Trinity College Dublin: Trinity researchers secure eight SFI-IRC Pathway awards

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The awards, designed to support Ireland’s emerging research talent and to encourage interdisciplinary approaches, were announced today by Simon Harris, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

The awards enable postdoctoral researchers to conduct independent research for a four–year period and provide funding for a postgraduate student who will be primarily supervised by the awardee. A specific focus of the programme is to increase the representation of female researchers in the higher education system.

Trinity’s award-winning researchers are Nicole Volmering, Schools of Histories and Humanities, and Education; Neill O’Dwyer, School of Creative Arts; Dania Movia, School of Medicine; Viviana Marzaioli, School of Medicine; Kevin Daly; School of Genetics and Microbiology; Frank Simons, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies; Yunfai Lai, School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences; and Eric Conway, who was based in Trinity when applying for the award but who has recently moved to University College Dublin.

Wolfgang Schmitt, Dean of Research at Trinity, said: “I am delighted to see so many budding research leaders from Trinity winning funding to pursue such a wide range of projects. These awards will help the winners develop their careers and, in many cases, grow their research teams and nurture important links with collaborators in different institutions and with expertise in different disciplines. I warmly congratulate the winners and will follow their projects with interest over the next four years.”

Nicole Volmering’s Early Irish Hands project will investigate the origins of a crucial part of Irish cultural heritage. By collecting evidence from a large number of early Irish manuscripts, she aims to create a detailed picture of the development of Irish intellectual culture and book-making practices.

In addition, this project will create new resources for researchers as well as tools to make Irish scripts more accessible to teachers of Irish history and to the general public.

Nicole Volmering said: “I am delighted and honoured to receive this inaugural SFI-IRC Pathway programme award and am grateful to the IRC/SFI for continuing to support blue skies research. Being able to dedicate a full four years to my project provides a fantastic opportunity to collect and analyse significant amounts of evidence from archives across Ireland and Europe. I am fortunate to work with fantastic collaborators and assistants and delighted to be able to create opportunities for younger researchers. I am incredibly excited about the new discoveries I will make over the next few years as a result of this grant.”

Neill O’Dwyer’s PIX-ART project will see him develop a new hybrid (theoretical and practical) toolkit for performing and devising with extended reality (XR) technologies, that is qualitatively different from any existing framework spanning drama/film, on one hand, and computer science, on the other. The vision is that a decade from now, performing arts scholars/practitioners will use PIX-ART’s findings to articulate, interpret and analyse XR productions with the critical and theoretical precision that is now applied to older media. At the same time, software engineers will employ its insights to develop human-centred technologies that enable active, creative expression in an economy of contribution.

Neill O’Dwyer said: “When I got news that I received the award I was delighted because it will facilitate the continuation of my research, at the crossroads of art and science, which I have been working on since the beginning of my PhD (2011). The goal is to cohere a new cultural vernacular, around extended reality (XR) technologies, that will facilitate practitioners with new working processes, audiences with new forms of engagement and educational frameworks with new teaching and learning methods.”

Dania Movia will pursue research with the goal of improving the clinical outcomes of patients living with non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which is the most common type of lung cancer and a deadly disease. Most patients develop drug resistance during treatment. But, when resistance is identified early, patients’ prognosis significantly improves. Evidence shows that extracellular vesicles, tiny particles that are naturally released from cancer cells, might be used as a non-invasive tool to monitor drug resistance acquisition in real-time.

“How” is still an open question and this project aims to address precisely this question.

Dania Movia said: “The successful treatment of NSCLC is a healthcare priority in Ireland. The ambition of my project is to develop an effective clinical tool for monitoring drug responses in patients affected by NSCLC in real-time, with the ultimate goal of making sure that targeted drugs can translate in treatments that can trigger an important and lasting effect in patients.”

Viviana Marzaioli will investigate cellular mechanisms involved in innate immunity, which might account for the differential disease progression and response to therapy in Rheumatoid, and Psoriatric arthritis (RA and PsA) – two inflammatory diseases affecting the joint, leading to disability in around 2% of the Irish population.

Via collaboration with Irish hospitals and charity groups, this multifaceted research approach will significantly advance our knowledge of these diverse diseases.

Viviana Marzaioli said: “I am honoured and excited to have been awarded this SFI-IRC Pathway grant, which will allow me to build my independent research career. My group will explore the molecular mechanisms involved in monocyte development in inflammatory arthritis, with the ultimate goal of identifying specific biomarkers for patients’ stratification and response to therapy.”

Kevin Daly’s project, Herd Health, will examine the genetic health and pathogen burden of the world’s earliest goat and sheep herds. By recovering millennia-old animal and pathogen genomes, the project will reveal the consequences domestication had on these livestock animals and how it may have encouraged the evolution of human and animal-infecting zoonotic diseases.

This work may also help us understand how animal-borne epidemics originate and the potential impact these had on past societies.

Kevin Daly said: “I am extremely proud to have been selected for a SFI-IRC Pathway award, and thrilled to continue genomic research into the deep history of animal herding. My research aims to reveal how animal management by early herders, roughly 10,000 years ago, shaped the genomics and health of the world’s first livestock herds, and how this may have led to the evolution of spread of zoonotic diseases such as brucellosis.”

Frank Simons will undertake research that will revolutionise the study of Mesopotamian psychiatry, writing anew the first chapter in the history of that discipline. After two years, there should be a much-needed critical edition of the most important source (Šurpu), and after another two the project should have produced two further monograph-length studies, which would be the first book-length treatments of Mesopotamian psychiatry – contributing significantly to raising Ireland’s profile in the medical humanities.

Frank Simons said: “I am delighted to have been awarded a Pathways grant by the SFI/IRC for my project ‘Mesopotamian Psychiatry’ and plan to use the grant to produce the first emic study of mental health in the ancient near East.”

Yunfan Lai will develop our understanding of a subgroup of Sino-Tibetan languages known as Gyalrongic languages. Linguists have long been struggling in understanding the evolution of Sino-Tibetan languages, some even pessimistically describing them as “leaves fallen from a tree” as one never knows which branches they belonged to. Using modern technology and traditional theories, Yunfan will show the languages’ genetic positions and reconstruct what their common ancestor looked like. Additionally, the project will help with the preservation and dissemination of these vulnerable languages.

Eric Conway will aim to better understand how acute myeloid leukemias (AMLs) function. AMLs are often caused by mutations in ‘epigenetic’ genes, which control how other genes are turned on and off. This projectaims to uncover precisely how cancer-related genes are flicked on or off. Such information is critical in order to find new ways to specifically treat AML patients with these mutations, compared to patientswith normal ASXL1.

Dr Ruth Freeman, Director Science for Society, Science Foundation Ireland, said: “We are delighted to be able to provide this important support to early-career researchers, enabling them to gain the essential skills and experience to develop their track record and become independent research leaders. In partnership with the Irish Research Council, we have been able to support 53 projects, providing resources for excellent researchers and projects across a range of disciplines.”

Dr Louise Callinan, Interim Director of the Irish Research Council, said: “The IRC is committed to cultivating agile independent researchers and funding excellent research across all disciplines. Through this impactful partnership with Science Foundation Ireland,emerging research talent in both AHSS and STEM will be supported toward becoming established independent researchers and future research leaders.”

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