SFI Awards reveal Ireland’s leading researchers for 2020

5 Nov 2020

Image: © amirul syaidi/Stock.adobe.com

During an ‘eventful and challenging’ year, some of Ireland’s leading researchers have been honoured at the 2020 SFI Awards.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has revealed the winners of this year’s SFI Awards at its science summit, held online for the first time as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The event’s aim is to allow members of Ireland’s research community to discuss current challenges and mark the significant contributions made over the past year to research and innovation.

The awards included eight categories, with the grand prize – SFI Researcher of the Year 2020 – going to Kingston Mills, a professor of experimental immunology and director of the Biomedical Sciences Institute at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

Mills is currently leader of the immunology, inflammation and infection research theme at TCD and co-leads the Covid-19 research hub that was established earlier this year, funded by SFI with additional co-funding from AIB through the Trinity Foundation.

He is also a member of a number of international scientific advisory panels on immunotherapeutics and vaccines, including two at the World Health Organization, and is a member of the European Research Council (ERC) advanced grant panel on infection and immunity.

A very different year

Mills said he was “absolutely delighted” with the award. “I have been committed to the fascinating field of immunology for nearly 40 years, but my research achievements would not have been possible without the financial support from SFI, the commitment and dedication of my research team and the support of colleagues, especially those at TCD,” he said.

Congratulating all the award winners, SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson added: “This year has been an eventful and challenging one for our research community.

“I would particularly like to congratulate Prof Kingston Mills as our 2020 SFI Researcher of the Year. Well done to all, working closely together, the Irish research community continues to be impactful, inspirational and world-leading.”

The winners from the seven other categories are:

SFI Early Career Researcher of the Year

Winners: Dr Matthew Campbell of TCD and Dr Lorna Lopez of Maynooth University

Dr Matthew Campbell is based at TCD’s Neurovascular Genetics Laboratory and is an international leader in the field of neurovascular barrier biology. He has made significant contributions to our understanding of the role of the endothelial tight junction complexes in both health and diseased states. To date, he has raised more than €5.7m in research funding and was this year presented with an ERC Consolidator Award.

Dr Lorna Lopez is a lecturer and assistant professor at the Department of Biology at Maynooth University and leads human health research on discovering the genomic basis of neurodevelopmental disorders. She is also a recent recipient of a prestigious ERC Starting Investigator Award.

SFI Industry Partnership Award

Winner: Prof Fergal O’Brien, RCSI/AMBER

Fergal O’Brien is a professor of bioengineering and regenerative medicine, the director for Research and Innovation, and head of the Tissue Engineering Research Group at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI).

Through a longstanding partnership with the SFI materials science research centre, AMBER, and Integra LifeSciences, O’Brien has led a project that successfully developed two unique peripheral nerve repair technologies, both of which have proven highly effective in repairing damaged nerves in pre-clinical trials.

SFI Best International Engagement Award

Winner: Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir, UCC/MaREI

Brian Ó Gallachóir is a professor of energy engineering in University College Cork (UCC) and director of MaREI, the SFI centre for energy, climate and marine. As centre director, he oversaw MaREI securing €17m from EU programmes in the past three years and he has established new research capacity in Ireland in the area of integrated energy systems modelling.

His research has also underpinned significant policy developments including Ireland’s Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, the Government’s negotiations with the EU regarding 2030 climate targets, and recent changes to the public spending code in 2019.

He provides advice to the International Energy Agency and presented at UN climate conferences COP 21 in Paris and COP 23 in Bonn.

SFI Entrepreneurship Award

Winners: Prof Fergal Mc Caffery of Dundalk IT and Dr Anita Finnegan of Nova Leah

Fergal Mc Caffery is founder and director of the Regulated Software Research Centre (RSRC) and a professor of computing science in Dundalk IT. He is the medical device software engineering competency area leader in the Lero research centre and is a co-founder of Nova Leah, a spin-out company from the RSRC.

He has been awarded more than €16m in research funding through national and European funding, and has published more than 200 peer-reviewed conference and journal papers. Over the past few years, he has taken a part-time career break to work with Nova Leah and also as chief scientific officer for STATSports.

Mc Caffery and Dr Anita Finnegan co-founded Nova Leah, a start-up that develops cybersecurity risk management solutions for connected medical devices. Finnegan is an internationally recognised expert in the field of medical device cybersecurity risk management and is an active member of a number of international standards communities.

She was previously listed as one of ‘50 Female Entrepreneurs Everyone Should Know’ by Crunchbase and more recently was named as a finalist in the EU Women Innovator Prize.

SFI Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication

Winner: Prof Luke O’Neill, TCD

Immunologist Luke O’Neill is a professor at TCD’s School of Biochemistry and Immunology. He is also co-founder of Sitryx, which aims to develop new medicines for inflammatory diseases and earlier this year received significant funding to partner with Eli Lily. He also co-founded Inflazome, which was recently acquired by Roche in a €380m deal.

O’Neill is a member of the Royal Irish Academy, the European Molecular Biology Organisation and a fellow of the Royal Society. As a science communicator, he has a weekly slot on the Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk and has published a number of books, most recently his work titled ‘Never Mind the B#ll*cks, Here’s the Science’.

SFI Mentorship Award

Winners: Prof Pat Guiry and Prof Patricia Maguire, both of UCD

Pat Guiry is a full professor of synthetic organic chemistry and director of the Centre for Synthesis and Chemical Biology at the UCD School of Chemistry. His research interests include the design, synthesis and application of novel ligands in asymmetric catalysis, natural product synthesis and medicinal chemistry.

He has supervised 55 PhD and three MSc students to graduation to date and has worked with more than 20 postdoctoral researchers. His group has published more than 140 papers, review articles, book chapters and patents with more than 7,000 citations.

Prof Patricia Maguire is an interdisciplinary scientist interested in the intersection of AI with biomedical science. As a professor in the UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science and principal investigator at the UCD Conway Institute, she and her team use unique tools to diagnose and understand a host of inflammatory-based diseases, including early-onset preeclampsia, multiple sclerosis, venous thromboembolism and Covid-19.

Maguire is also currently director of the UCD Institute for Discovery, which facilitates interdisciplinary connections in emerging areas of interdisciplinary research.

SFI Research Image of the Year Award

Winner: Dr Niall Smith, Cork IT/Blackrock Castle Observatory

False-colour image of one person coughing and emitting pink particles from their mouth and anothe person wearing a mask.

‘Talking Heads’. Image: Dr Steven Darby (CAPPA Research Centre), Dr Krishnakumar Chullipalliyalil (CAPPA Research Centre) and Danielle Wilcox (Blackrock Castle Observatory)

Dr Niall Smith is head of research at Cork IT and the head of Blackrock Castle Observatory. His team’s image, entitled ‘Talking Heads’, shows the stark contrast between a masked and unmasked medical dummy head arranged as if in conversation.

The image is supposed to underscore in a simple visual way why mask-wearing in social interactions is a key strategy for suppressing the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic