Meet the 10 finalists of Ireland’s national FameLab competition

31 Mar 2020

Image: © golubovy/

10 researchers based across Ireland are set to compete virtually to be named winner of the national finals of FameLab.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, 10 researchers based across Ireland are set to compete in the national finals of science communication competition FameLab on 15 April. The winner will go on to compete at the FameLab International finals, scheduled to take place in the UK this autumn. The Irish event is organised by the British Council Ireland and supported by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Participants are tasked with giving a three-minute presentation about their research in the most engaging and interesting way possible. While typically the event takes places on a stage in front of judges, the finalists this time around will give their talks virtually.

Future Human

The 10 finalists beat off strong competition from other contestants at the FameLab regional heats in Cork, Dublin, Galway and Limerick, as well as a nationwide FameLab video competition. Finalists include six PhD students, three lecturers and a conservation biologist, from Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Tralee, Tipperary, California, Cornwall and the Netherlands.

Their names are:

Joseph Pennycook, APC Microbiome Ireland/University College Cork (UCC)

After completing his undergraduate and master’s degrees in Cornwall, UK, Pennycook moved to Cork to study the bacteria that live in the human gut and how they are affected by antibiotics. He is particularly interested in how evolution created the diversity of life on Earth, and how complex groups of living organisms interact with each other.

Simon Spichak, APC Microbiome Ireland/UCC

Spichak is an Irish Research Council postgraduate scholar at UCC. He is interested in the non-neuronal cells in the brain, the microbial cells in the gut and how they communicate during early life.

Conor Duffy, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

Originally from Tipperary, Duffy normally spends his days thinking about disorders that affect human brains. He also has a deep love for bees and everything about them.

Marina Mulligan, conservation biologist

Mulligan, a Tralee native, has a keen interest in public engagement and science communication. She previously worked in the field globally, researching rainforest species and the bioacoustics of birdsong, before returning to Ireland to promote our own native species.

Katherine Burns, University College Dublin

Before beginning her current programme at University College Dublin, Burns worked with insect pollinators as a research assistant and outreach facilitator across the US. Her main research interests include wild pollinator conservation; interactions between managed and wild pollinators; and the importance of insect pollinators to crop and native plant pollination.

Elena Pagter, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology

Originally from California, Pagter travelled to Galway to finish her MSc in marine conservation and biodiversity. She is currently an Irish Research Council-funded PhD candidate looking at microplastics in Galway Bay’s sediments and fauna.

Helen Horkan, NUI Galway

Horkan completed her BSc in medical genetics in the UK before travelling to Galway to undertake a PhD at NUI Galway. She is part of SFI’s first cohort in the Centre for Research Training in Genomics Data Science.

Sandra Hurley, University of Limerick

Originally from the Netherlands, marriage to an Irishman brought Hurley to Ireland. She was a trained artist but decided to follow her passion for science and horses to the University of Limerick, where she got her BSc in equine science as a mature student. She is currently a PhD student, doing research into the effect of the bit on equine behaviour, welfare and physiology.

Luca Mirimin, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology

Mirimin has lived, studied and worked in Italy, UK, South Africa and Ireland where he is a lecturer in aquatic ecology at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. He is also a researcher in genetics at the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre.

Mirimin uses DNA to study many aquatic organisms including whales and dolphins.

Andrew McGovern, University of Limerick

McGovern completed his undergrad in neuroscience and continued it into a research-based masters at UCC, which he is currently finishing, while working as a teaching assistant focused on biosciences at the University of Limerick.

Commenting on this year’s finalists, British Council Ireland director Mags Walsh said: “As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of clear and engaging communication about scientific subjects is more important than ever.

“Initiatives like FameLab equip scientists and researchers with the skills they need to communicate with a general audience and we in British Council Ireland are proud to support their development.”

Updated 12.07pm, 1 April 2020: This article was updated to show Gerard McGlacken has been replaced by Luca Mirimin in the 10 finalists. Also, the UK finals is set to take place in autumn, not the summer. 

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic