Dr Gaughran
Assistant Professor Jennifer Gaughran won the Early Career Researcher Prize in the President's Research Awards.

Faculty leads the way in President’s Research Awards winning 3 prizes

The work of faculty researchers has been recognised in this year’s President’s Research Awards for their work in sustainable plastics, gene editing and children’s health and well-being.
Dr Jennifer Gaughran
Assistant Professor Jennifer Gaughran was awarded the Early Career Researcher prize.

Assistant Professor Jennifer Gaughran was awarded the Early Career Researcher prize for her work in developing the Grain 4 lab project.

The project has put the university at the forefront of a dynamic field, with €2.5 million in funding secured showing the faith that funding agencies have in her work.

After receiving her award Assistant Prof Jennifer Gaughran said:

The alcoholic beverage industry is worth €5.5 billion, but it has a huge problem handling its waste, with six bottles of waste produced for every bottle of alcohol.

There are few ways to get rid of the waste, but the problem can also be a solution to our plastics problem, as we are producing too much plastic that goes to incineration or landfill.

In Ireland alone, 300 tonnes of plastic waste are produced from life science teaching laboratories each year, and taking the world as a whole, 5.5 million tonnes are produced.

We have a solution. We are producing a bioplastic that can be used to 3D print lab plastics that are compostable, and goes back to the land when it is finished.

This is circular, and we can become a world leader in sustainability.

The waste from breweries and distilleries can be used to produce new lab components that are returned back to the land to make the beer and whiskey where it starts all over again.

In order to drive real change we need links with stakeholders, end-users, and beneficiaries in the brewing and distilling industry, the plastics industry, and with the policy makers.

In our first test case, we identified a petri dish – the most used item in undergraduate biology teaching labs – which is usually made from polystyrene.

We did a range of tests on our bio compostable petri dish to meet the ISO standards required for use, and our petri dishes met all the standards.

We are also looking at an injection moulding process so that we can make our petri dishes faster and clearer than prototyping with 3D printing.

At Grain-4-Lab we believe Ireland can become a leader in this field. We can save 3500 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in Ireland alone.

Single use plastic is not the only problem in the climate crisis, they are a linchpin that captures people’s imagination and forces them to think about how they can make a difference in other areas too.

We are also primely placed in DCU to inspire the current and next generation of scientists and policy drivers to support implementation of sustainable practices now and in the future. By creating sustainably minded graduates we are future proofing their skillsets to meet the challenges yet to come.

Dr Andrew Kellett
Professor Andrew Kellett won the Natural Science, Health and Engineering award

Professor Andrew Kellett won the Natural Science, Health and Engineering award for his work in artificial gene editing and new drug interactions which has been published several high impact journals and can has the potential to impact health research globally. 

Prof Kellett spoke after receiving his award:

Metallo-drugs play a vital role in medicine. For example, lithium is used to treat depression, silver compounds are used to treat infections of the skin, and platinum compounds are highly effective at treating cancer, said Prof Kellett. 

We have started developing new metallo-drugs, to act against cancer – mainly by targeting DNA within tumour cells. Our goal is to make new compounds that target specific genes, and to perform gene knockout using nucleic acid click chemistry. 

We have developed prototype platinum and copper compounds - which act as molecular scissors - and attached these to nucleic acid probes that can be directed to specific genes in cancer cells.

Our long-term goal is to stop cancer by preventing DNA from replicating. We hope this can lead to a new type of targeted cancer therapy. 

Stephen Behan
Stephen Behan, and the “Moving Well, Being Well” team, which also includes Sarah Jane Belton, Noel O’Connor, Johann Issartel, and Nathan Gavigan, won the Research Impact Award.

Assistant Professor Stephen Behan, and the “Moving Well, Being Well” team, which includes Sarah Jane Belton, Noel O’Connor, Johann Issartel, and Nathan Gavigan, won the Research Impact Award.

Their effort to address physical inactivity in children targets a social problem that has been going on for many years, and fits DCU’s mission to transform people’s lives.

Assistant Prof Stephen Behan said after receiving the award on behalf of “Moving Well, Being Well” team:

It was a team effort all around to get children moving. This is a very important topic, and the benefits of physical activity on mental health are well known.

Children should get 60 minutes of moderate activity per week, we recommend. That’s a brisk walk, but we see that primary school children are only getting 17% of that, while secondary school students are getting just 10%.

There is also a big disparity between girls and boys, and we see that the problem has got worse from our research than it was 10 years ago.

There are lots of initiatives out there, but they are not working and we’d like to know why

We have seen that physical competence drives confidence, with practice children get better at skills like running, jumping, hoping, catching and throwing.

If they are not good at these skills then they are not motivated and the we get a negative spiral of disengagement and inactivity.

We measured the basic skills across 44 Irish schools, and 2,000 kids, and we found that 25% can’t run properly, or are not confident playing sports which involve running.

We developed an intervention, which worked and it stuck too. The people who began to get active continued to develop faster than the control.

President Daire Keogh, spoke before the awards

The creation of knowledge is at the heart of what we do, and the new strategic plan sets out that ambition.

We are not where we want to be in terms of research, and we need to improve considerably in the next five years, otherwise we’ll become a teaching university. There is no appetite for that, and I have no appetite for that.

Self-awareness is critical, we need to call it as it is, and look at ourselves in the mirror.

In the last number of days we have seen announcements across all five faculties, and it is very encouraging to see that, with four awards worth €1.5 million to enable good research.

The awards event ended with comments by Vice President for Research John Doyle on the launch of the ‘ambitious’ research strategy plan at the end of the summer.

We want to see a 50% increase in doctoral students so that 7% of our student community are post-graduates.

We want to see about a one-third increase in publications, and a better conversion of research into doctoral theses.

This needs support, and can’t happen by us working harder; it will require a 25% increase in external funding.

We are also launching a review of our research centres, the existing ones, and ideas for new ones, looking at areas people want to fund.

We should be thinking about what the purpose of a research centre is, that it should be to help our research rather than institutionalise.

We must contribute to debates at home and internationally and build on the notion of the university as a place of trusted experience.