25 bright sparks working to make our world a better place in 2020

17 Dec 2019

Image: © Azazello/Stock.adobe.com

In a world undergoing immense change, here are 25 science-led game-changers looking to make their mark in 2020.

2019 has been a year of significant ups and downs for science. On the one hand, COP25 and a worrying number of climate disasters including raging forest fires and devastating floods have shown that our planet is in the midst of a crisis.

On the other, science and  technologies to help us make the world a better place – such as nuclear fusion and advanced medical devices – are developing at a rapid pace.

Here are just 25 of the amazing people we’ve featured over the past year who are set to make 2020 a year of significant change, for the better.

Louise McGrath

While just missing out on the grand prize at Researchfest 2019, Louise McGrath of University College Cork (UCC) and the Tyndall National Institute is certainly a ‘bright spark’ for her work in nanomaterial-based devices for advanced energy storage.

Headshot of Louise McGrath smiling against a grey and yellow background.

Louise McGrath. Image: Sharp Pix

She is currently working as a PhD researcher with the goal of creating advanced, miniaturised batteries and, ultimately, hoping to make them as small as a grain of sand. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in chemistry with forensic science from UCC, she was awarded a research internship under the supervision of Dr James Rohan in the Electrochemical Materials and Energy group at Tyndall.

Enda Barrett

Dr Enda Barrett of NUI Galway is a lecturer at the university’s school of computer science and is currently working on a Science Foundation Ireland-funded project called ALIVE (Autonomous Lifeguard and Vision Environment). Using off-the-shelf drones, the vision system Barrett and his colleagues have developed can quickly scan a large area of water, aiding faster detection of people.

Enda Barrett smiling in a winter jacket against a sunny sky and ocean.

Dr Enda Barrett. Image: Laura Barrett

The purpose of the project – with Government funding – is to accurately detect and monitor individuals in aquatic environments such as oceans, beaches, lakes and pools. To date, he has published more than 40 research articles including 12 journal papers, four patents and 25 conference/workshop papers.

Ashley Shew

Dr Ashley Shew of Virginia Tech is helping to shine a bright spotlight on the realities of being a disabled researcher in an ableist world. Following the completion of her PhD in 2011 (again in Virginia Tech), she is now an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at the university.

Ashley Shew in a blue and red top smiling and holding a white pole against a red brick wall with a white window.

Dr Ashley Shew. Image: Virginia Tech

She is a regular media commentator on disability issues and spoke out in May against a NASA paper proposing guidance for GPs who may need to provide health advice for space tourists. Disability activist Liz Jackson also called Shew one of the US’s leaders in disability studies earlier this year.

Carmel Majidi

Dr Carmel Majidi, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and head of its Soft Machines Lab, is attempting to create ‘artificial’ skin and soft machines inspired by the natural world.

Carmel Majidi in a blue blazer and white shirt against a leafy tree background.

Dr Carmel Majidi. Image: Carnegie Mellon University

Majidi – a pioneer in developing new classes of materials for soft robotics – said the technology his lab is developing could lead to breakthrough technologies including sticker-like wearable electronics that track your motion and physiological state without being bulky or impairing your motion. This October, his lab revealed a material with movement capabilities and intelligence unlike any other soft composite.

Meredith Whittaker

In a world of increasing privacy encroachments, Meredith Whittaker is one of its biggest challengers. In 2018, she was one of the organisers of a 20,000-strong Google walk-out across the globe over a number of controversies happening within the company.

Meredith Whittaker in a dark grey top against a purple stage background.

Still from ‘Meredith Whittaker: We need to regulate, organize and have a counterweight against the tech industry’. Image: Ada – Heute das Morgen verstehen/YouTube

Whittaker is also co-founder of the the AI Now Institute along with Microsoft Research principal researcher Kate Crawford, producing interdisciplinary research on the social implications of AI. In addition to being a research scientist at New York University, she has advised the White House, the FCC, the city of New York and the European Parliament on AI, internet policy, measurement, privacy and security.

Aisling Connolly

Having recently completed her PhD from École normale supérieure (ENS) in Paris, Aisling Connolly is one of the rising stars of the privacy and cryptography space. She currently splits her time between being a member of the ENS’s information security group and as privacy research engineer at Ingenico Group, a major player in the payments industry.

Top-down photo of Aisling Connolly.

Aisling Connolly. Image: Aisling Connolly

The NUI Galway and University College Dublin (UCD) graduate has spent much of this year giving keynote speeches across Europe on topics such as big data analytics and the future of digital identity. Earlier this year, she spoke of how Edward Snowden’s release of documents in 2014 inspired her to use her love of maths for positive change.

Erik Trask

In the potentially game-changing technology of nuclear fusion, one of those pushing physics to its limits is Erik Trask. A graduate of Pacific Lutheran University and the University of California Irvine – where he completed a PhD in plasma physics – Trask was appointed the lead experimental scientist in the fusion division of TAE Technologies in March of this year.

Erik Trask in a blue jumper and white shirt smiling against a sunset background by the sea.

Erik Trask. Image: Erik Trask/TAE Technologies

Trask has said he believes he has a moral duty to be a good steward of the Earth and that nuclear fusion can solve many of the issues that come with living in a finite world with a limited amount of various natural resources.

Debbie O’Reilly

Dublin City University (DCU) postgraduate researcher Debbie O’Reilly is attempting to ease the burden of the pharmaceutical industry by searching for potential cures for prostate cancer using common drugs found in medicine cabinets in our own homes.

Debbie O'Reilly in a black blazer presenting on stage against a projected purple bacgkround.

Debbie O’Reilly on stage at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

The winner of Researchfest 2019, O’Reilly is a recipient of Irish Research Council funding under the Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship Programme. She is a strong advocate for a change in our perception of the treatment of cancer, saying that it should be seen as a chronic illness.

Deema Almasri

Dr Deema Almasri of the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute is helping to develop technology to clean water supplies. She is the author of several publications and provisional patents. In 2017, she was awarded the Women in Science Fellowship Award by CRDF Global which was co-funded by the Qatar National Research Fund and the US National Science Foundation.

Deema Almasri smiling against a forest background.

Dr Deema Almasri. Image: QEERI

Almasri said her research is important to identify sustainable ways for securing water on the peninsular nation and elsewhere around the globe. Earlier this year, she said she was inspired to become a researcher after learning about the life of environmental activist Erin Brockovich.

Rory Monaghan

Dr Rory Monaghan of NUI Galway and the EU GenComm project is hoping to use waste renewable energy electricity to create hydrogen fuel. After six years at MIT, he returned to Ireland to take a postdoctoral position at his alma mater and, in 2012, took up a position there as lecturer of energy systems engineering within mechanical engineering.

Headshot of Dr Rory Monaghan.

Dr Rory Monaghan. Image: NUI Galway

As part of GenComm, Monaghan wants to create zero-emission hydrogen fuel from waste renewable wind energy which he has said is an “exciting energy carrier of the future”. He also helps run the award-winning Galway energy-efficient car (Geec) project, with the aim of creating the most energy-efficient car possible.

Cailbhe Doherty

Dr Cailbhe Doherty of UCD is working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics where he continues to develop an evidence and analytics platform and mobile app that leverages big data to inform runners’ race preparation.

Cailbhe Doherty in a light pink shirt against a glass background.

Dr Cailbhe Doherty. Image: UCD

This led to the creation of Pace-Man, a start-up launched by Doherty along with his co-founder, Dr Alison Keogh. He also recently launched a ‘Skyscanner for science’ app to facilitate the delivery of research to medical professionals and the public.

Caitlin Vander Weele

Dr Caitlin Vander Weele is a neuroscientist and science communicator with a decade of experience in understanding how emotions and brain chemistry influence decision-making. With a PhD from MIT, Vander Weele founded a project called Interstellate that showcases photos from neuroscience and other fields as pieces of art.

Caitlin Vander Weele in a black top wit black neckband, smiling, against a grassy background.

Dr Caitlin Vander Weele. Image: Caitlin Vander Weele

She said she wants to expand it to evolve into a science communication training programme that can spin out to become its own thing. In October she joined the health research firm Syneos Health within its communications department.

Hayley Hung

Hayley Hung, a research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, is leading a team to investigate air pollutants in the Arctic. Raised in Hong Kong, Hung has collaborated internationally with atmospheric monitoring networks of organic pollutants in Norway, Iceland, Finland, the US, Russia, Japan, China and Vietnam.

Hayley Hung in a winter jacket smiling after sunset.

Hayley Hung. Image: Environment and Climate Change Canada

She hopes to further research the effects of the climate crisis on contaminant transport pathways and identifying emerging chemical concerns in air through a combination of non-targeted and targeted screening methods.

Kristine van het Erve Grunnet

As managing director of renewable energy at Danish Energy, Kristine van het Erve Grunnet is arguably responsible for one of the biggest clean energy portfolios on the planet.

Headshot of Kristine van het Erve Grunnet in a dark navy top.

Kristine van het Erve Grunnet. Image: Danish Energy

Earlier this year, she spoke of her desire to work toward greater regional cooperation of renewable energy among Scandinavia, Ireland and the Baltics through interconnected grids and networks. As part of her role, she will help the Danish government’s goal of having 2,400MW capacity in offshore wind by 2030.

Conor McGinn

Back in 2017, Prof Conor McGinn and his fellow engineers at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) unveiled a robot called Stevie designed to assist elderly people in care homes. Little did he know at the time that, two years later, Stevie would feature on the front of Time magazine putting Irish robotics on the world stage.

Conor McGinn in a white shirt in his robotics lab.

Still from ‘Robotics engineers unveil ‘Stevie II’ – Ireland’s first socially assistive AI robot’. Image: Trinity College Dublin/YouTube

He is currently an assistant professor in the TCD School of Engineering and co-founder of the Robotics and Innovation Lab. McGinn has spent years developing assistive technology and is a major proponent of the role that robotics can play in empowering people.

Fiona McGillicuddy

Prof Fiona McGillicuddy is principal investigator of the cardiometabolic research group and a lecturer in the UCD School of Medicine. She is currently trying to find what happens to so-called ‘good cholesterol’ in patients with obesity and diabetes.

Headshot of Fiona McGillicuddy with a white window in the background.

Prof Fiona McGillicuddy. Image: UCD

Having returned to Ireland in 2009 following a stint as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, McGillicuddy has become a leading Irish researcher. In February, she received almost €120,000 under the Technology Innovation Development Award (TIDA) programme to commercialise her research.

Madhu Bhaskaran

Prof Madhu Bhaskaran of RMIT University in Australia is one of Asia’s leading materials science researchers currently working on ‘electronic skin’. The Chennai native is a professor of electronics engineering at the university where she co-leads a group of more than a dozen researchers.

Headshot of Madhu Bhaskaran smiling in a black top against a red-brick wall background.

Madhu Bhaskaran. Image: RMIT University

Her significant breakthroughs in stretchy, oxide-based electronics and innovations have led to her winning numerous awards, including a 2017 Eureka Prize and 2018 APEC Aspire Prize. She has also been a strong advocate for fellow women researchers and is on the board of directors of Women in STEMM Australia which aims to link them across every professional sector.

Eimear Dolan

Dr Eimear Dolan is continuing the work of her NUI Galway predecessors with soft robotics that could fundamentally change how implants operate in the human body. She was awarded her PhD in biomedical engineering from the university in 2015 for research in the field of orthopaedics under the supervision of Prof Laoise McNamara.

Headhsot of Dr Eimear Dolan smiling with her lab in the background.

Dr Eimear Dolan. Image: Lillie Paquette

Last August, Dolan was the first author of a new research paper documenting a breakthrough with major implications for those requiring medical implants such as pacemakers. When this type of implant is inserted into the human body, its natural reflex is to fight what it sees as an invading object that could cause harm.

Emma Whelan

Dr Emma Whelan of Maynooth University is searching for life on distant exoplanets by looking at star formation. With a PhD from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) – where she remains a research associate – Whelan also spent time working as a scientific administrator as part of the European Research Network in addition to carrying out her own research.

Dr Emma Whelan in a white cardigan and turquoise shirt with a large open building space in the background.

