Minister Harris Announces Funding for 5 PhD and Postdoctoral at TU Dublin

23 Oct, 2020

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris TD, has today announced funding for research for five PhD and postdoctoral researchers at TU Dublin under the Irish Research Council’s Government of Ireland programme.

Welcoming this year’s awardees, Minister Harris said: “I am delighted to announce this investment by government in developing the next generation of research leaders across disciplines. Across higher education, enterprise, civil society and the public sector, expert knowledge and skills is a critical need for our present and our future. The awards announced today support a pipeline of research talent which will be at the forefront of addressing the many challenges and opportunities we face.

The COVID crisis alone has demonstrated the importance of investment in expertise across all disciplines, whether in the form of advice on public health, the development of vaccines and treatments within industry, or, crucially, in working through the many longer-term social, economic and cultural impacts of the crisis. It can be seen today how Ireland is benefiting from investment in basic research made some years ago, and this will be the case in the future with ongoing support for the pipeline of excellent researchers. I wish the many awardees starting their new projects the very best.”

Welcoming this year’s awardees, Minister Harris said: “I am delighted to announce this investment by government in developing the next generation of research leaders across disciplines. Across higher education, enterprise, civil society and the public sector, expert knowledge and skills is a critical need for our present and our future. The awards announced today support a pipeline of research talent which will be at the forefront of addressing the many challenges and opportunities we face.

The COVID crisis alone has demonstrated the importance of investment in expertise across all disciplines, whether in the form of advice on public health, the development of vaccines and treatments within industry, or, crucially, in working through the many longer-term social, economic and cultural impacts of the crisis. It can be seen today how Ireland is benefiting from investment in basic research made some years ago, and this will be the case in the future with ongoing support for the pipeline of excellent researchers. I wish the many awardees starting their new projects the very best.”

This year’s postgraduate scholars from TU Dublin are:

Plasmon mapping of SERS-active nanostructures for prostate cancer detection using scanning probe energy loss spectroscopy

Mohamed Beshr, based on the University’s Tallaght Campus, was awarded a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship for a project, which aims to develop a diagnostic tool to detect early cases of prostate cancer. “Raman spectroscopy is widely used to detect low concentrations of molecules that may be present if a patient has cancer. However, this technology suffers from low-signal intensity, so it is not always possible to detect the small concentration of molecules that are crucial for early intervention and treatment.

 “Surface-enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) overcomes this issue by enhancing the electric fields of light through coupling with conduction electron oscillations in metal nanostructures, called localised surface plasmon resonances (LSPR). This project aims to apply a novel technique, scanning probe energy loss spectroscopy (SPELS) to map the plasmonic behaviour of SERS-active substrates to optimise their Raman enhancement factor and reproducibility. This work will lead to the development of cutting-edge materials for the early detection of cancer indicators in blood samples from patients with prostate cancer, allowing for earlier intervention, dramatically increasing survivability rates.”

Mathematical Models Linking Neuronal and Behavioural Responses in Parkinson’s disease

Rebecca Brady, based in the School of Mathematics in TU Dublin, has also won a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship for a project to design biologically plausible mathematical models of behavioural and neural responses to describe sensory, motor and decision-making processes.

“Gaining a greater theoretical understanding of these fundamental processes is vital for basic neuroscience and translational science with this research focusing on Parkinson’s disease; a progressive neurological disorder which affects 1 in every 100 people over the age of 60. Parkinson’s disease is classified as a movement disorder. It is primarily diagnosed by the onset of motor symptoms such as tremors, rigidity and slowness of movement. These motor symptoms coincide with sensory and perceptual disturbances which impact decision-making. Parkinson’s disease has no cure and treatment is based on symptom management; so developing a deeper understanding of the neural mechanisms which govern these symptoms is imperative.

The modelling is motivated by experimental behavioural and neurophysiological experiments that investigate sensory and decision-making processes. The models, informed by this data, will enable the simulation of the progression of movement disorders at a neuronal level which is not feasible experimentally; this will build a framework for understanding and treating this complex disorder as well as identifying possible biomarkers. The models and theories developed in this project are not just applicable to movement disorders, but will be able to inform theories on other conditions as well as impaired motor function associated with healthy ageing.”

Studies on Metabolites of Common Antibiotics in the Development of Antimicrobial Resistance (AM-AMR)

Mairéad Gallagher, a PhD student from Tallaght, has won an Environmental Protection Agency Postgraduate Scholarship for a project about Antimicrobial Resistance.

