Research grants worth €23m awarded to young scientists

Funding packages from Science Foundation Ireland range from €300,000 to €600,000

David Finlay, Trinity College Dublin, and Orla O’Sullivan, of Teagasc, at the announcement of some ¤23 million in awards to early and mid-stage researchers through Science Foundation Ireland in Dublin today. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times.

David Finlay, Trinity College Dublin, and Orla O’Sullivan, of Teagasc, at the announcement of some ¤23 million in awards to early and mid-stage researchers through Science Foundation Ireland in Dublin today. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times.

Tue, Jul 8, 2014, 12:54

A very different kind of tattoo could provide a way to help diagnose conditions such as liver failure and eczema outbreaks, according to a young researcher who has received almost €650,000 to pursue her idea. The best thing about it is if it works it offers an alternative to needles and blood samples.

The research study pursued by Dr Aoife Morrin of Dublin City University is one of 40 such awards to early and mid-stage researchers made by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation through Science Foundation Ireland.

The awards are worth a combined €23 million and provide between €450,000 and €800,000 over four years. They are meant to help younger research scientists to establish themselves and enable them to apply for funding from the EU and other sources, according to Minister of State for research Sean Sherlock.

Dr Morrin is exploring ways to detect diseases through the skin rather than having to use invasive methods such as taking a blood sample. They would be based on new sensor technologies that could be attached to the skin and relay information like “smart tattoos”, she said at an event to announce the awards.

Dr Orla O’Sullivan based at Teagasc declared her intention of enlisting the help of 75 “couch potatoes” and then putting them through their paces like the Irish rugby team. Her award of €520,000 is based in part on earlier work which showed the Irish team had particularly healthy guts with a broad mix of helpful bacteria.

Her new project will try and discover whether the healthy gut bacteria are there because of heavy exercise, the consumption of body-building protein supplements or both exercise and supplements.

Dr David Finlay of Trinity College Dublin received €647,000 to study fitness of a different kind. The immune system’s natural killer cells police the body, looking for cancerous cells, viruses and other enemies which they attack and kill.

Fit killer cells need a lot of energy to do this and so consume large amounts of glucose, the sugar our food breaks down into to power the body. Dr Finlay’s study involves looking for fit and less fit killer cells to see why some are not so effective at halting cancer. He also wants to see if the fit ones retain their fitness and ability to kill when inside a tumour.

There were many other interesting projects. Assistant professor Rachel McDonnell of Trinity is working on games software and received almost €534,000 for her project, “Game Face: Perceptually optimised real-time facial animation”. She wants to give game characters more realistic facial features so they can convey fear, anger, surprise and other emotions as game play progresses.