Optics expert with a clear vision for DCU

 

PROFILE: BRIAN McCRAITH, PRESIDENT, DCU: A scientist who has pioneered research into optical sensors, DCU’s president is seen as the opposite of his predecessor, but this gaeilgeoir and arts lover may have the right chemistry

DCU IS WITHIN the Irish university genus, but in a category of its own. Its location, youth, ethos and academic character distinguish it.

Difference is not an advantage now, as higher education policy commentators converge on the notion of rationalisation; this young north Dublin campus with is select suite of disciplines is an outlier, and exposed.

For 10 years the charismatic German-born professor Ferdinand Von Prondzynski gave DCU a presence far beyond its footprint. The lawyer and legal academic put himself at the centre of public education discourse with frequent contributions to print (including his weekly column in this paper) and broadcast media as well as authoring one of the most popular blogs in the country. DCU’s former president is more readily identifiable than the leaders of Trinity or UCD.

Who could replace him? On the face of it, Brian MacCraith, who took over as DCU president in July 2010, looks like Prondzynski’s alter ego: a quiet scientist, a Dundalk-born Gaeilgeoir and career academic. He will bring a very different style of leadership to DCU, say his colleagues.

“Ferdinand was presidential,” says one. “Brian is more of a collaborator. He’s not a narrator like his predecessor, but he is a good communicator in a different way.”

According to those close to him Brian is very ambitious for DCU, and his priority areas are starting to become evident after six months in the job. “Brian, like Ferdinand, realises that DCU needs to reinforce its position in higher education, perhaps more urgently than other institutions,” says an outside observer. “We’re expecting him to focus on forming stronger alliances with partners in jurisdictions he’s familiar with – chiefly in the north of Ireland and India.” This is a shift in policy, as Prondzynksi focused his efforts on the US and China.

Bringing students from India will go some way to addressing the funding crisis that all universities face at the moment, and Prof MacCraith knows how to raise money. He led the establishment of the National Centre for Sensor Research (NCSR) in 1999 with funding of €12m; the centre is now one of the leading hubs for sensor research in the world with 240 researchers in a massive custom-designed facility on campus.

MacCraith’s career is stitched into the fabric of DCU. After graduating from NUIG he joined the teaching staff of DCU in 1986 and quickly made his mark by setting up the Optical Sensors Laboratory. His work won him international recognition in the field of optical chemical sensors and biosensors, biomedical diagnostics and nanobiophotonics.

He has sported the DCU brand in Washington DC, as a visiting scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory, and in Europe, as co-chair of Europtrode IX, the European conference on optical chemical sensors and biosensors. Through his fellowship of SPIE, the international photonics organisation, he has showcased DCU on the global stage.

“Brian is one of the top sensor researchers in the world,” says a university leader. “He has brought the NCSR and the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute to global prominence. His work in measuring biological life signs is contributing to the development of diagnostic tools – one of the Holy Grails of science, finding cancer markers.”

His promotion could be construed as a loss to research at DCU. “Deep down Brian wants to make an impact and he has a strong commitment to public service and the common good,” says a colleague. “He believes he can contribute something meaningful in this role and he has replaced himself carefully at the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute.” Prof Michael Berndt has taken up the role.

Teaching has remained a focus for him and, according to a colleague, he plans to maintain a teaching role during his presidency. “It’s a mark of the man that he invited everyone who ever taught him to his inauguration,” says a member of the DCU teaching faculty. “He credited them all, right back to his primary school teachers. I think this says a lot about his commitment to the core activity of the university – teaching.”

DCU has a reputation for being a functional university. It doesn’t have the broad sweep of humanities and arts subjects that other institutions have developed. There is no school of philosophy, no history department and no theology degree. Information technology, software engineering and machine translation are flagship disciplines and the university has prioritised industry placement and commercial partnerships. It has also cut a dash in sports with its scholarship scheme, drawing some of the country’s sporting elite in GAA, soccer and athletics to the campus.

But there’s a wider question.

Is the promotion of a scientist to leadership of DCU an uncomfortable development for those in the softer disciplines?

“Brian has a great love of the arts,” says a conspicuously unruffled humanities faculty member. “He is passionate about Irish traditional music, poetry and theatre. He’s particularly interested in enhancing the campus; over the last 25 years there has been such a focus on getting DCU up and running, there hasn’t been time to develop the physical space here.”

With his love of drama it is hoped that MacCraith might look again at the role of the Helix in university life; critics have complained that commercial imperatives have limited the theatre’s potential as an arts hub on Dublin’s north side.

Innovation will emerge, say the oracles, where humanities and sciences collide and MacCraith has already mixed it up at DCU by establishing the new degree pairings of physics with French and physics with German. In a quiet way, MacCraith has been building the foundations for his leadership through a variety of collaborations at DCU over 24 years, and this behind-the-scenes consensus-building is likely to characterise his presidency, says an observer.

That said, his high-profile initiative to bring Nobel laureates to give lectures in DCU (the first one was in October) is also being praised.

One colleague notes: “Brian will be a quieter president. Ferdinand took the view that a peripheral university in a disadvantaged area needed to make noise. Brian may not be a media natural and, yes, his recent outing on Ryan Tubridy’s radio programme was assured and understated. But he will not make the mark of his predecessor on the public mind unless he elects to fashion a more robust media persona.’’

Another significant challenge for MacCraith will be to design a winning strategy for a university as unusual as DCU.

“There is no wisdom in trying to grow the university or to diversify. DCU needs to specialise in key areas, to be best in the world at three or four things. DCU has successfully leapfrogged other universities to take its place in the top 300 universities in the world. This position can only be held through building partnerships beyond Ballymun.”

Curriculum Vitae

Previous leadership roles

Founder, Optical Sensors Laboratory at DCU; founding director, National Centre for Sensor Research (NCSR); director, Biomedical Diagnostics Institute (BDI).

Education

B.Sc and PhD in physics (optical spectroscopy of chromium-doped crystals) at NUI, Galway.

Research interests

MacCriath is prominent in the global field of optical chemical sensors and biosensors, biomedical diagnostics and nanobiophotonics.

Other roles

Visiting scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC; fellow of the Institute of Physics; member of the Royal Irish Academy; fellow of SPIE, the international photonics organisation; member of the Forfas Advisory Council on Science, Technology Innovation.

Interests

The Irish language, traditional Irish music, theatre, poetry, football, opera.