10 researchers to share €15m as part of major SFI prize

3 Mar 2020

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40 research positions will be created by 10 researchers who are to share a prize of €15m in SFI funding.

President Michael D Higgins has presented 10 researchers with significant funding as part of the SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Award. The awards are presented to early-career research leaders with major accomplishments in science and engineering.

Total funding for the awards amounts to €15m, spread across 10 researchers who will use it to recruit for 40 new research positions. This will include 18 PhD students, 15 postdocs and seven research assistants.

The research areas awarded include human health in the areas of lung disease, ageing, traumatic brain injury, bowel and gastrointestinal diseases. Other areas of research include sensors for prosthetics, environmental projects in the area of barley production, marine bioresources, and understanding the impact of the sun on the Earth using advanced data analytics.

There are four awardees based in Trinity College Dublin (TCD), three in University College Dublin (UCD), two in Maynooth University (MU) and one at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS).

Speaking at the announcement, SFI’s director of science for society, Dr Ruth Freeman, said: “The SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Award recognises outstanding new research leadership and talent.

“We are dedicated to supporting research leaders with ideas to drive innovation and assist Ireland and the world in meeting the many challenges we face, from climate change, supporting healthy ageing and understanding the universe.”

The 10 awardees are:

Honorary professor Caitriona Jackman (DIAS), €1,325,539

Jackman’s research will focus on data analytics and machine learning in space science. This includes applying advanced data analytics to large data catalogues to understand the impact the sun has on Earth and beyond.

Assistant professor Joanne Masterson (MU), €1,572,600

Masterson – a researcher previously featured on Siliconrepublic.com – aims for her work to lead to a paradigm shift in our current concepts about the failure to resolve maladaptive epithelial responses in eosinophilic oesophagitis (EoE). EoE is a chronic clinicopathologic allergic gastrointestinal disorder, and an increasing clinical problem.

Assistant professor Eóin McNamee (MU), €1,488,046

McNamee’s research will combine leading immunologic studies using patient samples with novel transgenic preclinical models to define how microRNA circuits shape the intestinal immune response. Novel therapeutics based on microRNA-targets will be tested for their ability to reverse immune-mediate damage and to elicit tissue healing during inflammatory bowel diseases.

Assistant professor Suzanne Cloonan (TCD), €1,587,525

Work from Cloonan’s lab has identified that iron metabolism pathways are dysregulated in the lungs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients and that targeting these pathways may hold promise for the development of new therapies.

The lab will decipher where in the lung this iron accumulates and how this excess of iron may promote the growth of bad bacteria, rendering COPD patients more susceptible to infections.

Assistant professor David Loane (TCD), €1,587,818

Loane’s research will look at the issue of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and their links to dementia and chronic neurodegeneration, in particular, the role of sustained brain inflammation. Identifying the causes of chronic microglial activation following TBI may allow the development of novel biomarkers and therapeutic strategies for TBI and its related dementias.

Assistant professor Nessa O’Connor (TCD), €1,374,384

O’Connor’s lab will identify new methods of growing seaweed to harness alginate for the treatment of osteoarthritis while also harnessing biofuels. It will also test whether cultivated seaweed can protect shellfish from expected changes in ocean chemistry.

Assistant professor Roman Romero-Ortuno (TCD), €1,525,970

Early recognition of frailty in older people could prevent or delay poor outcomes during treatment, but diagnostics to recognise early frailty are limited.

Romero-Ortuno’s team aims to discover new frailty signals and models, confirm them in real patients, and pave the way towards smart devices that could detect early frailty, helping achieve longer lives without disability.

Dr Rory Johnson (UCD), €1,546,106

Lung cancer is one of the greatest single causes of death in Ireland today, but we still lack effective therapies.

Johnson’s project aims to discover new types of genes that promote lung cancer, develop drugs to inhibit their activity, and thereby kill tumours by applying the latest genomic technologies.

Assistant professor Sónia Negrão (UCD), €1,466,217

Modern varieties of barley have lost their protection against extreme weather, yet heritage barley has not.

This research will combine advanced genomic techniques with imaging platforms, using drones and AI, to quantify the effects of waterlogging in heritage varieties and secure future barley production.

Prof Stephen Redmond (UCD), €1,479,655

While we have learned more about the science of how humans feel the slipperiness of an object, there is still much science has to figure out. Redmond’s work will look to study how humans feel friction, and subsequently build artificial touch sensors that can do the same.

The friction-based tactile sensors developed during this project would endow artificial hands with the ability to feel slipperiness, significantly advancing the fields of prosthetics and autonomous robotics.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic