One of the more important people in the Irish science scene, Prof Fergus Shanahan is the driving force behind APC Microbiome in Cork.
“As noble as it is to have a doctor-patient relationship, only one person benefits from that. If that patient agrees to give their information, blood, whatever, on to research, everyone has the potential to benefit.”
Fergus Shanahan’s ethos is driving pioneering research institute in Cork, with APC Microbiome a world-leading organisation, drawing in people from far and wide.
Billed with a goal of linking Irish science with industry and society, the gastrointestinal research facility has achieved an awful lot in just 15 years of existence.
Studies into why we need to eat more porridge, or how our gut’s health is linked to neurological activity, show how cutting-edge its research is.
Several companies that previously had zero relationships with Ireland have since come in and partnered with APC, with follow-on investments into start-ups or their own projects the natural progression.
Numerous awards, publications, citations and research achievements have flowed through the Cork doors, with Shanahan, director of APC, front and centre of it all.
A medical graduate of University College Dublin, Shanahan left Ireland more than three decades ago, spending time in Canada, where he trained in clinical immunology at McMaster University, and the US, where he trained in gastroenterology at the University of California.
“I had to go away,” said Shanahan. “I couldn’t get the training here. I think it would have been impossible, too inefficient. There just wasn’t the same investment in research here as there was in North America.”
Why come home?
After more than a decade abroad, Shanahan returned, “for reasons I’m not clear on”, spotting a position at University College Cork (UCC) and applying.
“I married a Cork woman, that might have something to do with it, but I didn’t think I’d get the position at UCC. But then … I did.”
What happened next was a collation of luck, hard work and some very, very clever planning.
In the 1990s, research funding in Ireland was minimal, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) wasn’t around and times were hard.
“We were totally reliant on EU grants and small smatterings of funding from the Health Research Board,” Shanahan recalled.
He went on to meet five people in Cork who were also researchers, but in different fields. They acted as a co-op, and when funding came up, five would support one person going for it, rather than competing against each other.
“We overestimated what we could do short-term and underestimated what we could do long-term,” he said, and, as the late 1990s turned to the early 2000s, success followed with the creation of APC.
Shanahan has produced more than 500 peer-reviewed articles, was named as one of the top 50 Irish and Irish-Americans in the life sciences industry, was SFI’s researcher of the year in 2013 and, earlier this year, struck gold.
Receiving the Royal Irish Academy’s 2016 Gold Medal, Shanahan was credited with making a demonstrable, internationally recognised, outstanding scholarly contribution to his field.
“Very few … (well, nobody) sets out in academia to win prizes. In my case, it was quite simply an addiction to curiosity,” he said.
Shanahan maintains that the award was for APC in general, with his position in front more symbolic than anything else.
“It was all for work in Ireland, none of what I did abroad. There are an awful lot of people behind me that make me look good,” was his justification for a moment of self-deprecation.
“It was a big deal,” he said, when I asked him to shift the accolade closer to him, and enquired what it meant.
“Personally, there have been a few projects that, in my mind, I found interesting. I was toying with them and wondering would I get around to doing them. I hadn’t gotten down to actually doing them, though.
“Then, when they gave me the medal, I thought, ‘Now I’ll definitely do them’. When you get a bit of acknowledgement and praise, it pushes you to work harder.”
How do we rate?
Acknowledgement and praise are obvious and measurable when it comes to an individual, but an organisation such as APC has different metrics. There are no gold medals.
“No,” said Shanahan, who explained the true measurements of a research institute’s success: publications, citations, patents, licences and the genuine difference made both locally and abroad. Along all of these metrics, Shanahan thinks APC is ahead.
In terms of making a difference, APC’s expertise is such that, last year, two of its researchers received $100,000 in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations.
The programme targets researchers that develop “a bold idea” in one of five critical global health and development topic areas and, since the funding awards, the foundation has visited the site again. Future support may even follow.
‘Nobody sets out in academia to win prizes. In my case, it was quite simply an addiction to curiosity’
– FERGUS SHANAHAN
Citations are easy to measure – there are standard approaches to this but, even still, Shanahan wonders just what that measurement means.
“Some of my best papers were cited by hardly anyone but, in time, I think they will be found to be very good. Others that I was less proud of caught the zeitgeist, caught someone’s attention and people did quote them.”
A lack of communication skills
This is a problem for all research, he said, with communication a skill lacking in almost every field. At the moment, Shanahan is working with a student to help write his paper.
Shanahan’s first move? Rewrite the headline.
“His was boring, I thought it would sink into oblivion. I said the same thing in a more declarative, dramatic way.”
He believes that the actual writing is what’s holding back some of the best research, pinning some of this down to narrow education – all science, no humanities.
“Some are naturally gifted with the English language. Most of us, myself included, didn’t have it that way. But, if you intentionally work on it, you can improve.
“The biggest delay in getting papers published is bums on seats, actually getting it done.”
Another restriction, when it comes to studies such as the ones APC takes on, is scale. In Ireland, how can we test on a decent pool of subjects? How can we extrapolate upwards?
Shanahan thinks this is easy. Just talk to people.
In May this year, a study published in Osteoporosis International saw Trinity College Dublin lead a 4,100-subject investigation of the elderly in Ireland.
The study found that regular yoghurt intake aids bone health and density, with the scale of the project enough to underline the findings made within.
Although he wasn’t involved in the study, Shanahan believes this number shouldn’t be a surprise. “We’re a small population, but we’re fairly tight-knit,” he said.
This helps when it comes to getting an idea across. If people are unaware of what you’re trying to do, why would they donate samples of blood or information? They would be naturally, and rightfully, sceptical.
“I have found that if you explain research to patients or to the population at large, if you explain what you are trying to achieve, people want to be involved in the research. They want to contribute.
“Irish people are remarkable in terms of wanting to find out more, wanting to contribute in the form of volunteering. I get emails saying, ‘I don’t want anything but if you want my samples, I’ll give them to you’.”
APC spends up to 8pc of its annual budget on education and outreach. This could include general marketing, or see the likes of Shanahan rock up to a school and tell children all about science.
“We’re not making them scientists, we’re just making them science-aware. We go to patient groups, we tell the local population what we do. When we then go and say we have a study that could benefit from their participation, they are aware, they are not suspicious.
For the Irish scientific scene, the potential benefits from APC’s existence, and Shanahan’s role behind it, are clear to see.