I almost didn’t take part in Ada Lovelace Day this year. Between recently taking up dancing, where I find myself suddenly in a pretty solid majority, and being bogged down with work (both $dayjob and Apache), the unicorn status has firmly lost any sheen it might ever have had. The performance is just exhausting.
But perhaps at times like this, it’s even more important to reflect and to celebrate those women whose achievements have inspired, have made possible, my own participation in technology and science.
Dr Sheila Gilheany was the first female lecturer in Astronomy at the Armagh Planetarium, a place I still remember visiting as a young girl. My first encounter with Sheila, however, came when she took up the directorship of the then-new Irish Centre for Talented Youth (CTYI). (Yes, I’ve heard all the jokes about the spelling of the acronym.)
In that role, Sheila was not only a vocal supporter of Ireland’s academically-gifted youth, but also an inspiring educator. I first learnt to program at CTYI, using Logo to learn simultaneously about geometry and angles, loops and variables Over the course of several summers, I studied everything from Visual Arts to Creative Writing, from Pharmacology to Psychology, from International Relations to Legal Studies.
When, at twelve, I was in bits trying to get my head around what exactly pH was, Sheila was there to cheerlead, and wipe away the tears if necessary! (I already knew pH was a measure of the acidity of a substance, but trying to calculate the anti-log of the hydrogen ion concentration should perhaps not have been introduced on Day 1!)
Later on, when I decided that Decision Maths just wasn’t what I wanted to spend my summer on, she let me switch to the International Relations class, which turned out to be even more bizarre than the discussions of Martians and umbrellas that I had left behind Sheila always expected the very best from everyone she worked with, but she provided support in abundance. From the Quaker we elected (democratically!) to office of God, to the girl who wore a Beanie Baby on her head for three weeks, if she was fazed, she never let on! (If any of you have pictures of the Beanie Baby, I want a copy!)
By the time I went back as a teaching assistant, the range of classes had grown vastly (I helped teach Forensic Science, as well as Computational Linguistics). Sheila had, by then, moved on, but her legacy was clearly thriving.
But Sheila’s infectious love for science benefitted not only the CTYI students. As Director of the Centre, she also oversaw the launch of the Pfizer Science Bus, possibly the coolest coach in the country The Science Bus contained a well-equipped mobile science lab, fully connected with gas, water, electricity and even an internet connection! The bus visited schools around the country, and students were invited to investigate everything from optics to satellite technology, from chromatography to the chemistry of food. Of course, there were also explosions, colourful experiments, shiny demonstrations, and much more!
Sheila is now a Policy Officer at the Institute of Physics, but it cheers me greatly to hear that she is still keenly involved in science education