Dublin, Ireland, 2 March 2020 – President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins, has today honoured ten recipients of the SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Award at a special ceremony in Áras an Uachtaráin, Dublin. The SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Programme recruits and retains outstanding and emerging early career research leaders with exceptional accomplishments in scientific and engineering domains.  The research areas awarded span human health in the areas of lung disease, ageing, traumatic brain injury, bowel and gastrointestinal diseases and sensors for prosthetics to environmental projects in the area of barley production and marine bioresources to understanding the impact of the Sun on the Earth using advanced data analytics.

As a strong supporter of the sciences and advocate for equal access to learning for all members of our society, President Higgins has for many years promoted the positive contribution made by our creative and innovative scientists. The President continues to recognise the important role science has in empowering people to explore, innovate and collaborate for a better future.

The ten awards represent an investment of €15 million, with a duration of five years each, and will also support the additional recruitment of 40 research positions, including 18 PhD students, 15 postdocs and seven research assistants. There are four awardees based in Trinity College Dublin (TCD), three in University College Dublin (UCD), two in Maynooth University (MU) and one in Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS).

Dr Ruth Freeman, Director of Science for Society, Science Foundation Ireland said “Science Foundation Ireland’s overarching aim is to contribute to the betterment of our society and economy through the transformative research we support. The SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Award recognises outstanding new research leadership and talent.  I am delighted to see the ten awardees choosing to come to Ireland to continue their work and congratulate them on their achievements. We are dedicated to supporting research leaders with ideas to drive innovation and assist Ireland and the world in meeting the many challenges we face, from climate change, supporting healthy ageing and understanding the universe.”

Many of the awards support research in areas related to health such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, the fourth leading cause of mortality in Ireland, and Eosinophilic oesophagitis (EoE), a chronic allergic gastrointestinal disorder which currently has no known cure. The awards will also support the design and development of artificial touch/tactile sensors to improve robotic and prosthetic grippers (e.g. artificial hands), and the development of a blood test to diagnose brain injury and to improve traumatic brain injury outcomes. The development of new therapies for lung cancer will be addressed by applying the latest genomic technology CRISPR-Cas9. Potential new treatments for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases will be investigated as well as improving quality of life for the elderly by applying big data to help diagnose frailty and develop smart devices that can assist our ageing population.

The awards also support research focused on agriculture and the marine, for example utilising drones and artificial intelligence to improve and secure the future of barley production against the onslaught of climate change. Biofuels, seaweed aquaculture in particular, will be investigated in terms of climate change mitigation and the potential application of alginate for the treatment of osteoarthritis. The Future Research Leaders Awards is also supporting research into Space. Data analytics and machine learning will be applied to large data catalogues to help understand the impact that the Sun has on the Earth and beyond.

The awardees are: Honorary Prof Caitriona Jackman, recruited from University of Southampton (UK) to DIAS; Assistant Prof Eoin McNamee, recruited from University of Colorado to MU; Assistant Prof Joanne Masterson, recruited from University of Colorado, Denver (USA) to MU; Assistant Prof Suzanne Cloonan, recruited from Weill Cornell Medical College, New York (USA) to TCD; Assistant Prof David Loane, recruited from University of Maryland School of Medicine (USA) to TCD; Associate Prof Nessa O’Connor, recruited from Queens University Belfast to TCD; Associate Prof Roman Romero-Ortuno recruited from Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge to TCD; Dr Rory Johnson recruited from University of Bern, Switzerland to UCD; Assistant Prof Sónia Negrão recruited from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia to UCD; and Associate Prof Stephen Redmond was recruited from University of New South Wales (AUS) to UCD.

Summary of Awardees:

Title: Data analytics and machine learning in Space Science

On receiving the prestigious award Prof Caitriona Jackman said: "I am delighted to receive this award and excited about joining the vibrant research community at DIAS. My SFI-funded programme will allow knowledge exchange between academia, industry, and the general public on topics from Space Weather to machine learning. I look forward to recruiting my team of talented PhD students and postdocs to engage in curiosity-driven research at the interface of Space Physics and Data Science."

Summary: Space Physics involves studying data from orbiting spacecraft and telescopes, some of which have been recording data continuously for years. We have a huge catalogue of observations in our solar system, with a particularly large amount of data focusing on Earth, where the Sun can have an influence on the magnetic field and plasma (charged particle) environment with implications for satellites and other space-based technology. We live in an era where computer analysis techniques are becoming more sophisticated. This work will apply advanced data analytics to large data catalogues to understand the impact the Sun has on Earth and beyond.

