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2025 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.

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.

John Dillon MRIA, Regius Professor of Greek (Emeritus), Trinity College Dublin. He was awarded the RIA Gold Medal in the Humanities in 2005.

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).

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.

2025 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.

A woman with short white cropped hair, wearing black glasses, is holding a presentation box with a gold medal inside, in the background is a redbrick building.
Jane Ohlmeyer, 2023 RIA Gold Medallist in the Humanities

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.

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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.

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Niamh Brennan MRIA

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 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) … 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… 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.

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.

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David Stifter MRIA

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.

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.

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 OG(H)AM 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.

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Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin MRIA

Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin MRIA is professor of history and former head of the School of History at University College Dublin (UCD)

I joined UCD as a lecturer on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ireland, and the history of the island during this period has remained an important focus of my work. Most of my research over the past thirty years, however, has explored aspects of the religious culture of Early Modern Europe, but I have consistently attempted not merely to place Irish events and processes in a wider comparative context, but to investigate how they can in turn illuminate and produce fresh perspectives on the wider history of the European reformations.

My first monograph Catholic reformation in Ireland: the mission of Rinuccini, 1645–49 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) was an attempt to understand the profoundly influential career in Ireland of GianBattista Rinuccini, papal nuncio to the proto-state of the Confederate Catholics of Ireland during the 1640s. It considered why Rinuccini first dominated the politics of the Confederates but was then rejected and expelled from Ireland, and, through analysis of his formation and career in Italy, investigated what motivated his behaviour. His mission provided an opportunity to explore both Irish participation in the profound changes that occurred in European Catholicism and the factors that rendered it a peculiar outlier among mainstream Catholic European societies.

During my career I have been lucky to have enjoyed a very productive working relationship with my colleague in Trinity College Dublin, Robert Armstrong. I have benefitted from the extraordinary breadth and depth of his knowledge in general, and his expertise in the history of Protestantism in particular has complemented my own concentration on Irish and European Catholicism. Together we have initiated four major thematic and collaborative projects, which primarily investigated different aspects of the religious history of the archipelago of Britain and Ireland. The findings were published in four co-edited volumes, Community in early modern Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006), Insular Christianity: alternative models of the church in Britain and Ireland c. 1570–c. 1700 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), Christianities in the early modern Celtic world (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) and The English Bible in the early modern world (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[Confessionalism and mobility in Early Modern Ireland] examined the evolution of different religious communities in Ireland through the prism of mobility. The religious transformation of the island was mediated by individuals with very significant migratory experiences, and a variety of mobilities affected and inflected the confessional self-understanding and practices of the Irish population. In addition to highlighting the vital importance of transnational experiences in the formation of different Irish clergies, this book emphasised the amenability of some of the most important identity texts of Early Modern Ireland to reading as the products of a migrant sensibility.

My second monograph, Catholic Europe, 1592–1648: centre and peripheries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), examined the processes of Catholic renewal in a highly unusual fashion. Taking advantage of my knowledge of the sui generis evolution of confessional change in Ireland, it focused primarily on how Catholicism adapted and developed in a series of societies on the periphery of Europe—Ireland, Britain, the Netherlands, East-Central Europe and the Balkans. The chronological focus of the book was uncommon. Because the timing of Catholic reform occurred differently on the periphery of Europe than in the more studied heartlands of Italy, Iberia, much of present-day Germany and France, I argued that the critical epoch of religious change in these areas did not occur until the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century.

My third monograph, Confessionalism and mobility in Early Modern Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), examined the evolution of different religious communities in Ireland through the prism of mobility. The religious transformation of the island was mediated by individuals with very significant migratory experiences, and a variety of mobilities affected and inflected the confessional self-understanding and practices of the Irish population. In addition to highlighting the vital importance of transnational experiences in the formation of different Irish clergies, this book emphasised the amenability of some of the most important identity texts of Early Modern Ireland to reading as the products of a migrant sensibility.

In addition to these seven books, I have published over fifty shorter peer-reviewed articles of various kinds, which have utilised an extensive source basis in six different languages—English, Irish, Latin, French, Italian and Hungarian.

