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This year marks twenty years since the RIA and the Higher Education Authority established the Gold Medals to acclaim Ireland’s foremost thinkers in the humanities, social sciences, and across the fields of science. The Gold Medals have become the ultimate accolade in scholarly achievement in Ireland. Since 2005, 34 medals have been awarded. In recognition of this important milestone, past RIA Gold Medals recipients have contributed blogs focusing on their research to our Members’ Research Series.

John Dillon MRIA, Regius Professor of Greek (Emeritus), Trinity College Dublin

I am by training a Classical scholar rather than a philosopher, so that my area of expertise might be reckoned as belonging more to the history of ideas than to philosophy proper. I have also taken an interest in, and down the years written a number of articles on, the role and status of the philosopher in ancient Greco-Roman society, and on other aspects of Classical antiquity.

For my doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, I turned my attention to an obscure and much-maligned Neoplatonist philosopher, the Syrian Iamblichus of Chalcis, and produced an edition of the fragments of his Platonic commentaries, which was published by Brill in 1973. Over the years, with the co-operation of colleagues, I produced editions of various of his other works: On the Pythagorean way of life, with Jackson Hershbell (SBL, 1991); De anima, with John Finamore (Brill, 2002); De mysteriis, with Emma Clarke and Jackson Hershbell (Brill, 2004); and Iamblichus of Chalcis: the letters, with Wolfgang Polleichner (SBL, 2009).

My chief area of research is in the philosophy of Plato and the development of the Platonic tradition of philosophy, extending from his immediate successors in the so-called ‘Old Academy’, through the period of ‘Middle Platonism’, dating from around 80 bc to ad 240, to the ‘Neoplatonic’ period and beyond, into the Middle Ages and Renaissance. My study titled The heirs of Plato (OUP, 2003) deals with the ‘Old Academy’, and I have also published The Middle Platonists (Duckworth, 1977; 2nd edn 1996).

I have been gradually pursuing the phenomenon of Platonism back to its roots…. meditating on the process by which Plato’s rather open-ended philosophizing solidified, over the centuries, into a fairly rigid scholastic structure.

Over the years, I have also developed a great interest in the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 bc–ad 50), who was much influenced by Platonism, and on whom I have written two books: Two treatises of Philo of Alexandria (with David Winston; Brown University, 1983), and Philo of Alexandria: on the life of Abraham (with Ellen Birnbaum; Brill 2019), as well as in the Christian philosopher Origen of Alexandria (fl. c. ad 220). A selection of my articles has been published in three volumes by Ashgate Publishing (The golden chain, 1990; The great tradition, 1997; and The Platonic heritage, 2012).

It will be noted, from the chronological order of the works listed above, that I have actually moved backwards through the Platonic tradition in my choice of topics, and this reflects the fact that I have been gradually pursuing the phenomenon of Platonism back to its roots, trying to throw light on the more obscure parts of that tradition, and in general meditating on the process by which Plato’s rather open-ended philosophising solidified, over the centuries, into a fairly rigid scholastic structure. Indeed, I have made that question the subject of my most recent book, The roots of Platonism (CUP, 2019). I argued in The heirs of Plato that the development of Platonism as a philosophical system might be most plausibly credited to Xenocrates, the third head of the Academy after Plato, in the late fourth century bc, but was subject to modification in later ages by the assimilation of aspects of both Aristotelian and Stoic philosophy, and I would still stand over that.

This year marks twenty years since the RIA and the Higher Education Authority established the Gold Medals to acclaim Ireland’s foremost thinkers in the humanities, social sciences, and across the fields of science. The Gold Medals have become the ultimate accolade in scholarly achievement in Ireland. Since 2005, 34 medals have been awarded. In recognition of this important milestone, past RIA Gold Medals recipients have contributed blogs focusing on their research to our Members’ Research Series.

Jane Ohlmeyer MRIA, Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History (1762) at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), was Trinity’s first vice-president for Global Relations (2011–14), director of the Trinity Long Room Hub (2015–20), and chair of the Irish Research Council (2015–21). She was awarded the RIA Gold Medal in the Humanities in 2023.

I am an expert on the New British and Atlantic histories and have published extensively on early modern Irish and British history. I am author or editor of more than 40 peer-reviewed articles and 14 books, published with leading international publishers such as Yale University Press, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Manchester University Press. Some of these publications have involved major fundraising and a level of teamwork rarely found in the humanities. In 2023 I received an Advanced European Research Council Award for VOICES, a project that aims to recover the lived experiences of women in early modern Ireland, and was awarded the Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal in the Humanities.

My most recent book, Making empire: Ireland, imperialism and the early modern world (Oxford, 2023), is based on lectures I delivered at the University of Oxford in 2021 for the prestigious James Ford Lectures in British and Irish History series.

In Making empire I wanted to do four things. First, to re-examine empire as process—and Ireland’s role in it—through the lens of early modernity (c. 1550–1750). In so doing the book offers, as David Armitage noted in his 13 January 2024 review in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘a model for deprovincializing any national history under the long shadow of empire’. What becomes clear is that imperialism was not a single occurrence but an iterative and durable process that impacted different parts of Ireland at different times and in different ways. That imperialism was about the exercise of power, violence, coercion, expropriation and ‘othering’. According to Sir Hilary Beckles, the leading historian of the Caribbean, ‘Ireland is now a prime site for the re-examination of the complexity of racism and the hatred it houses’.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the legacies of empires. Events that occurred in early modern Ireland remain very much part of the DNA and are core to the identity of people living in Ireland today. Until recently few fully appreciated the significance of Ireland’s imperial past, but this is changing and there is a growing awareness of the importance of informed discussion and respectful debate.

Second, I wanted to move beyond the ‘colonised’/‘coloniser’ stereotypes, and so the book recognises the agency of marginal people especially women, from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, who were often the social glue that held together families and communities. This exploration of more everyday issues—landholding and labour as well as material culture and money-lending—and the emphasis on assimilation, however, does not diminish the endemic violence and intense warfare or the expropriation and exploitation that characterised early modern Ireland. My ERC VOICES project, where the focus is on the lived experiences of non-elite women, develops further the role women played in colonial Ireland.

Third, I wanted Making empire to demonstrate how people from Ireland, both Catholics and Protestants, were agents of the British and other early modern empires. They were trans imperial, and by the 1660s men and women from Ireland were to be found in the Spanish, French and Dutch Caribbean; the Portuguese and later Dutch Amazon; across New Spain; and in English settlements from Newfoundland to the Chesapeake in North America, to the Caribbean, India and the Mediterranean, at Tangier in North Africa.

Fourth, with this book I show how the Irish were subversives within empires. From the 1890s, from ideology to tactics, the Irish taught the Indians their ABC of freedom fighting, something that would be repeated across the colonial world. As one review of Making empire in The Irish Times of 11 November 2023 noted, ‘Ireland unmade empire just as it had helped make it, and just as it had itself been made by it’. Like it or not, empire and colonialism have profoundly impacted Ireland and the Irish, as in so many other places.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the legacies of empires. Events that occurred in early modern Ireland remain very much part of the DNA and are core to the identity of people living in Ireland today. Until recently few fully appreciated the significance of Ireland’s imperial past, but this is changing and there is a growing awareness of the importance of informed discussion and respectful debate. In the words of Christopher Kissane in his November 2023 Irish Times review of Making empire, this ‘is a complex history that we are still unravelling, and Ohlmeyer’s important work will, hopefully, force us to ask questions we have perhaps too long avoided. In an age of Brexit, decolonisation and renewed debates about Irish unity, such reflection is vital’.

The James Ford lectures are hosted on the RTÉ website.

For anyone interested in commissioned pieces that relate to Making empire, see:

‘The best 5 books on Ireland as a Colony’, Five Books, January 2024
‘The paradoxes of Ireland’s imperial past’, Engelsberg Ideas, 14 December 2023
‘How Ireland served as a laboratory for the British Empire’, The Irish Times, 27 December 2023

In addition, there are a number of related podcasts that may be of interest:

Desmond J. Tobin MRIA, Full Professor of Dermatological Science, Charles Institute of Dermatology, School of Medicine, University College Dublin

I am fascinated with how our body’s largest organ can affect so much of how human beings function during our lifetimes.

The skin, our body’s largest organ and key social signalling system, is located at the interface of our external and internal worlds. Because of this, it is strategically placed to provide not only a barrier against a range of fluctuating noxious stressors (UV radiation, mechanical, chemical and biological insults), but also to act as the periphery’s ‘stress sensing’ system. Recent research developments suggest that skin is a key sensor that recognises, discriminates and integrates signals from myriad sources, including our immune, pigmentary and neuroendocrine systems. It is much more important in maintaining total body homeostasis than previously thought.

The last couple of decades have witnessed a new appreciation of the skin’s main appendage: the hair follicle—a (mini)organ unique to mammals. It is the only tissue that shows life-long cycling in the adult—the so-called hair growth cycle—and is an unsurpassed tool to study multiple and life-long recapitulations of developmental stages. More prosaically, and despite global economic woes, the level of monetary spend on skincare continues to astound. Our aging and increasingly diabetic populations continue to drive rising skin-fragility and wound care costs for national healthcare budgets.

My research over more than 25 years has exploited the amazing accessibility of skin and hair follicles as a multi-cellular interactome of (neuro)ectodermal (melanocytes), mesenchymal cells (fibroblasts) and epithelium (keratinocytes), and immunocytes, etc. My academic focus on skin has been informed by basic research and contexts of translating research into practice, and is strongly influenced by training in laboratories associated with clinical dermatology departments. To harness research more focused on the context of the skin with its appendages, however, I established and led the Centre for Skin Sciences in Britain (2009–18), building this centre into the second-largest academic unit of its kind there. Moreover, to bring basic skin scientists closer to organised dermatology, I served a stint as the first non-clinical chair of the British Society for Investigative Dermatology. Since my return home to Ireland in 2018, my focus has shifted to leading UCD’s Charles Institute of Dermatology as its first non-clinical director. The Charles remains the only dedicated academic centre for skin research on the island of Ireland.

My research contributions include investigation into the basis for preferential targeting of pigmented hair in the common autoimmune hair loss disease, alopecia areata, during which we found that melanocytes of the hair follicle (but not the epidermis) are targeted. Building on research from my PhD project days, my lab is interested in autoantigen discovery in alopecia areata. Affected patients have circulating antibodies to hair follicle-specific antigens, including the structural protein Trichohyalin. We now have reason to consider this protein as a source of immunodominant antigens in alopecia areata, opening potential strategies to therapeutically ‘vaccinate’ against an aberrant immune response to this protein.

My academic focus on skin has been informed by basic research and contexts of translating research into practice, and is strongly influenced by training in laboratories associated with clinical dermatology departments … I established and led the Centre for Skin Sciences in Britain (2009–18), building this centre into the second-largest academic unit of its kind there … Since my return home to Ireland in 2018, my focus has shifted to leading UCD’s Charles Institute of Dermatology as its first non-clinical director.

We succeeded in growing adult human hair follicle melanocytes outside the body for the first time, and we used these cells to reveal striking differences in the functionality of peptides of the prohormone proopiomelanocortin in the hair follicle and epidermis. Breaking the melanocortin-centric view of human pigmentation, we showed that the opioid beta-endorphin also acts as a potent melanotropin. In Science Foundation Ireland-funded work with colleagues, we detected programmed cell death (apoptosis) in hair follicle melanocytes (this is of potential relevance in targeting apoptosis-resistant pigment cell tumor (melanoma). There are more cases of skin cancer than of all other cancers combined, with indigenous Irish skin particularly vulnerable. Together with Associate Professor Shirley Potter, I co-chair the Irish Melanoma Forum, an organisation that seeks to develop much needed basic and clinical research capacity in Ireland into melanoma.

My lab is also engaged in skin assay development (and is part of the EU Cost Action NetSkinModels), including tracking melanin transfer in the human epidermis—this would be a key evolutionary adaptation to life on a UV-irradiated planet. We observed that the atypical myosin (Myosin-X) can act as a key motor protein to drive melanin transfer between the melanocyte and keratinocyte via nanotubes called filopodia. I am currently extending this work with photobiology colleagues, to understand how optimising melanin distribution within the human skin can provide protection against UVR-associated DNA damage.

We remain very grateful to both healthy and patient donors of skin and hair follicles for our research. Despite evident patient willingness to collaborate, we can blanch at the hurdles to be crossed to access these tissues.

Niamh Brennan MRIA is Michael MacCormac Professor of Management at University College Dublin

I am currently working on a project about the British South Africa Company, which was established by royal charter and used by Cecil Rhodes to colonise Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Through the royal charter, the British Crown outsourced government to a private sector, publicly listed company. Britain wanted to colonise and control the territory but not incur the cost, which it transferred to the company. Thanks to my co-author, Dr Sean Bradley Power, we have a complete set of British South Africa Company annual reports from 1891 to 1924, a fairly complete set of verbatim minutes of the company’s general meetings, and all the private board meeting minutes. We converted the dataset (6,800 photographs from two UK archives) into electronic format and already have several publications from the material, with more to come.

My research spans financial reporting and corporate governance. My financial reporting research involves manual text analysis and focuses on impression management, rhetoric and argument and silence. Most research assumes that company managers provide useful information to shareholders. I argue that some managers are self-serving and engage in impression management to portray a good impression of the company’s (their own) performance, at variance with the underlying facts. I have used rhetoric and argument in the context of hostile takeover bids, where the bidder/target-company managers try to persuade the target-company shareholders to accept/reject the bidder’s offer. I also used rhetoric and argument to analyse a dispute between Greenpeace (arising because of its ‘Dirty Laundry’ campaign) and six organisations in the fashion trade.

As part of my doctoral studies, I collected profit forecasts disclosed during UK takeover bids. I have continued that research, including in a paper on Covid-19 profit warnings (negative profit forecasts). Covid-19 was a unique opportunity to collect profit warnings, all of which were warning for the same threat. Even more interesting, however, is what companies do not say—silence. Silence is hard to research, and so far I have only considered silence in corporate communication at a conceptual level.

My corporate governance research focuses on boards of directors, audit committees and whistleblowing. I have served on several boards of directors and audit committees, and I have applied my practical insights from those roles in my academic research. In 2002 I founded the UCD Centre for Corporate Governance, which was the first in Ireland to provide training to company directors to help them execute their onerous legal duties and responsibilities. I have supervised several doctoral and postgraduate students who have studied a range of corporate governance topics, including mutual fund boards of directors; non-executive directors on the boards of private family businesses; explanations for corporate governance non-compliance; information asymmetry and boards of directors; clinical governance; executive compensation; external audit reports; external auditors’ interactions with regulators; and negotiations between external auditors and clients.

I have also published on forensic accounting—when corporate governance and financial reporting fail, the forensic accountants are often called in.

More recently, I have published several papers on doctoral studies, in an effort to share with junior colleagues my knowledge of what I have learned over years of struggling to complete my own PhD and to publish in leading international refereed journals.

Another project I am working on, with former doctoral student, Dr Helen Pernelet, involves analysing audio- and video-recordings of three board meetings of three organisations—nine board meetings in total. We are only the second group of researchers to obtain such access to the ‘black box’ of the boardroom. Because of regulations known as ‘sunshine laws’, the three boards are required to meet in public, and they also meet in private to discuss sensitive issues. We find that the board members and managers behave differently in public versus in private. Thus, the regulatory intent of ‘sunshine laws’ to improve transparency is not realised as regulators intended.

I am privileged to have worked at UCD since 1980, with super-smart students and with talented and warm colleagues. Research is always so stimulating, and I rarely have a boring day.

David Stifter MRIA, Professor of Old Irish, Department of Early Irish, Maynooth University

Languages are keys to unlock human history. Not only do the texts written in ancient and medieval languages talk to us directly about the lives and thoughts of their speakers in the past, the lexicon and the abstract structure of those languages also encapsulate evidence of their history and evolution, like footprints in the sand or shadows on the wall. They provide information, however indirect, about the material and the intellectual culture of the people who spoke them, information that cannot be extracted from material remnants of the past. Reading and interpreting those footprints or shadows requires caution and professional intuition. My work is one cog in that sublime endeavour to bring light into dark periods of human history through the study of historical and prehistoric stages of languages.

My research interest lies in the grammar and the lexicography of the historical and prehistoric stages of Irish. I am mainly concerned with documenting and describing the early medieval Irish language between c. 600 and 1200 a.d. (called Old and Middle Irish), and its immediate predecessor, Primitive Irish (c. 400–600 a.d.). I also study the extinct ancient sister languages of Irish on the European Continent—Lepontic, Celtiberian and Gaulish—which shine invaluable indirect light on Irish and its medieval sisters Old and Middle Welsh, Breton and Cornish, and I am interested in the historical stages of other languages across the world, such as Ancient Japanese.

My research interest lies in the grammar and the lexicography of the historical and prehistoric stages of Irish. I am mainly concerned with documenting and describing the early medieval Irish language between c. 600 and 1200 a.d. (called Old and Middle Irish), and its immediate predecessor, Primitive Irish (c. 400–600 a.d.). I also study the extinct ancient sister languages of Irish on the European Continent—Lepontic, Celtiberian and Gaulish—which shine invaluable indirect light on Irish and its medieval sisters Old and Middle Welsh, Breton and Cornish, and I am interested in the historical stages of other languages across the world, such as Ancient Japanese.

Over the past decade, I have been focusing on the evolution of Old Irish across time, chiefly in the European Research Council-funded research project Chronologicon Hibernicum (2015–21). It was the aim of ChronHib to develop computational tools to facilitate assessing the amount of variation in a linguistic corpus. Our international project team created a corpus of deeply annotated Old Irish texts, Corpus PalaeoHibernicum (CorPH). Our chief methodological innovation is a formalised method of annotating linguistic variation in the corpus. Traditional annotation includes part-of-speech tagging and morphosyntactic analysis. We developed Variational Tagging, which adds the dimension of time to the corpus. Another statistical method that we developed, Bayesian Language Variation Analysis (BLaVA), uses this variational information and allows us to create a probabilistic representation of linguistic change over time. Since it operates with Bayesian inference, it is a way of visualising the probability of change, especially in under-documented languages with small corpora.

Early Irish has one of the richest surviving medieval literary traditions in Europe and in the world. As a result, Old Irish and Middle Irish are abundantly attested in manuscript sources; the evidence for Primitive Irish, however, is meagre and consists almost exclusively of inscriptions on stone monuments in the uniquely ingenious ogam alphabet. Together with colleagues in Maynooth and at the University of Glasgow, we are currently studying these inscriptions. In the OG(H)AM project (2021–24), we will 3D-record and digitise all c. 600 examples of this fascinating, three-dimensional writing system. At the end of the project, all documentation and analysis will be available on our database(link is external) and project website(link is external).

