?
My biggest achievements to date are: (i) successfully completing my Ph.D. – Being awarded the title of ‘Doctor’ in your field of study is something very rewarding and a special ‘club’ to become a part of; (ii) I also consider achieving my Chartered status as a Psychologist within our Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) as a great achievement in my career to date, as well as, (iii) being awarded accredited status as a Sport Psychologist by Sport Ireland.
On a personal note, in 2015, I hosted a television recording in IADT’s National Film School television studio. The program was on ‘Building Resilience: Lessons from elite athletes’. Four well-known retired Irish athletes from the sports of Rugby, Soccer and Gaelic Football came into our TV studio in IADT and discussed their mental health issues during their careers, and how they have learned from these situations to become more resilient in their lives today. I had never organised or hosted such a live television program and it was a real challenge for me to learn all the things I need to say and do in order for the project to proceed successfully. I was pushed right to the edge of my comfort zone with it, but ultimately I loved every minute of being on-screen and have hosted a number of similar panel discussions in these key areas in sport psychology since. I really enjoy being involved in such projects.
Regarding failures, well, failure for me is not really that big an issue anymore. I have learned in recent years to see situations that do not have the successful outcome I had hoped for as a way to learn and do better next time. I cannot say there is really a ‘stand-out’ major failure moment in my science career to date. I guess if I was forced to highlighted one, I could mention not achieving my honour grade in Psychology at the end of my second year of undergraduate study in UCD as one (I missed it by 1 percent and thought, ’That’s just cruel’, at the time!). As a result, I had to repeat all of my exams, not just the Psychology ones (i.e., my Pharmacology and Maths ones too!) in order to achieve my honour in Psychology, in one sitting, which was the requirement in order to ‘Major’ in Psychology in UCD. The summer I gave up to sit those Autumn exams, having not failed any of the exams in the Summer sitting in the first place, was a real test of MY resilience (especially as we had a heat wave in Ireland that summer too!). But I used the experience to really learn how to study properly for third level education and how to write better exam questions too. The following year, I was top of my class for my third year Psychology Summer exam results, so it was a definitely a lesson well worth learning!
What is a typical day like for you?
In my job, there is no such thing really as a ‘typical day’. They all vary and that’s what I love about them! But I guess, typically, I start each day by satisfying ‘the athlete in me’, by doing some kind of exercise. I might do some sprint intervals on the treadmill in the gym, or a spin/aerobics class, something to get my blood pumping, especially in my brain! Then I can really attack my day with gusto. My mental state is so much clearer and sharper when I start the day like that. I am sensible now too though and if I am sick or tired I rest and recover before hitting the gym again. After all, rest and relaxation are very important too, as I tell the athletes I work with, so I have to practice what I preach! After some exercise, I then go into the office in IADT and during the academic year, I have lectures and lab classes to deliver for the rest of the day usually. I would dedicate part of every day during the academic year to doing some research, reading papers and updating lecture content. I could also have academic meetings with colleagues to attend, as well as meetings with my research students whose projects I supervise. I could also have an applied sport psychology session with an athlete I may be working with at that time or I could be giving a guest talk in a sports club or company on some days. I do some media work the odd time, radio mainly, too. During the summer months when I don’t have any academic classes to deliver, I spend my time writing. This summer I have spent most afternoons working on the book I’m writing.
What are the hardest parts related to your work?
I don’t really see any part of my job as ‘very hard’. I am passionate about what I do – lecturing, working in an applied capacity with athletes, researching and writing. I guess one of the things I find sometimes challenging is the amount of student assessment we do. I like to provide my students with detailed feedback on their course work in order to help them improve their researching and writing skills for psychology. That part of the academic job can be physically and more so, mentally, tiring, and time-consuming work to do during the academic year when things are really already busy with lectures and research work to do too.
One aspect of my job as a Chartered Psychologist and Accredited Sport Psychologist that I do find somewhat difficult to cope with is the unregulated nature of the area of psychological service delivery in Ireland at the moment. The PSI and the Irish government are working to change this. New legislation will hopefully come into place in Ireland in a few years. This will hopefully stop individuals who are not properly qualified and trained to work as Psychologists and Sport Psychologists from working in the area and calling themselves by such titles. Currently, anyone with an undergraduate degree in Psychology can say he/she is a Psychologist/Sport Psychologist. But ask yourself, if someone has completed a medical degree, would you like him/her to be operating on you as a ‘top-class-surgeon’ without the proper years of specialty training and supervision as a surgeon after his/her undergraduate basic medical training?! I hope to be involved in helping to bring the standards of who provides psychological services, especially to vulnerable athletes, up to a standard that is professional and safe for the wellbeing of our service users. But there is a responsibility on top sporting organisations, legislators, athletes and coaches to educate themselves too about our profession and on who they should and should not allow to work in their clubs, with their athletes. As qualified psychologists, we also need to go out into the public more and educate the masses on our field and specialty areas, in order for a change to happen in the minds of the public regarding this issue too. I would be happy to be one of the Irish female voices leading the way in helping to make this change happen. I feel strongly about it, having completed 10 years of intense training in order to achieve my Chartered and Accredited status as a Psychologist and Sport Psychologist.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
I believe it is a scientist’s job to be a critical thinker and to question things constantly, such as research findings and commonly held opinions and views. I lecture on this to my students all the time. I guess as female scientists we all suffer a little from the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ from time to time. In the past 5 years or so, however, I find I doubt myself a lot less because I have taken on tough projects and helped them reach a successful conclusion, but also because I’ve learned to be fine with saying ‘I don’t know’ to colleagues and students if they ask me I question I do not know the answer to! No one knows everything, even about their own fields of expertise. But I always follow my ‘I don’t know’ answer up with a ‘but I will try to find out the/an answer to that for you, okay?’. I heard this advice first when I was training to be an instructor in the Centre for Talented Youths in Ireland (CTYI) in DCU. CTYI runs academic programs for some of the most academically gifted young teenage students in Ireland and they are known for asking some of the best, and trickiest, questions! So, learning to be okay with saying ‘I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out the answer for you’ is a valuable one when faced with such individuals. I have found students and colleagues often respect you even more if you admit not knowing something, but then take the time to find out some information for them regarding their question and then going back to them later with it. It shows you really were interested in what they asked you about in the first place.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
As a former athlete and a generally competitive person (ask my family!), I tend to be lucky that I possess a lot of internal self-motivation. I also draw upon motivation from the successes of my fellow Psychology colleagues. Some of the female academics I work with on a daily basis in IADT, such as Dr. Irene Connolly and Dr. Grainne Kirwan, are among the top names in their fields of Educational Psychology, and Cyberpsychology, respectively. They encourage me and inspire me on a daily basis with their writings and research outputs. We are all dedicated to furthering the knowledge base in our respective fields. In IADT, we are very lucky to be one of the only third level academic institutions in Europe, or even globally, to have a female President, Dr. Annie Doona. I also have strong female influences in my family life, such as my sister, Trish, I mentioned already, who is a top scientist in the area of regulatory affairs in the UK, as well as my Mum who is also very talented, although not as a scientist (i.e., she is a fantastic dress designer and a qualified Irish Dance teacher). My Gran, who passed away a few years ago, was also still designing and making beautiful knitwear into her 90s! So being female is not something I would ever let stand in my way in striving to achieve my own goals in my field, what with all of these great females around me to inspire and motivate me every day!
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
Well, I hope to have written a number of academic and practical sport psychology and cyberpsychology related books, book chapters and academic peer reviewed papers. I hope I have added to the research knowledge base in those areas I mentioned such as: resilience training, career transition after professional sport and the mental health and wellbeing of athletes. As a practicing sport psychologist, I hope I will have helped some of our young Irish, especially female, athletes and performers (i.e., in dance, business too) to achieve their potential within their chosen fields of sport, performance, business, and academia. I believe every athlete should also be a student, training for a second career for their future. It is one of the very important strategies we promote to help these individuals cope with their career transition from sport into another, second, career. I feel very strongly about the importance of education for everyone willing to work hard for it. I always say to the athletes I work with ‘A degree, diploma or certificate is never a burden to carry!’. In 10 years, I hope to also be one of the Irish female sport psychologists who has helped to ignite change in how the public views and treats sport psychologists in Ireland, male and female alike. 1. We are not ‘shrinks’; 2. We can and do make a valuable contribution to sport and society as a whole and as such we should not be expected to work for free, as many sport psychologists are often asked to do, which immediately suggests our services and skills are not valued in such cases.
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
I think the whole area of cyberpsychology is currently gaining more scientific attention and this is very much warranted, given the impact that technology has, and is going to have, on all of our lives in the future.
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
As already mentioned, Professor Aidan Moran (my ‘Academic Dad’) in UCD has been my most influential and supportive academic mentor. I also have great mentors and supporters in IADT now too, such as my former Head of Faculty, and now our Registrar, in IADT, Dr. Andrew Power, and as I already mentioned, our IADT President, Dr. Annie Doona, who is a great female supporter of my sport psychology work, which I very much appreciate.
If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
Honestly, I would choose to be working on all of the topics I have already mentioned above – they are my ‘passion projects’. I have, however, very recently become interested in mental preparation for astronauts, due to a new little project I am involved in. Space exploration is something I find fascinating, although I am quite happy to remain on Earth, for now! Some of the early foundations of sport psychology as a discipline can be linked back to the Space Race of the 1960s/70s, so training astronauts, especially Irish female ones, to cope with the mental challenges going into Space may present, could be a very exciting challenge to take on!
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
I don’t really have ‘a funniest moment’ I can think of, but one of the most memorable moments for me was attending my first cognitive psychology lecture in UCD, where I met Prof. Moran for the first time. At the end of the lecture, I went down to meet him at the front of one of the big lecture theatres in UCD and I asked him “Tell me, how do I become the female version of you in about 10 years?”. He took on my challenge, I am very happy to say, and has guided me all the way along my science career path to date, helping me to achieve many personal goals…but I am far from ‘there’ yet!
Do you come from an academic family?
Yes – My sister is also a scientist, as I mentioned above. My youngest brother has a degree in physics and astronomy too, while my Dad is a retired architect. My other brother also completed our IADT Certificate in Sport Psychology (and yes, I was his lecturer, the poor guy!). He did it to help him with his rugby coaching career. So, yes, I would agree I come from an academic family. We value education very much in our house, and equal opportunities for all, male and female alike. My mother never had the opportunity to attend third level study but would have love to do so as my two uncles, her brothers, did complete third level training in their professions. Mum has always been a champion in our house for making sure her girls, as well as her boys, got every opportunity in education as was physically possible. We owe her a great depth for encouraging us, motivating us and helping us to strive to be the best we could possibly be in our chosen fields of study.
How does your family regard your career choice?
We are a very close family and they are all very proud of what I have achieved, of what I do and how I try my very best to achieve the goals I set for myself, in life, as well as in my career. They have always been, and continue to be so, supportive of my career and life choices. I am also very proud of all that they have achieved in their chosen fields of study, work and lives in general too, of course!
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
As you have all probably gathered by now, I am passionate about sport and performance in general. I am lucky to have a number of friends who are very talented athletes, players, musicians, and dancers, so I love to watch them perform in their roles on the pitch, track or stage, for example. I love supporting them at their various games, concerts, competitions, and events, in the same way, that they also support my work and passions too. Some say that my personal interests and professional interests overlap a lot and I guess they would be correct in saying so. But I adore what I do and as the saying goes, “If you find the career you love, sure, you never work a day in your life”!
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
I am not married and I have no children, so I have time to fit in lovely meet-ups with my wide circle of friends, most of whom come directly from my work related life of sport, performance, and science actually too! I love spending time with my family too of course. I have a little tip for anyone trying to separate their career and private life, too. About 2 years ago I stopped taking work ‘home’ with me. Now, if it means staying that bit later in the office, I will do so, rather than bringing work back home with me where I cannot really then enjoy my ‘relaxation time’. I work hard during the day and I love my work, but taking the time to enjoy a workout in the morning and watching a movie in the evening, for example, is how I like to take time out for myself, to recharge and rest away from my busy work day as a female academic and sport psychologist.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
I would tell myself to ‘Aim for excellence and forget about perfection’. When I was younger, I thought, like many young females do, that I should aim to be perfect in everything I did and in how I was as a person too. I now know, thankfully, through my studies and career path, and life experience in general, that ’perfection’ is not a realistic goal for anyone in work or in life, because it is so different and subjective for everyone. Aiming for excellence, for your own personal bests, and not allowing others to dictate to you what you should or should not do, is the best way to go – ‘Trust your gut feeling’ (as my Irish music pals, The Coronas, would advise!). I would also advise my younger self not to worry about things that may or may happen, as life throws up unexpected successes and challenges. Really it is the people in our lives that should matter the most to us, so prioritise spending time with them, as we never know when they will not be there. I would also say to my younger self that ‘you are more resilient than you think you are’ and to enjoy the journey of life to the maximum because life is too short to worry about the stuff we cannot change.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?
I think I have answered this above with regard to challenges and failures I have faced in my career. I honestly do not think being male would really have helped me to get to where I am today any easier or quicker. I like who I am and I am passionate about what I do, that is what matters to me and what I focus on every day.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
I haven’t really faced any major prejudices in my career to date, that I was made aware of any way! Perhaps some sports organisations may, in the past, have been reluctant to employ a female sport psychologist to work with their athletes, as many of the teams that did so in the past were male teams, and the managing personnel of such teams may have thought bringing a female into their team environments could act as a distraction for their male players. But I really do not think this is now the case, as there are, thankfully, many practicing female sport psychologists working with male teams today and many other backroom team sports personnel employed today in such environments are also female, such as team dieticians, like my good friend, Paula Mee, and physiotherapists/doctors too.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
I think we need to continue to promote science disciplines as real options for females and be prepared to go out into the public to tell people about what we do – just like ‘The Female Scientist’ is doing, so well done to you all! Young girls need to know they can be female and be any kind of scientist they wish to be too, the only one stopping them from reaching such goals is potentially themselves! I wear heels and dresses at work all the time, so being a scientist and an athlete has never stopped me from expressing the fun-loving-fashion-female side of my personality. Being perceived as a ‘tom-boy’ or somehow ‘unfeminine’ because you choose science, or indeed a sport, as a career option, is not the case, I hope anyway. Not even the sky is the limit anymore for females either, what with space exploration a realistic option for females now too!
Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?
No! – I’ve probably ‘talked everyone to death’ at this point here, as my Dad likes to joke!