The promise shown by these six postgraduate researchers represents a bright future for the Irish research pipeline.
Earlier this week, as part of our celebration of scientific research and researchers, we shared with you a vibrant representation of this varied community. And, just as research spans many disciplines, the years of work that go into it represent an expansive educational journey.
Some budding researchers could be, right now, mulling over ideas for their BT Young Scientist entry. Some may be approaching the end of State examinations, hoping to secure the points required to take on a degree in their selected discipline. Others may already be making the move into postgraduate education as part of a continuing journey or even as a returning scholar, eager to undertake more study in their subject of intense interest.
These postgraduate researchers may be less established than the country’s leaders, but the half-dozen below have been identified by the Irish Research Council (IRC) for their exciting potential and the interesting nature of their research. And it’s support from IRC and other research and education institutions that ensures we can unlock the potential of these remarkable candidates.
Elaine O’Sullivan is a postgraduate researcher at University College Cork whose work has included the discovery of a molecule in a berry that can be used in the creation of a compound that can reduce the size of tumours, especially in leukaemia.
The molecule was produced by IRC-funded O’Sullivan as part of a team of researchers in medicinal and pharmaceutical led by Dr Florence McCarthy. It is derived from an ellipticine isolated from the berries of Ochrosia elliptica (better known as the Bloodhorn tree), which grows in Australia and Brazil. In experiments conducted on mice, the compound significantly reduced tumour size by 70pc, and these results were published in the journal Investigational New Drugs.
The next stage in this research will be to seek funding to see if the compound will kill leukaemia cells in patients.
Lara Cassidy is a PhD researcher in genetics at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). She focuses on population genetics and molecular evolution, especially the genetic history of Ireland, sequencing the DNA retrieved from the archaeological remains of ancient humans in Ireland and using this DNA to study the country’s human population history.
Earlier this year, she was part of the TCD team of geneticists who, alongside archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast, sequenced the first genomes from ancient Irish humans.
The team sequenced the genome of an early farmer woman who lived near Belfast some 5,200 years ago, and those of three men from a later period, around 4,000 years ago in the Bronze Age, with their results published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A PhD student with the Irish Photonics Integration Centre (IPIC) based in the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, Niamh Kavanagh was this year’s Irish winner of the FameLab competition, which sees scientists pitch their research to their peers and the public.
During her presentation, Illuminating the Invisible, Kavanagh explained how lasers are leading the way in aviation safety. More specifically, she discussed LiDAR technology, which uses laser beams to monitor air pollution levels worldwide and is now being fitted to aeroplanes so that pilots can see ash clouds and avoid hazards.
Kavanagh took part in the international finals of FameLab last week but, unfortunately, didn’t clinch the top prize. Nevertheless, she has proven herself an experienced science communicator, having also participated in the ‘Thesis in 3’ competition last year.
Maria O’Brien is a graduate of TCD’s physics and chemistry of advanced materials programme, with a first-class honours BA (Mod) in Nanoscience. She is currently working with TCD and Intel Research and Development on a project on the synthesis and applications of 2D materials, including transition metal dichalcogenides (atomically-thin semiconductors).
Funded by the IRC under their Enterprise Partnership Scheme (Postgraduate), O’Brien is carrying out this research with a view to a number of applications.
— Maria O'Brien (@malteasermia) March 1, 2016
O’Brien previously won the Henderson-Lloyd Prize in Advanced Materials (a prize she shared with John McManus in 2013 for their high scores in TCD’s Moderatorship exams) and was awarded the BOC Gases bursary in 2015 in support of her ongoing research.
Dr Elizabeth Carroll
A researcher at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute and Science Foundation Ireland-funded research centre AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research), Dr Elizabeth Carroll is involved in research studying adjuvants, the vaccine component that boosts our body’s immune response to vaccination.
The research group on which she works recently enjoyed a breakthrough, uncovering the way in which chitosan, an adjuvant, induces an immune response. It is hoped that this research will be used as a roadmap for the development of vaccines that trigger cell-mediated immunity (an immune response that uses the cells themselves to fight pathogens, rather than relying on antibodies).
Carroll was an awardee of the now defunct IRC EMBARK postgraduate scholarship scheme in 2011.
José Gutiérrez is a postgraduate scholar at University College Dublin who has worked for years in the development and human rights sector in Ireland, mostly on projects related to Latin America. His research looks at processes involved in the popular constitution of social fabric in contexts of endemic violence, focusing on the country with the longest internal armed conflict in the western hemisphere: Colombia.
In 2014, Gutiérrez worked as a research assistant to Prof Renán Vega Cantor and Jairo Estrada, at the Historical Commission of the Conflict and its Victims in Bogotá, in the context of the ongoing Colombian peace process. Today, his structured research into the sociology of conflict is funded through the Andrew Grene Post-Graduate Scholarship in Conflict Resolution, which was awarded by the Irish Research Council and Department of Foreign Affairs.
Number six image via Shutterstock