Women secured more than half of SFI ‘Starting Investigator’ grants in 2016

23 Dec 2016

Dr Jennifer Mahony, postdoctoral researcher at University College Cork and recipient of a SIRG. Image: APC Microbiome Institute

2016 saw an increase in the number of women securing Science Foundation Ireland ‘Starting Investigator’ funding for research. Claire O’Connell reports.

It’s nice to round off a year with a good news story, so let’s reflect for a moment about how women have been securing key Starting Investigator Research Grants (or SIRGs) from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

At a media briefing last week, the science-funding agency noted that the proportion of women going forward for and being awarded SIRGs has risen in 2016. 

SIRG experiment

“The SIRG helps a researcher transition from working on someone else’s grant to setting out on their own path to independence,” explained Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of SFI, at the briefing.

In previous years, around a quarter of applicants in total were women, noted Ferguson. “The rhetoric to date was that there were fewer women in the system.”

But as an “experiment”, SFI changed the application process. Previously, higher education institutions could put forward a maximum of six applicants for SIRGs, so SFI increased the cap to 12 – but stipulated that a maximum of six could be male.

The result? More than half of the 20 awards in 2016 went to women. “We had 48pc applications from women,” said Ferguson. “Then when we sent [the applications] out to international peer review, 55pc of the successful applications were from women.”

Using that positive incentive appeared to have found these “hidden talented women” and Ferguson wants to build on that success. “This little experiment was quite interesting, we will do more.”   

‘The SIRG helps a researcher transition from working on someone else’s grant to setting out on their own path to independence’

Research to scratch a chronic itch 

One recipient of a SIRG is Dr Jianghui Meng, a researcher at the International Centre for Neurotherapeutics in Dublin City University.

She studies chronic itch, a condition that affects more than 20pc of the world’s population. “My research looks at why so many people are affected by this illness and aims to tackle the global inconsistencies in its treatment.

“I am delighted to have been awarded the Starting Investigator Research Grant as it has enabled me to become an independent principle investigator and build capacity and expertise through employing a PhD student for four years. It has also afforded me the opportunity to attend international conferences to discuss the development of novel effective therapies with my peers,” said Meng.

Protecting starter bacteria

Another recipient is Dr Jennifer Mahony, a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Microbiology in University College Cork, and the APC Microbiome Institute.

Her SIRG-funded project is looking to improve dairy fermentations such as those used to produce cheese and yoghurt.

“To convert milk to cheese or yoghurt, bacteria – known as ‘starter’ bacteria – are added to acidify the milk and they also provide other favourable characteristics such as flavour and texture, while also extending the shelf life of perishable foods,” explained Mahony.

Starter bacteria need to be protected from infection by viruses that can slow down the fermentation process, or can even cause fermentation to fail.

Mahony wants to better understand the means by which these viruses recognise starter bacteria and infect them. “[This] will allow us to develop tools to detect these viruses before they become problematic and to design strategies to aid starter culture providers and dairy producers, to select starter strains on a rational basis to minimise the chances of the starter cultures becoming infected,” she said.

Ultimately, this will help the Irish dairy fermentation sector, and there are benefits to the consumer too as the textures and tastes should be more consistent, noted Mahony, who is working under the mentorship of Prof Douwe van Sinderen on the project.   

“[SIRG is] a fantastic opportunity to gain experience in leading my own research and teaching undergraduate students,” said Mahony.

“It is a stepping stone in a long career path, but the most important one as it provides the first step to an independent career path with the support of an experienced mentor.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication