Tyndall’s got talent, and its new CSO plans to develop it

Rank Prize-winner Eoin O’Reilly turns his laser precision on the Tyndall Institute

Prof Eoin O’Reilly, newly appointed chief scientific officer at the Tyndall Institute, in Cork: “What I’m particularly excited about, however, is having a part to play in developing new talent.” Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Prof Eoin O’Reilly, newly appointed chief scientific officer at the Tyndall Institute, in Cork: “What I’m particularly excited about, however, is having a part to play in developing new talent.” Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Mon, Aug 4, 2014, 01:40

There is perhaps nothing more satisfying (or frustrating) for a scientist than to see a once widely disputed theory they developed eventually become the norm in their field. It happens only to a select few, one of whom is Prof Eoin O’Reilly, the newly appointed chief scientific officer at the Tyndall Institute, in Cork.

His main research areas include photonics and computational modelling. In the 1980s, he and four colleagues challenged the widely accepted view that semiconductor lasers should be strain free. They argued there were scientific advantages to putting thin-layer structures into a semiconductor laser. At the time, manufacturers did not share their view, having spent the previous 20 years actively trying to get strains out of their lasers to make them more efficient.

In the early 1990s, however, a few companies took their advice and found adding strains made for better devices. Now almost every laser contains a strained layer to make it more efficient. Their research went from being discounted to ubiquitous in a couple of decades.

This year, O’Reilly was awarded the prestigious Rank Prize for Optoelectronics.

“It’s work that we pioneered 25 years ago, but for which I only recently got recognition,” he says. “It’s a good example of how fundamental research can take time to make an impact.”

This is important to both O’Reilly and to the Tyndall Institute more generally. While commercial applications are never far from the minds of the institute’s researchers, engineers and students, they still have an appreciation for the free-flowing research agenda that won’t necessarily lead to immediate commercial patenting and IP opportunities.

Gold medal

O’Reilly has been at Tyndall for the past 14 years, but he didn’t spend his entire career in Ireland. Upon receiving first-class honours in theoretical physics with a gold medal and the Fitzgerald Medal for Physics at Trinity College, he went on to do his PhD at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in theory of condensed matter.

His aforementioned breakthrough research on strained lasers was largely conducted at the University of Surrey, where he became deputy leader of its Optoelectronic Devices and Materials Group and head of its department of physics.

He has also taught and undertaken research at DCU, Fraunhofer IAF and the University of Illinois, and has clocked up more than 300 publications, including 10 book chapters, nine invited reviews and an undergraduate text book.

His overall h-index (a measurement of both the productivity and impact of the published work of a scientist or scholar) is 42. The top 25 per cent of professors have a h-index of 30.

He is currently principal investigator on a €1.065 million SFI project on “nanoscale physics and engineering of optoelectronic materials and devices” and is coordinator and principal investigator on two EU FP7 STREP projects.

New role

No one could refute his credentials for the job. But what can he bring to the table as chief scientific officer? “Obviously in my new role I will have increased input into research priorities here, but Tyndall already has fairly well-established priorities – from the fundamental to the very applied.

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