Originally from Tullamore, Co. Offaly, I first came to Limerick in 1999, to do a B.Eng in Electronic Engineering at UL.
I have not left since. I always wanted to study at UL given that the facilities and atmosphere on campus are second to none. So after completing my Bachelors degree I stayed on to do a PhD. I now live in the beautiful village of Toor, just out side of Newport, in the valley of Keeper Hill. I love the peacefulness of the area and the wildlife but it is still close to all those things that Limerick has to offer. I went to Primary School in Durrow, Co. Offaly which is a small rural school just outside of Tullamore. I then attended La Sainte Union Secondary School in Banagher, Co Offaly.
There was a strong emphasis on the importance of further education in our family and we were always encouraged to pursue our dreams.
This had a strong influence on my decision to pursue a research career and to undertake a PhD. The drive to research new things, to be at the forefront of innovation, is a key factor in a person’s desire to pursue a research career. I would certainly encourage anyone to pursue a career in research. Academia and the research industry present continually varying challenges. To be involved in innovative research and new technological developments is hugely satisfying. It is incredibly rewarding to work in an area where you can help people. The sensor we are developing is aimed at improving the outcomes for people undergoing radiation treatment, by ensuring the tumour is receiving the correct prescribed radiation dose and also reducing possible side effects by monitoring the amount of radiation neighbouring healthy tissue and critical structures are exposed to.
For as long as I can remember I always wanted to do engineering but I had no idea what type of engineering.
I just loved mathematics and science and so that kind of problem solving work involved in engineering always appealed to me. Towards the end of Secondary School I knew that I wanted to get into research and to be at the forefront of developing technology and so I decided to do my undergraduate degree in Electronic Engineering. Sensor technology plays an important role in our society and has far reaching applications, from biomedical to structural health monitoring to environmental monitoring. During the course of my undergraduate degree, I became interested in sensor technology and optical sensing, in particular. I saw huge scope for development in this area and its wide range of applications always appealed to me. Over the years, I have been involved in optical fibre sensor development for gas sensing for environmental and industrial applications, water quality monitoring, radiation monitoring for sterilisation and nuclear industries and biomedical sensors. Being involved in such a wide range of applications means you are always learning new things and brings continual challenges, making the work exciting and rewarding.
There has been considerable focus in recent years on cancer research, particularly in the area of cell biology.
Sensor technology also has a very important role to play in the fight against cancer. The Optical Fibre Sensors Research Centre at UL is developing such devices for monitoring the amount of radiation a cancer patient receives during radiotherapy. The sensors are smaller than existing technology and can be used for in vivo radiation monitoring in a way never achieved before. During the course of my research it became clear that radiotherapy technology was advancing at a very fast rate. The treatment options and radiotherapy facilities are continually advancing, resulting in improved outcomes for cancer patients. Our sensors are developed in collaboration with world leading hospitals (Galway Clinic, Northern Ireland Cancer Centre and University of California Los Angeles) to complement this advancing radiotherapy technology.
Research in the area of radiotherapy dosimetry has, to date, focussed on External Beam Radiotherapy, where the sensor is placed externally on the patient.
Work is now beginning to focus on miniaturising the sensor further for internal applications. The small dimensions of the optical fibre dosimeter make them suitable for minimally invasive in vivo applications. This would allow the radiation dosimeter to be placed either directly into or in close proximity to the tumour. In the case of a brachytherapy implant (internal radiotherapy) they could be alongside the seeds, or radioactive sources, in a manner which has not been previously achieved to provide real time dosimetric information. For example, in future they may be placed in close proximity to the implants in the tumour itself or critical tissues requiring monitoring.
The current economic climate presents academics with many challenges. There is a lot more competition for research funding than there used to be and so continuity in research activities can be difficult to maintain without the sustained funding. I believe that we should be encouraging more people to undertake postgraduate research studies, however. Innovative research is important for our economy and PhD graduates are required to stimulate a high level of industrial and academic Research and Development. While a doctoral qualification is a highly specialised one, the skills attained during the course of PhD studies; such as problem solving and project management skills, are very important.
To read more about Dr. Sinead O’Keeffe’s work please see the website: www.ofsrc.ul.ie