University of Limerick: Building a centre of international research excellence

A €52m initiative headed by world-class scientists aims to make Ireland a global leader in research


Ireland could become recognised as a global leader for research in a range of scientific disciplines as a result of a new initiative just announced by the University of Limerick (UL). The €52 million initiative, known as the Bernal Project, involves the largest ever philanthropic donation to any Irish university from Atlantic Philanthropies and will see the recruitment of 10 world-leading professors, a start-up seed fund to support their teaching and research activity, and the construction of a new 12,000sq m research building.

Named after influential 20th-century Irish scientist John Desmond Bernal, who is regarded as the founding father of molecular biology, the project is aimed at enhancing research excellence in the fields of pharmaceutical science and engineering, energy and sustainable environment, and biomedical materials and engineering.

Each of the selected areas is already supported by major funding from the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the European Union, and a variety of commercial sources. In all, some €36 million of the €52 million will come from philanthropy with €26.3 million of that portion coming from Atlantic Philanthropies and the remaining €16 million from state and university funds.

The project is a result of several years’ work and painstaking planning. “It’s been in the thinking for about five years”, says UL research vice-president Dr Mary Shire. “The university’s strategic plan includes enhancing our research outputs and we looked at how we could attract international research leaders to come and work here.”

Simply putting in place funding is not enough, however. “We had to look at where we could have the best results and we analysed a variety of different areas before identifying 10 where we could have the strongest impact,” Shire explains. “And when we found these areas we found that they were often at the intersections of disciplines and thus offered opportunities for collaboration between the researchers in the different groups.”

The 10 areas identified were pharmaceutical powder engineering, two in energy, crystal engineering, fluid mechanics, microscopy and imaging, biomedical engineering, biopharmaceutical engineering, biocatalysis, and composites.

‘Very exciting’

Five of the 10 professors have been appointed while the interview process is ongoing for the remaining five. “The scale of the project as well as our research track record has allowed us to attract international-standard researchers for these positions. The fact that they can all come to work together in the Bernal Laboratory is very exciting for them and us. Five of the professors are already in place and two of them have already secured significant external funding for their work here.”

One of these is Professor Michael Zaworotko, the newly appointed Bernal Chair of Crystal Engineering. His appointment is the first under the Science Foundation Ireland Research Professorship Programme which aims to attract iconic research talent to Ireland. The programme includes funding of €6 million to support a body of research critical to Ireland’s pharmaceutical industry and enhance the country’s reputation as a centre for excellence.

“Crystal engineering is a relatively new field and the idea only came about 50 years ago as a dream that chemists could design a crystal with the exact properties they wanted,” Prof Zaworotko notes. “The real research only started about 25 years ago and today we are at a turning point where we can design structures with the properties we are looking for. That’s where it becomes materials science and we are like architects designing the structures. We can use what we have learned to improve the properties of a substance and I am constantly excited by this.”

He sees two areas where crystal research can play a very important role in the coming years. “These are areas where the material is key to the application,” he explains. “One of them is in pharmaceuticals where the active ingredient molecule is contained in a tablet but the tablet has to be made of the right material. This is a great opportunity to apply crystal engineering to pharmaceutical science.

Benefits for economy
“The other application is porous materials which have many applications in areas such as commodity purification. They can be used for purifying water or extracting oxygen from the air and the development of new materials for these purposes could reduce energy usage by up to 90 per cent.”

Attracting such top-ranked researchers requires more than just funding and facilities, however. “A key factor has been the existing base of FDI companies here in Ireland. Not only have the researchers been impressed by the quality of that base but the companies are actively selling Ireland to them,” says Shire. “We hope in turn having these people here will raise the boat for the whole country and help promote Ireland as a location for further FDI activity.”

Dean of the faculty of science and engineering Professor Kieran Hodnett also stresses the potential benefits for the economy as a whole. “The disciplines of science and engineering are the key to our economy’s future growth. UL has a reputation for building effective industry partnerships and creating graduates ready to take on future scientific challenges. The Bernal Laboratory creates a home for world-leading research in fields which are vital for Ireland’s recovery and building this institution’s reputation.”

High five
Bernal professors
Prof Gavin Walker
Walker is Bernal Chair of Pharmaceutical Powder Engineering. His expertise is in pharmaceutical process engineering and modelling of particulate systems. This professorship aims to develop fundamental and applied aspects of pharmaceutical engineering.

Prof Bartek Glowacki
Glowacki is Bernal Chair of Energy and leads the Transnational Energy Materials Printing Initiative (tempri.eu). He has an interest in applications of energy devices where fundamental quantum physics meets heavy industry.

Prof Michael Zaworotko
Zaworotko is Bernal Chair of Crystal Engineering. He is among the world’s top 20 research chemists and holds six patents with 10 pending. He has published more than 300 original research articles which have been cited more than 21,000 times.

Prof Harry Van den Akker
Prof Van den Akker is Bernal Chair of Fluid Mechanics and will contribute to all engineering disciplines with fluid mechanics at their core.

Ursel Bangert
Bangert is Bernal Chair of Microscopy and Imaging and has worked for more than 20 years in electron microscopy. Her research has centred around functional materials, and nanostructured materials, the underlying theme being the relationship between micro- and electronic structure.