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James O’Gara MRIA

James O’Gara MRIA, is professor of microbiology, investigating virulence and antimicrobial resistance mechanisms in staphylococci, at the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, University of Galway

I have always been intrigued by the capacity of bacteria to grow to incredible numbers at incredible speeds—a phenomenon that enables the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and the growth of bacterial communities called biofilms attached to surfaces such as implanted medical devices or infected human and animal tissue. The global number of deaths associated with infections caused by pathogens that are resistant to drug treatments is estimated to be as high as 700,000. New drug development has not been able to keep pace with the emergence of so-called superbugs, and my research group is working to contribute solutions to this challenge.

I am originally from Monaghan, and after completing BSc and PhD degrees in microbiology at the University of Galway, I furthered my research training during two postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston and at Trinity College Dublin. I held appointments as senior lecturer in microbiology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and University College Dublin before returning to the University of Galway in 2012 as professor of infectious disease microbiology. I served as head of microbiology from 2013 to 2016 and was elected to the University of Galway governing authority in 2021. I lead the Infection and Immunology Research Cluster, and in my laboratory we are interested in infections that develop in patients with implanted medical devices (catheters, artificial joints, etc.) and in foot infections in patients with diabetes.

Our focus is on the staphylococci bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) and methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), which ranks as the sixth most common cause of bacterial infection and the first in terms of mortality. The 2016 UK-government-commissioned O’Neill report warned that, in the absence of intervention, infections caused by AMR pathogens will be responsible for more deaths than cancer by 2050. The AMR crisis is compounded by chronic biofilm-associated infections in healthcare settings, which have serious consequences for patient morbidity and mortality and for treatment costs.

New drug development has not been able to keep pace with the emergence of so-called superbugs, and my research group is working to contribute solutions to this challenge… in my laboratory we are interested in infections that develop in patients with implanted medical devices (catheters, artificial joints, etc.) and in foot infections in patients with diabetes.

Much of my current research is aimed at identifying new drug targets to renew the effectiveness of penicillin-type antibiotics against bacteria such as MRSA that have become resistant. Our investigations into the biological functions of these new drug targets, their mechanistic role in antibiotic resistance and possible therapeutic approaches arising from these discoveries are supported by funding from Science Foundation Ireland, the Health Research Board and the Irish Research Council.

Notable scientific contributions from my research group include (i) the first description of the major transcriptional regulator of staphylococcal biofilm production (IcaR); (ii) the identification of novel biofilm mechanisms mediated by the fibronectin binding proteins, by the major autolysin, and by coagulase in S. aureus; (iii) elucidating the relationship between methicillin resistance, the occurrence of biofilm and virulence in S. aureus; and (iv) new therapeutic approaches to the treatment of chronic MRSA infections.

One of the most rewarding aspects of a career in academic research is the opportunity to train and work with hugely talented PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, without whom none of this work would be possible. To help achieve our research goals we also have the great privilege of collaborating with brilliant scientists in other Irish universities and internationally.

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Deirdre Madden MRIA

Deirdre Madden MRIA, Professor of Law, University College Cork

My research interests in medical/healthcare law and ethics really began in the second year of my undergraduate law degree in University College Cork when our lecturer told us about the first reported legal case being heard at that time involving commercial surrogacy in the UK. I was fascinated by the complexities of this arrangement, the conflicting constitutional, human rights, family law, contractual and even property law principles and public policies, the overriding paramountcy of the best interests of the child, and (rightly or wrongly) how law, politics, public morality and the media can shape the kinds of families there should be.

After graduation, I further developed this interest by pursuing a Master’s and later a PhD in assisted reproduction, surrogacy, reproductive genetics and the appropriate role of law in regulating behaviour in this most intimate and personal area of life. From there my interests broadened further to other areas of health law and ethics, including healthcare decision-making, end of life care, reproductive autonomy, professional regulation, patient safety, protection of personal health information and addressing health inequities.

I have always held the view that law is no more than a system of rules agreed and enforced by society and therefore it should always strive to be clear and understandable to everyone in society, written in plain English, as simple as possible and fair and proportionate in its intrusion into the lives of citizens. My interest in communication of the law in all its forms—its rationale, principles and values, its potential to shape and be shaped by political and public mores—ultimately made my decision to become an academic an easy one. My research has also led me to work on the practical application, implementation and communication of the law through the translation of legislation provisions and judicial decisions into policies, guidelines and codes of practice for professionals that are aimed at making comprehension and compliance easier.

One of the aspects of my work that I enjoy the most is the endless diversity and topicality of the issues that arise in the intersection of law, medicine and ethics. A reading of the newspapers on any day of the week will spark a new avenue for reflection, research and student engagement. I was deeply influenced in my early research by the author John Robertson, who is said to have put the field of law and bioethics on the law school map. Through the lens of his so-called ‘principle of procreative liberty’—meaning both the freedom to decide whether to have children as well as the freedom to control one’s reproductive capacity—Robertson captured my imagination. His analysis of the ethical, legal and social controversies in reproductive technology raised fascinating questions such as: Do frozen embryos have the right to be born? Should parents be allowed to select the sex and traits of their children? Should a government be able to force social welfare recipients to take contraceptives? These and many other socio-legal and ethical dilemmas have generated endless questions, multidisciplinary debates and policy proposals in this country and elsewhere about the beginning and ending of human life, the individual choices that societies are prepared to support, the overriding values of society that may compete with our respect for individual choices and how we decide as individuals and societies what really matters in the end.

One of the aspects of my work that I enjoy the most is the endless diversity and topicality of the issues that arise in the intersection of law, medicine and ethics… I was deeply influenced in my early research by the author John Robertson, who is said to have put the field of law and bioethics on the law school map. Through the lens of his so-called ‘principle of procreative liberty’—meaning both the freedom to decide whether to have children as well as the freedom to control one’s reproductive capacity—Robertson captured my imagination.

Another area of huge interest for me is the role of law in patient safety, the discipline that aims to prevent and reduce risks, errors and harm that occur to patients during provision of health care. How can the law influence, shape, control, regulate and support health care professionals and institutions in their efforts to keep people safe and provide them with the best possible care? We must recognise that healthcare is not a risk-free enterprise; as one of my favourite authors Atul Gawande (renowned surgeon, writer and public health leader in the US) puts it:

We look for medicine to be an orderly field of knowledge and procedure. But it is not. It is an imperfect science, an enterprise of constantly changing knowledge, uncertain information, fallible individuals, and at the same time lives on the line.

At the same time, we must also adhere to the principle that those who avail of healthcare services are entitled to expect to be treated by competent professionals who are appropriately skilled and up to date with developments in their field, in facilities that are fit for purpose and subject to regulatory oversight to ensure that appropriate standards are complied with. We are all entitled to be partners in our own healthcare, kept informed about our treatment and treated with honesty and respect if something goes wrong. I consider myself very fortunate that the balancing of all these values, rights and interests continues to both motivate and perplex me on a daily basis.

M.A. Morris MRIA, professor of Surface and Interface Chemistry, School of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin (TCD), and director of the AMBER Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research, TCD

In manufacturing, material science and the general economy we face disruptive changes akin to those precipitated by the industrial revolution, when manufacturing moved from being a cottage to a factory industry. This led to rapid economic growth, urbanisation and consumerism. It drove ‘linear’ economies based on a take (extract resources), make (manufacture products), dispose (waste production) model, centred on ‘pile them high, sell them cheap’ mass consumerism. It effectively disconnected the bulk of modern societies from resource use and waste production.

As we move into the twenty-first century this model is not sustainable. Mass manufacturing, built-in obsolescence, consumerism and the associated disconnections have led to environmental emergencies and caused damage to the world we live in. That we embrace new sustainable economic approaches that protect the planet for future generations is now accepted.

The solution to the current linear economy is conceptually facile: we need to decouple economic growth from resource extraction (be that minerals, petroleum or ‘renewable’ resources such as wood) and from waste production. This can be achieved by delivering materials, products, goods and services that can be used through many lifetimes (use cycles), such that their impacts are minimised. This is the circular economy. If conceptually simple, it is practically challenging, and it is difficult to imagine societies functioning where zero resource is used or zero waste produced. It is obvious, however, that materials and their manufacturing will undergo dramatic changes over the next 25 years if we are to meet ambitious climate and other goals.

Despite the incredible versatility, properties and performance of modern plastics, they have caused significant environmental impacts to air, land and ocean. By 2050, we are predicted to manufacture 500 million tonnes of plastic annually (around half of the global production of sugar cane, often quoted as an alternative source of chemicals and plastics) and are expected to contribute between 5% and 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. From the perspective of a materials chemist specialising in plastics and polymer coatings for many years, implementing a circular economy for plastics represents a very significant challenge, but one that must be met. This, and particularly how we can accelerate a circular plastics economy, is a focus of my research.

There is no accepted definition of the circular economy, but framing the issue helps define the challenges in implementing circular practices. My work with the ISO technical committee in introducing standards for a circular economy indicates that an effective definition can be suggested:

an economic system built on maintaining a circular flow of resources to eliminate waste and resource extraction by regenerating, retaining or adding to their value while contributing to sustainable development.

The first challenge is accepting the basis of the circular economy. It is fundamentally about manufacturing less not more; a seismic shift in industry, commerce and lifestyle. The circular economy involves strategies such as:

  • sharing, for example by carpooling; leasing; and even adopting simple strategies like buying second-hand clothing and goods;
  • companies sharing production infrastructure;
  • developing products with very extended lifetimes;
  • designing products that can be readily refurbished, disassembled or remanufactured;
  • developing products that are readily repaired or reused; and
  • reusing expensive components, including, for example, silicon chips, which currently are not recycled despite worldwide shortages.

The second challenge relates to technical issues, and a key focus of my work is in trying to innovate new technologies for repeated use of materials and how we maintain or add value through these processes. If we think about value in economic terms, strategies such as recycling are ineffective. Recycled polymers are generally more expensive than newly manufactured versions. Recycled materials generally perform worse because of property changes in less-than-perfect recycling methodologies. Developing new infrastructure and appropriate methods are critical.

The concept of value must also change. Recycled plastics reduce carbon emissions by a factor of 2 to 3 compared to new fossil fuel-based equivalents, and they must be advantaged. Policy, legislation and taxes must change dramatically to reflect values in a more holistic sense than just pricing.

As we move into the twenty-first century … Mass manufacturing, built-in obsolescence, consumerism and the associated disconnections have led to environmental emergencies and caused damage to the world we live in. That we embrace new sustainable economic approaches that protect the planet for future generations is now accepted.

A final critical challenge is how we measure circularity—a key part of my work. Circularity is not simply recycling rates. In Ireland we often view recycling as a waste mitigation strategy; it isn’t, it’s about waste avoidance. We need to provide methods to measure resources used and lost through the repetitive life cycles. We need to measure environmental impacts (emissions, embodied carbon, energy used, benefits to biodiversity, land reclamation, etc.) and social effects (availability of recreational spaces, personal well-being, employment and educational opportunities, amongst others). We critically need to assess profitability and the advantages of companies as they introduce circular strategies. Thus, circularity isn’t a number, a percentage or a box tick; it’s an array of multiple measurements and assessments. These measurements need to be standardised, so that they are verifiable and transparent. Standards need to evolve to ensure circularity reports are meaningful (that is, to avoid simply greenwashing).

Whilst a circular economy raises many challenges, the benefits are enormous. We must recognise, however, that it will impact everyone’s everyday lives. Like society in the 1780s, we have no idea today how the future will look, but we must be prepared for the dramatic changes that will occur.

Within the discipline of nutritional science, I have particular expertise in vitamin research. A key priority concerns folic acid (a B vitamin) and its role in early life. Nearly 30 years ago it was proved beyond doubt that folic acid supplementation of mothers in early pregnancy protects against neural tube defects (NTDs) in their babies… Neural Tube Defects are sometimes referred to as the ‘Curse of the Celts’, with rates of NTDs in Ireland among the highest in the world. A new policy to introduce mandatory folic acid fortification in Ireland is urgently needed.

