How has collaboration created a thriving research ecosystem at UL?

29 May 2018

Dr Mary Shire, vice-president of research at UL. Image: UL

Dr Mary Shire is a major leader in the third-level research strategy in Limerick, and her passion is contagious.

Ireland’s research landscape is rich and varied, with more and more ideas and concepts being transposed from the academic sphere to the commercial market, where major societal and economic differences are being made.

The University of Limerick (UL) is at the heart of this movement and Dr Mary Shire is overseeing some exciting projects as its vice-president of research.

Shire has been in her leadership position at UL since 2011 and has, in just a few short years, led the institution to become one of the most respected research hubs in Europe. spoke to her about leadership, fostering communication between academia and industry, and her vision for Limerick.

A thriving ecosystem

Shire grew up in Newcastle West in Co Limerick. She moved away from the county for her studies and spent some time abroad and elsewhere in Ireland working in the pharma industry before she commenced her vice-presidency duties.

Since she began her stint at UL, the university has thrived in areas such as pharma, software, advanced manufacturing, the dairy industry and composite materials. At present, UL is working with more than 200 firms in collaboration on various projects.

Research centres based at UL include Confirm and Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded manufacturing and software research centres; the Synthesis and Solid State Pharmaceutical Centre (SSPC); and Epi-Stem, the National Centre for STEM Education.

Shire explained that before she started her tenure, there was no pharma research at all in UL, but the bones of the vibrant sector existing today were there. “We just didn’t have a pedigree but we did have really good competencies in areas that have applications in pharma.”

She said that her expertise in industry has been a key influence on her strategy for research at UL. “I came from industry, so I was bit of a different beast in the sector and it hugely helped in my role. We have strong engagement with industry in UL.” For Shire, finding business use cases for innovative research is a major passion.

Commercialising research at UL

Some of her key priorities include “ensuring research is excellent and is translated and commercialised into society and our economy, and always looking to position Limerick to be really strong”.

The Irish Government has placed more importance on pharma in recent years and it is one of the country’s 14 priority areas. “Ireland really has something special here,” is something Shire has heard time and again from collaborators when talking about the research environment in the country.

She noted the fact that UL can supply top-level talent from graduates all the way up to PhD expertise. With companies increasingly seeking high value-add personnel, this makes Limerick an attractive prospect.

In terms of the latest fields, Shire is ensuring that UL is on the leading edge of some exciting research with Jaguar Land Rover around automated cars as well as software, which is, in her words, “pervasive in every company”. Digital transformation is a key driver for the university’s work in manufacturing, too.

Education and research must work together

Shire and the other UL staff are always conscious of marrying the content of their programmes to their research endeavours, as the recent announcement of a new master’s in AI exemplifies, aligning seamlessly with the research that will be carried out at the Confirm research centre. This is a key priority for Shire. “Education programmes must match with our research programmes.”

Boosting confidence in students

In terms of leaders paving the way for Limerick to become a major hub of industry, innovation and education, Shire cited Catherine Duffy of Northern Trust as a prime example. “Though she’s not a native, she has definitely been adopted by the city and is just an inspiring leader.”

Creating the leaders of tomorrow is an important element of Shire’s work. Diversity and boosting confidence in young female students and researchers is important. Although she never personally experienced barriers due to her gender, she put that down to a father who fostered a strong sense of self and capability in her as she grew up. “It’s about instilling confidence in girls from a very young age. I was lucky in that my dad was a farmer and he always got across to me not to be afraid of anything, to try engineering things. I didn’t see any difference between me and what I could do.”

She noted that there is an obvious gender disparity in STEM and added that broader social development and educational initiatives are an ideal remedy. She cited a programme between UL and Johnson & Johnson, WiSTEM2D, as a major success story. “Girls that have taken that hard decision to enter into science and technology in university find barriers around self-perception, like truly believing they are not as good as the boys.”

Shire explained that this mentorship programme helps young women in STEM see real career paths in the sector and break down barriers, helping them become the leading researchers of the future. “If you perceive barriers, then they become a reality.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects