AMBER and CRANN punching above their weight in materials research

10 Nov 2017

Dr Lorraine Byrne, executive director, CRANN and AMBER. Image: CRANN

With a new report out on the impact of funding into CRANN and AMBER, executive director Dr Lorraine Byrne talks about seizing opportunities. Claire O’Connell reports.

Sometimes it’s good to stop and take stock.

When the CRANN institute and AMBER Centre decided to review the impact of their investment research and outreach to date, executive director Dr Lorraine Byrne was delighted with the results, which were delivered to an audience with standing room only at Dublin’s Science Gallery this week.

Byrne took up the executive director role last year for both Science Foundation Ireland entities: CRANN, an institute for nanoscience in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) that has been running for a decade, and AMBER, a national centre for materials research that kicked off in 2013.  

“It is a time for us to really reflect back on what is the impact of AMBER and CRANN on the economy at large,” said Byrne. “Because, ultimately, we ask the taxpayer for funding to do the work, so we wanted to see the return on investment to date.”

They asked TCD economist Prof Brian Lucey to analyse the multiplier effect of investment, and that showed a return of around €5 for every €1 put in.

Punching above weight

The centres have built up an impressive track record of research, which was what attracted Byrne to take up the leadership role. “We punch above our weight internationally for materials research,” she said.

“And for our citation impacts, the numbers of citations per paper published, we would be on a par for material science with ‘brand name’ universities like Imperial College London, Cambridge University and Harvard. To be in that company is really awesome and inspiring.” 

The researchers themselves are well-recognised globally, she added. “One of our researchers, Prof Valeria Nicolosi, is Europe’s only five-time winner of European Research Council funding. I don’t think people realise the calibre of scientists, not just here but in all universities in Ireland.”

Engaging with companies and students

CRANN and AMBER have a strong focus on engaging with companies, which Byrne sees as an important function of the research. “Over the decade, we have worked with more than 200 companies, across the full spectrum of fundamental research that will impact the technical direction of the future to supporting local SMEs in addressing issues they face that could solve problems in the short term,” she explained.

“The breakdown of the companies is about 50/50 for multinationals and SMES. We would see it as part of our remit to help to strengthen the research mandate of FDI companies in Ireland, because those local divisions of companies are also competing with their global partners for investment. Then we also recognise that most people in Ireland are employed in the SME sector and, to thrive, these companies also need to innovate.” 

As well as working on the next generation of technologies, Byrne emphasised the importance of developing the next generation of scientists. She described how materials developed by CRANN and AMBER have reached around 300,000 school students to date.  

“We really want to inspire students in schools to study science, and we have initiatives like Science Live, where students dial in to our Advanced Microscopy Laboratory and we provide packs with microscopes for the classroom – kids really engage with that hands-on approach to learning.”

New directions 

One of the most exciting trends in materials science is the emergence of 3D printing, according to Byrne, and AMBER is set to support innovation with a new lab launching early next year.

“There is an enormous interest and growth in 3D printing and how you can use it to revolutionise how you manufacture things, and underpinning all of that is the need for materials,” she said.

“It would be naive to think the same materials you can use today will be directly translatable into 3D printing, so we are launching a 3D printing lab in January, and we are seeing more and more engagement with companies who have an interest in that, and they would use 3D printing to augment what they make today, or make new products.”

Another area of interest is microelectronics and communications. “We are seeing roadmaps starting to change and open up, and we are looking at ways to combine devices together,” she said. “This is a huge opportunity for nanoscience.”

Opportunity knocks

Taking opportunities is a cornerstone of Byrne’s career strategy, which she started with a degree in analytical science and a PhD in Dublin City University before working as a forensic scientist and then moving to Hewlett-Packard (HP) in Leixlip. 

“I went in as a chemist, I set up labs in HP, and then moved into ink formulation and into R&D and nanomaterials,” she said.

“I had a lot of opportunity to develop skills there. When I joined HP, I thought my life was in a lab but, by the time I left, 18 years later, I was working with security and cryptography.

Her advice to anyone looking to progress is to take the opportunities that come your way. “Don’t be afraid,” she said.

“I always say, if an opportunity comes, why not go for it? If it doesn’t work out, you still learn something.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication