Christopher Soraghan

BE in Electronic Engineering 2001-2005 PhD in Biomedical Engineering/Experimental Physics 2005-2010

What Qualification did you study?
I studied a BE in Electronic Engineering at NUI Maynooth from Sept 2001- Summer 2005. I qualified with a first class honours (1:1) and the highest rank in my class. In the degree I was awarded Best Final Year Project (Aglilent Technologies Prize) and Best in Electronic Engineering (Intel Prize). I also was awarded 2nd place in Electronic Engineering in the Denis Phelan Scholarship NUI Award.
Having said all that, I don’t feel that I was the smartest in the class: there were others I found were smarter. However, I put in the hours and knuckled down and was very focused in the final 2 years of the degree - especially 4th year - to attain a first (1:1) so that I could continue in research. Not that you need a first to do research - but it can help on the CV and shows ability at least. I found that writing and reflecting while the lecturer was speaking kept me focused and helped me to think more critically about the subjects. Days that I didn’t write and just listened I found harder to keep focus and pay attention.
After the BE degree, I looked for a funded Masters (MSc or ME) in biomedical research but at the time I only seemed to be able to find taught programmes - mostly in the UK. An opportunity came up between the Engineering Department, Computer Science Department and the Experimental Physics Department at NUI Maynooth - a PhD in Biomedical Engineering/Experimental Physics Research. Having applied for this I passed interview and did 4 years research (Sept 2005-Sept 2009) - with a successful viva exam in Feb 2010 and finally graduating in 2010.
For the PhD, I designed and developed a brain-computer interface (BCI) and was looking to investigate the power of a multichannel version of a continuous-wave near-infrared spectroscopy device. In short, a brain-computer interface should allow someone to control something (like a computer cursor) using only their brains (no physical touch). This would be useful to someone who is paralysed who might like to control things in their homes by just thinking about it.
The BCI we designed contained a load of LEDs (like on your remote control for the TV) that we shine into your head from on top of your scalp and we collect the light that reflects back from your head. This light because of its wavelength, can go through your skull and into the outer area of your brain, and then because of refraction it comes back out your skull - but in very small amounts. Very sensitive light detectors pick up this light and we can infer stuff that’s going on in your brain from analysing the data and then use that to control a computer cursor or something: thus - a brain-computer interface. This all sounds nice and science-fictiony but there are issues with noise and movement of the person etc etc. A lot of the time is spent reading and designing the technology - electronics, optics, and software. It was great initially when we saw we could pick up cardiac pulse from the head and then see the signal change when we thought about something like thinking about moving an arm (imagining it - called motor imagery). It was great doing the PhD but like everything there were highs and lows. My colleagues, co-workers in the project, and supervisors were great to work with. Dr. Tomás Ward and Dr Charles Markham were the 2 main supervisors on the project.
What did you enjoy most about your time in Maynooth?
As part of the BE degree, we did 6 months Industry Work Experience in 3rd year - working in a company. I worked with Ocuco Ltd in Coolmine, Dublin which is a software company who develop software packages for opticians and pharmacies. We worked in 1st line support as engineer/technicians and were tasked with solving problems for the pharmacists and opticians when they called to say there was a problem with the software or that something just wasn’t working. I gained a lot of IT experience in this work and how to deal with people over the phone. This was one of the best experiences I had in the workforce. It taught me a lot and was a good catalyst for working harder in 4th year so as to develop a career in engineering.
One of the biggest attractions of the department was the approachability of the lecturers. They were happy to help when we came knocking on their doors.
The staff in the engineering department who you didn’t directly engage with were also friendly, and there was a local feel to the department - including the secretaries there over the years. I also was happy to work with staff in Experimental Physics, Computer Science, and Hamilton Institute who all collaborated with the Engineering Department.
The engineering class fluctuated between 20-30 people over the 4 year degree. As a result we all became close friends and collaborated in the labs which were vibrant and useful. During the final year project, we had a dedicated 4th year lab and people roamed free around the lab talking with people and enquiring about each others progress or just catching up. This was all only possible by having being facilitated by the department.
I moved to Maynooth in 2001. It’s now 2014 and I still live there! It’s a great place to live in terms of the friendliness of the people. Fights and things like that are very rare. Everything is very near from the various housing estates - with something like 10-15 ATMs, Tesco Extra, Large Dunnes Stores, Aldi, Lidl, Supervalu, Centra, Londis - so you have your pick. It’s also on the main artery into Dublin - and is the last major frequent stop (30-60mins) for trains and buses from Dublin. Plenty of restaurants and nice places to walk by if you like that too.
What was your journey after Maynooth and where are you currently working?
After Maynooth, I really wanted to work in the healthcare industry in the technology side of things and with patients if possible. With the recession, and moratoriums engineering and medical physics jobs in the Irish healthcare sector were few and over subscribed. Similarly for jobs in Medical Device companies. I did some consultancy work for a few weeks measuring sound levels in Dublin with another researcher - as after the recession jobs were hard to come by for everyone. I then did work as an Innovation Facilitator with a company in Carlow for 8 months - looking at new products the company could invest in and looking at work practice in the company. For this I worked alongside the company MD and liaised with a professor in Product Development and Innovation in the University of Ulster to look at innovation in the company. I then applied for and was offered my current post as a postdoc in technologies for older people at St James’s Hospital with the Department of Medical Physics & Bioengineering (with Trinity College Dublin). This work includes integrating with patients regarding technology that they utilise, developing Apps for the clinical environment, signal processing of biosignals (e.g. phasic blood pressure) for clinical and research studies, technology design and suitability, and design of new technologies in general for the ageing theme at SJH.
It was great that the Engineering Department at NUIM were able to facilitate final year projects with a biomedical theme so I could work into this area from my degree, and then into my PhD. Collaboration between the departments and free flow of ideas was a great enabler for developing new ideas. Collaboration with industry is also a very attractive feature of the degree for placement in year 3. I am grateful to my supervisors at Electronic Engineering and Computer Science for their support, ideas, and continued relationship even after I left the university. I would certainly recommend the department for anyone interested in Engineering and also, perhaps, for developing an interest in research.