Meet the 8 ResearchFest finalists battling to inspire the judges

17 Jun 2016

ResearchFest co-ordinator Arlene O’Neill on-stage at the Inspirefest Fringe 2015. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

We are now less than two weeks from the main event, and eight candidates have been selected to pitch their best in just 180 seconds on the Inspirefest stage on Thursday 30 June.

Research Week

Earlier this year, we launched a campaign to discover the best of Irish research to showcase at Inspirefest this summer. Introduced as part of the Inspirefest Fringe festival, ResearchFest offers the opportunity for some of Ireland’s top PhD researchers to present their work to an illustrious sci-tech audience.

We asked applicants to submit a three-minute video communicating their research in plain English, and the standard of entries was extremely impressive.

Now whittled down to eight finalists, the presenting researchers will have to impress the audience of delegates and speakers, as well as the judges, in a competition to win world-class communications coaching from SNP Communications, a profile on and a yet-to-be-revealed surprise prize.

Inspirefest 2016

MC of ResearchFest will be Trinity Walton Club director Arlene O’Neill, who was responsible for pulling the whole event together with the Inspirefest team. Chairing the judging panel will be Fergus McAuliffe, himself a former international winner of FameLab, and he will be joined by Prof Christine Loscher of Dublin City University (DCU), Dr Jennifer Edmond of Trinity College Dublin, SNP Communications co-founder Maureen Taylor and Inspirefest regular Dr Sue Black.

All at Silicon Republic wish the finalists the very best of luck!

Dearbhla Burke wants to relieve pain without pills

Dearbhla Burke, MISCP, is a PhD candidate at the School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Population Science in University College Dublin. She’s interested in how people experience and manage pain, particularly with non-pharma treatments.

In November 2015, Burke was part of a pilot spinal-cord-injury-specific pain management programme at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin, with the aim of expanding the research into alternative treatments methods for pain regulation, such as mindfulness and exercise.

Overall, Burke wants to help lessen people’s pain and believes that pain management is moving away from prescribing pills and towards developing a tailored treatment programme for individual patients.

Fiona Malone asks if we are only a hearbeat away from stroke

Fiona Malone is in her final year of a PhD in biomedical engineering at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. Her PhD research focuses on atrial fibrillation (AF) and how this impacts on stroke risks.

Atrial fibrillation can lead to a clot being pumped out of the heart in a single heartbeat and, if that clot then travels to the brain, it could result in stroke.

Malone says that even though atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke four-fold, not a whole lot is known about the resulting clots, what they’re made of and how they behave. It’s this gap in medical knowledge that she hopes to fill, using clots made from animal blood and 3D-printed silicon models of AF patients’ anatomy from the heart to the brain.

Natalia Cañas Estrada captures rainbows for data transfer

The challenge Natalia Cañas Estrada tackles every day is how to send more data through the optical fibre network – the one that connects us to the internet. A PhD student at Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork, Cañas-Estrada hopes to achieve this by using more than one light frequency.

Sending data in this way can allow for multiple corridors operating at the same time as a superchannel. This would mean that channels of different colours would travel together through the optical fibre until they reach their final destination. So, essentially, Cañas Estrada is harnessing the powerful magic of a light rainbow to make fast information retrieval possible.

Shauna Flynn is making computers faster, block by block

PhD researcher Shauna Flynn is exploring how computing power might keep up with Moore’s Law by finding a faster and cheaper method to make transistors even smaller. This is an incredibly large challenge considering you can already fit over 7,000 of the 14-nanometre transistors made by Intel across the width of a human hair.

Nonetheless, Flynn is hard at work at the DCU School of Electronic Engineering using block copolymers (that is, two different polymer materials connected by a covalent bond) to form patterns on the surface of a silicon wafer, with the aim that these patterns can be used to make transistors.

Claire O’Connell plays ‘Where’s Wally?’ with cancer cells

Irish Research Council scholar Claire O’Connell is tired of trying to spot cancer cells hidden amongst other similar-looking cells and instead wants to simplify this game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ by dressing them up in some bold colours.

For her PhD research at the DCU Biomedical Diagnostics Institute, she is grafting silicon nanoparticles containing fluroresecent dye to specific antibody structures in order to ‘tag’ metastatic cancer cells with a glowing indicator. Since cancer cells have a certain type of protein that your common-or-garden blood cells don’t have, O’Connell only uses the antibody structures that can attach to that protein with the aim of simplifying cancer detection and diagnosis.

Kim Connick is finding NEMO

Kim Connick is a postgraduate researcher in the Immunomodulation Research Group at DCU’s School of Biotechnology who is looking for novel emerging modulators (or, NEMOs) from the ocean. These molecules can then be added to food to boost the immune system.

As an island nation, we are surrounded by ocean, and a rare biodiversity that’s a proven source of these molecules. Additionally, due to EU rules to encourage more selective fishing, fisheries are required to land all fish caught. So, rather than see thousands of tonnes of NEMOs dumped in Irish landfills, Connick and her fellow researchers are wading through fish guts for our benefit.

Niamh Hunt is turning intolerance into tolerance

Another student within the DCU Immunomodulation Research Group, Niamh Hunt is currently in the third year of her PhD. Her research target is cows’ milk protein allergy (CMPA), the most common allergy associated with infants, affecting 2pc to 3pc worldwide.

Working with Food for Health Ireland, Hunt is developing oral immunotherapy as a novel and effective treatment for CMPA. This involves providing a CMPA-afflicted infant with pre-digested, or hydrolysed, cows’ milk protein peptides in order to build up tolerance without prompting the clinical symptoms of allergies. This enables the mucosal immune system to remain in a non-activated state when it encounters harmless food proteins, while retaining the ability to mount an immune response to a potential pathogen.

Robert Ahern is bringing antibiotic resistance to the cloud

At Cork Institute of Technology, Robert Ahern’s bioinformatics research is focused on computational analysis of antibiotic resistance genes. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem with potentially terrifying consequences, yet little is known about the genetic mechanisms bacterial pathogens have developed, and the processes through which resistance emerges.

Scientists can attempt to identify and analyse these genes from large volumes of DNA-sequencing information available, but recent breakthroughs in technology mean we are now producing more data than can be effectively analysed.

And so, since this biological problem has now become a big data problem. Ahern’s solution is to apply the latest computational paradigm – cloud computing – to perform this high-throughput analysis. His goal is to create an end-to-end computational pipeline for the large-scale processing, analysis and characterisation of antibiotic resistance mechanisms.

ResearchFest will take place during the Inspirefest Fringe festival at 7pm, Thursday 30 June in Merrion Square Park East. Access to the Fringe is free to all Inspirefest ticket-holders after the main conference in Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (buses will leave from the theatre from 6pm). As well as ResearchFest, the event will include a research and STEAM expo, international theatre and fantastic indie Irish music acts.

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.