Trinity’s Prof Orla Hardiman named SFI Researcher of the Year

21 Nov 2022

Prof Orla Hardiman at the recent Trinity Innovation Awards. Image: Paul Sharp

Motor neurone disease expert Prof Orla Hardiman was one of several researchers recognised at the annual award ceremony.

Prof Orla Hardiman of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) has been named Researcher of the Year 2022 for her “outstanding contribution” to our understanding of motor neurone disease and treatments.

The winners of the annual Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Awards were announced today (21 November) at the SFI Science Summit in Limerick.

The event, which celebrates the contributions researchers make to Irish society, was held in person for the first time in two years.

Hardiman is a leading authority on the causes, diagnosis and treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or motor neurone disease. This occurs when specialist nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord called motor neurones stop working properly.

Accepting the award, Hardiman said understanding the processes that drive neurodegeneration is the “final frontier” in neuroscience.

“As clinician scientists, we seek to unravel the complexity of neurodegenerative disease in humans, and our work in Ireland has focused on how best to enable the successful translation of laboratory discoveries to new drugs for those with different subtypes of disease,” she said.

“Our ultimate collective objective is to ensure that we provide the right drug for the right patient at the right time.”

SFI director general Prof Philip Nolan said that Hardiman has made “an outstanding contribution to our understanding of, and the treatment and care of people with motor neurone disease”.

Hardiman is a professor and head of neurology at TCD, and her work was honoured at the recent Trinity Innovation Awards.

She is a researcher at the SFI research centres FutureNeuro and Adapt. She also founded and leads the national ALS clinical and research programme and is the HSE national clinical lead for neurology.

“I am particularly conscious of my privileged position as a female leader in science, and of the importance of mentoring from experience other younger women as they juggle careers, family life and research,” Hardiman added.

Close-up of tiny crystals in various random shapes and patterns.

Winner of the SFI Image of the Year Award. Image: Mariana Oliveira Diniz

The winners from the other eight categories at the SFI Awards 2022 were:

SFI Early Career Researcher of the Year

This award went to Dr Claire Gillan of TCD, who is an internationally renowned expert on mental illness. She was the first to show that patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder have tendencies to form habits – a discovery that features in several undergraduate textbooks today.

SFI Commercialisation Award

Dr Alison Liddy of the University of Galway bagged the commercialisation award. Liddy and her team are developing a novel treatment for chronic pain without the usual addictive side-effects that current treatments possess. It has the potential not only to transform the lives of those living with chronic pain but also to reduce prescription drug addiction.

SFI Best International Engagement Award

This award went to Prof Michael Morris of TCD and Amber, the SFI research centre for advanced materials and bioengineering. Morris, a professor of surface and interface chemistry, was recognised for his longstanding association and engagement with international companies, researchers and policymakers.

SFI Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication Award

This award was given to Midlands Science CEO Jackie Gorman, who has been engaging with and educating young people, parents and other key stakeholders since 2008. She has been steering Midlands Science, an education centre based in Tullamore, to promote STEM and impact thousands of people every day – with a focus on those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

SFI Industry Partnership Award

NexSys, led by Prof Andrew Keane of University College Dublin (UCD), bagged this award. On a mission to decarbonise Ireland’s energy system, NexSys brings together researchers from across the island and connects them with key industry partners, policymakers and communities. EirGrid and ESB have partnered with NexSys with a commitment to research and innovation for over 15 years.

SFI Mentorship Award

This award went to Prof Walter Kolch, director of the systems biology group at UCD, for his role in building a highly interdisciplinary and multinational research environment in Ireland. Kolch has supervised more than 50 postdoc and 40 doctoral students, providing his team with the tools and infrastructure to develop their independence early in their careers. Several have secured positions in academia and industry – while some have even started their own companies.

SFI Engaged Research of the Year Award

Aoife Deane and Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir of MaREI, the SFI research centre for energy, climate and marine research at UCC, won this award along with the rest of the Dingle Peninsula 2030 team. Together, they are working on ways to address critical energy and climate challenges in Kerry while also building societal resilience and capacity.

SFI Research Image of the Year Award

This award went to Mariana Oliveira Diniz, a PhD student at SSPC, the SFI research centre for pharmaceuticals based in the University of Limerick. In her research, she investigates the nucleation kinetics of griseofulvin in different solvents and different scales.

The image was taken on a phone camera and shows crystals that formed when a solution of griseofulvin (an antifungal drug used to treat skin infections) in acetonitrile was left to evaporate at room temperature on a fume hood for three days.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic