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Spotlight on: Aoibhín Sheedy, Bioengineer

Spotlight on: Aoibhín Sheedy, Bioengineer

06 December 22
 | 12 MINS

Founder of University of Galway’s WiSTEM (Women in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) Society, Aoibhín Sheedy’s passion for creating change in society through her research and outreach work is having a very real impact. Currently undertaking a PhD on developing an immunotherapy for ovarian cancer, Bioengineer Aoibhín talks to Cois Coiribe about her passion for celebrating women in STEM and how her mentors influenced her career.  


It was in Transition Year of secondary school that I was able to sample engineering as a taster subject. From then on, I just loved every second of it. I had an incredibly supportive teacher, Mr Monaghan who is now the vice Principal in St Bridget’s College, Loughrea. He was my first mentor, and was absolutely instrumental in helping me get to where I am today. Before I make any major work-related life decisions, I’ll still go and chat to him first.  

Studying engineering in University of Galway was the obvious choice for me. Although it was incredibly daunting being one of hundreds of students in the lecture hall, thankfully the male to female ratio aspect of it wasn’t as big of an issue as I thought it was going to be. We all got on really, really well. My parents and my family have all been so encouraging about the path I’m taking. And I’ve been really lucky – my parents put me into a mixed school for primary and secondary. As they say, ‘life is mixed’, all-girls schools are just not representative of what you’ll be dealing with in life. So, I’ve always been very comfortable in a mixed environment.

Undergrads contribute so much valuable research and I think they're undervalued and underutilised.

As part of my placement in my third year of university, I went to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where I worked on cancer metastases and microfluidic devices – that’s where I got my first taste of cell culture, and I was hooked. During my Masters in Biotechnology in UCC Cork, I got a placement in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with Prof. Ellen Roche – another mentor that has been absolutely instrumental in my career. My Masters project was focused on developing a 3D printed, personalised occlusion device for the left arterial appendage. During that time, I developed a bio-ink that they are still using today, which is really cool. I had the most incredible experience in MIT. It was there that I came into contact with their undergrad funded research opportunities, where undergrad students carry out paid research in labs. This initiative is something I feel strongly about – it should be introduced in all universities. Undergrads contribute so much valuable research and I think they’re undervalued and underutilised.   

I started my PhD in October of 2020, developing an advanced immunotherapy to treat ovarian cancer and a device deliver it. There’s definitely been some high highs and low lows with regards to the research, but I think that is the life of a PhD student. It’s not all plain sailing. My goals for the PhD are to test the therapy to show that immunotherapies are feasible at treating ovarian cancer, to then hopefully progress into a clinical trial; I’d love to see it go down that route.  

I had just started my PhD, when I realised that there was no Women in STEM society (WiSTEM) at University of Galway. I had gained so much from it when I was in UCC (University College Cork), as I took part in their inaugural WiSTEM2D bursary and mentorship program sponsored by Johnson and Johnson (J&J). I thought that would be a great initiative to bring to WiSTEM in Galway so I got in touch with my contacts in the UCC WiSTEM2D program who directed me to Dr Anu Dwivedi an R&D Engineer, in Ceranovas in Galway. As luck would have it, Anu and Anna Rafferty were already in discussions with the University of Galway about setting up the WiSTEM2D programme. The link was made by PhD candidate, Sarah Johnson, as her project was based in Ceranovas and she was also the postgraduate representative on the Engineering and Informatics EDI committee. The Vice Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in the College of Science and Engineering, Associate Professor Mary Dempsey, invited me to join the discussions to set up the WiSTEM2D programme. Together with Mary and the J&J/Ceranovas team, we launched the inaugural WiSTEM2D program last year and are currently recruiting for the 2nd year of the initiative. One initiative that I’m really passionate about is developing an internship programme modelled on what I saw at MIT, where undergrads work on research projects as a paid internship, which allows them to focus on their work and not to have to worry about money. That was one of the main elements that I was passionate about setting up when I started out. So, together with Vice Dean for EDI, we applied for an EDI grant to provide 10 paid internships for women in STEM in the summer of 2021. It was a really successful pilot and from that, we built a bigger platform, where we in WiSTEM collaborated with CÚRAM, the University of Sanctuary and the College of Science and Engineering to apply for an SFI (Science Foundation Ireland) discover grant for 20 internships for six weeks. We were then able to put on these internships across a range of science, technology, engineering, math and medicine for underrepresented students in STEM. But this goes beyond just women in STEM – it takes in a wide range of underrepresented students such as those with disabilities, the LGBTQ plus community, and those from different ethnic backgrounds.

I love what I do. I love to help people. That's the one undercurrent that doesn't change.

Looking to future, I really want to develop my leadership skills, and I want to make a difference in the world, be it through medical devices or biopharmaceutical production. That, plus being a role model for younger women in STEM or underrepresented people in STEM. Through all of my WiSTEM work, I applied for the Fulbright programme, and was incredibly fortunate to be selected to participate in it, so I will be going to the University of Minnesota in January 2023 for 12 months, where I plan to develop my leadership skills as well as gain invaluable experience in a world leading lab for immunotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer. 

My ultimate goal is to continue to carry out research and to continue to develop and design innovative solutions to current clinical problems, as well as future as progressing women in STEM. I love what I do. I love to help people. That’s the one undercurrent that doesn’t change; I want to make people’s lives better – whether that be through science or through mentorship.”


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