Meet the 8 finalists set to make a splash at Researchfest 2018

25 May 2018

Scene during 2017’s Researchfest pitch event. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Inspirefest’s annual PhD researcher pitch competition is back, and this time there are eight accomplished scientists looking to take the grand prize.

For the past few months, some of Ireland’s best and brightest PhD researchers have been putting together three-minute video pitches with the aim of being crowned the 2018 Researchfest winner.

The aim of the competition is to get researchers to break their research down into plain English, but also put in some creative flair, similar to what last year’s winner Joshua Chao achieved.

This year’s winner will score themselves one-to-one communication training from SNP Communications, the starring role in a feature on and the chance to present on the main stage during the second day of Inspirefest on 22 June.

So, finally, after a significant number of entries were received by the May deadline, the screening panel was tasked with the challenge of picking out just eight finalists to go on to appear at Researchfest.

‘This year’s entries were particularly excellent’

Among those deciding who would make it was Arlene Gallagher, assistant professor at the School of Physics in Trinity College Dublin (TCD); Christine Loscher, director of the Health Technologies Research and Enterprise Hub at Dublin City University (DCU); Fergus McAuliffe, public engagement and communications manager at iCRAG; and Daniel Heaslip, QFA and digital programme manager for Bank of Ireland.

For making the final eight, the researchers will receive some preparation training and a free ticket to attend Inspirefest, but they will all be hoping to be chosen as the winner and present their work on the main stage.

Speaking of the selected finalists, Gallagher said to “This year’s entries were particularly excellent and, on behalf of the screening panel, I’d like to thank everyone who entered.

“The diversity of research and calibre of communication was truly splendid. I’m excited to hear these exceptional eight researchers at Researchfest 2018.”

In no particular order, they include:

Julie Callanan – Bacteriophages – University College Cork (UCC)

Callanan’s research is focused on trying to find an alternative to antibiotics through working with tiny viruses known as bacteriophages, which infect and kill bacteria without affecting us humans.

Bacteriophages are able to infect one specific bacterial strain, hijack the systems to make more bacteriophages and then destroy the bacteria to release all the new bacteriophages. They offer an alternative to antibiotics, but the simple biology is yet to be fully understood.

Muireann Prendergast – Media analysis (applied linguistics) – University of Limerick (UL)

Prendergast’s project looks at what effect authoritarian rule has on a nation’s media. Her research analyses the print media of Argentina’s last dictatorship, including publications that supported and challenged the regime.

Her research proposes that journalism is not just relevant when published, but can be a future point of reference for societies attempting to come to terms with a difficult past.

Aoife McHugh – Detection of spore-forming bacteria in dairy powders – UCC

McHugh’s research highlights one of the biggest threats to the dairy industry: spore-forming bacteria. Traditional detection methods provide little information on the spore-formers present, and novel methods are needed to advance understanding and provide accurate risk assessment.

She puts forward the concept of metagenomics sequencing, which can quickly return huge information gains, including strain classification and the potential of strains present to make toxins and cause illness.

John Noone – Exercise physiology – DCU

Noone’s work hopes to make the lives of astronauts now and in the future significantly better by tackling the negative effects of spaceflight on the human body. These include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

In conjunction with colleagues from the European Space Agency, he is developing countermeasures to aid in the prevention of such associated diseases using different models of spaceflight, giving specific focus to the skeletal muscle.

Eoin Murphy – Biochemistry – NUI Galway

After finishing in third place in this year’s FameLab Ireland pitch event, Murphy is taking part in Researchfest with the aim of educating people on Huntington’s disease, an inherited neurodegenerative condition that causes serious cognitive and movement defects in the human brain. Usually starting in middle age, it can quickly see people lose control of their mental capacity and body movement.

Taking us from Venezuela to Ireland, Murphy will aim to explain how he and his team are using the genetic editing tool CRISPR to find a means of treating patients living with the disease.

Sofia Cussotto – Psychotropics and the chamber of secrets … our gut! – UCC

Cussotto’s pitch will look at how psychotropic medication is used to manage mental disorders.

Although it is well characterised how psychotropics work in the brain, the effect that they might exert in the gut has never been explored. Her research aims to investigate the influence of psychotropic drugs on the gut microbiota.

Unravelling this aspect has the potential to provide new insight into the mechanisms of action of these medications and may aid in furthering our understanding of the role of the gut microbiota in mental disorders.

Daragh Bradshaw – Psychology – UL

Another FameLab finalist, Bradshaw will be focusing on the dramatic rise in worldwide imprisonment levels, with the unforeseen consequence that partners and children of the accused are being negatively impacted.

Parental incarceration is recognised to negatively impact the education, health and behaviour of children affected as well as the mental health of their primary caregivers.

By orientating towards a social identity perspective, his research explores how families affected can be supported.

Maureen Williams – Parasite ecology – TCD

Parasites have long been known to moderate host behaviour, metabolism and survival, but there is an urgent need to understand the impact of parasites on community and ecosystem dynamics in light of global climate change.

Williams will therefore present her study on a model relationship between an acanthocephalan parasite and its intermediate amphipod host, linking laboratory and field experiments in Irish lakes and rivers.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Get your tickets now to join us in Dublin on 21 and 22 June 2018.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic