Karen Twomey is a Researcher at Tyndall National Institute, Cork who took part in Aurora in Dublin in 2014-15. Karen chose, Val Cummins, Senior Lecturer at University College Cork to be her mentor for the duration of the programme and the relationship continues to this day. We asked Karen and Val to reflect on their relationship as a mentee and mentor.
Firstly, tell us a little about yourself
Karen: My name is Karen Twomey, and I participated in the Aurora Course in 2014-2015. I’m a mother to one year old boy/girl twins and, I’m a researcher in autonomous chemical sensing systems at Tyndall National Institute, Cork, Ireland. My research activity encompasses sensors, mixed-signal instrumentation, and signal processing and data interpretation algorithms.
Val: My name is Val Cummins. I had the pleasure of being invited to work with Karen on her Aurora Programme. My background and track record is in leading research with impact, including fostering innovation for the sustainable development of the global ocean economy. The sea has been a focal point for most of my career; from the formative years as a zoologist working on the humble periwinkle, to managing a large research centre, directing a maritime and energy cluster, and most recently as an academic in UCC. My leadership in the Blue Economy was recognised by a number of awards, including an Eisenhower Fellowship in 2012. I am married to Ken and we have three, beautiful young daughters.
How did you approach the process of mentorship?
Karen: I went into the mentorship process not fully knowing what I wanted to get out of it. However, I did know that I wanted a mentor who was a great public speaker and who understood the R&D environment. Val was suggested to me as a suitable mentor by the UCC Aurora Champion. I contacted Val over email and after our initial meeting, we agreed to meet face-to-face once a month with contact in between over email or text message.
Val: When I was contacted directly by Karen, I was struck by her commitment to the Aurora programme, and it was a no-brainer for me to agree to a mentoring relationship. I was fascinated by her work and achievements to date. We arranged to meet regularly. Our initial meetings were well structured, with clear objectives and actions to pursue. At the same time, it was natural for us to be very informal, which helped us to get to know each other better.
What has been your biggest learning from the process?
Karen: I think the biggest learning for me has been the realisation of how powerful having an outside perspective can be. You can start to get tunnel vision, especially when working in the same workplace for 15 years. Having the right mentor can show you your potential, can give you a push to try new things. For instance, with Val’s help and encouragement, I applied for a Science Foundation Ireland Industry fellowship, which allows an exchange between academia and industry. I’m now on a one year secondment from Tyndall and am working in a corporate R&D environment.
Val: My learning from the process is that you can never underestimate the importance of mutual support between women in the work place. It is not a linear process flowing from mentor to mentee. It works both ways. Karen’s focus and capability inspires me.
Val, what inspired you to become a mentor?
Val: I was inspired by Karen, in her approach to me, which encouraged me to believe that this would be a valuable process. I was also inspired by my experience with my own personal mentors, who have been generous to a fault with their time and advice which they have provided unconditionally.
I had my head in the sand for many years in relation to the need to advocate for equality in the workplace. Through personal experiences I have come to appreciate the importance of this issue. Mentorship provides an important mechanism for women to provide the support needed to encourage their counterparts to break through the many glass ceiling that prevail in working environments.
Karen, have you ever been a mentor yourself?
Karen: I haven’t previously been a mentor but I would like to pay it forward to other women pursuing a career in STEM by passing on what I have learnt from Val and from my own experiences as a research scientist.
Karen, what was the best piece of advice you received from Val?
Karen: The best piece of advice that I got from Val was to have a can-do attitude and to give new things a shot.
Val, what piece of advice would you give an aspiring woman leader?
Val: My advice is that what constitutes ‘success’ is personal to every individual. Capability, intellect, talent, and good luck are all factors that can help an aspiring leader to achieve successful outcomes. However, ultimately, success, or if you like, a sense of fulfilment and wellbeing, are contingent on relationships. Taking the time to relate to others, and to value your colleagues, is an imperative. It’s a cliché, but there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’. Aspiring leaders need to understand how to build and maintain vibrant teams.
Finally, for you both: do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who
Karen: I am very inspired by Professor Linda Doyle, who is Director of CONNECT/CTVR Research Centre in Dublin and Professor of Engineering and The Arts in Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. She is a wonderfully passionate speaker and is an expert in her field yet is completely unassuming.
Val: It is hard to single out any one individual, as there are many characteristics among many female leaders that are inspiring. For example, Ellen MacArthur, is an amazing example of someone with vision and an indefatigable determination to succeed. As a professional sailor, she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005. Her autobiography, which I just re-read, is incredibly compelling. Since she retired from professional sailing, she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to promote the Circular Economy, prompted, in part, by her acute awareness of debris in the ocean. In business, Sheryl Sandberg stands out, for her communication skills. I admire her for her honesty, and in her ability to use her influence to tackle the issue of gender equality in the workplace. Angela Merkel also deserves a mention, as a political leader committed to stability in a difficult time for the European project.
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.
Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.