Irish immunologist Prof Kate Fitzgerald elected to US National Academy of Sciences

‘Incredible honour’ for international leader in the field of innate immunity

Irish immunologist Prof Kate Fitzgerald has been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in recognition of her distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

From Waterford, Prof Fitzgerald is an international leader in the field of innate immunity, the body's natural defence system.

“I am delighted to be elected to the NAS and to have my lab’s work recognised with this incredible honour,” said the professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) in Worcester, near Boston.

Research in the her lab is focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms controlling the inflammatory process. Her team use immunology, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics to determine how the immune system discriminates between pathogens and host molecules to both protect the host from infection and to avoid damaging inflammatory diseases.


Prof Fitzgerald has made many pioneering discoveries, including identification of important molecules, enzymes and immune system receptors and sensors – and she has uncovered new evidence for the importance of “long-coding RNAs” in innate immunity.

She was awarded the 2015 Science Foundation Ireland St Patrick's Day Science Medal, which is presented to an Irish-born scientist, engineer or technology leader living and working in the United States. "We are focused on trying to understand how the immune system discriminates between friend and foe," she said ahead of that event.

The triggering of the inflammatory response if a pathogen appears is the key process, she explained. “At the same time, the response must be commensurate with the threat. We don’t want the immune system to damage the host.”

Prof Fitzgerald has a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from University College Cork and a PhD from Trinity College Dublin. She joined the UMASS faculty as an assistant professor in 2001.

Prof Luke O’Neill of TCD welcomed her election and paid tribute to her research. “Kate joined my lab in the mid-90s, coming from UCC where she had excelled as an undergraduate in biochemistry. I was delighted that she decided to pursue a PhD with me, and she was fantastic from the very start,” he added.

Prof O'Neill recalled: "I remember the very first meeting she attended with me at the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland when she was only in the second year of her PhD. She won top prize at that meeting. She stayed on for a postdoc where she made a really important discovery in the area of innate immunity that helped my own lab develop. She then went to the UMASS Medical School where she has remained and thrived."

"All of Ireland can be proud of her, and there is no justice that she is not as famous as Katie Taylor! To be elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences is a huge honour and is the life's ambition of any scientist working in the US," Prof O'Neill said.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times