On the shore between industry and academia

Eithne Browne, Research Masters student at NUI Galway, explains how she started her research with industry as part of her research degree in at NUI Galway.
Eithne Browne
Eithne Browne, Research Masters student at NUI Galway

My interest in science, in particular plants and agriculture, began early. I grew up on a farm in rural County Donegal surrounded by meadows, wildflowers and crops. My parents fostered and supported my love of science by taking me to ‘Science Week’ events held by our local Institute of Technology. Hearing researchers passionately explain their work fascinated me. I would often follow my mother as she planted flower bulbs and trees, sharing her expert knowledge of growth patterns and species. My father, an agricultural consultant, took me along on farm visits, and I noted the skills and fierce pride of farmers and their care of the land. Growing up in rural Ireland taught me a lot about food crops and the importance of biodiversity and conservation on a working farm, and showed me the many opportunities to work in preserving Ireland’s unique habitats. For me, it was a natural progression to undertake a 4-year undergraduate degree in Science at NUI Galway, which encompassed my passions of conservation, sustainability and agriculture.

I began a bachelor’s degree in Undenominated Science at NUI Galway in 2012. Because of the course framework and flexibility, I was able to study many subjects including organic chemistry, zoology, physics, and botany and plant science. Being able to gain insight into such different fields allowed me to make an informed decision about which subject to specialise in. I found it very difficult to choose between Biochemistry and Botany and Plant Science — both subjects fascinated me, from the intricacies of protein function and genomics to aquaculture and seaweed biotechnology. However, through studying both I realised that there are many commonalities: for example, many experimental techniques are widely used in different discipline areas. In my third year I particularly enjoyed the plant and algal biotechnology module, and I was excited to choose Botany and Plant Science as my final year subject.

Strawberry fruits at various ripening stages
Strawberry fruits at various ripening stages

My final year research project, supervised by Dr. Zoë Popper, investigated the use of seaweed polysaccharides as potential anti-fungal agents. I thoroughly enjoyed each step of my first introduction into research: problem solving, scientific writing, literature review and scientific communication through oral presentations. It reignited the excitement and enthusiasm I had felt as a child at ‘Science Week’ events. The project encompassed polysaccharide (bio)chemistry, agricultural methods, biotechnology, microbiology and botany, and I was given the freedom to suggest methods and formulate experiments, fostering the creativity vital for research. Dr Popper was very supportive, and we shared the enthusiasm which I believe made the project exciting.

Chondrus crispus (Irish moss)
Chondrus crispus (Irish moss)

After finishing my thesis, my supervisor told me about an opportunity to apply for a Research Masters in partnership with industry — The Irish Research Council (IRC) Enterprise Partnership Scheme. I would be able to expand on the research I began in my undergraduate and get an insight into research and development in industry. I had done extensive market reviews on other eco-friendly agrochemicals for my undergraduate thesis, and so the possibility of working with industry and learning about the business side of research was highly appealing. My supervisor suggested CyberColloids Ltd as an Enterprise Partner, because of their extensive experience with seaweed and plant polysaccharides, and their applications in food-, cosmetic- and agricultural- industries. The director, Ross Campbell, expressed interest in the project, and we immediately began writing a funding application. After finishing my final year, CyberColloids offered me a position as a Research Assistant. I was delighted to gain insight into industry, and I worked on some fascinating (and confidential) projects, for which the knowledge and skills gained during my Botany and Plant Science degree were put into practice. While working at CyberColloids, I received the news that the funding application to IRC had been successful! I was elated. After working in industry for 6 months I felt prepared and excited to begin my Masters project. My project is supported by an academic supervisor, Dr. Popper, and an Enterprise Mentor, Dr. Sarah Hotchkiss, who is my link to the company. Dr. Hotchkiss’s extensive expertise of the seaweed industry has been vital to the project. Throughout the first year of my project she has always, and continues to be, a source of great help and friendly discussion, which has made my introduction into industry both enjoyable and comfortable.

I am currently one year into my 2-year research project. Throughout the past year I have expanded my research expertise and had some great experiences: from moving to another city for industry placement to presenting a poster at my first conference. I am thankful for the opportunity that has been given to me, and the supervisors and colleagues who make my life as an early-stage researcher so interesting and enjoyable. My advice to those thinking about pursing a degree in science is simple — work hard and do not be afraid to ask for help when you need it; everyone starts somewhere!