But we can go back even further in time in the evolution of Irish than the early first millennium a.d. Earlier, prehistoric stages are Proto-Celtic (reconstructable for the late second millennium b.c.) and Proto-Indo-European in the fourth millennium b.c. The historical circumstances of these ancestral stages in the Iron Age and Bronze Age, and the intervening stretch of several thousands of years, are veiled in obscurity, except for the information that we can extract from the language itself. When studying these deepest and oldest roots of Irish, however, we cannot rely on materially attested records, that is, writing; instead, we have to operate with language comparison and reconstruction. Much remains to be done in the microscopic analysis of linguistic data that may hold the key to insights that cannot be gained anywhere else. Over those 6,000 years of history that we can survey directly or indirectly, Irish has acquired many layers of loanwords. Among them are thin traces of words that were borrowed from ancient languages in Europe that have otherwise disappeared without trace.

Evidence like this may help to elucidate aspects of prehistory. We are still only at the beginning of understanding how a Celtic language came to be spoken all over Ireland. Can we say anything about languages that were spoken in Ireland before the spread of Goidelic? In collaboration with palaeogeneticists and archaeologists, I hope that it will be possible to make progress in answering this and other questions in the future.

David Stifter MRIA, Professor of Old Irish, Department of Early Irish, Maynooth University

Languages are keys to unlock human history. Not only do the texts written in ancient and medieval languages talk to us directly about the lives and thoughts of their speakers in the past, the lexicon and the abstract structure of those languages also encapsulate evidence of their history and evolution, like footprints in the sand or shadows on the wall. They provide information, however indirect, about the material and the intellectual culture of the people who spoke them, information that cannot be extracted from material remnants of the past. Reading and interpreting those footprints or shadows requires caution and professional intuition. My work is one cog in that sublime endeavour to bring light into dark periods of human history through the study of historical and prehistoric stages of languages.

My research interest lies in the grammar and the lexicography of the historical and prehistoric stages of Irish. I am mainly concerned with documenting and describing the early medieval Irish language between c. 600 and 1200 a.d. (called Old and Middle Irish), and its immediate predecessor, Primitive Irish (c. 400–600 a.d.). I also study the extinct ancient sister languages of Irish on the European Continent—Lepontic, Celtiberian and Gaulish—which shine invaluable indirect light on Irish and its medieval sisters Old and Middle Welsh, Breton and Cornish, and I am interested in the historical stages of other languages across the world, such as Ancient Japanese.

Over the past decade, I have been focusing on the evolution of Old Irish across time, chiefly in the European Research Council-funded research project Chronologicon Hibernicum (2015–21). It was the aim of ChronHib to develop computational tools to facilitate assessing the amount of variation in a linguistic corpus. Our international project team created a corpus of deeply annotated Old Irish texts, Corpus PalaeoHibernicum (CorPH). Our chief methodological innovation is a formalised method of annotating linguistic variation in the corpus. Traditional annotation includes part-of-speech tagging and morphosyntactic analysis. We developed Variational Tagging, which adds the dimension of time to the corpus. Another statistical method that we developed, Bayesian Language Variation Analysis (BLaVA), uses this variational information and allows us to create a probabilistic representation of linguistic change over time. Since it operates with Bayesian inference, it is a way of visualising the probability of change, especially in under-documented languages with small corpora.

Early Irish has one of the richest surviving medieval literary traditions in Europe and in the world. As a result, Old Irish and Middle Irish are abundantly attested in manuscript sources; the evidence for Primitive Irish, however, is meagre and consists almost exclusively of inscriptions on stone monuments in the uniquely ingenious ogam alphabet. Together with colleagues in Maynooth and at the University of Glasgow, we are currently studying these inscriptions. In the OG(H)AM project (2021–24), we will 3D-record and digitise all c. 600 examples of this fascinating, three-dimensional writing system. At the end of the project, all documentation and analysis will be available on our database and project website.

But we can go back even further in time in the evolution of Irish than the early first millennium a.d. Earlier, prehistoric stages are Proto-Celtic (reconstructable for the late second millennium b.c.) and Proto-Indo-European in the fourth millennium b.c. The historical circumstances of these ancestral stages in the Iron Age and Bronze Age, and the intervening stretch of several thousands of years, are veiled in obscurity, except for the information that we can extract from the language itself. When studying these deepest and oldest roots of Irish, however, we cannot rely on materially attested records, that is, writing; instead, we have to operate with language comparison and reconstruction. Much remains to be done in the microscopic analysis of linguistic data that may hold the key to insights that cannot be gained anywhere else. Over those 6,000 years of history that we can survey directly or indirectly, Irish has acquired many layers of loanwords. Among them are thin traces of words that were borrowed from ancient languages in Europe that have otherwise disappeared without trace.

Evidence like this may help to elucidate aspects of prehistory. We are still only at the beginning of understanding how a Celtic language came to be spoken all over Ireland. Can we say anything about languages that were spoken in Ireland before the spread of Goidelic? In collaboration with palaeogeneticists and archaeologists, I hope that it will be possible to make progress in answering this and other questions in the future.

