Dr Helen Sheridan is based at the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Trinity College Dublin . She undertakes original research in traditional medicine and development of new medicines using plants and cell cultures (plant, fungal and animal). Here, Helen (HS) talks to Soapbox Science (SS) about inspirational teachers, how to bring science to the kids, and the fun of cross-cultural, collaborative work.
SS: Hi Helen! Thank you so much for joining us at Soapbox Science Ireland tomorrow. Tell us a bit about you: how did you get to your current position?
HS: I was born a scientist and was carrying out experiments with caterpillars when I was four. I collected them and grouped them in old fish bowls by colour and numbers of spots! I am now an Associate Professor in Natural Product Chemistry at the School of Pharmacy in Trinity College Dublin. I attended St. Paul’s Girls School in Greenhills in Dublin 12, where I studied science for the first time. I completed my BSc in Chemistry in 1980 in UCD. I still remember the thrill of what seemed like limitless books on science and doing experiments. I loved every minute of it, and was fortunate to be awarded The Hugh Ryan memorial medal. I also completed my PhD in UCD in 1983 and was awarded a ‘Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851’ Overseas Fellowship for Postdoctoral research which was carried out at the Dyson Perrin’s laboratories at Oxford University under the direction of Professor Sir Jack Baldwin. Further research periods at University College Dublin and the CNRS at Gif-Sur-Yvette, in Paris followed. I was appointed as a lecturer in Natural Products Chemistry to the Department of Pharmacognosy, School of Pharmacy TCD in 1985, I was 26 and I was thrilled to have my own laboratory!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
HS: While attending St. Paul’s I studied science under two inspirational and dedicated teachers, Sister Elisabeth Walsh who taught me Biology and Mr. Edward McDonald, who taught me Chemistry. I completed my BSc in Chemistry in 1980 in UCD and in my penultimate year I was awarded an NBST Scholarship and worked with a truly inspirational Physical Chemist Dr. Hector Rubelcava. I have to say I remember most of my chemistry lecturers in UCD with great warmth and looking back realise it is because they were so passionate about their areas of science – Professor Sean Corsish, Dr. Sato Ushioda, Professor Howard Sidebottom and Professor Jack Manning, come to mind to name just a few. I completed my PhD in UCD with another remarkable and true role model Professor Dervilla M. X. Donnelly, who to this day still inspires me. During my stay at the CNRS at Gif-Sur-Yvette I worked with another inspirational scientist Madam Judith Polonsky, she introduced me to another world of science (I learned about Quassinoids) and she introduced me to Paris (and brought me to La Coupole where I was enthralled by stories of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus). In Oxford I studied under Professor Sir Jack Baldwin who is an amazing scientist, as were many of my peers in the research group.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
HS: EVERYTHING! Every day is a new experience. I suppose the most successful is the fact that an idea I had has turned into a reality and now a drug that came from my laboratory is in Phase 1 Clinical trials. Looking down a microscope is thrilling. Receiving a herbal medicine from Pakistan in a collaborative study and seeing that it has profound pharmacological effects and could be a new medicine for cancer is amazing. Working with international researchers on traditional Chinese medicine is exciting and stimulating. Having an idea and testing it out and seeing the potential for mew discovery is fascinating. Really though all science is just fascinating!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
HS: I have been involved in out-reach and youth science throughout my career. I want to bring the wonder and excitement of science to as many people as I can!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
HS: Fun (and excitement and fulfillment!)
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
HS: I would not teach science formally in primary school. However, I would celebrate and integrate it, less formally, in a very exciting way. My experience has been that science if taught badly can really put people, especially children, off. I would have more exciting science ‘visiting’ schools. Science weeks are great. I would also have more scientific events in libraries and communities. I would encourage science fairs, where children and adolescents can enter small local competitions, where a nature table would be as important as the bigger projects and inventions.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
HS: It is very difficult to balance everything. I am also a mother of three. I have reared my children and cared for my mum in her last years, while trying to be a successful academic. It can be very difficult. However, there is a time for everything and you can still be a good academic and be a good mum. There is more support now than there used to be. Also, don’t be afraid to collaborate. Collaborators also make good friends and they can support you and vice versa.