Three Irish researchers secure €2m each in EU R&D funding

19 Jul 2013

Three Irish researchers have been announced as recipients of the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants and will each receive €2m to pursue their cutting-edge research in physical sciences and engineering.

The three researchers are Aoife Gowen from Dublin Institute of Technology/University College Dublin (UCD), David Hoey from the University of Limerick, and Niamh Nowlan, who is based at Imperial College London.

The three recipients faced tough competition for these grants. The call attracted 3,329 proposals in total, which represents a 50pc overall rise in demand for the grants this year.

Future Human

The call was also the last under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). However, new calls are foreseen under Horizon 2020 and a major increase in funding levels are expected for the ERC.

From blue sky research to life-changing technologies

Gowen, from Kilkenny, who is working at Dublin Institute of Technology and formerly at UCD, will receive the funding for her research which focuses on novel chemical imaging techniques that will allow biologists, bioengineers, designers and chemists to see how water interacts with surfaces at a very high resolution, and to explore the properties of materials that drive the interaction.

“Water has a profound effect on materials, changing their properties and behaviour,” Gowen said. “This is critical for biomaterials, since water is usually the first molecule they see, whether it is the polymers used to filter water, the plastics used in sutures, the dressings that promote healing or the pacemakers put into the heart. Understanding how water interacts with surfaces will help in the design of better materials and indeed to create more resilient and flexible structures across a range of applications.”

Hoey from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is working at the University of Limerick. He will focus his research on determining how physical loading, such as walking and running around, helps to maintain a healthy skeleton. He explained: “Every 30 seconds a person suffers an osteoporosis-related hip fracture in the EU and this results in devastating injury, mortality and healthcare costs.

“My research will focus on the stem cell primary cilium, which is an antennae-like structure that extends from the surface of these cells. I believe that this ‘antenna’ is required for stem cells to sense a physical load enabling the cell to change into a bone-forming cell and replace the lost bone. Understanding how this process works will enable us to mimic the beneficial effect of physical loading using newly developed drugs and therapeutics and will lead to innovative treatments for bone-loss diseases, such as osteoporosis,” Hoey said.

Nowlan from Rathfarnham, Dublin, and a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, is now working in Imperial College London. She has been awarded the grant for her project, which will look into how movement in the womb affects a baby’s bones and joints.

“The funding will significantly advance my research into how movement in the womb helps normal development of a baby’s joints. It is thought that reduced movement in the womb can increase the risk of developmental dysplasia of the hip, or ‘clicky hips’ as it is sometimes called, which is the most common skeletal condition in newborns.

“This grant will enable my team and I to investigate the link between a baby’s kicks in the wombs and the development of their joints, with the eventual aim of improving diagnosis and treatment for infants with the condition,” Nowlan said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years