Irish researcher Katherine Fitzgerald receives St Patrick’s Day Science Medal

16 Mar 2015

Immunologist Prof Katherine Fitzgerald, professor of medicine and co-director of the Program in Innate Immunity at the University of Massachusetts Medical School

Immunologist Prof Katherine Fitzgerald has received the Science Foundation Ireland award from An Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Washington today.

It is a perfect time to recognise the achievements of the Irish overseas, and this year’s SFI St Patrick’s Day Science Medal has been awarded to immunologist Prof Katherine Fitzgerald, professor of medicine and co-director of the Program in Innate Immunity at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

“I was really thrilled and honoured to have been selected,” says Fitzgerald, whose research looks to understand the cellular events that trigger inflammatory responses during infection.

“We are trying to understand how the immune system discriminates between dangerous microbes, the bacteria that line our intestine and our own molecules – to avoid damaging inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis or Lupus.”

DNA receptors

Her group has been studying receptors they found can recognise the DNA of microbes and turn on inflammatory responses to ward off infection and protect us.

“However, as with all aspects of the immune system, this is a double-edged sword,” explains Fitzgerald. “Sometimes, these same receptors accidentally recognise DNA from within our own cells and the same pathways get turned on, driving dangerous inflammation. We think these events are important in diseases ranging from arthritis, heart disease and cancer.”

Fitzgerald’s lab is currently looking to develop ways to block or boost these DNA receptors as needed.

“If we block their action, we could potentially prevent dangerous inflammatory responses,” she explains. “On the other hand, sometimes we want to boost the immune response. In the case of vaccines against dangerous microbes, if we had ways to ramp up and shape inflammatory pathways we might make vaccines work better.”

Maintaining links with Ireland

The SFI St Patrick’s Day Science Medal, designed by Sligo-based jeweller Martina Hamilton, is awarded annually to a distinguished Irish scientist, engineer or technology leader living and working in the USA. Fitzgerald, who studied science at University College Cork and did her PhD with Prof Luke O’Neill at Trinity College Dublin, continues to work with researchers in Ireland.

“Remaining engaged with Irish science is very important to me,” she says. “Because of my training in Ireland and the internationally renowned Irish immunology community, I have been fortunate to remain very close to Irish science and all the best it has to offer.

“I have very active collaborations with immunologists at Trinity College Dublin (especially Luke O’Neill, Andrew Bowie and Ed Lavelle). These collaborations have translated to joint US National Institutes of Health grants. I am also fortunate to have recruited Irish post-docs and researchers to my lab who are amongst the best I have ever worked with. Finally, I have also co-ordinated a summer internship programme, where we have had several TCD undergraduates spend summer internships at my own institution, Umass Medical.”

First woman recipient

Fitzgerald describes it as a “particular honour” to follow in the footsteps of inaugural medal recipient and namesake Prof Garret FitzGerald, who won the 2014 award.

“It is very cool to be the first woman to receive the medal,” she says, offering advice to women who are at the early stage of a career in research.

“Follow the path you are passionate about – if you find science fascinating, there are many paths to a career in science and no one right way. Learn how to network and advocate for yourself. Take advantage of opportunities when they arise. Most importantly, find a mentor or mentors who will guide, support and advocate for you. I have had incredible mentors over the years, several of whom have been fantastic women.”

Awards aplenty

Earlier today, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, awarded the medal to Fitzgerald at a ceremony hosted in Washington, DC, by SFI. At the event, Kenny also presented Dr France A Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), USA, with a Certificate of Irish Heritage.

In her role as NSF director, Córdova is responsible for all fields of scientific research, technical innovation and STEM promotion in the United States. Previously president of Purdue University and the University of California, as well as chief scientist at US space agency NASA, the astrophysicist has published more than 150 research papers.

Córdova’s great-great grandfather, who arrived in the USA in 1858, was born in Finglas, Dublin, in 1835.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Inspire 2015 is Silicon Republic’s unique international sci-tech event running 18-19 June in Dublin, connecting professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Buy your early bird tickets now! Get in early and grab the ‘Two-for-one’ tickets before the end of March. You don’t want to miss this!

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