Royal Irish Academy awards gold medals to two Trinity researchers

4 Apr 2022

Dr Mary Canning, president of the Royal Irish Academy; Prof Ruth Byrne; Prof Jennifer McElwain; and Prof Linda Doyle, Trinity provost. Image: Royal Irish Academy

Prof Ruth Byrne and Prof Jennifer McElwain’s contributions to science have been celebrated by the Royal Irish Academy.

Two leading Irish academics working in the sciences were honoured with gold medals from the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) at an awards ceremony in Dublin today (4 April). Both are professors at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

Prof Ruth Byrne received the RIA gold medal in the social sciences, while Prof Jennifer McElwain was presented with the RIA gold medal for her work in the environmental sciences and geosciences.

The medals were presented by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, at a ceremony held at the Provost’s House at TCD. It was attended by university provost Prof Linda Doyle and RIA president Dr Mary Canning, as well as fellow members of the RIA and friends, family and colleagues of Byrne and McElwain.

The RIA awards gold medals annually to two world-class researchers in Ireland who have made outstanding contributions to their fields.

According to Canning, today’s gold medal recipients have “through the rigour and global impact of their work” illustrated how sciences and humanities research can “enrich our lives and benefit society”. She added that their work would inspire early-career researchers.

Byrne, who is a professor of cognitive science at TCD, said: “This award is a welcome recognition of the value of the scientific study of the human mind, especially the importance of discoveries in cognitive science about the human imagination, for understanding how people think, reason, and make decisions in their daily lives.”

McElwain called her award a “huge personal honour”. The professor of botany said the award highlighted “how studies of landscapes, fossils and atmospheres of a past earth from millions of years ago are valued because they provide a long-term context to contemporary issues of climate change and biodiversity loss”.

“An understanding of the deep geological past allow us to document baselines of past climate change, the sensitivity of global climate to changes in atmospheric composition and the tipping points which have negative consequences for biodiversity,” she added. Her award was sponsored by the Geological Survey Ireland and the Geological Survey Northern Ireland.

Last December, McElwain told that the public is “shouting loudly” when it comes to climate action. She was speaking following the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s report on Irish attitudes to the climate crisis.

Presenting the medals to the academics, Martin said that the pandemic “highlighted how important research and innovation and the contribution of the higher education sector is for policymakers and citizens alike”.

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.