Loreto Secondary School, Wexford, Ireland (2000-2005), University of Limerick, Ireland (2005-2009), University of Limerick, Ireland (2009-2014)
Diploma in Sports Massage, BSc. (Hons.) Sport and Exercise Sciences, PhD Neuromuscular Biomechanics
Research Assistant, Sports Biomechanics Research Group, Cardiff Metropolitan University (2008), Irish Hockey Association (2010-2013), Postdoctoral Research Associate, Loughborough University (2014-2015)
Vice-Chancellor’s Lecturer in Biomechanics
Favourite thing to do in science Learning – new skills, new ways to show data, or new information about how and why we move the way we do
Lecturer in Biomechanics who loves being outdoors, horses, hockey and drinking weak tea.
I’m originally from Wexford, a place on the southeast coast of Ireland, and I moved to Loughborough two years ago when I finished my PhD. I live in a village close to the town in the heart of the lovely Leicestershire countryside which means I’m close to the things I enjoy doing most – getting out and about in the outdoors, and riding horses.
I was always sporty in school and played a lot of hockey, and loved science and numbers. This triggered my interest in sport science, but I was also interested in physiotherapy. I just missed the grades I needed for physio so I packed my bags and set off for Limerick, Ireland’s sporting capital, to do sport science for four years. I then stayed to do my PhD there, which looked at how the muscles and tendons around our ankle joint behave during tasks like walking and running. In 2014 I moved to Loughborough and I’ve been here ever since.
I have had lots of great opportunities working in sport science such as working at Cardiff Metropolitan University for 8 months on a sprinting project with UCL, University of Cambridge and the Royal Veterinary College, working with Welsh Rugby and Irish Hockey, seeing the Munster and Irish rugby teams train beside my house in Limerick on a regular basis, and getting to travel to the US, Europe and Asia during my PhD to go to different conferences.
Measuring how muscles and tendons work during sport using reflective dots and pictures of them from under your skin, to figure out why we move the way we do so one day we could be like Iron-Man
I work in a part of sport science called biomechanics, which focuses on understanding the physics of how we move. We work with athletes or teams to improve their performance, or ensure they don’t get injured. We also work with clinical populations, such as amputees or people recovering from stroke to understand how they move, and what we can do to maximise how well they can move. Our research and projects concentrate on measuring and changing things like someone’s position when they are doing a task or how they apply force. To do this, we use equipment like force plates (which like giant weighing scales), motion analysis (we stick lots of reflective dots on people so we can measure how they move), electromyography (where we put little sticky pads on people which allow us to measure the electrical activity of a muscle – this activity increases when we move), MRI (like what you might have seen in a hospital) and ultrasound (usually used to look at babies in the womb before they are born, but we use it to take pictures of the muscle and tendons of your legs as you move).
Biomechanists (scientists trained in biomechanics) work on lots of different projects; we often work closely with engineers designing sports equipment, or equipment for healthcare such as prosthetic limbs. The motion analysis we use is also used in the film industry! Do you remember Gollum from the Lord of the Rings, or Smaug the big dragon? The film industry really wants to improve how life-like computer generated images (CGI) in films look, and to do this they need to know how a body moves. Both of these films used motion analysis to record the facial movements and limb movements of humans, to make sure the CGI on screen looked as realistic as possible – a Dutch biomechanics professor, Ton van den Bogert won an Oscar for his work in this area.
I’m interested in knowing how and why we move the way we do. I want to know the forces on the body during movement, and how do we reduce them – we need some force for our muscles and bones to get stronger, but too much might break them! To move, lots of different muscles and tendons need to work together, but we still don’t really understand how – I want to know more about how this happens. This is important to people wanting to run as fast as possible, those recovering from injury/wanting to avoid injury, designing prosthetics for amputees and also for a new area of research called wearable robotics – where we try to design suits you can wear that give you a boost of power to keep you moving when you need it – like Iron-Man. I use different combinations of the equipment above to try to answer these questions.
My Typical Day
Any combination of meeting and teaching students, being in the lab, writing up results of experiments, working with athletes and sports organisations, exercising, drinking tea, and learning new things
Every day is different, and that’s one of the nice things about it. My job involves a combination of teaching students, doing research and working with groups outside the university to ensure that experiments we do in the lab have applications in the real-world and on people’s lives.
