8 amazing Irish scientists and researchers you need to know

16 Nov 2023

Image: © Nastya/Stock.adobe.com

To mark Science Week 2023, we wanted to highlight eight incredible scientists and researchers whose work shows that Ireland punches well above its weight.

Every year, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) dedicates a full week to celebrating the science that touches our everyday lives. The week includes a variety of public engagement events involving industry, colleges, schools, libraries, teachers, researchers and students throughout Ireland.

For example, those interested can still attend many events around the country including a moonlit night hike in Sligo on Friday, 17 November; a visit to the Computer and Communications Museum at the SFI Insight Centre for Data Analytics in Galway on Saturday, 18 November; The Sound of Light exhibition in Dublin on Sunday, 19 November and many more events around the country.

This year’s Science Week theme is focusing on what it means to be human in today’s world and how the decisions we make today will impact the people and world of the future.

To help celebrate Irish science, we rounded up just eight researchers that have won awards, received accolades and been recognised around the world for their incredible work both in the world of science and research itself and also in the communication of that work.

William Campbell

Born in Co Donegal back in 1930, Campbell studied at Trinity College before moving to the US to earn a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1957. In 2015, Campbell won the Nobel Prize for Medicine thanks to his role in discoveries concerning therapies to fight roundworm parasitic infections.

William Campbell receiving his Nobel Prize for biology, following studies on parasitic roundworms. Image: The Nobel Foundation/Claudio Bresciani

William Campbell. Image: The Nobel Foundation/Claudio Bresciani

In 2021, he was awarded the Science Foundation Ireland St Patrick’s Day Science Medal and earlier this year, at the age of 93, he was awarded the Tip O’Neill Irish diaspora award for embodying “the very best of Irish throughout the world”.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell is most recognised for her work on the discovery of pulsars, one of the major astronomical advances of the 20th century. Her central role in this discovery was not recognised at the time, however, and the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was instead granted to her PhD supervisor.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell speaking at Inspirefest 2015

Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Since then, Bell Burnell has been widely recognised for her work, having received the Irish Diaspora award in 2019 and the $3m Breakthrough Prize in 2018. In 2021, she was also the recipient of the Copley Medal, the world’s oldest scientific award. She also gave the final address at Silicon Republic’s Inspirefest event in 2015.

Prof Séamus Davis

A professor of quantum physics at University College Cork (UCC), Séamus Davis is a well-known voice in the physics arena, having most recently made history by becoming the first Irish recipient of the prestigious Buckley Physics Prize.

Prof Seamus Davis stands with his hands behind his back looking at the camera. He has grey hair and glasses and is wearing a blue shirt and a navy sleeveless jumper. There is a cream wall behind him with plants visible.

Prof Séamus Davis. Image: Connor McKenna/SiliconRepublic.com

Last year, he was also elected as a fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science and led an international team of researchers in solving a 40-year-old ‘holy grail’ physics problem by uncovering the atomic mechanism behind room-temperature superconductors and potentially paving the way for super-efficient electrical power.

Prof Orla Hardiman

Prof Orla Hardiman is a leading authority on the causes, diagnosis and treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other forms of motor neurone disease (MND) working at SFI research centres FutureNeuro and Adapt.

Professor Orla Hardiman holding an award from the Health Research Board in her hands.

Prof Orla Hardiman. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Her most recent accolades include the top prize at Trinity’s Innovation Awards in 2022, being named Researcher of the Year by SFI in November 2022 for her contributions in understanding motor neurone disease and treatments and being presented with the Impact Award by the Health Research Board (HRB), in acknowledgement of her “exceptional contribution to research” earlier this year.

Prof Ed Lavelle

Another Trinity College Dublin scientist, Prof Ed Lavelle works in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology, with his research primarily focused on developing injectable and mucosal vaccines for infectious diseases.

In 2019, Lavelle received nearly €96,000 from the SFI Technology Innovation Development Award programme. Last year, Lavelle was also a recipient of Trinity’s Innovation Awards, receiving one of the year’s ‘inventors’ awards. This year, Lavelle was awarded the Irish Society for Immunology’s Annual Award for his major contributions to immunology research and education.

Fionnghuala O’Reilly

Former Miss Ireland and NASA Datanaut Fionnghuala ‘Fig’ O’Reilly has a lot of strings to her bow. She is a correspondent on US STEM TV show Mission Unstoppable, an Engineers Ireland ambassador and a systems engineer.

Fig O'Reilly stands inside the entry of a space engineering area.

Fionnghuala O’Reilly. Image: National Space Centre

O’Reilly recently featured on RTE’s The Late Late Show, having just won a Trailblazer Award at the 2023 Diversity in Tech Awards. She also features in a recently released book, ‘Black and Irish: Legends, Trailblazers, and Everyday Heroes’. She will also be the guest of honour at a free public online workshop as part of the SFI-funded SpaceFest at the National Space Centre in Cork on Sunday, 19 November.

Prof Tom Ray

Irish astrophysicist Prof Tom Ray is the director of cosmic physics at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). He has been leading a lot of Irish space research, including being the co-principal investigator of the mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) on the James Webb Space Telescope, which has a camera and spectrograph that can observe mid to long-infrared radiation.

Some of the most recent research Ray has been a part of includes leading a team of astronomers have managed to capture an advanced image of a stellar birth and just this week, Ray was part of the team that looked deeply into the cloud-covered atmosphere of WASP-107b, a gaseous exoplanet orbiting a star slightly cooler and smaller than the sun.

Dr Niamh Shaw

Award-winning science communicator Dr Niamh Shaw is a well-known Irish engineer and scientist. She was named a ‘champion’ by the European Space Agency last year for her role in communicating about space – one of only 15 people to get this commendation.

Niamh Shaw stands smiling in front of a camera.

Dr Niamh Shaw. Image Conor McCabe Photography

As part of her outreach work, Shaw was an honorary ambassador for the Irish Girl Guides between 2019 and 2020 and was a guest speaker at the launch of the group’s space programme in 2020. On 12 November, Shaw joined 73 women scientists and engineers on a 19-night voyage to Antarctica.

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic