We are delighted to announce that this year The Undergraduate Awards medal will feature the pioneering Irish mathematician and physicist, Sheila Tinney (neé Power). Described by Erwin Schrödinger as “among the best equipped and most successful of the younger generation of theoretical physicists in this country,” Tinney carved out a remarkable academic career at a time when women were almost totally excluded from the study of Mathematics and Science.
In 1935 when Sheila Tinney sat her Leaving Certificate (the final examination in the Irish secondary school system), she was one of only 8 girls to be awarded an Honours in Mathematics, compared to 126 boys. Undeterred, she went on to study Mathematical Science in University College Dublin and graduated first in her class. She received an MA from UCD the following year and was then granted a scholarship to study for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, which she completed in 1941. Eight years later, Tinney was one of the first four women to be elected as members of the Royal Irish Academy, the main society for academic research and excellence in Ireland.
Tinney spent most of her life researching and teaching in UCD, where she worked until her retirement in 1978. However, she did take one leave of absence in 1948 to work at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. There she collaborated with some of the most renowned mathematicians and physicians of the time, including Nobel laureates Erwin Schrödinger and Hideki Yukawa, as well as the famous German physicist Walter Heitler. She also rubbed shoulders with other greats, such as Albert Einstein, who was then a professor at the university. She is reported to have always enjoyed reminiscing to her students about her time in Princeton, casually queueing up for coffee with Einstein.
Tinney’s work is largely concerned with the field of quantum theory. In Edinburgh she worked under the Nobel laureate Max Born, a German physicist who fled the Nazis in 1933, and is known for his role in the development of quantum mechanics. Tinney was a key contributor to his research on the stability of crystal lattices and was the co-author of two of a series of papers on the subject. She also published a very influential paper on Compton scattering while working in UCD in 1944.
For her entire career, Tinney struggled to overcome the limits that were placed on her because of her gender. She was often over-looked for promotions, which were instead awarded to her less qualified male colleagues. She gained a reputation for supporting young female academics who found themselves dealing with similar difficulties. Her sympathetic but practical advice to one such woman was to “Keep that big smile on your face, put your head down and write another book.”
Sheila Tinney was a trail-blazing and brilliant academic, who achieved astounding success through self-belief and determination. She is the perfect candidate to feature on the Undergraduate Awards medal, which will be presented to all 25 Global Winner at a ceremony in Dublin this November.