“The World Health Organisation has declared Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) ‘one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity’. The over-prescription and overuse of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine has resulted in the development of resistance to previously effective treatments amongst numerous strains of pathogenic bacteria. The failure of antibiotics has far-reaching healthcare consequences, especially in the treatment of cancers, organ transplants and surgery.

Antibiotics are used to help recovery post-surgery and are routinely prescribed to patients during chemotherapy. If antibiotics fail, the health of individuals will be seriously compromised. If the current trend of increasing antimicrobial resistance is not addressed, we could see a return to the pre-antibiotic era with dire consequences for global health.

The purpose of this research project is to investigate the metabolites of some classes of antibiotics and the development of antimicrobial resistance. There have been studies reported on the analysis of wastewater for residues of antibiotics and the link between the levels of the parent antibiotics and increased levels of resistance investigated. However, at present, there is no available literature regarding the metabolites of antibiotics and whether they can play a part in the development of antimicrobial resistance in bacteria. The project will address the current gap in scientific knowledge regarding the metabolites of antibiotics and what role, if any, they play in the development of antimicrobial resistance.”

Evaluating the replicability and reproducibility of sports science research – a multi-lab collaboration project

Jennifer Murphy, a PhD student, based in the University’s Tallaght Campus, has also won a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship for a project about replicability and reproducibility of sports science research.

“Ongoing research and publications in sports science are important for the development of the field. Whilst the purpose of these studies is to increase knowledge in any given area, it has been suggested that there are common methodological and design issues. These include a lower likelihood of publishing insignificant results, insufficient scientific transparency, and importantly, too few replication studies, all of which hinder the advancement of knowledge in the field. The principle of replication is the cornerstone of science, and by correctly replicating a study and evaluating the consistency of the outcome, researchers can further their understanding of the validity of major research findings. 

This project will establish a large collaborative lab network to critically examine the reproducibility and replicability of current research findings through multiple replication trials, employing unbiased, transparent and objective methods. Studies to be replicated will be distributed blindly to over 30 volunteer labs with a specific methodology, and target sample size included. A key objective is the enhancement of research standards and increased focus on the totality of evidence produced in sports science rather than an emphasis on single studies with novel or unexpected results (Ioannidis, 2018). This study is the commencement point for a long-term Sports Science Replication Centre whose purpose will be a worldwide collaborative effort in the conduction of replication trials.”

Anti-Cancer Strategy: Combining Cold Atmospheric Plasma with Theranostic Nanoparticles

Finally, Dr Zhonglei He, a postdoctoral student based in School of Food Science and Environmental Health, has won a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship for a project examining Cold Atmospheric Plasma for anti-cancer strategies.

“Artificial plasma, particularly thermal plasma, has been studied for decades and widely applied in various fields. More recently, CAP has emerged as a cutting-edge biomedicine technology, as it can safely operate on human tissue at atmospheric pressure and room temperature, CAP is a new physical intervention for cancer therapy, already used in human patients as a palliative treatment. However, the widespread adoption of CAP therapy is limited by precise delivery, diffusion into tumours and real-time diagnosis of CAP treatment in situ.

The first aim of this proposed research is to establish a theranostics platform to release therapeutic drugs and diagnostic reporters inside cancer cells. The second is to identify lead CAP-triggered theranostic platforms while determining efficacy, selectivity and the chemical and molecular mechanism of the CAP theranostics in 2D cell culture model. The final aim is to investigate further the delivery and effectiveness of lead CAP-triggered theranostics in 3D spheroid mixed culture models and to measure blood-brain barrier (BBB) permeability. Research success may lead to preclinical trial and eventually clinical trial of CAP treatment combining theranostics platform for cancer.”

Congratulating this year’s awardees, Irish Research Council Director, Peter Brown, said: “The Irish Research Council Government of Ireland awards form a critical pillar within Ireland’s research and innovation eco-system. The two programmes, addressing postgraduate and postdoctoral research, are the only ones of their kind in Ireland, funding excellent research across all disciplines and are highly competitive, nationally and internationally. Awardees benefit greatly from having obtained a research award in their own name, demonstrating world-class potential in their chosen field from the early-career stage. Through this and other IRC programmes, the Council continues to deliver the best and brightest research talent for Ireland. Working hand-in-glove with our research-performing organisations, awardees will expand the frontiers of knowledge and generate the research and innovations that will help to address national and global societal challenges.”

Each year the Government of Ireland Programmes collaborate with strategic funding partners to run themed calls. A number of this year’s awardees are supported by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Foreign Affairs. The 2021 calls are now open on the IRC website and offer new collaborative funding opportunities with additional themed calls from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Met Éireann and the Department of Rural and Community Development.

Further information about the Irish Research Council’s Government of Ireland programmes is available at www.research.ie