A headshot of a woman with shoulder length light brown hair, against a grey background. She is wearing the yellow and green robes of the Royal Irish Academy.
Janice Carruthers MRIA

Janice Carruthers MRIA, is professor of French linguistics at Queen’s University Belfast and dean of research in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

The French language is at the heart of my research. I work on the evolution of the language, on the syntactic structure of spoken French, on sociolinguistic variation and language change, and on language and identity in France. In recent years I have been researching increasingly at the intersection of languages, policy and education, with a particular interest in how we can enhance language learning from primary school through to university and beyond, and how we can best articulate positive messages for policymakers around the value of languages for intercultural understanding, international relations and global trade.

I grew up in North Belfast and was fortunate to have inspirational language teachers at school. My undergraduate degree in Cambridge was a mix of language and literary studies in French and German, all of which gave me a rich cultural base for the ‘linguistic turn’ my trajectory has taken. While undertaking a second-year paper in the history of the French language, I realised not only that my primary fascination was with the language itself, but also that there was a whole academic field—French linguistics—in which I felt completely ‘at home’. After completing an MPhil in linguistics, I embarked on a PhD at Cambridge with Wendy Ayres-Bennett (with whom I still collaborate), on a rare French past tense and its role—diachronically and synchronically—within the temporal system of the spoken language.

My first book, co-authored with Ayres-Bennett (Problems and perspectives: studies in the Modern French language: Longman, 2001), sought to problematise the analysis of a range of areas in the language (such as the evolution of word order, or the impact of lexical borrowing) through the lens of diverse linguistic theories. Since then, following publication of Oral narration in Modern French: a linguistic analysis of temporal patterns (Legenda, 2005), a major strand of my research has focused on temporality in the oral medium (tense, aspect, connectives, adverbials), including conversational narratives and oral storytelling in both traditional and contemporary settings.

The French language is at the heart of my research. I work on the evolution of the language, on the syntactic structure of spoken French, on sociolinguistic variation and language change, and on language and identity in France. In recent years I have been researching increasingly at the intersection of languages, policy and education, with a particular interest in how we can enhance language learning from primary school through to university and beyond, and how we can best articulate positive messages for policymakers around the value of languages for intercultural understanding, international relations and global trade.

High-quality data is vital to research on linguistic patterning in the oral medium: designing, building and annotating digital corpora has therefore become central to my work. In 2013 I published the French oral narrative corpus (of contemporary storytelling), and in 2018, with Marianne Vergez-Couret (Université de Poitiers), a corpus of oral narratives in Occitan (OcOr), which includes recordings of stories by traditional storytellers from archives at the Centre Occitan des Musiques et Danses Traditionnelles, as well as recordings of contemporary practitioners in live performances. My interest in regional languages and multilingualism came together in the Manual of Romance sociolinguistics (edited with Ayres-Bennett: De Gruyter, 2018), which argues that the dialectal richness of the Romance space has shaped the research field in many of its languages in a way that is theoretically and empirically quite distinct from research on ‘World Englishes’.

Since 2016 I have worked increasingly as the lead or as a member of a team of researchers on projects funded by Horizon 2020 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). I headed up the Queen’s University strand of the MEITS project, in which linguists worked with literary scholars, education specialists and neuroscientists in an exploration of the benefits and challenges of multilingualism across a range of global contexts, including in France and Ireland. From 2017 to 2021 I was AHRC Priority Area Leadership Fellow for modern languages; in this role I spent 50% of my time on research in the field of language policy and 50% as champion for languages, particularly with policymakers, in the sphere of education but also in business and communities.

These projects have brought home to me the value of partnership in research, whether that involves collaboration with postdoctoral fellows in project design and publications, interdisciplinary work with colleagues in other universities, or cooperation with external groups such as artists (in my case, storytellers in France) and policymakers. Partnerships such as these do not suit all areas of Arts and Humanities research, but my experience is that where they work well there can be huge benefits—not least the opportunity to respond to research questions from new angles and to support the next generation of researchers.

Anne Magurran Hon. MRIA, is professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of St Andrews

My research interests in biological diversity—biodiversity—began when I was studying woodlands in Co. Derry, while a PhD student at the University of Ulster. This was in the middle of the Troubles. My main study site at Banagher Glen, an ancient Irish oakwood with nature-reserve status, was close to places like Dungiven and Claudy that became grim milestones in the history of that era, but Banagher was both my refuge and my inspiration. My task at the time was to quantify the biodiversity of the glen and compare it to the adjacent conifer planation dominated by non-native sitka spruce. As I quickly discovered, a systematic survey of all the different types of organisms in the area by a single person, over a limited period, is an impossible goal. The Clare Island Survey initiated by Robert Lloyd Praeger is testament to the extent of expertise and effort that comprehensive surveys require. So, I focussed on vegetation and moths, and found that although both sites adhered to the classical ecological pattern of a few abundant and many rare species, the oakwood was more diverse than the conifer plantation and had more plants and insects that are typical of a habitat that once covered much of Ireland. Natural ecosystems consist of co-evolved groups of species adapted to the local environment, and they support a web of interactions. I drew on this research to write a book on how to measure biological diversity: Ecological Diversity and Its Measurement (Princeton University Press, 1988). The timing was fortuitous—it was published as interest in the topic was growing, and it laid the foundations for my career.

