USA ambassador and scientist Mairead Willis tells us about choosing to do an MA in Creative Writing at UCC.

A background in neuroscience

This time last year, I was wrapping up a Neuroscience degree in Indiana. I was fascinated by the brain then, as I am now. Despite recent advances in neuroscience, the scientific community still can’t fully explain how the three-pound organs in our skulls give rise to our conscious minds. In other words, we still don’t know for sure what makes us human.

Studying neuroscience brought me to the furthest reaches of our quest to understand ourselves as a species. Nevertheless, as I studied the anatomy of a sheep brain and poured over scientific studies, I couldn’t get rid of the idea that I was only seeing half of the equation. I was learning about the electrical pulses and chemical signals that allow human beings to reach consciousness, but I wanted to learn how to use my consciousness in creative ways as well.

Creative writing

I had taken a few creative writing classes in high school and college, including one during my semester abroad in Dublin, so I began to research writing programmes in Ireland. The Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at University College Cork is only a year long, hands-on in its approach, and features talented faculty and visiting writers. I began filling out the application on a whim, but after multiple drafts and conversations with professors and family, I talked myself into confirming my place on the programme when the acceptance came.


In my first semester at UCC, I have learned all I thought I would and more. My professors have supported me as I’ve critically examined and deconstructed my fiction and poetry, and they have encouraged me to experiment with everything from memoir to radio drama. I adore my classmates, who range from beginners like myself to professional writers. We are almost always one another’s first readers.

Mairead meeting one of the local horses


I have been delighted to find that Cork is a literary city, with a weekly poetry night, a monthly fiction session, a short story festival and a poetry festival, to name a few writerly events. I have had a challenging and rewarding experience building a community of friends and colleagues in a new country. Finally, and most importantly, the practices of reading and writing have helped me to cultivate patience and focus, which were missing from my life before.


I haven’t given up on studying the brain. Now, when I return to it, I will carry with me not only the scientific rigour of my undergraduate degree, but also the human import of my experience as a writer.

I am so grateful that I decided to pursue an MA in Creative Writing at UCC, despite how outlandish the idea seemed at first. By giving up a year of my life to this programme, I’ve had my life changed in return.