A mutual love of maths added up to IRC PhD scholarships for a mother and daughter
Posted: 30 June, 2023
Róisín Hill and her daughter Aoife were together conferred with Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) research degrees, funded under the IRC Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship Programme, by the University of Galway at its summer 2023 graduation in June.
Róisín and Aoife, who are from Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, share a talent and passion for mathematics and they embarked on their PhDs at the University of Galway together in 2017.
Róisín was conferred with her PhD for a project she undertook in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences titled ‘Moving Mesh Methods for Problems with Layer Phenomena’ under supervisor Dr Niall Madden.
Róisín’s PhD project introduced improved numerical analysis techniques for predicting how fluids flow. The tools developed will be particularly useful for and can be extended to applications such as building dams or understanding how pollutants disperse.
For her PhD, Aoife completed a project titled ‘Computational Modelling Framework for Predicting the Evolution of Biodegradable Polymers During Degradation’ in the Department of Biomedical Engineering under supervisor Dr William Ronan.
Aoife’s project investigated how mathematical models can be used to predict the behaviour of special plastics that gradually break down in the human body, offering an alternative to permanent solutions that often have multiple long-term risks or require repeat surgery. The models developed contribute to ensuring optimal alignment of the degrading implant with the developing tissue, with applications including stents, orthopaedic fixation devices and sutures.
The IRC Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship Programme, which funds postgraduate education across Ireland’s higher education institutions, is highly competitive and an average of 18% of applicants are successful. The scheme awards excellent, pioneering, innovative and creative research, across all disciplines, both non-directed projects and for research funded by strategic partners of the programme.
Since completing her IRC-funded PhD, Róisín was successfully awarded a prestigious two-year IRC Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship, which she is currently undertaking in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Limerick under the mentorship of Professor Natalia Kopteva.
Róisín’s postdoctoral research project is titled ‘Error Analysis and Adaptivity in the Numerical Solution of Singularly Perturbed Differential Equations’, and it aims to generate numerical solutions to fluid-flow problems.
Since completing her IRC-funded PhD, Aoife has taken up a full-time position as Assistant Lecturer in Computing at Atlantic Technological University Donegal, based at the Letterkenny campus.
Speaking about her experience of doing her PhD at the same time as her mother, Aoife said: “I felt it was really helpful to have someone at the same level going through the same thing, where we could bounce ideas off each other. We may not have necessarily understood completely what we were talking about, but we didn’t feel bad about that because we were going to do the exact same for the other person again. We referred to that as using the other person as a ‘rubber duck’, where whoever you’re speaking to doesn’t really matter, but just getting to speak out loud helps to figure out issues that you might have been having or gives you that lightbulb moment.
“Having each other, then living together during Covid, and having that support when a lot of people had lost that, was really helpful; to be going through it with someone. You could see their progress. You knew there were days that were better than others. It was just really motivating to have each other together during that.”
The mother and daughter have been supporting each other’s academic paths since further back again, as they also undertook undergraduate Bachelor of Science degrees at the University of Galway, which Aoife started in 2012 in Applied Mathematics, with Róisín having joined her in 2013 to do a degree in Mathematical Sciences.
Describing her experience of how they have supported and inspired each other across their lives and academic careers, Róisín said, “Aoife was the reason why I went back to university in the first place. When Aoife was 14, she got ME —chronic fatigue syndrome, so she could only attend school roughly 50 per cent of the time. So I ended up at home with her a lot. I tutored her in some subjects where it would be easier for me to do it than having to go to school all the time.
Róisín had been working as a chartered accountant. Explaining further why she decided to go to university to study maths, Róisín said, “When I was four, I loved maths and somebody said to me, ‘If you love maths, you should be an accountant.’ I just took people at their word. There was no reason to think there were any other options out there. So I ended up a chartered accountant and worked as one up until two years after Aoife got sick. Because what was happening was that Aoife would go to school and she’d not be able for it. I’d have to go down and collect her from school and I’d leave her at home. I’d go back to work and over time, it just wasn’t working out.
“The accountancy was fine but it didn’t challenge me in any way mathematically, and once I got that back — the opportunity to do that — it was way better. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Maths was always my thing.”
Describing the impact that IRC support has had on her academic career, Aoife said: “The best part of it was the extra funding for expenses such as going to conferences. That was a big help. And it just made me feel a bit more of a community spirit around doing my PhD, where you could go to see other people at different conferences and not feel stressed about having to go and organise different funding. I went to some conferences in Ireland and some in the UK also, so it was definitely helpful from that perspective.
“I also think that the prestige that comes with it is a huge thing. My CV is definitely enhanced because of having an IRC-funded PhD, so perhaps I wouldn’t have the job I have now without it. You just don’t know!”
Government of Ireland programmes
The Government of Ireland programmes, namely the Government of Ireland Postgraduate
Scholarship Programme and the Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme, are
established national initiatives, funded by the Department of Further and Higher Education,
Research, Innovation and Science and managed by the Irish Research Council. These programmes
support suitably qualified research master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral candidates pursuing, or
intending to pursue, full-time research in any discipline.
The Government of Ireland programmes are unique in the Irish research landscape. Among their
• individual, prestigious awards for excellent research in the name of the applicant;
• the opportunity for awardees to direct their own research project at the early-career
stage, working with a supervisor or mentor as relevant;
• an objective selection process using international, independent expert peer review;
• funding across all disciplines, from archaeology to zoology; and
• awards for bottom-up, non-directed research, with the exception of those awards
funded by our strategic funding partners.
Róisín and Aoife Hill took part in a first-person interview in June 2023 for this feature.
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