Sunday 4 December 2016

The chemistry of empowering your children's imaginations

If your children are about to pick new subjects in school, take a moment to read this first

Tony Daly

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

Tony Daly
Tony Daly

As the dust has well and truly settled on the 2015 Leaving Certificate exams, many Leaving Certificate students across the country are starting to turn their focus to the CAO options they initially chose last February in respect to their future third-level education journey.

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It is encouraging to see the strong numbers of students taking higher level maths and increased uptake in science subjects. Maths is key for students considering a course in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). STEM courses offer a solid educational base, fostering creative and analytical thinking, which people need for many careers.

While its very promising that many young people across Ireland are interested in science subjects at second level, the bridge to pursuing a related third-level qualification and related science/technology-based career needs to be strengthened, with many saying they don't know enough about the associated careers that are available.

If you are a student, parent, or teacher, are you aware that there are over 118,000 Irish people working in STEM-related roles in this country or currently there are 6,000 vacancies in the Irish IT sector? Do you know the difference between an organic chemist and a biochemist, or what a chemical engineer actually does?

Too many students miss the opportunity in science or technology because they simply have no idea what kind of work people in this sector do, or they are concerned they would not fit into the working environment. Parents, teachers, as well as the science and technology-based industry, have a critical responsibility to challenge stereotypical assumptions and simply help teenagers explore the vast choices of exciting Irish-based sustainable career paths and opportunities in the STEM sector to minimise any skill shortage Ireland will have in the future.

According to recent research with over 2,000 Irish third-level students, conducted by Amarach Research as part of Science Foundation Ireland's Smart Future programme, 62pc of students said "fitting in" was the main reason they chose their college course, which is ranking it higher than other factors, such as career prospects (56pc) and entry requirements (28pc).

Interestingly, the research also showed that the influence of parents in helping students make their third-level course decision is very important. But, do parents have enough information to help their child make the correct decision in respect to STEM-related careers?

An excellent resource available for Irish students, who may want to learn more about how they are suited for STEM careers, is the dedicated resource website www.SmartFutures.ie. The site features real-life career stories and video interviews with people working in a range of STEM industries, so young people can find out more about the exciting opportunities available.

Science-based industry and educators must ask the question: is there more that can be done to promote science and technology at the earliest stages in the academic lifecycle, demonstrating that it can be fun and interesting, as well as informing students of the wide range of science-based career opportunities here in Ireland?

This can be done by more joint academic/industry partnerships, including further sponsorship of more science-based events such as science weeks, school outreach programmes, encouraging company visits or supporting some of the excellent programmes developed by the likes of IBEC or Science Foundation Ireland.

Two really excellent Irish examples of encouraging scientific passion at a young age is SAM (www.Senseaboutmaths.com) and the new innovative solution of BioCoderDojo, which links all of the elements that have been present in CoderDojos clubs and adds a very new element, biological sciences, thus creating a novel environment of biological technology education for boys and girls.

The Irish pharma and biopharmaceutical industry is quietly and steadily undergoing a strong growth spurt, involving a number of new site builds as well as a number of significant expansions. The future looks very bright for a lot of students taking up associated STEM courses in this sector.

The industry provides excellent sustainable career opportunities and employs 25,300 people in Ireland, over half of which are third-level graduates compared to the national average of 24pc. In addition, 24,500 people are employed providing services to the sector.

Not many people are aware that Ireland's pharma industry currently generates over 50pc of the country's exports. The industry exported products to the value of €58bn in 2014 and contributes more than €1bn in corporation tax to the Irish Exchequer annually. Ireland hosts nine of the top 10 multinational companies in the world, as well as having a cluster of dynamic and innovative Irish firms. Of the top 12 selling drugs worldwide, five are produced in Ireland.

Take the example of Pfizer, the company that I have worked for the past 18 years. Pfizer has been in Ireland since 1969 and employs about 3,200 people in Ireland across many diverse career opportunities - in manufacturing, shared services, research and development, treasury and commercial operations - based in Dublin, Cork and Newbridge. Pfizer has invested $7bn in operations since first opened in Cork in 1969 and has invested $330m in its Grange Castle and Ringaskiddy sites in recent years.

Many of Pfizer's leading medicines are manufactured for global export from Irish-based Pfizer manufacturing sites. The €1.8bn Grange Castle facility in Dublin is one of the largest integrated biotechnology plants in the world, while the Ringaskiddy and Little Island sites in Cork are the selected global launch sites of Pfizer's new small-molecule medicines.

What is very encouraging is the recent trend of Irish-based pharma companies moving further up the corporate value ladder, embracing the new paradigm of combined research development plus manufacturing.

This is possible only through the quality and capability of its people, as well as the availability of appropriately trained graduates. Ireland has a highly creative and very flexible workforce with an excellent ability to innovate and to lead.

The Irish workforce is distinguished by their ability to be excellent relationship builders, influencers and communicators. This is well-proven by the success of a number of Irish STEM graduates who have climbed the corporate ladder to senior vice presidents and senior board members after starting their careers in Ireland.

A common myth is that a graduate who starts their career in a company such as Pfizer will be doing the same role for the next 30 years. This could not be further from reality as many graduates - including myself who started as a PhD Chemist and am now in HR - choose to diversify and change career paths during their career.

So, as a scientist and on behalf of science-based industry across Ireland, can I passionately urge you either as a student, parent or teacher to think again about STEM careers and its prospect as exciting sustainable opportunities for the amazing youth of Ireland.

Tony Daly has a PhD in organic chemistry and is a member of the HR team at Pfizer

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