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What a Glycobiologist does

What a Glycobiologist does

Triona O’Connell is a research scientist at Dublin City University (DCU), where she studies the structure of sugar cells.

She’s also involved in TOG, a Dublin-based ‘hackerspace’ for people to work together on creative projects involving any materials from circuit boards to cardboard. She loves to blog and bake and talk about science. Triona was a finalist in the 2013 science communication competition FameLab.

What inspires your love of science?

The answers to science questions that make me go “oooooooooh, that’s a clever way of figuring that out”.

What kind of scientist are you?

I’m mostly a glycobiologist, which means that I investigate the biology of sugar. Various sugar units can be built into structures that decorate the surface of cells. These structures can help cells stick to one another or signal to the rest of the body about the type of cell it is and whether it is healthy or dying. In particular, I look at the changes in the sugar patterns as a cell dies.

Did you always know what research area you would end up in?

Not at all. I wanted to be a scientist from a young age, but no specific type. As time passed I became more interested in diagnostic tests, but that’s a huge field of research; you could be studying the spectrum of dyes or testing thousands of patients to make sure a test does what it says.

So you didn’t have a specific path to glycobiologist?

I did physics at University College Cork, inspired by Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, but I dropped out. I then did a degree in biomedical science at Cork Institute of Technology.

After that, I specialised in haematology and clinical chemistry – basically blood sciences – at Dublin Institute of Technology. Then I did a master’s degree in biomedical diagnostics in DCU followed by a PhD in DCU’s School of Biotechnology.

What’s do you wish someone had told you before you started out?

Take more holidays! The work can get very intense, especially when you’ve nearly cracked the puzzle. Taking a break to rest your brain means you can do more science in the long run.

What’s the best thing about being a researcher in your field?

Glycobiology is a younger field than the biology of protein or DNA, so there’s more opportunity to discover new things.

And the most difficult?

As it’s a younger field, you might be the first person to encounter a problem so you’ll also have to be the person to find the solution.

More career stories from Smart Futures available here.

Smart Futures