Today, there is widespread concern about how biological diversity is being degraded by the changes that we humans are imposing on the world in which we live. Recent research by myself and colleagues is showing that the species composition of the ecosystems around us appears to be changing at a greater rate than has occurred in historical times, and that the pace of this change exceeds the predictions of ecological theory. The consequences for ecosystem function are currently unknown… Nature-based solutions need to work with nature, not against it, if we are to protect biological diversity and the ecosystems on which we all depend.

Fast forward, and I have since had the good fortune to work on biological diversity in many parts of the world, including studying the fishes of the flooded forest in the Amazon, and birds and plants in abandoned cocoa plantations on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Along the way I have learned a huge amount from the colleagues I worked with in these places, and I hope I have been able to pass on some knowledge and skills in return. I am conscious too of how much I learned from my own mentors when I was starting out, including Amyan Macfadyen and Palmer Newbould.

Today, there is widespread concern about how biological diversity is being degraded by the changes that we humans are imposing on the world in which we live. Recent research by myself and colleagues is showing that the species composition of the ecosystems around us appears to be changing at a greater rate than has occurred in historical times, and that the pace of this change exceeds the predictions of ecological theory. The consequences for ecosystem function are currently unknown. This biodiversity crisis is happening alongside the climate crisis, with nature-based solutions viewed as a potential solution to the latter. Yet, the appetite for planting trees as a way of sequestering carbon often translates into pressure to plant fast-growing, non-native species, such as sitka spruce. Which brings me back to where I began. Nature-based solutions need to work with nature, not against it, if we are to protect biological diversity and the ecosystems on which we all depend.

Nabeel Agha Riza is Chair Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and former head of the School of Engineering at University College Cork.

I am an inventor by nature and utilise my life experiences and creative ability to solve pressing challenges and to impact society positively. The study of light is my passion, and I have been privileged to produce inventions that are helping society globally. My scalable digital micromirror device-based optical signal equalisers and routers are used in the optical-fibre based internet infrastructure. My free-space fibre–fibre light coupling models and optical beamforming techniques have been used to design and deploy low-loss optical components, including the very large port count datacentre optical circuit switches that route high-data-rate optical signals for internet traffic around the globe.

Over a 34-year career, I have encountered challenges in a variety of settings: as an applied scientist for the General Electric Corporate Research and Development Center in the US; launching and operating my US start-up company Nuonics; dealing with academic administrative and management issues in 2011 during the Irish economic crisis as head of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and later as head of the School of Engineering, at UCC. In all these challenging settings, I engaged the problem-solving skills I learned as a globally trained and travelled engineer, to produce the best results for the mission at hand.

I believe good engineers can solve any problem, using their foundational scientific knowledge and logical thinking combined with real-life experiences… Being a teacher is a privilege; one can empower the future generation of thought leaders vital to society. A teacher who is also a research scholar of highest standards can serve as a role model for the younger generation, showing that great scientific research and teaching go hand-in-hand and can empower each other.

I believe good engineers can solve any problem, using their foundational scientific knowledge and logical thinking combined with real-life experiences. I received my scientific doctoral training, focusing on physics and mathematics within an engineering context, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where I was fortunate to be taught by great scholars with personality: the late physicist and Nobel laureate Professor Richard Feynman, the late electromagnetics world expert Professor Charles Papas, and NASA Jet Propulsion Lab chief scientist and data communications expert, the late Professor Edward Posner. They taught me that teaching is like theatre: you need to deliver your message with wit and humour, using audience interaction, creating an enjoyable environment, even when the content can be scientifically challenging and appear boring. When I became a professor in 1995, I adopted this interactive teaching style, so that my students too could enjoy learning what are otherwise generally considered dull subjects—electromagnetics, radio frequency transmission lines and optics, all underpinned by rigorous mathematics and physics.

Being a teacher is a privilege; one can empower the future generation of thought leaders vital to society. A teacher who is also a research scholar of highest standards can serve as a role model for the younger generation, showing that great scientific research and teaching go hand-in-hand and can empower each other. With this as my motivation, between 2011 and 2013 I wrote a textbook to teach the art of photonic design for creating optical systems to manipulate signals found in the modern world. The book (Photonic signals and systems: an introduction, McGraw Hill, 2013) was intended first to provide the rigorous foundations of photonics in the simplest way possible, and then to use these foundations to create visually pleasing yet powerful inventions to solve pressing problems in the fields of data communications, medical imaging and energy and aerospace systems sensors. The book relies on many of my optical inventions. When the Covid-19 pandemic and lock-down hit Ireland, I started to provide free, downloadable copies of my book and teaching materials to help students world-wide.

Free thought drives my research and innovation activities. It is my desire that my research career in optics-based engineering science can impact people physically far from me as well as those close to me, so that they too can ‘see the light’ and make a better life for themselves and others around them. One never knows, perhaps some of the next generation of engineers will have ’fun’ inventing with light, as I have throughout my lifetime, so that the future can indeed be brighter!

My career story, along with details of my research, teaching, honours, patents and international publications, and free, downloadable materials, videos and more, are available on my website.

Gladys Ganiel MRIA is professor in the sociology of religion at Queen’s University Belfast.

My passion is exploring and helping others to understand the significance of religion in the contemporary world, particularly on the island of Ireland, but also further afield. My earliest research interest was in the role of religion in conflict and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland, a topic I pursued in my doctoral studies at University College Dublin and in the first years of my academic career at the Belfast campus of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. My first book, Evangelicalism and conflict in Northern Ireland (Palgrave 2008), analysed how evangelicalism was contributing to peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. It broke new ground, because previous studies had focused almost exclusively on how evangelicalism had contributed to division and violence. Pushing beyond the stereotypical association of evangelicalism with Reverend Ian Paisley, I documented the diversity within evangelicalism and explored how evangelical identities were changing in response to political developments and evangelicals’ self-critique of their tradition.

My interest in evangelicalism provided a foundation for my work on Emerging Christianity, which resulted in another book, this one co-authored with Gerardo Marti, The deconstructed church: understanding emerging Christianity (Oxford 2014). The deconstructed church is one of the first comprehensive social scientific analyses of the Emerging Church Movement, a reform movement within Western Christianity that reacts against its roots in conservative evangelicalism by ‘deconstructing’ contemporary expressions of Christianity. It won the 2015 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Social Scientific Study of Religion, the largest such organisation in North America. We argued that the Emerging Church Movement is the most significant re-framing of Western Christianity in the early twenty-first century, describing how Emerging Christians are shaping a distinct religious orientation that encourages individualism; deep relationships with others; new ideas around the nature of truth, doubt and God; and innovations in preaching, worship, Eucharist and leadership.

[A] major [research] interest of mine is religious trends on the island of Ireland. My book, Transforming post-Catholic Ireland: religious practice in late modernity was the first major academic book to explore the dynamic religious landscape of contemporary Ireland, north and south, and to analyse the island’s ongoing religious transition. I developed an original concept—‘extra-institutional religion’—which helps to explain how people of faith are practising religion in a secularising Ireland, ‘outside of and in addition to’ the institutional Catholic Church.

More recently, I worked on a research project with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland that resulted in a book co-authored with Jamie Yohanis, Considering grace: Presbyterians and the troubles (Merrion Press 2019). Considering grace records the stories of 120 ordinary people’s experiences of the Troubles, exploring how faith shaped their responses to violence and its aftermath. It is not a conventional academic book, but rather a collection of stories from Presbyterian ministers, victims, members of the security forces, those affected by loyalist paramilitarism, ex-combatants, emergency responders, health-care workers, peacemakers, politicians, people who left Presbyterianism, and ‘critical friends’ of the Presbyterian tradition. Considering grace is the first book to capture such a full range of experiences of the Troubles of people from a Protestant background. I also wrote a biography of one of Northern Ireland’s most significant faith-based peacebuilders, Unity pilgrim: the life of Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR (Redemptorist Communications 2019), highlighting his contributions to ecumenism and the lessons that peacebuilders can learn from his witness.

Another major interest of mine is religious trends on the island of Ireland. My book, Transforming post-Catholic Ireland: religious practice in late modernity (Oxford 2016) was the first major academic book to explore the dynamic religious landscape of contemporary Ireland, north and south, and to analyse the island’s ongoing religious transition. I developed an original concept—‘extra-institutional religion’—which helps to explain how people of faith are practising religion in a secularising Ireland, ‘outside of and in addition to’ the institutional Catholic Church.

I have served as co-editor, with Andrew Holmes, of a forthcoming Oxford handbook of religion in modern Ireland (publication expected 2024), consisting of 32 chapters written by leading academics. It is the first such volume to employ an all-island approach to the relationships between religion, society, politics and everyday life on the island of Ireland.

I am currently leading a three-year research project, funded by the Trans-Atlantic Platform, which investigates the role of religion in societies emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, including the island of Ireland. The project involves partners in Canada, Germany and Poland, ensuring a comparative dimension. We are focusing on discourses around health, illness and science; changing relationships between religion and the state; and religious adaptations to the digital world.

I hope my work prompts others start to think about religion in new ways.