7 women crossing borders with their research

8 Mar 2021

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For International Women’s Day, we celebrate seven women whose research is truly international, thanks to the support of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions funding.

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) are a range of research funding supports from the European Commission open to all kinds of researchers at all stages of their careers. Irish research has benefitted hugely from this funding programme, with Ireland ranking second in MSCA draw-down per capita.

For a funding scheme bearing the name of one the world’s most famous female scientists, it’s encouraging to see how many women researchers have been supported by MSCA. In Ireland, 45pc of all MSCA awardees are women.

Securing one of these supports can be a huge boost to a researcher’s career. MSCA funds numerous knowledge-exchange opportunities through cross-border and cross-sector mobility of researchers, to better prepare them for current and future societal challenges.

In Ireland, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions are managed by the Irish Universities Association and the Irish Research Council. “As a former academic researcher who has benefitted from international mobility, it is a pleasure to use my experience to support applicants to MSCA,” said Dr Geraldine Canny, head of the Irish Marie Skłodowska-Curie office.

Maria McNamara

Palaeobiology professor Maria McNamara was a recipient of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund grant, which supports research programmes through co-funding. During her fellowship, she was based at Yale University.

“It was a crucial time in my career,” McNamara said. “For three years I worked at one of the top universities in the world, with the world leader in my field and with fabulous resources at my fingertips. It really allowed me to understand how excellent research is done.”

Now back at University College Cork, McNamara uses high-spec imaging and chemical analysis techniques to study biomolecules and tissue structures in fossil animals. She was recently awarded a second multimillion-euro grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for her efforts to understand the evolution of animal life.

She said one of the most important things she learned while in the US was how to “sell” the science, be that to her peers, to the media, to scientific journals or to funding agencies. “For sure I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience.”

Eilionóir Flynn

Prof Eilionóir Flynn received an Innovative Training Networks (ITN) grant via the MSCA. She is the youngest principal investigator within her MSCA consortium, but she has a track record of leading research teams.

Soon after receiving this support, she was appointed as an established chair at NUI Galway. “Being a scientific co-ordinator of a Marie Curie ITN helped to demonstrate that I had the necessary skills and experience required of an established chair,” she said.

While Flynn’s research remains based in Ireland, the reach is thoroughly international. Her current project, Disability Advocacy Research in Europe (DARE), is a Europe-wide training network for early-stage researchers in the field of disability rights.

“The DARE Marie Curie ITN gives me a unique opportunity to train the next generation of disability rights researchers and to bring together researchers from around the world, across different disciplines, who are all dedicated to making an impact with their research and creating social change, with and for disabled people,” Flynn explained.

Susi Geiger

Based in UCD College of Business, Prof Susi Geiger received an individual fellowship from the MSCA. She described herself as an “unusual applicant” for MSCA support as a “well-established mid-career academic”.

For her research project, Navigating and Innovating in Complex Healthcare Ecosystems (NICHE), Geiger set out to apply her expertise in business as well as deepen her insights into healthcare.

“With its focus on training and expanding one’s geographic and institutional horizons –in my case, University of California Berkeley and Mines ParisTech – the MSCA funding allowed me to gain expertise in these areas while conducting a robust research project.”

Geiger also said her success in securing MSCA funding set her up for future wins. This holds true as she received a €2m ERC Consolidator Grant upon first application in 2017.

Sinead O’Gorman

Sinead O’Gorman is part of the MSCA-supported Inspireurope project, which is led by the Scholars at Risk Europe office at Maynooth University. This project is strengthening support in Europe for researchers who have experienced severe threats to their lives and their work.

“For me, personally, the project has also been a rewarding opportunity to collaborate with a group of passionate and dedicated research professionals who are leaders in their fields,” said O’Gorman. “Through our collaborative efforts across countries, we are learning from each other, deepening our expertise, and identifying and bridging gaps together in order to advance our common goal of integrating the research talent of researchers at risk.”

In the coming months, Inspireurope will undertake consultations with at-risk researchers in order to examine how gender plays into existing support. “Our hope is that further attention to this issue will improve concrete support measures for women in research, and inform policymaking in Europe on the topic of researchers at risk.”

Sharon O’Brien

The International Network in Crisis Translation (Interact) research project has given Dublin City University’s Prof Sharon O’Brien the opportunity to coordinate her first EU-funded project. She received support through the Research and Innovation Staff Exchange scheme (RISE) as well as an individual MSCA fellowship.

“RISE projects require international, cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration and networking, which was both challenging and highly rewarding. For me, personally, it enabled travel to Arizona, Auckland and Freiburg, to universities and to a not-for-profit organisation,” said O’Brien.

“The coordination aspect was challenging too and enabled me to develop skills in team leadership and negotiation. The Interact project has had a hugely positive impact on my career and on my development as a scholar and a leader.”

Margaret Jackson

“My MSCA has opened so many doors, and has allowed me to take charge of my own research project and to build a network of collaborators in Ireland and across Europe,” said Dr Margaret Jackson, an assistant professor in geography at Trinity College Dublin.

Following years as a research and teaching assistant in US universities, Jackson came to Ireland to conduct her postdoctoral research project at NUI Galway. This research into Earth sciences and geochemistry was supported by an MSCA fellowship.

“As part of my MSCA I travelled to Peru to conduct fieldwork and to collect samples. I also travelled to France to gain competency in new laboratory techniques,” said Jackson.

It was during this fellowship that Jackson was offered the role at Trinity. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the opportunities – for research, networking and skill development – provided by my MSCA fellowship,” she said.

Sarah Hudson

Dr Sarah Hudson was awarded a Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship just after finishing her PhD. “[This] opened the door to a world-leading drug delivery lab at MIT in Boston, under the supervision of Prof Robert Langer, over 15 years ago,” she said.

This chemical engineering lab took a multidisciplinary approach to drug delivery challenges that Hudson found inspiring. The prestige of working with such an institution has also helped to further her career.

Hudson’s connection with Langer has also carried through and he has visited her twice at the Bernal Institute and SSPC, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for pharmaceuticals, at University of Limerick. “His legacy continues to influence yet another generation of researchers and being able to expose my own students to that was something very special,” said Hudson.

Like her own mentor, Hudson now guides the next generation of scientists as coordinator of LongActNow, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network for European Industrial Doctorates.

Updated, 10.20am, 9 March 2020: The previous headline of this article was ‘6 women crossing borders with their research’. This was updated as there are seven women featured in the article.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.