Six Trinity researchers win Irish Research Council Advanced Laureate Awards

Six researchers from Trinity were among the 12 successful applicants of the Irish Research Council (IRC) Advanced Laureate Awards programme announced today (April 11, 2019) by Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh and Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation and Research and Development, John Halligan.

The IRC Advanced Laureate Awards scheme was launched in 2018 to support exceptional researchers in conducting frontier basic (blue-sky) research that pushes the boundaries of our current knowledge.

All six Trinity researchers receiving funding are at an advanced stage in their careers and will be supported to conduct ground-breaking, world-class research across a wide range of disciplines. Each awardee will receive up to €1 million in funding over a period of up to four years.

Their research areas range from the development of novel methods to discover new magnetic material, to new approaches to the early diagnosis of cancer by examining tiny particles released into the bloodstream by cancer cells, to the creation of a bottom-up history of architecture in Ireland and Britain in the 1700s focusing on craftspeople rather than architects and patrons.

Pictured (L-R) are: Dr Eavan O’Brien, Assistant Director, Irish Research Council; Professor Michael Zaworotko, Advanced Laureate Awardee, University of Limerick; Professor Christine Casey, Advanced Laureate Awardee, Trinity; Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh; Professor John Atkins, Advanced Laureate Awardee, University College Cork; Peter Brown, Director, Irish Research Council, Ms Liz-Anne Worrall, Assistant Director, Irish Research Council.

In addition to the 12 nationally funded awards, a further 48 proposals, 11 of which are from Trinity, were deemed to be fundable by the international panels of experts. This list will be activated if additional funding becomes available.

Commenting on the importance of the IRC Laureate awards programmes Provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast said:

The Irish Research Council Laureate funding programme is a major addition to the funding landscape in Ireland. Programmes of this nature, which fund frontier research, provide Principal Investigators (PIs) across all disciplines the opportunity to plan their research careers here in Ireland. We would like to see the IRC Laureate scheme become a yearly initiative so that Ireland can continue to nurture the development of world-class researchers and compete on the international research stage.

Congratulating the researchers, Trinity’s Dean of Research, Professor Linda Doyle added:

We are very proud of our successful applicants and Trinity’s overall success with six out of 12 awards going to our researchers and a further 11 excellent researchers on the reserve list. An Irish Research Council laureate award is a mark of excellence and all of the awardees have come through a rigorous and independent international evaluation. These kinds of awards, based on excellence, are essential in building the innovation pipeline this country needs to remain competitive and robust for the future. They also play a huge role in keeping great talent in this country. In celebrating the success of our researchers, we also recognise the need to grow investment in research excellence.

The six awards build on Trinity’s earlier success in the first round of Laureate funding. This was aimed at early to mid-career researchers and was distributed among 36 researchers nationally with Trinity securing 14 of these.

The successful applicants from Trinity in the Advanced Laureate Awards are:

Adrian Bracken, Associate Professor, Genetics and Microbiology, for his project METHSTEM27, which will explore how mammalian cells maintain their individual ‘cellular identity’ by studying a key set of factors called Polycomb group proteins. Our bodies have hundreds of different types of cells, all with the exact same DNA and genes. Yet, despite each cell receiving the same set of genes, different cell types read this instruction manual differently to produce their unique ‘cellular identity’, e.g. brain, blood and muscle cells. The new discoveries from this project will help to redefine our understanding of how Polycomb proteins regulate cellular identity during normal development and in diseases such as cancer.

Christine Casey, Professor in Architectural History, for her project CRAFTVALUE, a study of the relationship between architecture and craftsmanship, or design and making. While scholarship has traditionally focused on those who commissioned and designed historic buildings, this project seeks to demonstrate the fundamental role of craftsmanship in the creation of the built environment. It aims to produce a new bottom-up history of architecture in Britain and Ireland in the 1700s which explores how ideas were translated into reality by the work of skilful hands, and how high standards in craftsmanship were nurtured and sustained. Ultimately the project seeks to demonstrate why skilfully crafted buildings are valued by society.

Seamus Martin, Professor of Medical Genetics, for STRESSINFLAM.  Many conditions such as cancer, neurodegenerative disease and obesity are associated with chronic long-term inflammation but the underlying cause of this type of inflammation is very poorly understood.  Professor Martin will explore a novel hypothesis that persistent cell stress switches on a set of stress-sensing molecules, dubbed SAMPs, and these promote the chronic inflammation seen in cancer and other diseases. Understanding how chronic inflammation is triggered is likely to reveal new ways for the treatment of multiple diseases.

Lorraine O’Driscoll, Professor in Pharmacology, for her project EVIC, which will examine extracellular vesicles (EVs) — tiny particles that are released from cancer cells into the bloodstream. Her team will study how these particles can be used for the early diagnosis of cancer and as indicators of the optimum anti-cancer drugs for a patient. Their research has also shown that EVs from cancer cells may play a role in the spread of cancer throughout the body and in making cancer cells not respond to treatment.  EVIC will investigate a new way of stopping, or at least limiting, this happening.  But not all EVs are bad!  EVIC will also engineer EVs from safe healthy cells to help transport drugs directly to cancer cells, so as to be of benefit at lowest possible doses with fewest side-effects.

Stefano Sanvito, Professor of Condensed Matter Theory, for his project eMag.  From the compass, which has been used for navigation since the 11th century, to the hard disk drives, which power our computers, magnetism has always enabled our way of living. Yet, the number of known and useful magnetic materials is limited. The eMag project aims to discover new magnets at an unprecedented speed.  The idea is to combine advanced electronic structure methods, rooted in quantum mechanics, with artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict properties of unknown magnetic materials and eventually make them in the lab.  eMag is a first step in the direction of fully automated materials discovery.

Igor Shvets, Professor of Applied Physics, for his project SUPERTUNNEL, which will explore new concepts in superconducting junctions.  Current in a superconducting loop can flow without loss of energy in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction, defining two distinct quantum states of the device. This property is the foundation of a quantum bit (qubit), the basic element of a quantum computer. Professor Shvets’ team are investigating a completely new architecture of the qubit free from defects which compromises its performance.