Women in Science – Caitriona Nic Aonghusa

To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls, the Marine Institute is highlighting the many brilliant women who play transformative and ambitious roles in understanding, exploring, protecting and sustainably managing our oceans wealth.

The Marine Institute is profiling our female scientists, sharing their study and career paths, the work they do at the Marine Institute and the important contribution their work delivers.

Caitriona Nic Aonghusa, Marine InstituteCaitriona Nic Aonghusa
Section Manager, Marine Spatial Planning and Marine Marine Strategy Framework Directives Policy Support and Coordination
Marine Institute

What is your current role at the Marine Institute and what's involved in your daily work?
I manage the activities in the Marine Institute to support the implementation of Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) and Marine Strategy Framework Directives (MSFD). These are two pieces of European Legislation that Ireland is implementing to ensure sustainable development and protection of our marine resources. We provide science and advice to government to ensure that marine planning decisions are based on solid evidence. This includes data and information about the marine environment to activities that happen in Irish waters. We collate Irish marine data and carry out spatial analysis. I also oversee a range of very interesting projects to collect information that informs MSP and MSFD, in areas such as data, marine Invasive Species, Seaweed, Climate Change. There's more information at https://emff.marine.ie/blue-growth.

What did you study and why?
When I was finishing school, I was fully signed up environmentalist, back then it was about the ozone layer, greenhouse gases and acid rain. This led me to a degree in Environmental Science in Trinity College. Credit is due as well to an amazing Geography teacher (who I don't think I ever thanked!) Growing up by the sea, I was always climbing the rocks and scouring rock pools. I remember vividly, the shock of seeing an octopus, or the day a dead whale washed up, and as for the raw fear of the Lion's Mane Jellyfish! I suppose it was the mystery of it all, there was no Google and nobody had any answers back then. Looking back, it didn't register with me that there were environmental impacts of human activities on our sea. It looked in pretty good shape, from the pier I stood on. It was in college, where I began to appreciate the true value of Ireland's oceans and coasts, why they are unique and worth protecting. This lead me to a Masters by Research in Marine Science, doing a benthic assessment in the Irish Sea. While I was doing this, I loved diving and I wouldn't be where I am today, if it wasn't for my days as an active member of Dublin University Sub-Aqua Club. Actually it wasn't days, it was evenings out in Dublin Bay and weekends along the west coast, many dive trips which really sparked the wow factor for me. I knew it would be my career and it led me to moving west as soon as I finished college.

Over the years, I have had a wide variety of roles. In the early days, I enjoyed spending time in the field, and was involved in offshore and coastal surveys, on lakes and rivers, taking water samples, mapping the seabed. One of my highlights was when I worked with Research Vessel Operations and seeing the RV Celtic Explorer arrive into Galway Docks for the very first time in 2002. Another was completing a research project that investigated the impact of climate change on rivers and lakes. After that, I was more involved in the strategic development of new marine research. I helped to implement the first National Marine Research and Innovation Strategy. In support of the Marine Renewable Energy industry, we set up a wave energy test site in Galway Bay in 2006. Implemented a network of wave monitoring instrumentation that relayed wave data in real-time. We set up SmartBay and, six years ago, commissioned the underwater cabled observatory in Galway Bay.
More recently, I have been driving the marine planning programme, both research and supporting the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in the development of Ireland's National Marine Planning Framework.

What are your interests and passions?
I love to spend time by the water; not only the sea, but also Ireland's lakes and rivers. I really enjoy exploring Ireland's hidden gems. Since the family came along, I don't dive as much as I used to, but I enjoy open water swimming, kayaking or paddle boarding with them. I still have the gear in the shed, and will dive again!

What is the best thing about working in the Marine Institute? What do you enjoy most about your job?
I really enjoy my job, it is dynamic and interesting. I feel like we are making a difference; Ireland has a vast marine wealth and if we plan wisely, we will be able to protect and use those resources to feed us, generate power and improve our wellbeing.

The best thing about working in the Marine Institute is the people I work with. There is amazing enthusiasm. The marine community in Ireland and Europe is relatively small; we are motivated by shared appreciation and sense of purpose. Some of my best friends are also colleagues and were college friends - it's amazing how our career paths have crisscrossed.

What is something you think everyone should know about the ocean?
Everyone knows that the ocean provides us with food and energy and we use it to transport most of our goods into the country. But, the sea also brings huge benefits to our health and our wellbeing. So visit your nearest shore when you can!