Biography: Dr Jackman (BSc in Applied Physics, Univ. of Limerick, 2003 and PhD 2006, Univ. of Leicester) holds the position of Honorary Professor at DIAS, having previously been an Associate Professor at the University of Southampton. Prior to this, she held research fellowships at Imperial College and University College London. She is a Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s National Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. At the heart of her research is Space Plasma Physics in our solar system and beyond. Dr Jackman’s research interests include large-scale structure of giant planet magnetospheres, the energy budget of Earth’s magnetosphere, machine learning and complexity science. She has worked with data from missions including NASA’s Cassini at Saturn, ESA’s Cluster mission in orbit around Earth, NASA’s Juno at Jupiter, and with data from the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Award Value: €1,325,539‬

Title: Transcriptional Mechanisms Controlling Epithelial Cell Fate Determination during Allergic Esophageal Inflammation in Eosinophilic Oesophagitis

On receiving the prestigious award Dr Joanne Masterson said: “Receiving this prestigious SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Award has allowed me to move the research programme that I had established at the University of Colorado School of Medicine back to Ireland, and recruit an international and interdisciplinary team of researchers to work together on our state-of-the-art, globally competitive research. This will place Ireland at the forefront of global research into the development of Eosinophilic Oesophagitis and will support the scientific talent of tomorrow in this challenging area of rapidly emerging allergic diseases.”

“It is even more exciting that I get to share this day with my husband Eoin McNamee who is also receiving his own Future Research Leader Award today. These awards allow us to continue our scientific journeys together, that began over 20 years ago as curious and determined undergraduate science students at Maynooth University.”

Summary: Eosinophilic oesophagitis (EoE) is a chronic clinicopathologic allergic gastrointestinal disorder, and an increasing clinical problem. Although immense efforts have been invested in understanding the clinical course and natural history of this emerging disease, to date there is a paucity of therapeutic modalities and no cure. Understanding the molecular mechanisms of how hypoxia, and the novel and directly translatable target HIF-1α (hypoxia-inducible factor), drives regenerative morphogenic machinery in the oesophagus is an attractive avenue to target therapeutically. Upon completion, this project would lead to a paradigm-shift in our current concepts about the failure to resolve maladaptive epithelial responses in EoE.

Biography: Dr Joanne Masterson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology and the Kathleen Lonsdale Institute for Human Health Research at Maynooth University where she leads the Allergy, Inflammation and Remodelling Research (AIRR) laboratory. With the support of the SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders award her lab has relocated from University of Colorado School of Medicine (USA) where Joanne completed a decade of research in epithelial immunobiology and holds an Adjoint Assistant Professor position in the Department of Pediatrics. Dr Masterson has a long-standing interest in defining novel mechanisms of mucosal inflammation and healing, specifically related to eosinophilic gastrointestinal diseases (EGIDs), such as Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Dr Masterson has been the recipient of major awards including Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America Fellowship, North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition Career Development Award and a National Institutes of Health Scientist Development Award and is involved in a number of pre-clinical studies examining novel EoE treatments.

Award Value: €1,572,600

Title: MicroRNA control of Mucosal Inflammation

On receiving the award, Dr Eóin McNamee said: "I am delighted to receive the SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders award which will allow me to establish a cutting-edge research program at Maynooth University. This substantial funding will enable me to recruit an interdisciplinary team of scientists to explore the underlying causes of inflammatory bowel diseases and to test novel therapeutic approaches."

Summary: The inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD; namely Crohn’s disease & Ulcerative Colitis) affect ~2.5 million people in Europe (>40,000 in Ireland), with limited treatment options and no cure. A prevailing theory for the progression of IBD is that our immune system becomes hyper-activated and gradually attacks the intestinal tissue, limiting treatment response. Work from the McNamee laboratory has defined how molecular breaks, known as microRNA’s, constrain the intestinal immune response and have the capacity to drive mucosal healing. This proposal will combine start-of-the-art immunologic studies using patient samples with novel transgenic preclinical models to define how microRNA circuits shape the intestinal immune response. Novel therapeutics based on microRNA-targets will be tested for their ability to reverse immune-mediate damage and to elicit tissue healing during IBD. Inflazome Ltd is an industry collaborator on this project.

Biography: Dr Eóin McNamee was an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado - School of Medicine (USA) and was recruited to Maynooth University in 2018, where he is the Principle Investigator of the Mucosal Immunology Research Lab. A graduate of Maynooth University (B.Sc. 2003) and Trinity College Dublin (M.Sc. 2004, PhD 2008), he carried out postdoctoral training at the University of Colorado in Denver. His research program investigates the mechanisms of autoimmune and immune mediated disease with a particular focus on inflammatory bowel diseases. Translational immunology studies in this program have been funded by grants from the Crohn's & Colitis foundation of American (Research Fellowship; Career Development award; Senior researcher award) and the National Institutes of Health, USA (R01)

Award Value: €1,488,046.

Title: The “Ironome” of the Lung and Disease Pathogenesis

On receiving the SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders award Dr Suzanne Cloonan said: “I am delighted and honoured to receive this prestigious award. It has allowed me to develop a cutting-edge interdisciplinary research programme at Trinity College Dublin, to understand and develop new treatment approaches for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a debilitating chronic lung disease that remains the fourth leading cause of death in Ireland. This work will not only place Ireland on the map for world-class COPD research but will also raise much needed awareness for COPD and COPD-related research.”

Summary: As the fourth leading cause of death in Ireland, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) remains an incurable, inflammatory lung disease that is hard to diagnose early and has few therapeutic treatment options. Work from the Cloonan laboratory has identified that iron metabolism pathways are dysregulated in the lungs of COPD patients and that targeting these pathways may hold promise for the development of new therapies for COPD. In particular, the Cloonan lab will decipher where in the lung this iron accumulates and how this excess of iron may promote the growth of bad bacteria rendering COPD patients more susceptible to infections.  AstraZeneca is an industry collaborator on this project.

Biography: Dr Cloonan is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University, New York City. Dr Cloonan received her PhD in Biochemistry in 2010 from the University of Dublin, Trinity College Ireland. She carried out her Post-Doctoral training in Dr Augustine MK Choi’s laboratory in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston. In 2014, she moved to Weill Cornell Medicine and obtained the prestigious Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) from the National Institute of Health, as well as a Biomedical Research Grant from the American Lung Association. Dr Cloonan’s independent research programme is focused on applying cutting edge approaches to understand iron metabolism pathways in normal and diseased lung; related to inflammation, alveolar epithelial cell biology and host-pathogen interactions in the lung microenvironment. Dr Cloonan is also an Associate Editor for the Journals Scientific Reports and Respiratory Research and serves on the Respiratory, Cell and Molecular Biology Program Committee for the American Thoracic Society. The Cloonan Lab, relocating from Cornell to Trinity College Dublin will help to develop and strengthen lung disease research in Ireland, promoting interdisciplinary research between respiratory medicine and basic science.

Award Value: €1,587,525

Title: NOX2 and the chronic pathologies of traumatic brain injury (TBI) - Integrating basic and translational research to improve TBI outcomes

Dr David Loane is researching traumatic brain injury and sustained brain inflammation linked to dementia and chronic neurodegeneration. He welcomed the award saying: “I am delighted to receive the SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Award. It has enabled me to set up a state-of-the-art experimental brain injury lab in Trinity College Dublin to investigate fundamental questions about brain health and functional recovery after traumatic neural injury. It also allows me to recruit talented international researchers to Ireland and train the next generation of young scientist and research leaders in the frontiers field of neuroimmunology.”

Summary: Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has been linked to dementia and chronic neurodegeneration.  Described initially in professional boxers and currently recognised across high contact sports (e.g. American Football, Rugby Union), the association between repeated concussion (mild TBI) and progressive neuropsychiatric abnormalities has received widespread media coverage. The role of sustained brain inflammation has received less attention, even though this association has been established pathologically since the 1950’s. These pathological mechanisms, manifested by extensive microglial activation, may be among the most important causes of posttraumatic neurodegeneration.  Identifying the causes of chronic microglial activation following TBI may allow the development of novel biomarkers and therapeutic strategies for TBI and its related dementias.

Biography: Dr David Loane is the recipient of the J. Stephen Fink, MD, PhD, American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics (ASENT) Fellowship Award and an Early Stage Investigator Award from National Institutes of Neurological Diseases (NIH). His pre-clinical TBI research programme in the United States was funded by two major R01 grants from NIH and Department of Defense contracts. The Loane Lab identified NOX2, an enzyme system responsible for the production of reactive oxygen species in phagocytes, as a mechanistic driver of chronic microglial activation following TBI. Ongoing research is developing novel ways to selectively inhibit NOX2-mediated neuroinflammation after TBI to rejuvenate neuroimmune responses and enhance functional recovery. The Loane Lab recently relocated from University of Maryland School of Maryland, Baltimore, MD, where David worked for nine years. Now based in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology, Trinity College Dublin, Dr Loane has established a state-of-the-art pre-clinical research laboratory to study the neuroimmunology of TBI and related dementias with the generous support of the SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Award.

Award Value: €1,587,818

Title: Beyond biofuel: Advanced seaweed cultivation for marine biodiscovery and climate change mitigation

On receiving the prestigious award Dr Nessa O’Connor said: “I am truly honoured to receive this award and immensely excited to continue our work with a growing team at Trinity College. We will use ecological knowledge to unlock the potential of Ireland’s marine resources. By cultivating seaweed to harness products for bioengineering and biofuels, we will be helping to develop new tools for the treatment of debilitating diseases, such as osteoarthritis, while also combating climate change by enhancing carbon sequestration and also enriching local coastal habitats.”

Summary: Improving human health and discovering new sources of clean energy are among the most pressing challenges we face as a society. We can tackle such challenges by exploring the potential of marine bioresources. We will identify new methods of growing seaweed (aquaculture) to harness alginate for the treatment of osteoarthritis while also harnessing biofuels. We will also test whether cultivated seaweed can protect shellfish from expected changes in ocean chemistry. Seaweed aquaculture offers vast opportunities to mitigate and adapt to climate change and we will quantify the potential role of seaweed farming, thus, transitioning to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society.

Biography: Dr O’Connor (PhD 2004, UCD) is an Associate Professor at TCD, where she is heading the O’Connor Lab. Following her PhD, she carried out postdoctoral research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before returning to Ireland to work as a postdoc at UCC. Following a brief return to UCD, she secured a Lectureship at Queen’s University Belfast, where she worked for seven years and established her lab before moving it to TCD. She is pioneering the exploration of the cultivation of seaweed aimed at reducing resilience on fossil fuels. Her research is focussed on understanding relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem services, developing sustainable aquatic resources and the dynamics of coastal ecosystems.

Award Value: €1,374,384

Title: FRAILMatics: Mathematical research and big data analytics towards the development of the next generation of transdisciplinary diagnostics for the assessment of physiological vulnerability in older adults: challenge-based disruptive technology initiative

On receiving the prestigious award Associate Professor Roman Romero-Ortuno said: "I am delighted to have received this SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders award. This makes me immensely proud as an academic geriatrician and I thank SFI for recognising the crucial importance of investment in interdisciplinary Ageing Research. As a clinician scientist, this award will enable me to build the human and computational capability to investigate a highly complex issue that is of immense importance to our ageing society.”

Summary: Increasing numbers of older people live with frailty. A frail person is vulnerable to complications from illnesses or medical procedures. Early recognition of frailty could prevent or delay poor outcomes, but diagnostics to recognise early frailty are limited. The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) has collected detailed information on participants’ health by monitoring body systems, including under stress conditions. TILDA offers the opportunity to mine this unexplored “big data”. We aim to discover new frailty signals/models, confirm them in real patients, and pave the way towards smart devices that could detect early frailty, helping achieve longer lives without disability.

Biography: Dr Romero-Ortuno (PhD 2011, TCD) is now an Assistant Professor in Medical Gerontology at TCD and a Consultant at St James’s Hospital. He carried out his medical training in Barcelona before taking an MSc in social policy at the London School of Economics. He also has a music degree from the Conservatory of Barcelona. Dr Romero-Ortuno carried out postdoctoral medical training in Manchester and London before working in a number of Dublin’s hospitals to complete his higher medical training. He spent four years at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge as a Consultant Geriatrician before returning to Dublin to take up his current post in 2018. His research contributions in the area of frailty have been recognised with the 2015 British Geriatrics Society Rising Star Award and the 2017 Count of Cartagena Award from the Royal National Academy of Medicine of Spain.

Award Value: €1,525,970

Title: Discovering non-protein-coding vulnerabilities in lung cancer with CRISPR-Cas9

On receiving the prestigious award Dr Rory Johnson said: “I am delighted to receive the President of Ireland Future Research Leaders award from SFI. It provides for a long-term research programme in crucially important areas of genome engineering, noncoding RNAs and cancer research. I believe that this work will make a positive impact on Irish society, by developing new technologies, fostering scientific talent, and advancing towards more effective treatments for disease.”

Summary: Lung cancer is one of the greatest single causes of death in Ireland today, but we still lack effective therapies. This project aims to discover new types of genes that promote lung cancer, develop drugs to inhibit their activity, and thereby kill tumours. The project depends on the latest CRISPR-Cas9 “genome-engineering” technology, which allows one to delete genes from a cell’s DNA and thus test thousands of potential drug targets in a single experiment. In summary, this project aims to develop new therapies for lung cancer by applying the latest genomic technologies.

Biography: Dr Johnson has moved to UCD from the University of Bern in Switzerland. Following his Wellcome Trust-funded PhD at the University of Leeds (2007), he carried out postdoctoral work at the Genome Institute of Singapore, before moving to the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, where he was supported by a Ramon y Cajal fellowship. In 2016 he established the Laboratory for Genomics of Long noncoding RNAs in Disease (GOLD Lab) in Bern, as the first Junior Group Leader of the Swiss National Centre for Competence in Research in RNA and Disease. Most recently, he participated in the landmark “PanCancer Analysis of Whole Genomes” project from the International Cancer Genome Consortium. His research programme focusses on the enigmatic, recently-discovered class of genes in the human genome, termed “long non-coding RNAs” (lncRNAs), and their roles in disease. His expertise sits at the interface of computational and experimental biology.

Award Value: €1,546,106‬

Title: Looking into time - how abiotic stress impacts barley production and malting quality

On receiving the award Dr Sónia Negrão said "I am delighted and honored to receive this prestigious award from President Michael D. Higgins. I am extremely thankful for the SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leaders Award as a recognition of my research potential. I am looking forward to contributing to a more sustainable production of barley in Ireland in the face of climate change and strengthening Ireland’s international reputation in Plant Science"

Summary: Barley is the key ingredient for the production of beer and whiskey. Climate change is driving the occurrence of extreme weather events resulting in elevated rainfall that severely adversely affects barley production. These yield reductions will significantly impact the malting industry, with forecasts estimating a sharp rise in beer and whiskey prices. Modern varieties of barley have lost their protection against such environmental conditions, yet heritage barley has these tolerance features. Here we combine advanced genomic techniques with imaging platforms, using drones and artificial intelligence, to quantify the effects of waterlogging in heritage varieties and secure future barley production.

Biography: Dr Negrão (PhD 2008, Universidade Nova de Lisboa) is an Assistant Professor at UCD, having moved to Ireland in 2018. Following her PhD, she carried out postdoc work between Lisbon and the Philippines before moving to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia to take up the role of Research Scientist for five years. Her research focusses on the genetics and genomics of plants and how these can be utilised in plant breeding. She concentrates on the genomic signatures of stress adaptation by performing association models using naturally occurring genetic diversity and high-throughput phenotyping.

Award Value: €1,466,217

Title: Design of tactile sensors for robotic and prosthetic grippers inspired by human touch

On receiving the prestigious award Associate Professor Stephen Redmond said: “I feel privileged to receive this prestigious award, which allows me to return home to Ireland to join the excellent and rapidly growing biomedical engineering program at UCD. I will contribute to that growth by establishing a world-leading research group working at the frontiers of tactile physiology, tactile sensor design, and autonomous robotic manipulation. I am grateful that Science Foundation Ireland has invested in this ambitious project, and I am confident that we will deliver scientific impact for the world and economic impact for Ireland. We are at the start of a revolution in autonomous robotics, and Ireland will play an active role.”

Summary: Prosthetic and robotic hands often drop objects. While we have learned more about the science of how humans feel the slipperiness of an object, there is still much to learn. Given how little we know, it is unsurprising that there are no touch sensors for artificial hands which can practicably sense friction. This research aims to study how humans feel friction, and subsequently build artificial touch sensors which can do the same. The friction-based tactile sensors developed during this project would endow artificial hands with the ability to feel the slipperiness, significantly advancing the fields of prosthetics and autonomous robotics.

Biography: Associate Prof Redmond completed his Bachelor of (Electronic) Engineering in 2002, and his PhD on the topic of at-home sleep staging in 2006, at University College Dublin (UCD). In 2008, he moved to the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, where he spent 10 years. There he held a prestigious Australian Research Council Future Fellowships award from 2014 to 2018. He is now at the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at UCD and holds an Adjunct Associate Professorship at UNSW. Generally, he is interested in the development of novel sensors and sensing systems, and also in the subsequent application of signal processing and pattern recognition techniques to these signals to solve or better understand biomedical engineering problems. The main application areas of these research methodologies include remote management of health, human movement measurement, and tactile sensing and physiology.

Award Value: €1,479,655