SFI conference celebrates impact and mentors in science

5 Nov 2014

Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation, Damien English, TD, (left) and Science Foundation Ireland director-general Prof Mark Ferguson (right) present Prof Barry Smyth with the SFI Researcher of the Year 2014 award at the SFI Summit in Dublin

Researchers were honoured for excellence, imagery and mentoring skills at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)’s annual summit in Dublin earlier this week.

Big-data research. Eye-catching imagery. Mentoring ability. They all got the nod at the SFI Summit, the funding agency’s annual gathering of researchers. Around 300 investigators from around Ireland attended the two-day event, where talks and workshops put the focus on ‘illustrating impact’.

Big data, big award

A bevy of awards were announced at the summit, including SFI Researcher of the Year 2014, which went to Prof Barry Smyth, who holds the Digital Chair of Computer Science in University College Dublin.

Presenting the award, SFI director-general Prof Mark Ferguson described Smyth as an “exceptionally talented scientist” who had applied his research to found companies (software company ChangingWorlds and social-search and advertising company HeyStaks) and who has led the major research centre CLARITY: The Centre for Sensor Web Technologies and more recently the Insight Centre for Data Analytics.

Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, Smyth says he is delighted to win the prestigious award. “I am fortunate to have worked with a great team of researchers and students and this award is a great endorsement of what we have achieved together,” he says.

“This is an exciting time to be a researcher. Science has become mainstream and provides wonderful opportunities for young people today and a wide variety of career choices. I have always been excited about the impact that SFI researchers can have in the market and I have been fortunate to be in a position to demonstrate this in my own research group.”

SFI Research Image of the Year

Dr Anthony Maher, a former researcher at the Synthesis and Solid State Pharmaceutical Centre (SSPC) in University of Limerick and member of Kerry’s Senior Football All Ireland winning team, picked up the award for SFI Research Image of the Year.

Maher, a Pfizer employee, was a researcher in the SSPC between 2008-2012 and carried out his PhD work in the area of polymorphism in pharmaceutical compounds. His winning entry in the competition, ‘Starship Enterprise’, is an optical micrograph image that shows a Form II piracetam crystal (rough, dissolving) undergoing a polymorphic transformation to a more stable Form III crystal (smooth, defined faces) in methanol at 25°C.

Winner of the SFI Research Image of the Year, ‘Starship Enterprise’ by Dr Anthony Maher

Mentors recognised

During the conference three Irish researchers were recognised for their abilities as mentors – Prof Cormac Taylor from University College Dublin (UCD), Prof Cliona O’Farrelly from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and Prof Martin Clynes from Dublin City University (DCU). They received 2014 Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science from editor-in-chief of Nature, Philip Campbell.

Taylor, who researches hypoxia and inflammation, particularly in inflammatory bowel disease, told Siliconrepublic.com he was “absolutely delighted and honoured” by the award.

“Good mentorship is a critical and often overlooked aspect of running a research group,” says Taylor, who is professor of cellular physiology at UCD. “I believe attention to the quality of mentoring is particularly important as the research funding landscape appears to be moving towards favouring supporting large over principal-investigator-driven research groups.”

O’Farrelly, who is professor of comparative immunology at TCD and whose work has delivered insights into unique immunological features and functions in human gut, liver and uterus, says she is honoured to receive the award.

“It is already a privilege to be a scientist – to be living and working amongst people who are constantly opening up new worlds, to be inspired and encouraged by people who want you to see inside their exciting worlds and to discover your own,” she says. “Sharing the excitement and power of new discoveries and rediscoveries with bright young people and watching their own personal worlds expand and brighten as a result, is the other huge privilege of being a scientist.”

Clynes directs the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology at DCU and is an expert in animal cell culture technology, biotechnology, cancer drug resistance and stem cell research. He said the Nature award underlines the importance of helping and supporting our young scientists at post-graduate and post-doctoral levels.

“The funding system in Ireland needs to pay more attention to how Ireland’s very able cohort of young researchers can be better supported and encouraged to develop independent research,” Clynes says.

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