SFI awards showcase breadth of research

Bioeconomy pioneer wins researcher of the year award

From the bioeconomy to breast cancer, from the microbiome to mentoring, the Science Foundation Ireland Awards 2019 recognise a breadth of research activities.

For SFI researcher of the year 2019, Prof Kevin O’Connor, the inspiration for his work hit suddenly. “Some years ago, I was in a car with my wife driving on the Rock Road in Dublin and I said we need to address the challenge of plastic waste – bottles, farm waste and phones – by converting them into something of value,” he recalls. “I wanted to convert them into biodegradable plastics using a combination of chemistry and biology.”

O'Connor built up his research in this area in University College Dublin, exploring how bacteria can be used to convert unrecyclable plastics and other wastes into biodegradable plastics and biodegradable glues, and looking at how to convert food waste and side streams from the dairy industry into products of value, using biotechnology.

He successfully spun out two biotechnology companies, Bioplastech and Nova Mentis, and became heavily involved in developing the bioeconomy in Europe and Ireland, including a pilot plant for bio-based technologies in Lisheen, Co Tipperary.


“The bioeconomy creates value from our natural resources such as making new chemicals or generating clean energy but it also an opportunity to preserve our manage our environment and to enhance biodiversity, which is key to building a sustainable world,” says O’Connor, who now directs the Beacon SFI bioeconomy research centre. “Natural resources are on our doorstep, and if we use them well we can move away from a dependence on fossil fuels and help to address environmental destruction and climate change.”

Early-career researchers

The SFI awards for early career researchers of the year went to two biologists: Prof Lydia Lynch from Trinity College Dublin, who works on the immune system and its role in cancer and obesity, and Dr Orla O'Sullivan from Teagasc and the APC Microbiome Ireland SFI research centre attached to UCC, who explores how physical fitness and diet impacts gut health.

“I work with Sports Ireland to see how sport shapes the microbiome, or the micro-organisms in your gut, and also how physical fitness alters the microbiome of non-athletes,” explains O’Sullivan, who has been cited among the top researchers worldwide in her field. “I’m also excited to be part of the SFI VistaMilk centre, which has allowed me to branch out into new areas of research like soil, rumen and milk.”

Her advice for researchers is to take every opportunity going: “Whether it be visiting your local school to talk about your work or giving a keynote at an international conference, every little thing gives you experience and adds to your CV,” she says. “Also if you are not in you can’t win, so apply for that grant no matter how much you think you won’t get it. Finally, be nice to people – we all needed help to start off, so pay it forward.”

Broadening horizons

Many of the SFI award recipients this year received recognition for broadening their horizons, including Prof Abhay Pandit from NUI Galway, scientific director of the Cúram centre for research in medical devices.

His work focuses on implants that can evade the body’s immune response. “Our latest work is on a gel that will heal the heart muscle after cardiac arrest or a heart attack,” he says. “The gel will prevent scarring, thus keeping functionality of the heart intact.”

Pandit won the best international engagement award, and his advice for others is to benchmark their work and carve a niche for themselves globally. “Lead opportunities to create networks, compete with yourself and collaborate with the best in the world,” he says.

Prof Danny Kelly from Trinity and the Amber SFI research centre won the industry partnership award for his work on tissue engineering, and Prof William Gallagher from UCD won the entrepreneurship award for his work on better diagnostics for cancer.

Gallagher is co-founder of spin-out company OncoMark, which is moving towards the clinic with a new breast cancer test, OncoMasTR. “There is a pressing need for more cost effective options to better determine whether early stage breast cancer patients can effectively avoid unnecessary chemotherapy or not. OncoMasTR provides a really valuable option in this respect,” he says.

His biggest tips are to seek insights into how industry thinks and to listen to the case stories of previous entrepreneurs, especially those who have travelled the path from researcher to entrepreneur. “Not all of the stories need to be positive, as failures can be exceptionally instructive.”

Stem communication

SFI also honoured two researchers with awards for outstanding contribution to Stem communication: Dr Muriel Grenon from NUI Galway for her work with Cell Explorers and Dr Eilish McLoughlin from Dublin City University, who brings physics to wider audiences through initiatives such as physics busking and programmes to support teachers.

For McLoughlin, who is principal investigator on the improving gender balance Ireland programme with SFI and the Institute of Physics, getting the message out to girls and young women in particular about the beauty, utility and fun of physics is important. “Young girls need role models to encourage them to pursue their interests and achieve their potential in physics,” she says.

Dr Fatima Gunning at Tyndall National Institute and IPIC SFI research centre in Cork is also thinking about the next generation of researchers – she scooped the inaugural SFI mentorship award this year. "I have been mentoring students and young researchers, formally and informally, for many years now, as I think it is important for them to realise their own skills beyond the technical abilities and know-how, their own potential and how well-rounded they actually are," says Gunning, whose research area is photonics.

“In particular for those from under-represented groups, navigating through research and career paths can be daunting sometimes, so I try to help them learn how to make connections and find their own path. I would say the most important thing would be to listen, and listen to them carefully.

“There’s loads going on in their minds, sometimes tough personal circumstances, and even the body language will give hints to how they are at a given moment.

“And we should avoid projecting ourselves or our career choices to our mentees. It’s their lives, their choices, and we should be open to helping them with guidance or creating opportunities or connections,” he adds, “It’s a delight to see many of my mentees succeeding in the workplace, engaging with the wide public and seeking what they want in their careers.”

Investment in research

Underpinning the activities and excellence reflected in the SFI awards is the need for solid investment into research, as O'Connor pointed out at the SFI Summit in Athlone earlier this month. "The European Commission vision is quite clear – investment in research is a critical investment in public good," he says.

“If we are to address the grand challenges facing humanity, such as climate change, cancer and other diseases, sustainable food production, air quality, access to clean water and much more, what is needed is research. [It] is an investment in our future, and like an investment fund it takes years to mature, but the rewards will be reaped.”

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation