Pioneering science in Ireland: students can follow in their footsteps

Scientists and engineers are doing cutting-edge research in our third-level institutions to save lives, reach for the stars, or solve big data problems

Communication is, arguably, the biggest problem facing science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem). It’s not always easy to grasp the complex and technical detail of scientific research. That’s slowly changing, with a growing number of researchers making efforts to reach out to the public and show what they’re doing.

At Trinity College Dublin, professor of immunology Luke O'Neill and rising star of genetics research Prof Aoife McLysaght have led the way. Dublin City University's masters in science communication is also urging a new generation of scientists to talk about their work and the impact it can make on society. And the longstanding BT Young Scientist competition goes from strength to strength.

Meanwhile, students are turning to Stem courses because they are seen as solid degree options that provide increasingly good long-term career prospects. The pharmaceutical and life sciences industry remains strong in Ireland and has a sustainable base from which to develop. There’s a shortage of electronic engineering graduates, a situation that is projected to continue well beyond 2018. Add strong demand for software developers, IT and data analytics experts, process engineers and computer scientists, and it’s easier to see why Stem courses are so popular.

Students on these courses are taught by a variety of lecturers and researchers, some of whom are carrying out groundbreaking research. Here, we look at just some of the work in Ireland’s universities and institutes of technology, and highlight a small selection of Stem courses worth exploring. This is far from an exhaustive list.


So what do our scientists do, and how can you follow in their footsteps?

1. Save lives

University College Cork: New vaccine methods

Researchers at UCC have developed innovative new vaccination techniques that could slash the cost of controlling diseases, particularly malaria. The research may also have massive implications for the prevention and treatment of HIV, influenza, Ebola and other diseases.

Lead researcher Dr Anne Moore created a microneedle-based patch that leads to better results using lower doses of vaccine.

Evidence shows that this could overcome the need to make different vaccine types, which could in turn help speed up the distribution of vaccine, potentially saving millions of lives.

Moore is working with venture capitalists and leading technology companies to help commercialise the research. The research was developed by UCC's School of Pharmacy, its department of pharmacology and the Tyndall National Institute, and with the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford.

Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology: How to prevent stroke

At GMIT's Biomedical Sciences Research Institute, researchers have developed bio-simulators which can replicate different bodily functions and diseases, based on medical data. These are, essentially, experimental computer and medical simulations that allow scientists to develop better ways of treating illness and disease. The system has already been used to create a test that can replicate various stroke treatments, and this has led to an Enterprise Ireland partnership with Galway-based medical-device company Neuravi Ltd to develop technologies for stroke cases. It is already bringing a significant economic benefit to the region.

Royal College of Surgeons Ireland: Improving access to healthcare Safe, affordable surgery and anaesthesia are taken for granted in the western world. But two-thirds of the world's population don't have them. RCSI researchers have recently been involved in Global Surgery 2030, a landmark study highlighting the problems. RCSI is working in partnership with the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa, and with Irish Aid, to expand and develop training programmes to increase the number of specialist surgeons in some of the world's poorest countries.

This development comes as RCSI researchers Prof Jochen Prehn and Dr Markus Rehm, of the department of physiology and medical physics, were recently awarded funding for a colorectal cancer research project.

2. Improve human health

Maynooth University: Why should we care about polar bear fat?

Polar bears are hardy animals surviving on an extreme diet in an extreme environment. But new genetic research shows they are a relatively new species whose genes have recently evolved to do well on a high-fat diet. Prof James McInerney, of the bioinformatics and molecular evolution unit in the department of biology at Maynooth University, has worked with the Beijing Genomics Institute to look at how, while a human with 50 per cent body fat would be critically unhealthy, polar bears with the same fat levels are in good shape. So what might this mean for our understanding of human metabolism? The research and the results (which are yet to come) will tell us a lot.

University College Dublin: Extremely small things

Nanotechnology manipulates extremely small things, on the atomic scale, and applies this science across other fields, including physics, chemistry, biology and engineering. One academic, physicist Dr Brian Vohnsen, uses the science of nanotechnology to focus on the optics of the human eye and the retina. Another UCD researcher, Dr Suzi Jarvis, a professor of biophysics in the School of Physics, runs a multidisciplinary team, which includes electrical engineers, botanists and others. The underlying theme of all her projects is to understand, manipulate and use biomolecules, which are any molecules that are present in living organisms for human health and other applications.

Courses: If any of this sounds interesting to you, a career in biomedical science or engineering might be the right choice. Biotechnology is the deliberate manipulation of living organisms and systems, such as cells or cell components, to make useful products, and direct-entry courses are available at Athlone IT, Dublin City University (DCU), NUI Galway and Maynooth University.

Bioengineers focus on creating valuable products, such as medical devices, for use in medicine. Their work is a thriving industry, with a significant cluster of leading global businesses based around Galway. Courses are on offer at DCU, University of Limerick, NUI Galway and Maynooth University.

Other students might lean towards the life sciences and want to save lives, but that does not necessarily mean they should become doctors or nurses. Trinity College Dublin, for example, is currently doing some of the most significant genetics research in the world, and offers an undergraduate human genetics course alongside other medically orientated options, such as medicinal chemistry, in which students learn to work on the design and delivery of new medicines.

3. Solve big data problems

University College Cork: Use data to reduce waiting

The stubborn problem of hospital waiting lists could be solved through data analytics. Prof Barry O’Sullivan, of UCC, and his team at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics are building technology to find and analyse patterns of supply and demand in our hospitals. Hospital management needs a clear picture of the appointment slots available (capacity) and the waiting list for appointments (demand). Typical patient management systems in hospitals do not have the functionality, so outpatient management teams can’t plan in advance. As a consequence of this gap in knowledge, many patients are left waiting over a year for a first appointment in the hospital. Prof O’Sullivan and the Insight team are developing analytics technology to optimise the visibility and use of hospital resources to minimise outpatient waiting lists in Ireland in the coming years.

Cork Institute of Technology: The Internet of Things

We’re overloaded with information. Researcher s at CIT’s Nimbus Centre for Embedded Systems Research are working on new ways of bringing together all of that information for useful ends. Essentially, they’re looking at the embedded electronic systems that control our cars, appliances and many other devices, and are connecting them together wirelessly.

Data that can be measured includes our temperatures and heart rates, the number of people passing in and out of buildings, the structural stability of homes, and when cows should be milked or whether they are likely to develop mastitis, a painful infection that affects their ability to produce milk. Bringing together all of this data while not eating up the entire internet’s bandwidth is among the challenges that these researchers are trying to solve.

Courses: In technology, computer scientists and those with the ability to analyse data are in high demand, and this shows no sign of slowing down. In recent years, Science Foundation Ireland's largest investment to date – €75 million – was in the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, the biggest data analytics centre in Europe and one of the largest in the world.

Employers in every industry, including retail, medical devices, engineering firms, finance and the public sector, will need people with the ability to capture the data that swirls chaotically around us and to kick it into a shape that can be understood.

UCD’s BSc in computer science is the most highly ranked course of its kind, not just in Ireland but in Europe. Trinity College also offers a computer science course, as do DCU, Dublin Institute of Technology and the University of Limerick.

There are also opportunities to work in our growing computer-games industry, so take a look at courses on offer at the University of Limerick, Athlone IT, Letterkenny IT, Limerick IT and IT Tralee.

4. Reach for the stars

Dublin City University: Jets and stars

As stars form, large energetic jets of gas are expelled from the region surrounding them. Without these jets, no stars would exist. Theories suggest that the jets are launched by the interplay between magnetic fields and the accretion disks of swirling dust and gas which orbit forming stars, although how this happens is not well understood. Dr Turlough Downes’s group studies the dynamics of accretion disks using new computer methods that allow researchers, for the first time, to model the complex physics known to be crucial to jet launching. Through this, we will learn more about how stars such as our own sun are born.

Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies: Our violent universe

Our galaxy is filled not just with stars, gas, dust, light and magnetic fields, but also with a population of high-energy charged particles called cosmic rays. There has been speculation for years that these play an important role in driving gas outflow from the galaxy, and recent observation of the galactic centre (which has led to the detection of the huge so-called Fermi bubbles extending above and below the galactic plane) strongly support this idea. Prof Felix Aharonian and Dr Andrew Taylor, scientists at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, working with international colleagues, have made fundamental contributions to the study of these high-energy phenomena which show the centre of our own galaxy to be an even more violent and interesting place than previously thought.

Courses: Astrophysics courses have developed significantly over the past two decades. Although most physics courses – especially those at NUI Galway, Trinity College and UCD – incorporate astrophysics, only UCC and Maynooth offer specialised degrees in physics and astrophysics.

5. Build better systems

NUI Galway and the University of Limerick: Creating better tools

Prof Sean Leen, of NUI Galway, and Prof Noel O'Dowd, of the University of Limerick, are working together to develop new modelling tools for more accurate design and assessment of materials and structures. The focus will be on welds, which are the most common site of failure in engineering components. The tools will be used to provide tailored combinations of welding and heat treatment parameters, to design material structures from the very small to the very large. Specific applications are the design for optimum grain size in power-plant steels and improved designs for steel pipelines used in offshore oil and gas platforms.

Trinity College Dublin: We are robots

Dr Kevin Kelly, a professor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, is conducting interesting work in robotics. He has led a team of staff and students from the university's School of Engineering in the creation of a domestic assistant robot, who they have called "Robbie" and who could help people with disabilities to lead a more normal life. Kelly has also established links with Stanford University in the US to ensure that engineering students have the chance to work abroad and to learn how to ally engineering skills with the business nous needed to succeed.

Waterford Institute of Technology: The future is 3D 3D printing is arguably the single most significant technological development of the past decade. Recently, a metal 3D printer with the potential to utterly transform manufacturing was unveiled at Waterford Institute of Technology. Ireland's first production-scale EOS 3D metal printer is located in a €1-million lab in the South Eastern Applied Materials Centre and is the product of a collaboration with leading medical device firm Boston Scientific as well as Lisnabrin Engineering, a local tool manufacturing company. This new technology offers numerous advantages over conventional manufacturing methods.

Courses: There's no shortage of places to study engineering and technology, so students should be able to find a college reasonably close to home, should they prefer. Most engineering courses are general entry (see panel).

That said, UCC is currently the only university which permits students to go straight into the engineering discipline that interests them. Cork Institute of Technology offers an environmental and sustainable technology course, as does Waterford Institute of Technology. Mechatronic engineering, which is a multidisciplinary field that combines mechanical, electricial, telecoms and computer engineering, is available at IT Blanchardstown and DCU.