Research and Innovation: Interview with Vice-President Orla Feely

Image Credit: Orla Feely

In conversation with Jade Norton, Vice-President of Research and Innovation Professor Orla Feely discusses her thoughts on Higher Education, the importance of research, and the role she and her team play in UCD.

Professor Orla Feely is the current Vice President of Research and Innovation in UCD. In conversation with The University Observer, we talked about her experiences coordinating research and development in UCD as well as her thoughts on teaching and research in UCD.

Prof Feely started her career in the 1980s, graduating with a degree in Electronic Engineering from UCD School of Engineering when there were very few women that studied engineering, which she deems as "an experience”. After graduating, she moved onto UC Berkeley where she completed her PhD and achieved high commendation as the Top Graduate Thesis, winning the DJ Sakrison Memorial Prize. When asked about life as a scientist in the 80’s she muses that life was significantly different from the present day, as teaching has changed and the breadth of knowledge has increased.

Additionally, up until the last few decades, there were very few funding opportunities available in Ireland and many people who wanted to pursue advanced research had to go overseas. Nowadays there is much greater global research and collaboration that allows researchers to have the flexibility to work in their home country or move to others of their choosing, which she describes as a “sea-change in our capability”.  Also, Prof Feely welcomes the fact that students get the opportunity to experience studying abroad much more readily: “It’s brilliant how many of our students get to spend time abroad and in other universities” as it is an experience that “broadens your horizons in so many ways”.  

She particularly praises the passion of researchers in UCD who try to empower their students in new ways in their lectures and use the love they have for their subject to influence their teaching. She strongly believes that “the key to teaching is to know that the knowledge you are imparting is not just about your work but about the achievements of future generations”

This knowledge comes from personal experiences as, after her PhD, she returned to lecture in UCD for several years before achieving a professorship. Through this she became more interested in research policy and before her appointment as Vice-President, she worked to become appointed chair of the Irish Research Council, a board which aims to enable and sustain the research community in Ireland and has “system level oversight and support for research internationally and in universities in Ireland such as UCD”.

The Research and Innovation team in UCD, led by Prof Feely, supports researchers in a number of ways and she encourages anyone who is curious or with a research idea to visit their online research portal The main focus of The UCD Research and Innovation Services is to accommodate researchers when they have an idea for research. They can introduce them to prospective partners and give information on potential funders. Once this has been identified they then give advice on creating the most competitive application to give the researchers the best possible chance of being successful in their endeavour. The application is then submitted through the Research and Innovation Office and they coordinate the grants if successful. There are also facilities available that provide resources for upskilling such as research impact training. Prof Feely reveals that this process helps them “turning [researchers] ideas into successful grant applications and therefore into successful research programmes”.

Last year UCD researchers brought in €122 million in research income from external competitive research grants and over the last three years over €120 million euro has been brought in annually to support research in UCD. Her team “has oversight over all the research and innovation activities including commercialisation and spin-out companies” and describes the breadth of research as “mindblowing”.

Her current position as Vice President is one of her proudest achievements as she gets to oversee UCD in advancing its research expertise whilst working with “extraordinary people”. The research undergone in UCD has developed the university's wide portfolio and this is reflected in its teaching. The blend allows for informed research that helps lecturers stay in the loop of all the latest developments and this gives students more confidence in the information that they are being given. She expresses that the partnership seen in research helps to “empower students in new ways” 

COVID-19 has also increased the challenges of research and research collaboration both globally and at home. She welcomed the response of the UCD community to COVID-19 saying it was “really indicative of the type of community that we have”, as researchers from all schools offered their help, particularly from the biomedical domain as they sent PPE equipment down to frontline medical staff and even sent some of their own staff who helped run testing labs. There have also been new projects ideas, as researchers looked at how their research could help the national effort such as Wim Meijer research monitoring sewage to look for the sars-cov2- virus, to 3D printing of PPE, and looking at the societal and economic impact of COVID-19.

When asked about her advice to students currently studying in UCD she encourages students looking to make a difference in more administrative levels of science is to get involved during college. Becoming involved in activities, such as attending conferences and talking to your professors, is very helpful to give you a broader view of your subject of interests whilst also building your network. She did, however, stress that having an extensive network as a student is definitely not necessary as “you're only building your career ... and the more you build, the more doors that can open”. In particular, she expressed enthusiasm for students who get involved in innovation mentioning, a recent innovation spin-out from the School of Engineering. This project, Joyst, was a development of a music controller, thought of by students during their final year project in UCD and was furthered by their involvement in the NovaUCD Student Enterprise Competition.

Prof Feely speaks frankly about her passion for her job and gives the impression that UCD research is in good hands. Even despite some long days over lockdown coordinating research she still holds the importance of a work/life balance as key to her day-to-day work. She references the importance of her team and how having an amazing team to work with makes any profession more enjoyable. With science and research becoming more relevant every day, she firmly believes that in higher education: “research is the foundation for advancing humankind”.