Which of these 8 finalists will be crowned Researchfest 2017 champion?

16 Jun 2017

Image: Rabits/Shutterstock

The eight PhD researchers have been chosen, and will have just three minutes to wow the Inspirefest audience and win Researchfest 2017.

Read more from Research Week 2017

This year, for the second time, we put out a call to PhD researchers to impress us with a short video explaining what they are exploring, developing and discovering in plain English. And, once again, the results were mindblowing.

After a painstaking process of evaluation, eight finalists have been selected to present at Researchfest 2017, which this year comes to the all-new second stage in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre as part of the core Inspirefest conference.

At lunchtime on Thursday, 6 July, these eight Researchfest finalists will have three minutes to win over an international audience and an esteemed panel of judges. The winner will be announced on the day, and will receive expert training from SNP Communications, a profile on Siliconrepublic.com and more prizes to be announced.

Here’s what’s in store as we seek out the Researchfest champion of 2017.

Daragh Bradshaw is changing how the Irish prison system works

The imprisonment of criminals is often seen as an end to a story, but Daragh Bradshaw, a social psychologist based in University of Limerick, sees it as a new beginning. His research looks at how imprisonment affects families – specifically, those with fathers who have gone to jail – and how the system can be improved to better support these people.

In Ireland, prison levels are rising, and Bradshaw has found that more than 8,000 children in Ireland can be affected on any given day. He has also found that a father’s imprisonment, in many cases, increases poverty, stigma, mental health difficulties and the likelihood that children will go on to themselves offend. Furthermore, his research tells us that offenders who maintain meaningful connections with families are six times less likely to re-offend, meaning that the proper support for these families could help break a damaging cycle.

Bradshaw’s research is having a real impact, too, submitted to the Department of Justice to form the basis of a national policy for supporting offenders and their families.

Joshua Chao is using STEM cells to rejuvenate blood vessels

Joshua Chao is a man of many talents. As well as a PhD student at NUI Galway, he’s a bit of a poet – and you can expect to see both skillsets on show at Researchfest.

Chao’s research looks at how stem cells can be used as an effective therapy for critical limb ischemia (CLI), where blockages in the arteries limit blood flow to extremities, such as the hands and feet, and cause severe pain. CLI is a debilitating condition that comes with an exceptionally high risk of cardiovascular events and, while surgical bypass is sometimes an option, some patients face amputation as the only solution.

Chao is seeking an alternative treatment using stem cells extracted from bone marrow. By injecting these stem cells directly into the muscle, Chao hopes to see them create new blood vessels through a process called angiogenesis.

Dylan Colbert wants to help us get smarter

Most of us have a certain level of intelligence, and many of us would like to have a bit more. We typically measure intellect with an IQ (intelligence quotient) score, which many studies say is fixed and unchangeable. Dylan Colbert’s PhD thesis on relational skills interventions and human intelligence completely challenges this notion.

Relational skills refer to our level of understanding of the relationship between stimuli in our environment, for example same and opposite, more than and less than, before and after. Studies have shown that relational skills and relational ability are so important to intelligence that they may even be fundamental to it. The beauty of this is that relational skills can be learned and improved upon, which could mean that IQ can be heightened as a result. However, this research is still at the preliminary stage, and Colbert is adding to it through his work at Maynooth University.

Bhagya Rekha Jonnala is finding out what makes cheese blush

Have you ever spotted pink discoloration on cheese? It happens, and it results in millions of euro lost by the Irish cheese industry, because no one wants to eat pink-spotted cheese.

Second-year PhD student Bhagya Rekha Jonnala is trying to find the source of this defect and, in doing so, learn to prevent it. Working at the Teagasc Food and Agriculture Research Centre, she has already used DNA extraction techniques to identify the bacteria she believes is responsible for the discoloration. This particular Thermus bacterium is known to produce carotenoids, the vivid pigments that make tomatoes red and carrots orange.

However, isolating the bacterium that makes cheese blush is just the start. Jonnala also needs to find out what other factors – such as light, temperature or other conditions – are influencing the pink discoloration. And so her cheesy research continues.

Orla Lehane is looking at how social media is being used to tackle terrorism

By now it has been well documented that violent organisations have found ways to recruit young people using social media, capitalising on online culture with slickly edited YouTube videos, Instagram selfies and even the standard internet communication vehicle: the cat picture. To counter extremist online content and help prevent young people being drawn into these activities, many groups are funding and creating social media-friendly content of their own.

From government departments to NGOs, grassroots movements to former extremists, a multitude of counter-terrorism online content is being created, but little research has been done into its effectiveness. This is what Dublin City University PhD candidate Orla Lehane is working on. She’s studying both the messages and their creators, to find out how they are being perceived and if they are effective. Through this research, she hopes to find recommendations for further efforts in this area.

Bárbara Oliveira wants better breast cancer screening for all

Bárbara Oliveira is an engineering PhD student at NUI Galway who is working on a system that will provide early access to regular, low-cost and pain-free breast cancer screening, and diagnosis for all women around the world, no matter where they are. Why? Because one of the biggest factors influencing breast cancer survival rates is location. Women in urban areas in developed countries can see up to 90pc survival rates, but this drops to 57pc for those in rural developing regions.

But the bigger question is how, and to answer that Oliveira is working on a new method of breast imaging based on radar waves – a safe, well-established, widely available and pain-free technology. She is combining this new imaging method with machine intelligence, using algorithms to learn from breast scans to better detect and diagnose cancer.

Alberto Román Corrochano is going behind the magic of ‘muscle-building’ proteins

Whey proteins were originally seen as an annoying by-product of cheese manufacturing and now there is an entire muscle-building industry built on them. But Alberto Román Corrochano thinks there’s much more to whey proteins than beefing up biceps and, by tracing their interactions with the small intestine and beyond into the bloodstream, he hopes to discover valuable peptides that can help us stay healthier for longer.

Román Corrochano moved from Spain to Ireland in 2014 to start his PhD on whey proteins, antioxidant activity and bioavailability at the Teagasc Food Research Centre in Fermoy, Co Cork. With this research, he aims to learn more about what happens to our organs when they meet with elements of our food, such as proteins. According to him, this is where the magic happens!

Giulia Rossetti is examining how we can have fun while increasing our culture capital

Today, 16 June, is Bloomsday, an annual celebration of James Joyce’s early 20th-century Dublin as depicted in Ulysses. Giulia Rossetti, a postgraduate researcher at the College of Arts & Tourism in Dublin Institute of Technology, has interviewed participants in Bloomsday, Dublin Book Festival and other literary events to find out how they learn and benefit from a mix of fun leisure activities alongside serious skill-building such as workshops and masterclasses.

It was French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who proposed that we all have three kinds of capital: economic (money), social (relations) and cultural, with the last referring to education, knowledge, skills, values and taste. Bourdieu believed that adults are less likely to acquire cultural capital through leisure activities, while other theorists say this can happen only with recurrent situations (such as regular attendance at literary festivals), or only in cases where the participant already has a high level of cultural capital, such as a well-educated person with an interest in learning. Rossetti’s research examines these theories in order to derive useful guidance for festival organisers.

Researchfest will take place during Inspirefest on Thursday 6 July in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.