The teaching part of my job has given me the opportunity to teach on all sorts of degrees – sport science, sports technology, engineering, physiotherapy, podiatry! This part of the job requires not only teaching the class, but preparing for it, making sure the labs are ready for any practical classes the students will do, and meeting with any students who have questions. I also correct any in class assessments/tests or exams they do.
At this time of year, a typical day will start with teaching a class for 1-2 hours, I then meet with students working on different research projects to see how they are getting on and if they need any help. I would head to the lab for an hour or two to set-up for future experiments – this can involve a lot of problem-solving if the equipment misbehaves! After an early lunch I will then process some data and get some results, or write up results of other experiments. I would read what we call ‘journal articles’ for a while so I know what experiments are happening in other labs and what they have found. The afternoon might then be rounded off by meeting with an athlete, a sports medicine doctor or a group who are interested in the results of current projects, or who would like to start a new project. I try to squeeze in some exercise everyday so I would then head to an exercise class or the gym, then home for dinner. Drinking tea also features a lot during the day!
What I'd do with the money
Bring students to the Loughborough campus to visit our labs and develop online videos for those further afield, to give you a proper taster of what we do on a day to day basis. I’d also develop materials so you could do some of our sport science experiments at home or in school (sport scientists don’t just work in labs!)
I think it’s really important to give people experience of what science is really like – it isn’t just pages of text in a book, and it doesn’t always go to plan! I’d like to use the money to bring students to the Loughborough campus to see what it is we do on a day to day basis and to get hands-on experience doing some experiments with us if possible. Even within biomechanics, our projects are very varied as members of our group do research in gymnastics, tumbling, trampolining, cricket, tennis, badminton, running (long-distance, middle distance and sprinting), long jump, triple jump and martial arts; I also work with hockey, rugby and with amputee soldiers. As students are all over the country, I’d also create online videos to show this to people all over the country and materials which allow you to do some of our sport science experiments at home or in school.
I’d like to give you all a chance to see how varied and fun working in science can be, and that sports science isn’t just about super athletes – it affects all kinds of people in all kinds of ways.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Smiley, Irish, hardworking
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Applying science to help people achieve their goals and perform to their best. My proudest moment has been cheering on players I worked with when they were 14 and 15 and training for European Championships and Youth Olympics as they got their first senior international hockey caps when they were in their early twenties.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
I asked my family endless questions when I was little about how and why things worked and behaved as they did, I always wanted to find things out. A visit to our school from a female Professor of Biochemistry showed me how varied a career in science could be, and the difference it could make to people’s lives.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Probably a maths or PE teacher, or a biomedical engineer – it would still involve numbers and/or sport
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Anything from Snow Patrol and Florence and the Machine, to Beyonce and Rihanna.
What's your favourite food?
Chinese or Indian, yummy
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Travelling the US via Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, New York and Boston for five weeks after being at a scientific conference. I visited family and friends in each place and loved it.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) me, my family and friends to stay happy and healthy, 2) have endless money for my research projects and get more people involved in them, 3) go on a round the world trip
Tell us a joke.
Why did the scarecrow win an award? Because he was outstanding in his field.
I love travelling and seeing new places so getting to see the world as part of my job is a big perk. I think this is a very suitable photo I took in Vancouver,Canada when I visited a laboratory out there last month!
The first picture below is when Benedict Cumberbatch was filming The Desolation of Smaug – see all the little dots on his face and body? We use these reflective dots to tell us where bits of your body are and what they are doing. The second and third are what the dots look like on screen – the middle one is from a study I did which just looked at legs, the one on the right from a running project.
These pictures are from another recent study, this is what the muscles in your legs look like – the top left picture shows your ‘plantarflexor’ muscles – these are the big muscles at the back of your leg that move your ankle so you can stand on your tippytoes. The bottom left picture shows ‘vastus lateralis’, a muscle just above your knee to the outside and front of your thigh. Try to stand on your toes and kick out your knee (not at the same time!) – can you feel the muscles moving? These pictures are both from ultrasound – what doctors use to see babies in the womb. The photo to the right is from an MRI, and is what your leg would look like if we just chopped it straight across – I measure different bits of these pictures to get information about your muscles and tendons.