SFI Awards reveal Ireland’s leading researchers for 2019

7 Nov 2019

From left: Prof Kevin O’Connor, UCD, with his award and Prof Mark Ferguson, SFI, at the SFI Science Summit 2019. Image: Jason Clarke

For his pioneering work in bioeconomy research, Prof Kevin O’Connor of UCD has been named SFI Researcher of the Year 2019.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has revealed the winners of this year’s SFI Awards at its science summit, which is underway in Athlone today (7 November). Among the changes in this year’s awards was the addition of a Mentorship Award to celebrate the role mentors play in providing guidance, motivation and emotional support to researchers.

The winner of the big prize was revealed as Prof Kevin O’Connor of University College Dublin (UCD), who is director of the Beacon SFI bioeconomy research centre. His research areas have led to significant developments in the bioeconomy.

Working with industry, O’Connor developed technology to convert a dairy by-product into an organic acid, which was patented and licensed to industry. It is now being scaled and implemented in a ‘second-generation dairy biorefinery’ that has received more than €30m in EU funding.

“I am delighted and honoured to receive this prestigious SFI award,” O’Connor said. “It is a recognition of the dedication of the many researchers and industry partners with whom I work and collaborate with, across multiple scientific fields and sectors, at UCD, across Ireland and internationally.”

Nine other winners were also announced at the ceremony.

SFI Early Career Researcher of the Year

Winners: Lydia Lynch, TCD, and Orla O’Sullivan, APC Microbiome Ireland/VistaMilk

Lydia Lynch, an associate professor at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), established and leads the Lynch Laboratory as part of the School of Biochemistry and Immunology.

A recipient of the L’Oreal-UNESCO International Women in Science Award and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie International Fellowship, Lynch currently leads an international team in immunometabolism at TCD.

Dr Orla O’Sullivan, meanwhile, is a funded investigator within the APC Microbiome Ireland SFI research centre and VistaMilk SFI Research Centre.

Her research focuses on the microbiome and her studies have established that healthy and protein-rich athlete diets result in a more diverse gut microbiota than standard diets. In 2018, O’Sullivan was named by Clarivate Analytics as a highly cited researcher, placing her in the top 1pc of researchers worldwide.

SFI Industry Partnership Award

Winner: Prof Danny Kelly, AMBER/TCD

Through his position at the AMBER SFI materials science research centre at TCD, Prof Danny Kelly has led the Johnson & Johnson partnership on the Transition programme to develop a new class of 3D-printed biological implants that will regenerate, rather than replace, diseased joints.

SFI Best International Engagement Award

Winner: Prof Abhay Pandit, Cúram/NUI Galway

Abhay Pandit is a professor of biomaterials at NUI Galway and scientific director of the Cúram SFI research centre for medical devices.

Throughout his career, he has engaged in international collaborations and hosted international conferences supporting trade missions and championing residency programmes for leaders in the community to empower them with the STEM message.

SFI Entrepreneurship Award

Winner: Prof William Gallagher, UCD

Prof William Gallagher is director of the UCD Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research and professor of cancer biology in the UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science.

In 2007, he co-founded the molecular diagnostics company OncoMark and is currently its chief scientific officer.

SFI Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication

Winners: Eilish Mc Loughlin, DCU, and Muriel Grenon, NUI Galway

Associate professor Eilish McLoughlin is director of the Research Centre for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning (CASTeL) at DCU.

She has led several large-scale national initiatives to widen participation in STEM including Physics Busking, Science on Stage, Improving Gender Balance and the STEM Teacher Internship.

Dr Muriel Grenon is a lecturer in biochemistry at the School of Natural Sciences, NUI Galway, and the founding director of the Cell Explorers science outreach programme.

The programme has also started a collaboration with the University of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa, where a team is currently piloting the ‘Fantastic DNA’ school visits.

SFI Mentorship Award

Winner: Dr Fatima Gunning, IPIC and Tyndall National Institute

Currently serving as head of graduate studies at the Tyndall National Institute and a principal investigator at the IPIC SFI research centre, Dr Fatima Gunning is looking at novel photonics technologies for the internet of the future.

Gunning believes that all students are different, are driven by different motivations and develop their research in different ways. As a result, she trials novel mentoring methods to encourage self or group learning, depending on the students’ needs.

SFI Research Image of the Year

Winner: Dr Han Shao, Tyndall National Institute

Microscopic image of flower-like blue and green structures surrounded by red.

Image: SFI

Dr Han Shao, a postdoctoral research at the Tyndall National Institute, won for his unaltered, colourful image of a nickel foam-supported cobalt phosphate nanoflake structure. The nanoflake grew outward in different directions, forming a flower-like microstructure, which helps to enhance energy storage performance.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic