Few science students haven’t heard of Professor Cliona O’Farrelly. Her humour and passion for the field of comparative immunology is evident in her lectures, making her stand out amongst many leading researchers in Trinity. She has inspired, and continues to inspire, many young scientists in and out the lecture hall, and her recent election as the first female Chair of Fellows ensures that she continues to be a role model for staff and students alike.
Early Academic and Research
O’Farrelly’s interest and fascination with science started at an early age. Her mother, a scientist herself, encouraged O’Farrelly’s interests. When she had a question that was related to centrifugal force, her mother did not hesitate to demonstrate the concept. “My mother filled a bucket of water and spun around and I was so amazed that the water didn’t spill!” she chuckled. She had also attended a boarding school in Athlone, where her teachers used to organise many field trips in the bogs. The samples of the small creatures she saw and collected intrigued her.
For O’Farrelly, however, a science career was not love at first sight. Even though she was interested in it, it wasn’t something she really wanted to pursue in college. “My father was an architect himself and I actually wanted to become a town planner,” she said. She did know, however, that her dream was to study in Trinity, but having completed her Leaving Certificate, she discovered that there was no school of architecture in Trinity. Desperate, she had to think of something else to do. She looked at doing law, French, and even history of art, but in the end she chose a degree in general science. She ended up doing the course because of necessity rather than passion: “I was told that I was good at science so I then decided to do it.”
However, she had some great and inspiring lecturers, such as geneticist Prof David McConnell and zoologist Dr Frank Jeal. The newly-founded Zoology Society and Dr Jeal’s field trips to Co. Meath increased her interest in science. “I was fascinated to explore the rich diversity of science of life that you will miss otherwise and having a zoologist there made it even more exciting and engaging.”
More excitingly, as an undergraduate, O’Farrelly studied physics and was taught by nobel laureate Ernest Walton, the first person to artificially split an atom. “Being truly honest,” she says, “I had spent more time talking in his lectures than I have listened which I surely did regret that afterwards”. Realising the importance of physics and how great of an opportunity it was to be taught by Walton left her feeling quite guilty. While she was doing her PhD in immunology, a letter was sent to students stating that a portrait was commissioned for Prof Walton, and that they were looking for donations to support it. “I felt extremely guilty and wanted to do anything to sincerely apologise about not appreciating his lectures,” says O’Farrelly. “I donated 20 pounds which was considered a good bit of money back then.’’
Prof O’Farrelly fell into immunology while doing a moderatorship in microbiology. For her final year research project, she chose to do a study related to immunology. “At that time,” she says, “there was a lot of fascinating and exciting discoveries in the field of microbiology and I knew it would have been very competitive to choose a research project in that field.” Immunology, on the other hand, was the least popular option. It was a subject that was considered quite vague, with very little research being performed in the field.
These days, O’Farrelly has many fascinating research areas in comparative immunology, mainly focusing on human immunology and how to trigger its response using viral malignancy. Her main interest is on the liver and mammalian uterus, which were shown to be great repertoires for immune cells. Such diverse kinds of cells are important in recognising, responding, and defending the body against harmful pathogens, especially during pregnancy. O’Farrelly’s research has also been working towards developing a vaccine for Hepatitis C.
‘’But it wasn’t plain sailing. There was always difficulties faced and it was very important to work through these problems.” O’Farrelly cites that some of the main problems she faced as a PhD student were financial difficulties, and the loneliness. Even though she was working with other researchers and PhD students in the same laboratory, the project was conducted by herself. She also says that another challenging issue was having the confidence to follow one’s own vision or idea while completing the project, but also to have the bravery to ask for assistance from a supervisor who might end up not agreeing with the project at all. “Sometimes,” she advised, “it was even better to just do your own thing than being left feeling disappointed.”
But with all these difficulties, O’Farrelly says that there were still great benefits in doing research. “While doing something that you’re really passionate about, you will certainly overcome these difficulties and always strive to learn more.” She also says that becoming a part of a greater scientific community, nationally and internationally, and working with other scientists that have the same interests, is also a great advantage. “It was always exciting to find someone with similar interests and developing connections world wide with other leading researchers.”
Chair of Fellows
“I would like to ensure that the voices of the Fellows is heard within college but also outside as we are living through a very challenging time for universities in terms of funding and for their appreciation for their role in society.”
Speaking on her new position as Chair of Fellows, which she was elected to in June, O’Farrelly says that she is delighted with her new role and stated that “it was a great accomplishment both as being the first female to occupy this role and to be acknowledged by the Fellows as someone who is up for this role.” For O’Farrelly, her role as Chair of Fellows is an important one. “The role involves giving a voice to the academic interest of the whole body of Fellows,” she says.
The Fellows are a diverse group of academic leaders from different disciplines within College who undertake teaching duties assigned by Board, act as examiners when required, and engage in academic research. O’Farrelly’s outstanding research achievements, as well as a good record of her teaching led her to become a Fellow. She recalls attending her first Fellows meeting with the attached excitement, believing that the group represented people who are at international standing in their field. However, she was left a bit disappointed to discover that the major issues of the university was not always what the Fellows were inclined to discuss. O’Farrelly was very interested in the possibility of the Fellows’ voice being used to promote the idea of a university and the benefit of a university to everybody in society. “I would like to ensure that the voices of the Fellows is heard within College but also outside as we are living through a very challenging time for universities in terms of funding and for their appreciation for their role in society,” she says. She also emphasises the importance of universities: “We believe that the university has a critical role in the health and the wellbeing of our society today.’’
To young scientists or anyone looking to pursue a career in the field, her advice is “to follow your heart not just what you love, but what will work out for you in the long run.’’ She adds that “there are many possible lives that we can lead and it’s impossible to identify the best one”. She also emphasises that one of the most important aspects of following one’s dreams is to realise that it won’t always be easy. “It’s important to have the confidence to overcome the difficulties,” she advices. “Not necessarily work out of it, but work through it.” Prof O’Farrelly admits that this is something easier said than done, but one that can be developed over time.
“It’s important to have the confidence to overcome the difficulties,” she advises. “Not necessarily work out of it, but work through it.”
Prof O’Farrelly remembers her early years while doing her own PhD research, when she was in floods of tears as her project wasn’t working out the way she wanted. She felt disheartened, but knew that no one would have helped her work through these difficult times, other than herself. “I had to find my own way out and work through the problems myself,” she says, “and that’s not just for anyone in the science field but in general.” She added that many young people nowadays seemed to want to plan out their lives and get disappointed when things go wrong or not exactly as they planned. “But it’s really not about planning.” she explains. “It more about finding a way to live with the unknown and learning from it. Because it’s through these unknowns that we develop and make new discoveries.”
“But it’s really not about planning.” she explains. “It more about finding a way to live with the unknown and learning from it. Because it’s through these unknowns that we develop and make new discoveries.”