Dr Emma Whelan. Image: Maynooth University

Whelan was a strong advocate for Ireland’s membership of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) which was confirmed towards the end of 2018. She said to Siliconrepublic.com earlier this year that she is excited to gain access to ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope once it’s completed, to search for life on exoplanets.

Tanya Lokot

In the murky world of online disinformation, DCU’s Dr Tanya Lokot is at the coalface as her research and writing focuses on the interplay between technology, digital media and civic actors in the context of augmented protest in eastern Europe. As a journalist, the Ukrainian native has spent years covering the continuing tensions between her country and Russia, and the way both are portrayed in each other’s nations.

Black and white headshot of Dr Tanya Lokot wearing glasses.

Tanya Lokot. Image: Tanya Lokot

In addition to previously being a contributing editor at Global Voices, Lokot regularly speaks at conferences about her studies into Russia and online protests and is hoping to release a book next year.

James Blackwell

Another Researchfest 2019 finalist, PhD candidate James Blackwell is part of the NUI Galway medical physics research cluster, with competitive funding from the Irish Research Council. His work is attempting to eliminate the need to physically poke a finger in a person’s brain during neurosurgery by creating stiffness maps of the brain using ultrasound shear waves.

James Blackwell in a black blazer and white shirt speaking on a stage.

James Blackwell. Image: Sean Lydon

In November last year, Blackwell was named as the winner of the NUI Galway Threesis grand final, a fast-paced event featuring a series of three-minute talks by researchers sharing the story of their research using just three presentation slides in front of three judges.

Áine Ryall

With Ireland’s Climate Action Plan under scrutiny, one of those who will be following its finer details is Dr Áine Ryall, an environmental lawyer at the Centre for Law and the Environment and the Environmental Research Institute at UCC.

Dr Áine Ryall speaking from a table as a member of the Citizens’ Assembly.

Dr Áine Ryall (centre) speaking as a member of the Citizens’ Assembly. Image: Maxwell Photography

She was on the Expert Advisory Group to the Citizens’ Assembly working on a climate change module for its work between 2017 and 2018. On the international stage, Ryall was appointed a member of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee in 2015 and elected vice-chair in 2017. In November she was awarded the Public Sector Award at this year’s Cork Environmental Forum Awards.

Wenyue Zou

After receiving her PhD in applied chemistry from RMIT University in 2018, Dr Wenyue Zou is developing light-active materials to make colour-based sensors and is a co-founder of NexGen NanoSensors, which aims to develop and patent a personalised, wearable UV sensor.

Dr Wenyue Zou smiling while wearing a shirt with multi-coloured flowers.

Dr Wenyue Zou. Image: RMIT University

Speaking earlier this year, she said that her research career started off with a chance email to the Australian university, despite originally only moving from China to support her husband. Now she’s considered one of the region’s finest researchers having been named among the top innovators under 35 by MIT Technology Review in the Asia Pacific region in 2019.

Jasmine Headlam

Jasmine Headlam of NUI Galway has shown much of the literature on treating jellyfish stings has been wrong this whole time, and her PhD research aims to change that. Having most recently travelled to Hawaii earlier this year as part of a Fulbright-Marine Institute student award, Headlam learned several methods for purifying and investigating the toxicity of jellyfish venom from renowned expert Dr Angel Yanagihara.

Jasmine Headlam smiling, wearing a tank top against a sea background.

Jasmine Headlam. Image: Eamonn Lenihan

Through this work, they were able to develop a first aid management protocol for jellyfish stings that rips up the previous rulebook for how to treat a sting.

Valeria Nicolosi

Prof Valeria Nicolosi is one of the world’s foremost authorities on nanomaterials and whose work could revolutionise how we develop lithium-ion batteries. Currently chair of nanomaterials and advanced microscopy at Trinity College Dublin and a principal investigator at the AMBER research centre, she has published more than 150 high-impact papers and won numerous awards.

Valeria Nicolosi in a white blazer holding a sheet of nanomaterial up to the ligt in her lab.

Prof Valeria Nicolosi. Image: Naoise Culhane

Earlier this year, her team revealed a new ink-based nanomaterial dubbed MXene that could lead to the development of an electric vehicle battery with a range of 500km. Over the past five years, she has generated more than €12m in research funding to her various projects.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic