Professors Ruth Byrne and Jennifer McElwain receive RIA Gold Medals

Posted on: 04 April 2022

Trinity College Professors Ruth Byrne and Jennifer McElwain were presented  with Royal Irish Academy Gold Medals by An Taoiseach Micheál Martin today.

Ruth Byrne, Professor of Cognitive Science, received the Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal in the Social Sciences and Jennifer McElwain, Professor of Botany, received the Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal in the Environmental Sciences and Geosciences.

Provost Linda Doyle welcomed the President of the Royal Irish Academy, Dr Mary Canning, to the Provost’s House for the awarding. The Taoiseach presented the medals to Professor Byrne and Professor McElwain in a ceremony attended by fellow members of the Royal Irish Academy, colleagues in academia, family and friends.

(l to r) Royal Irish Academy President Dr Mary Canning with An Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Gold Medal winners Ruth Byrne and Jennifer McElwain and Trinity Provost Dr Linda Doyle

Each year, the Royal Irish Academy awards Gold Medals to two world-class researchers in Ireland whose work has made and continues to make a global impact. The awards celebrate the achievements of higher education in Ireland and serve to inspire future generations of high-achieving researchers.

Dr Mary Canning, President of the Royal Irish Academy, said

Public recognition of excellence demonstrates the Academy’s core purpose to promote awareness of how science and the humanities enrich our lives and benefit society. Our two Gold Medal award recipients today have, through the rigour and global impact of their work, illustrated those values perfectly and their achievements will inspire early-career researchers. After all, you cannot be what you cannot see.

An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said

I am delighted to help celebrate the outstanding work of Professor Ruth Byrne and Professor Jennifer McElwain as they are awarded the Royal Irish Academy Gold Medals. The global pandemic highlighted how important research and innovation and the contribution of the Higher Education sector is for policymakers and citizens alike. We want to further improve that flow of ideas into the future. The Royal Irish Academy Gold Medals demonstrate the value, range and quality of research in Higher Education Institutes that is making a global impact.

Professor Ruth Byrne said:

This award is a welcome recognition of the value of the scientific study of the human mind, especially the importance of discoveries in cognitive science about the human imagination, for understanding how people think, reason, and make decisions in their daily lives.

Professor Jennifer McElwain said:

 The award of the RIA Gold Medal in the Environmental Sciences and Geosciences is a huge personal honour. For me it highlights how studies of landscapes, fossils and atmospheres of a past Earth from millions of years ago are valued because they provide a long- term context to contemporary issues of climate change and biodiversity loss. An understanding of the deep geological past allow us to document baselines of past climate change, the sensitivity of global climate to changes in atmospheric composition and the tipping points which have negative consequences for biodiversity.

The 2021 Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal in the Environmental Sciences and Geosciences is sponsored by the Geological Survey Ireland and the Geological Survey Northern Ireland.



Notes for Editors:

Professor Ruth Byrne is a globally acknowledged scholarly leader in the field of Cognitive Psychology: a psychological scientist who has advanced our understanding of the human mind She has made a distinguished scholarly contribution to psychology through her research on human reasoning and imagination including experimental and computational investigations of reasoning and imaginative thought.

Her discovery that certain kinds of background knowledge can suppress even the simplest of deductive inferences has attracted experimental study worldwide. Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers have modelled it to improve the flexibility of reasoning in AI programmes. It has also led to important theoretical developments in the characterisation of human reasoning. Her work on the human imagination provided for the first time an experimentally tested account of the processes underlying a central aspect of imaginative thought, the creation of alternatives to reality. The integrated treatment of imagination and rationality in her 2005 MIT book The rational imagination: how people create alternatives to reality, was noted by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman “as a major contribution to both fields”. Her work has impacted beyond her discipline in philosophy, artificial intelligence and computer science.

Professor Byrne has a stellar research record and continues to be a prolific researcher. She has published over 130 substantive scientific articles, including over 80 refereed articles in leading international high-impact journals. She has over 50 chapters in refereed edited books. Her current H-index is 45 and her publications have been cited over 12,000 times. In addition she has published over 50 chapters in refereed edited books, has authored or co-authored 3 books and has co-edited 4 books with prestigious publishing houses including MIT press; Erlbaum: and Routledge. She collaborates with highly regarded researchers in universities worldwide and she has delivered over 65 invited keynote talks at leading international conferences and has organised conferences and symposia in many different countries. She has supervised 18 PhD students to completion and many of her former doctoral students now hold academic positions in universities in Ireland, the UK and Australia.

She is Professor of Cognitive Science at Trinity College Dublin, in the School of Psychology and the Institute of Neuroscience, a chair created for her by the university in 2005. She was Deputy  Director of the Institute of Neuroscience in Trinity College from 2009-2015 and the Vice-Provost of Trinity College from 2005 to 2008. She is a Fellow of the U.S. Association for Psychological Science and has been a member of the Royal Irish Academy since 2007.


Professor Jennifer C. McElwain is an internationally recognised pioneer in the reconstruction of paleo-atmospheric composition using fossil plant proxies. For over two decades her research has focused on the interface between the biological and geological sciences, where she hascrafted a unique niche as a renowned palaeobotanist, bringing palaeoecological insights to contemporary plant science and an Earth system perspective to palaeobotany. She has achieved this by positioning her work at the forefront of experimentally testing and applying paleo-CO2 proxies to intervals of past environmental and biotic change.

Professor McElwain has spearheaded the development of novel paleo-ecophysiological traits that can now be applied to fossil plants to test the role of vegetation change and the evolution of plant function in forcing critical shifts in Earth system processes. Her research has delivered major breakthroughs in understanding the coupled evolution of plants and the atmosphere on geological timescales with a major focus on atmospheric CO2 and O2.

The application of the stomatal proxy method and its continued refinement and experimental testing by McElwain and her research team have revolutionised understanding of changing atmospheric CO2 through Earth history. McElwain’s work has been underpinned by coupled perspectives in Earth system science and plant ecophysiology, ecology and evolution. Without McElwain’s continued improvement and application of the plant-based CO2 proxy to climate critical intervals in Earth history such as biological mass extinction events, oceanic anoxic events and extreme volcanic episodes, subsequent studies on the geological causes and biological consequences of major global change events would not have been possible. Similarly, advances in understanding of the factors and processes driving the long-term carbon cycle, climate and ice sheet/sea-level dynamics through Earth history have been shaped by McElwain’s major contribution to the baseline CO2 record over highly dynamic climatic intervals such as the Late Pennsylvanian and Eocene/Oligocene climate transition.

She has contributed to the global reach of her discipline through leadership and chairing of international conferences, invited commentary, interviews and via science-art collaborations and public outreach opportunities.

Professor McElwain has directed numerous high-profile, multi-million-euro research teams/projects, she has successfully mentored 14 post-doctoral fellows and 16 PhD students through these awards and she has played a leading role in the establishment and funding of award-winning national-scale experimental infrastructure in Ireland. She is a fellow of Trinity College Dublin, a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a President’s Medal awardee of the Palaeontological Society.

Professor McElwain is a highly regarded and innovative international leader in the field of palaeobiology. She holds the 1711 full Professorial Chair of Botany at Trinity College Dublin, Trinity’s oldest established Chair. She is the current Director of Trinity Botanic Garden, Head of the Department of Botany and Chair of the Royal Irish Academy’s Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee. She is the first female in all four leadership roles.


The Academy Gold Medals celebrate the achievements of leading scholars in Ireland whose work has made an international impact, demonstrating the global reach and recognition of expertise in Ireland. These awards recognise the exceptional research taking place in higher education in Ireland that impacts our lives, benefits society and inspires the future generations of aspiring researchers. The Gold Medals have become the ultimate accolade in scholarly achievement in Ireland.


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