Attending one of University College Dublin’s open days as a fifth-year secondary student influenced Elena O’Callaghan’s decision to pursue her studies in the agri field.
The Mallow, Co. Cork native’s grandfather farmed sheep and a small suckler herd to supply meat to the family business – a small country house hotel and restaurant in her native county.
The 22-year-old’s father rears free-range woodland pigs and supplies this produce to the restaurant. In addition to this, he maintains several acres of apple orchard for craft cider and apple brandy production and grows organic fruit and vegetables.
“My father has always been a massive pioneer of the farm-to-fork ethos and of producing natural, good-quality, wholesome products from the land so it was him who really sparked my interest in agriculture.”
Elena enrolled in University College Dublin’s Agricultural Science – Animal Science degree programme, following the completion of her Leaving Certificate in 2014.
“I settled on UCD because of the fantastic reviews and personal accounts I heard about its Ag Science course.”
For her Professional Work Experience (PWE) module in third year, Elena got to the opportunity to work in various industry-based positions and to gain some hands-on farming experience.
For her dairy placement, she went to Idaho in the US to 4 Bros Dairy – a large-scale dairy enterprise, milking 11,500 cows daily. “I was interested to see dairy farming from another perspective and to see how it compares to our own system in Ireland.” She explained.
She also gained experience at Hermitage pig unit in Kilkenny where she worked in its lab analysing, processing and packaging boar semen which is distributed nationally and internationally.
“I always had an interest in the area of reproduction, so this part of my placement along with a brief stint in Munster AI got me thinking of a future in this field.” The 22-year-old explained.
The Cork native graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in May-2018 and progressed onto her PhD the following month. She was interviewed for the position in April and received the news that she was accepted before she completed her final exams and graduated. “I knew that the end goal was to be working in the reproductive field but not sure as what.”
“I knew that undertaking this PhD was the right first step for me as it would introduce me to this area and allow me to figure out what type of career I could carve out.”
Elena’s PhD titled ‘The use of in-vitro and in-vivo assays to predict fertility in bulls used in artificial insemination” is a 4-year programme funded by SFI (Science Foundation Ireland. Based at UCD Lyons Research Farm in County Kildare, she is working in collaboration with Teagasc; UCD and UL.
“I enjoy the variety; I will be working on many different projects over the course of my time here as well as helping with other student’s trial work.”
“You can plan out a perfect experiment but something nearly always goes wrong at some point and you just have to learn how to cope with it and move on.” She added.
Women in Ag
Elena said she had worked just as hard for the same opportunities and has never felt that my gender has held her back working in this field.
“Although my experience was like this, I know it’s not the same for every woman working in ag, many are indeed overlooked for their efforts and contribution to the sector.”
She said that seeing the impact that some women have made on the agricultural sector will be a “huge encouragement” for more women to get involved.
“I think they only need to look to women like Zoe Kavanagh - CEO of National Dairy Council; Tara McCarthy - CEO of Bord Bia; Professor Thia Hennessy - Agri-food economics – UCC and Deirdre O’Shea - Executive Director of Agri Aware to name but a few.”
“Having said this, when I was graduating from ag science, the ratio of women to men was nearly 50:50 which is very promising in term of increasing women’s involvement in the field.” She noted.
Although Elena still has another three-and-a-half-years left of her PhD, she wants to try and incorporate some travelling into her studies.
“Many PhD students spend a few weeks/months working in other university labs around the world so this is something I am hoping to do at some stage.”
Once she completes this programme, she hopes to work abroad for a period; she may stay in research and apply for a post-doc position somewhere or take up an industry-based job.
“I have always thought that the Irish Agricultural sector is something to be extremely proud of, so the idea that I could potentially make some contribution to it through my own research is what I like the most about working in it,” Elena concluded.