Extraordinary people have shaped the world as we know it today and our Tyndall alumni are no exception. They embody the scientific legacy of Tyndall and continue to make a difference and ripples of impact throughout their careers.
Today, we are proud to feature Dr Karen Twomey, Former Staff Researcher & PI at Tyndall, who is now an Engineering Manager at CommScope (formerly Arris) and works in the exciting area of next generation cable telecommunications technologies.
Karen shares her career journey to date including her transition to R&D in industry, as well as the key decisions and activities that helped her to progress to where she is now. She shares advice for those seeking to follow in her footsteps and making the transition to industry.
What is your current role and how different is it from your role in Tyndall?
I’m an Engineering Manager at one of CommScope’s Advanced Research Engineering sites. CommScope develops technologies for future wireless and wired communication networks and is a global company of 30,000 employees in over 200 countries with an annual R&D spend of $800M. It operates through four segments: Broadband Networks, Home Networks, Outdoor Wireless Networks, and Venue and Campus Networks, all of which engineer everyday technologies e.g. when you stream a movie, it could be one of our routers accessing the network and using our advanced video on demand platform.
At CommScope Cork, where I’m based, the main research activity is next generation Hybrid Fiber Coax network technologies which falls within the Broadband Networks segment. These networks are evolving towards a disaggregated network which means parts of the network are being increasingly virtualised.
In Tyndall, my research activities involved the design of miniaturised chemical sensing systems for IoT applications which encompassed sensors, mixed-signal instrumentation, and signal processing and data interpretation algorithms.
How did your time at Tyndall progress your career?
I was at Tyndall for many years and during that time I naturally increased my technical knowledge and widened my research network through the different projects that I worked on. However, what I felt really progressed my career were the skills that I gained in supervising and mentoring students, the science communication training to explain my research to different audiences, project management of large and small projects, and, overriding all of this, the preparation of grant applications to fund my research activities.
What are you doing now?
I coordinate the different grants to support our R&D projects. A large part of my role involves understanding what the hardware engineers and software developers are working on. Not an easy feat as cable telecoms is quite a niche and complex area. I also manage the skunkworks projects that we have running with our university collaborators.
What inspired you to pursue a career in research?
I liked the idea of tinkering about in labs making stuff! During my PhD, I spent a lot of enjoyable (also frustrating) hours setting up equipment to fabricate environmental sensors.
Tell us your best memories of Tyndall
I have many! Calling into the lab every morning to meet the students and discuss experimental work. Catching up with the LSI gang for morning coffee in the canteen. The thrill of getting a proposal funded or paper accepted.
This year we’re celebrating 40 years at Tyndall/ NMRC, what do you think has been Tyndall’s greatest impact?
Without doubt, Tyndall’s greatest impact has been the fostering of an eclectic community of scientists and engineers who are as committed to their research as they are to training the next generation of researchers.
As one of the founding members of the Empowering Women at Tyndall Committee, can you tell us what you learned from your involvement here?
Many moons ago when Julie Dorel (former Marketing Communications Manager at Tyndall) and myself shared an office, we had a meeting of minds on challenges that were particular to female researchers in academia or those working in male-dominated companies, which was interesting considering we came from different backgrounds. We both had benefited from mentors and had met inspiring role models over the years who had an open and honest story to share. We used this as a basis to set up what eventually became Empowering Women at Tyndall and, as more people came on board, the concept went from strength to strength. It’s something we are extremely proud of!
Share with us your career milestones
I graduated from UCC with a degree in electrical engineering and from UL with a PhD in engineering. I went back to my Cork roots when I joined NMRC as a post doc researcher to work on an electronic tongue. (It looked nothing like a tongue!).
I became increasingly more independent with ownership over my own research activities as I gained more expertise, published papers, won funding, and then progressed to staff researcher. I secured an SFI Industry Fellowship to work with Johnson Controls to investigate gas sensing systems in their manufacturing facilities. This gave me my first real taste of industry while remaining a Tyndall employee. Finally, I flew the nest and moved to Arris Communications (now CommScope) as an Engineering Manager. It was a big move with a steep learning curve but four years later, I’m still really enjoying working there.
What’s your advice for those following in your footsteps?
Talk to people. It can be daunting to move to industry, you’ll naturally have a lot of concerns as to whether the company will be the right fit for you. For me personally, I used to have the impression that R&D in industry couldn’t be as exciting as in a research institute. The SFI Fellowship changed my mindset on this. The engineers that I work with now are developing some really cool, cutting-edge technologies, and it’s exhilarating to see the pace of innovation. So do your homework before you jump, and if you feel you don’t know where to start, tap into the Tyndall alumni!
Who or whom inspires you and why?
I never realised the juggling that I would need to do when I had kids and returned to work. Hats off to all the working parents especially those doing their PhD. It’s an amazing feat and not profiled enough!
How do you like to spend your personal-time?
I like to hang out with my family. I have twins, Ellie and Fallon, and we like to head off to the beach or the woods at the weekends.
If you weren’t doing the job you’re doing now, what would you be doing?
Probably something to do with books. I love reading!
What’s a motto you live by?
I can’t say any motto in particular springs to mind but I do try to take the positive out of any experience. For any students grappling with their first rejected paper (I remember mine like it was last week!), you have valuable feedback from an expert. Be positive that you can improve it, and the revised paper will be sharper and something you can be really proud of.
2021 has been a challenging year for many and some have taken it as a time to reflect. What would your own learnings be from 2021?
2021 was a busy year for me. We did a major renovation on the house, and in the middle of that the twins started primary school. In work, I was involved in preparing the largest grant to date of my career. Looking back, I should have been more strategic about pencilling in ‘me-time’ to recharge the batteries.