SFI Frontiers for the Future: The UCD researchers pushing the boundaries

Image Credit: Science Foundation Ireland

Aela O'Flynn takes a closer look at the UCD researchers awarded funding under the 2020 SFI Frontiers for the Future programme.

Last year, the Science Foundation of Ireland (SFI) launched a new research programme for independent researchers to fund progressive and unconventional research in Ireland.  In November, SFI announced the details of its 2020 'Frontiers for the Future' grants, which have a cumulative value of €53 million and will fund 231 research positions over 71 projects.  The scheme is composed of two branches.  The project branch will fund "high-risk, high reward" projects to facilitate pioneering propositions, while the award branch will fund innovative and collaborative research with the capacity to significantly impact on society or economy.

An interesting change to the application process of this year was the introduction of a gender strategy.  The SFI is aware of gender disparity in their applications and awards.  They receive more applications from male than female applicants and, on average, female applicants ask for and receive smaller awards than their male counterparts.  To address this, SFI actively encouraged female researchers to apply to this scheme, and when deciding which applications would be successful, priority was given to a female candidate over a male if two applications received the same final score.  45% of the 2020 Frontiers for the Future grants were awarded to projects led by female researchers, an improvement on the gender balance of the previous year.

In particular, nine researchers from the award branch and six researchers from the project branch were headed by UCD researchers, which culminated in a total of €10.2 million in funding.  These research projects span across an incredibly wide breadth of topics, from medicine and health to nanotechnology in space and even geophysics.  To understand the true diversity and innovation of research on campus, it's worth delving deeper into some of the specific projects chosen.

In medicine, there were a number of really interesting projects to discuss.  The largest financial award was granted to Professor Wenxin Wang from the Charles Institute of Dermatology. Professor Wang's research group is investigating a specific treatment for a subtype of epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a rare group of genetic conditions. EB, often called butterfly disease, is an extremely debilitating condition that causes painful blistering of the skin and internal linings of the body with even the most minor trauma.  Patients with EB heal very poorly due to the fragility of their skin and membranes, and often need to wear bandages over most of their body to cocoon them from damage. The aim of Professor Wang's research is to alter the genes of patients with EB to improve their biological capacity to heal wounds and blisters.

Another fascinating project is LongHealth, led by Professor Emma Teeling.  A lecturer in evolution and genetics at UCD, Professor Teeling’s research was published on the cover of Nature earlier this year for a paper on the genomic evolution of bats.  Bats are a unique species in many ways, most notably due to their exceptionally strong immunity and extremely long life span.  Teeling’s research involves mapping the evolutionary characteristics of bats that led to these extraordinary genetic advantages and the results of this work could further inform future models of expanded "healthspan" amongst other species, particularly other mammals.

Outside of the health sphere, Dr Shane Donohue, Associate Professor in the School of Civil Engineering, received recognition for the GEOTECS project: Geophysical and Earth Observation Tools for Evaluating the Condition of Slopes.  Man-made slopes, such as dams, are frequently damaged by extreme weather, or even natural disasters.  The tools in the GEOTECS project will carefully track how slopes are affected by these events in order to identify which repairs are necessary to strengthen the integrity of the slope and avoid future failure. The project will be multidisciplinary, inviting scientists and engineers from multiple sectors, as well as key industry figures, to future proof man-made slopes for a climate that is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Some projects even breach the frontiers of space!  Professor Lorraine Hanlon, former Head of the School of Physics and current Programme Director of MSc Space Science and Technology, is the Lead Professor for EIRSAT-1 (Education Irish Research Satellite 1).  EIRSAT-1 is an exciting development in Irish space science as this will be Ireland's first satellite launch. It is being developed by a multidisciplinary team of students and staff at UCD as part of the European Space Agency 'Fly Your Satellite' programme. The project that is being funded by the SFI Frontiers for the Future will build on what has been learnt so far about EIRSAT-1, and more broadly investigate the role that may be played by nanosatellites in space research and space science on a global scale.

In addition to the four discussed here, grants were awarded to eleven other UCD-led projects that are wide-reaching, fascinating, and have the potential to make significant leaps in their respective fields. The news of these types of scientific grants is not only exciting for researchers, but for all of us. The Frontiers for the Future scheme gives researchers the opportunity to think laterally and seek funding and recognition for the exploration of cutting-edge treatments, technologies, and theories which look beyond the current scientific landscape. This scheme is exciting as it draws our collective attention to the most innovative ideas from the brightest Irish scientific minds. Finally, this scheme is exciting for Belfield because such significant representation for UCD in boundary-pushing research is hugely encouraging for students past, present and future.