Helene McNulty MRIA, professor of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, School of Biomedical Sciences, and director of the Nutrition Innovation Centre for Food and Health (NICHE), Ulster University, Coleraine

I am a graduate of Trinity College Dublin (BSc and PhD in Nutrition) and the Dublin Institute of Technology (Diploma in Dietetics), and a registered dietitian (RD) by professional training. After a short period in the food industry, I came to Ulster University as a lecturer in 1992 and was promoted to professor in 2001.

The most important and rewarding aspect of my research is that the outcomes can impact positively on people’s health throughout their lives: from pregnancy and early life through to middle and older age. I also enjoy bringing my research into the classroom, to deliver teaching that is based on the latest scientific evidence in the field of human nutrition and to ensure that my students can benefit.

My research is aimed at providing a better understanding how food, and the nutrients it contains, can influence health, and how improved nutrition can prevent disease. Poor diet can impact adversely on people’s health and contribute to an increased risk of disease throughout the lifecycle. A particular challenge of our time is that the global population is ageing; by 2025, 1.2 billion people globally will be aged over 60 years. Diet is particularly important in reducing diseases of ageing (such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis, dementia) and preventing the development of related risk factors, including, high blood pressure, poor immune health, weak bones and cognitive decline. Genetics also plays a crucial role in disease, thus an understanding of how genes and nutrients interact is key in nutrition research. Certain nutrients (for example, protein and specific vitamins) that have important functional roles for older people are, however, derived from food groups for which sustainability scores are low, and which therefore may not be favourable to the environment. Drawing on biological and behavioural sciences, my research comprehensively investigates the dietary needs of older people, and aims to develop sustainable food solutions that can be recommended both to maintain better health and to ensure no detrimental effects on the environment. This requires multidisciplinary research, using state-of-the-art approaches from a range of health and environmental sciences as well as from computing and engineering (including data analytics, machine learning and brain imaging techniques).

Within the discipline of nutritional science, I have particular expertise in vitamin research. A key priority concerns folic acid (a B vitamin) and its role in early life. Nearly 30 years ago it was proved beyond doubt that folic acid supplementation of mothers in early pregnancy protects against neural tube defects (NTDs) in their babies. These are major birth defects occurring as a result of failure of the neural tube to close properly in the first few weeks of pregnancy, leading to death of the foetus or newborn or to lifelong disabilities involving the spinal cord, the most common of which is spina bifida. The conclusive scientific evidence that folic acid could prevent NTDs has led to clear recommendations for women of reproductive age, which are in place worldwide: to prevent NTDs, women are recommended to take 400 micrograms per day of folic acid, from before conceiving until the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. Implementing this recommendation in practice (so that women and their babies can benefit) is, however, proving to be problematic.

There is now clear evidence showing that there has been no change in the incidence of NTDs over the 25-year period that the current strategy recommending women to take folic acid supplements before and in early pregnancy has been in place. The policy, implemented in Ireland and other European countries, is largely ineffective, primarily because most women start taking folic acid too late in pregnancy, after the time of neural tube closure between the third to fourth week post conception. A policy of folic acid fortification of food on a mandatory basis (in place in 85 countries worldwide) would be highly effective in preventing NTDs because it reaches all women, including those who have not planned their pregnancy. International evidence shows that wherever such a policy has been introduced, it has proved to be effective in reducing rates of NTD in that country.

Neural Tube Defects are sometimes referred to as the ‘Curse of the Celts’, with rates of NTDs in Ireland among the highest in the world. A new policy to introduce mandatory folic acid fortification in Ireland is urgently needed. Of particular concern is evidence from a comprehensive report by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland showing that the incidence of NTDs has been increasing in Ireland in recent years. Although voluntary folic acid fortification of foods such as breakfast cereals (whereby folic acid is added at the discretion of the manufacturer) is permitted in Ireland, and has been beneficial in terms of reducing NTDs to some extent, the benefit is limited only to consumers who choose to eat the fortified food products. Notably, in September 2021, the UK government announced that flour will be fortified with folic acid on a mandatory basis. The Irish government now needs to implement a similar policy, so that the benefit of folic acid fortification can be achieved for mothers and their babies throughout the island.