Dundalk Scientist And Performer Reaches For The Stars

Dr. Niamh Shaw is a renowned engineer, scientist and performer from the border town of Dundalk, Co. Louth. Recently, she appeared on the Tommy Tiernan show and spoke about her dream to make it into space. She is currently the artist in residence at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory.

She is well on her way in achieving her goal to get to space, having been on many analog missions. Her latest adventure was her mission to the Desert Mars Analog Ramon Station in the Ramon desert in Israel, from which she has just returned.

D-MARS is a space analog centre where astronauts go on a scientific exploration mission that simulates a real Mars exploration mission. This is organised in conjunction with the Austrian Space Forum. Shaw went as an artist and an advisor to the team.

The aspiring space explorer has expertise in many areas, some of which, at first, don’t seem to interconnect. Being an analog astronaut means she has gone on space missions such as visiting the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia. Here, she experienced weightlessness and zero gravity flight. “This gave me a full understanding of what it actually takes to leave this planet, how difficult it is, and I was able to practice not panicking,” she says.

She also participated in a simulated Mars mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert. As part of Crew 173, a team of six international analogue astronauts, Shaw was the artist and journalist in charge of keeping the public updated with their mission.

“This gave me insight into what makes a good crew, and I realised ‘oh hold on, I’m not a bad teammate’ and it gave me the courage to continue,” Niamh laughs.

She’s lost for words when asked what her greatest achievement is. “Wow… I really don’t know.” She thinks hard for a few moments, then replies: “I made the decision and commitment to go to space, and it put me on the road to fulfill the life that I want, and it allowed me to make the best use of my gift of communication … everything I have been proud of is a result of that decision.”

Niamh says that growing up in Dundalk was hard at times because there wasn’t really an outlet for her interest in space exploration. “There was nothing at the time,” she explains.

“The world I lived in offered no tangible connection to space exploration, bar what I saw on TV. I had great parents who were very supportive, and I did find role models who managed to find their path in science… but the idea of space exploration was hard to access.”

Niamh also believes it is important to present the human side of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, in order to make them accessible for everyone.

“I came from a world of academic research and science,” she says carefully. “And the language of arts and science are different… I had to leave one world and step into another,” referring to her performances on stage, her writing and her public speaking.

“I think that people who come from a more scientific background take their understanding of the information for granted. I try to present science in a way that is understandable to everyone.”

“We need to break that wall down and offer a direct line of view to everyone,” she says passionately. “I try to pop up in places where science is not usually associated with. I hope my performances or talks might act as a stepping stone to people, to get them interested in science,” she ascertains.

“I try to present myself as approachable.”

In this age of ever-advancing technology, Niamh believes it is essential for people to be in tune with STEM. “We are entering a cultural era of technology, and most careers require a level of proficiency in STEM like never before. We need to help people become more comfortable with the sciences.”

Niamh believes that the Arts have a special role, and that collaborative projects can attract people with different mindsets.

“Artists see STEM in a more philosophical way, offering innovation and creativity that might not be found otherwise,” she believes. “I think that with different approaches, there can be breakthroughs in design and invention.”

“I feel like there is an issue surrounding people’s feelings with STEM subjects, I think people are intimidated by them in school. That is why I want to bring the human side to them,” she smiles.

Niamh aims to promote the idea of STEAM, a movement which aims to merge science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. “I want to combine the arts with STEM, and I use theatre to try and achieve this,” Niamh says. She believes artists can help foster a positive relationship between people and STEM. “Acting and speaking are my two strongest forms of expression, and all of my theatre shows reflect my life’s journey.”

Her current show, Diary of a Martian Beekeeper, is being performed in the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin from the 13th-16th of March as part of Engineers Week, before touring around the UK.

“This show is set in the future, it’s about a beekeeper on Mars,” she reveals.

“Obviously the show is about space, but it also has a connection to earth. My dad was a beekeeper, and I think bees are a good colony to reflect upon,” she says. “Bees work together, and with that kind of collective will, you can achieve anything… like putting a man on the moon.”

To find out more about Niamh, visit her website.

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