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Meet our Emerging Young Star Neuroscientist - Roisin McMackin

The ink has hardly dried on her PhD thesis but outstanding research student Roisin McMackin, is already on the cusp of being a world-class neuroscientist. Lauded by her mentor Professor Orla Hardiman as “probably the most talented scientist I have ever had the privilege of mentoring”, the PhD student was recently awarded a prestigious Junior Non-Clinical Fellowship from the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA).

Currently in the final stages of her PhD at The Academic Unit of Neurology, Trinity College Dublin, Roisin submitted her thesis in December 2020 on Human Neurodegeneration: A Spectral EEG and TMS based Approach in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. The MNDA Fellowship Award, which is typically reserved for those with more postdoctoral experience, will now fund Roisin to continue her research on neurodegenerative disease over the next 2-3 years. The Fellowship follows a long list of successful academic achievements throughout Roisin’s young academic career, the most recent of which was recipient of the Brainbox Research Challenge Prize 2020. Roisin hopes that her chosen research path will better prognoses and treatment for patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Such a system would enable greater recruitment of patients of clinical trials and more sensitive detection of beneficial therapies. 

Roisin took some time out from her hectic schedule to speak to us about her past influences and what she enjoys away from the lab.

What do you most enjoy doing in your spare time?

Outside of academia I love to horse ride. When I started my PhD, I thought that doing a PhD had to involve working very long hours and weekends, as I would hear that from people in other teams or online. However, I've found that by taking time away from my research by horse riding on evenings and weekends, I'm far more productive and motivated at work.

What did you want to be when you were young?

I loved art when I was young, but I don't think I have the patience for it. I've always loved science, but it probably wasn't until I was about 16 that I knew I wanted to be a scientist, in biology or chemistry, and by the time I did the leaving cert I knew I wanted to study neurodegeneration.

If I wasn't involved in research, I would work in something else to do with biology, maybe something in the pharma industry, or maybe I'd work with horses, but I don't think I have the talent to make much money from equestrianism!

Who or what was the largest influence on pursuing a career in research?

I had some really great science and maths teachers in school - My biology teacher would bring in news article clippings about research beyond the course, my chemistry teacher would encourage me to give presentations about things I learned outside the course material, and my maths teacher was happy to give extra time to any student that wanted to learn. My mom was also great at answering all my questions when I was young, she really encouraged curiosity. I remember a lot of times when I asked her about how diseases happened, or the body worked, and she'd do her best to answer me.

Prof. Orla Hardiman has really had the largest influence on my research career. It amazes me that someone that has so many roles and responsibilities finds so much time to invest in new researchers. Even though I was only a junior sophister student when we met and she wasn't looking for someone to take on, she recognised my enthusiasm and potential and provided me with the mentorship and opportunities I needed to get to where I am so far. She includes me in a lot of important meetings and asks for my opinions, which makes me feel like a really valued member of her team. She's also a great female role model and world-renowned leader in a male dominated field, which is very inspiring.

Academic Qualifications and Experience

Roisin McMackin completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin in 2016. During this degree she was awarded multiple times for best in class grades, as well as a University Gold Medal for obtaining a final grade over 75% and an esteemed Non-Foundation Scholarship. During this time, she was eager to gain additional research experience. She therefore applied for, and was awarded, an HRB Summer Studentship grant to research Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) at the Academic Unit of Neurology in TCD under the supervision of Prof. Orla Hardiman. Roisin continued to research ALS throughout the sophister years of her undergraduate degree before immediately progressing to undertake a PhD, supervised by Prof. Hardiman, Prof. Richard Carson and Dr. Bahman Nasseroleslami. This PhD was funded by a competitive IRC Government of Ireland Scholarship. In this project, Roisin  applied electroencephalography (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to understanding and characterising the brain network disruption that occurs in ALS. Using these tools, Roisin has identified novel information about how ALS affects motor and cognitive circuitry in the central nervous system, and how this pathology relates to the symptoms that a patient experiences. The results of this project and their potential clinical applications have garnered international attention from biomedical researchers, clinicians and pharmaceutical companies. Roisin's PhD work has also been disseminated in multiple publications across high-ranking peer-reviewed journals, including Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, NeuroImage: Clinical, Cerebral Cortex and Journal of Neural Engineering. Roisin submitted her thesis in December 2020 and plans to undertake her viva voce examination in February 2021.

We would like to extend our congratulations to Roisin, and we are very much looking forward to working with her and reporting on her continued successes over the coming years at Trinity College Dublin under the auspices of her great mentor Prof Orla Hardiman.

Emerging young Neuroscientist, Roisin McMackin, takes time out from the lab