New grant to let me launch my independent research – SIRG

New grant to let me launch my independent research – SIRG

I was honoured at a ceremony today with Minister Pat Breen to be awarded a Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) by Science Foundation Ireland. This SIRG award will allow me to begin a programme of independent research in NUI Galway in the coming months and begin to build my own research group.

Me, pictured with James Lawless TD (Fianna Fáil Science and Technology Spokesperson) and Minister Pat Breen TD (Minister of State with special responsibility for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection) outside the Irish Parliament
Me, pictured with James Lawless TD (Fianna Fáil Science and Technology Spokesperson) and Minister Pat Breen TD (Minister of State with special responsibility for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection) outside the Irish Parliament

Asked about the purpose of SIRG on RTÉ’s Drivetime programme, Prof. Mark Ferguson (Director General of SFI) said “it’s about launching the careers of very bright, young scientists in Ireland”, and indeed it’s a very important programme to allow people like me to return home and start independent research.

My research will develop novel devices that will indicate the presence of specific bacteria through colour changes (modulating luminescence), using interactions of their proteins with sugar-based chemical compounds on the surface of newly-designed materials. This will provide a convenient visual strategy to identify disease-causing bacteria. 3D-Printing will be used to create these compact diagnostic devices, which will benefit patient outcomes and quality of life.

I got interested in fluorescent sensor materials and the chemistry of sugars during my PhD research in Trinity College Dublin with Prof Gunnlaugsson (Irish Research Council Scholarship, 2010-15). Over the last few years in University of Bern, Switzerland, I have been further exploring the role of sugars in catalysis as part of my Marie Curie Fellowship with Prof Albrecht (European Commission H2020, 2017-19). I also gained experience in studying sugar-protein interactions in University of Nottingham, during a 3-month placement there. These interactions are very relevant to a lot of diseases. My new project aims to bring together the skills I have learned through my research training to address practical problems that affect people’s’ lives.

20 SIRG Awardees with Minister Breen and Prof Fergusson of SFI
Dublin, 15th January 2019 – Minister for Trade, Employment, Business, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection, Pat Breen, T.D., today launched Science Foundation Ireland’s Plan for 2019 and announced a research investment of €10.8 million in funding for 20 projects in the areas of health, energy, environment, materials and technology. He is pictured with Prof Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland and SFI Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) Awardees. The projects, which will be funded for four years, will support 20 researchers and a further 20 PhD students. [Picture Jason Clarke]
By providing a new methodology for rapid diagnosis of bacterial infection, my work will facilitate quicker decision-making on targeted medical treatment strategies for patients. In Ireland this would be particularly valuable for rapid diagnosis of Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections, a significant risk factor for cystic fibrosis patients (as well as others with compromised immune systems). More generally, helping clinicians avoid the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics would help combat the global challenge of increased antibiotic resistance.
This new technology could also be deployed in other scenarios such as detecting bacterial contamination of water supplies.

This award allows me to return to Ireland and make a contribution to Irish society through scientific research, building upon my experience abroad (in Switzerland and the UK). The Starting Investigator Research Grant scheme has given me a fantastic opportunity to begin my independent research programme at a relatively young age in NUI Galway School of Chemistry, and also to work closely with the CÚRAM SFI Centre for Medical Device Research, a hub of expertise in this sector.

Maynooth University and Trinity provided me with excellent training, working alongside supportive researchers, and I now look forward to expanding my network of colleagues in both academia and the medical devices industry, and forging new productive partnerships in the years to come.

My grant also funds me to recruit a PhD student to be part of this interdisciplinary research programme. If you know of any students who would be motivated by this topic, please feel free to get in touch with me.


Press releases: NUI Galway, and Science Foundation Ireland [lay abstracts].

Media: KFM interview, article in the Leinster Leader (“€420,000 grant a 30th birthday present for Kildare’s Dr Joe Byrne”), article on Galway Daily, launch coverage in the Irish Times, article and footage from launch on Silicon Republic.

Advertisements

Seasons of Lab

Seasons of Lab

 ♫ “Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred reactions…”

That song from the musical Rent is in my head as I write this post on seasons. It’s a catchy one that brings back memories of my misspent youth hanging out with people who would sing showtunes at the drop of a hat in perfect four-part harmony!

One of the things I love about working in a chemistry lab and constantly making new compounds as part of my research is the beautiful accidental shapes and patterns molecules can assemble into, given enough time – and how our pattern-seeing brains can ascribe poetic meanings to these patterns based on what we want to see! Two recent examples from my own work caught my eye enough recently to pull out a camera and snap a shot. They tell a chronologically-consistent story of the changing seasons, as the colours of Bern’s horizon have changed from auburn to snowy white this last month, I’ve seen fallen leaves and swirls of snow in the bottom of round-bottomed flasks:

Autumn left behindWinter precipitate

Obviously crystals are some of the most beautiful formations that we can see in the lab, with their sparkle and sharp, defined edges: needles, plates, and more complex symmetries. As chemists, we love large ‘single crystals’ which can be subjected to X-ray diffraction experiments to generate the molecular structures which illustrate the pages of so many research articles these days. I had an old starting-material from much of my work in Trinity College Dublin (2,6-Bis(trimethylsilyl)ethynylpyridine, if you must know), which loved to crystallise. I believe I fished out a crystal of it from a reaction mixture once, hoping it would tell me something about a new exciting product, but alas no. Nonetheless, my colleague Dr Salvador Blasco solved this structure, which, despite not telling us anything new, was pleasingly symmetrical:

2,6-Bis(trimethylsilyl)ethynylpyridine

I often think with wonder about the deep insight of early chemists into the nature of matter that they could be so certain of chemical structures with a small range of tools like melting-points, taste, and a series of tests and probes; we have access to so many techniques nowadays that we take for granted that can show us, atom by atom, how a molecule fits together. So often, the early chemists of a century and more ago were right or close to it based on wisdom intuition and methodical analysis.

With major developments in materials science in recent decades, tools such as Scanning Electron Microscopy and Helium Ion Microscopy have allowed us to look closely at how the surfaces of substances are arranged on a slightly larger scale than single molecules, which can be vital to understanding them. More pertinent to the whimsical theme of of this post is just the fascination you feel when seeing that, on zooming all the way in, the flexible gel-like substance you have made looks like a plate of spaghetti, or a woven cloth. The picture below comes from my Dalton Transactions article, thanks to my collaborators Drs Kotova, Bell and Prof Boland, working at CRANN/AMBER in Trinity College Dublin:

Helium ion miscroscopy of a metallogel

There is beauty and fascination everywhere. It’s just a matter of how far you need to zoom in to see it!

Hornussen – Swiss ‘farmer golf’

I’ve been aware that “Hornussen” exists since soon after arriving here in Switzerland. It’s been on my list of things to see before I leave, along with other now-ticked-off items (cow fighting, yodelling, Fastnacht, etc.), but I never quite figured out how to find out more about it! Most Swiss have only vaguely heard of it or are derisive of this very rustic old-fashioned game – “It’s just for drunk farmers”, etc.

But time is ticking! So this autumn I finally did some serious googling and found that the Bern Hornussen Club would be having their final game of the season (Schlusshornussen) last Saturday. I convinced a few friends to join me on the Allmend (old commonage) in Wankdorf, and we witnessed the game first-hand.

I’ll be honest, the rules are a little unclear and the game is slow, but fundamentally, it requires one team to take turns standing on a mound/putting green/crease, which is equipped with a metal track for the hornuss (‘hornet’, a small black projectile, much like a hockey puck) and hitting it as hard as they can out into the field. The ‘nouss can reach up to 300 km/h and makes an almighty buzz (whence the name). The implement used to hit it resembles nothing more than a fishing rod with a heavy weight on the end. The batter, wraps the flexible pole around their body and uncoils it in a complex motion to drive the ‘nouss with maximum speed. Physique doesn’t seem to be important (much like in darts), but large men definitely got more speed than the few kids who played. I was discussing with my colleague the possible origins of the game, and he was convinced the rod derived from a corn thresher, and that perhaps these were put to use (once the fields were harvested) to knock stones about in the cleared land while drinking and celebrating a successful bounty. Seems as plausible as anything.

In the outfield are a serious of players holding wooden boards fixed to sticks. These are somewhere between mediaeval shields and very-hard catchers’ mits! Mostly the nouss whizzes right by to bury itself in the hill at the distant end of the Allmend field, but occasionally the players can intercept it (and I believe this is how they score points). They are arrayed roughly along a straight line in front of the launchpad and there is something unintentionally comical about the way they toss the paddles upright into the air to try and intercept the nouss. They fall so gracelessly as the players shout to each other, but the thwack when contact is made is very satisfying.

German language Wikipedia tells me that the first mention in the historical record of this game is in the 17th century when two men were fined a significant sum for breaching the sabbath by playing Hornussen on a Sunday, although clearly the game was established enough at that time to not require further explanation in the documents! Switzerland still has remarkably strict rules on Sunday activities (despite low participation in Church attendance), so this is easy to believe.

I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a Saturday morning – just make sure not to get in the way!

Swiss Chemical Society Fall Meeting

A large contingent from the Albrecht research group in Bern made our way down to Lausanne today for the Swiss Chemical Society’s annual Fall Meeting at EPFL. As always, it was a massive meeting, underscoring the impressive amount of chemistry research that goes on in small-but-mighty Switzerland.

The introductory speaker, Prof Emsley, highlighted some unique aspects of Swiss research, including the strong industrial presence in the country (indicated by the generous sponsorship of every session by pharmaceutical and instrumentation companies), as well as the rich international complexion of the researchers who work at the Swiss Universities and companies. More than a quarter of all researchers are non-nationals – and that is a real strength, allowing for diverse workers and ideas to come together from all over Europe and the world. Mobility and openness, in principle, allow the best people to find the best partners for their research and push forward important developments in science.

One of my colleagues presented his recent results (Angewandte Chemie), while seven of us presented posters over the extended lunchtime session. Lots of interesting conversations were had with researchers at other universities, as well as industrial chemists; in Switzerland industrial chemists are well integrated into the professional society (the SCS), which I think is beneficial to all of us, for focussing our targets and sharing the latest advances. Indeed, in addition to leading academics like Prof Karsten Meyer, we also saw presentations from the likes of Syngenta.

We got to socialise a little and explore the EPFL campus after the talks, and, in the Rolex Building, I was lucky enough to run into old friend Marie Curie! I had a colleague snap this photo of me and the other Marie Sklowdowska-Curie Fellow in the Albrecht group with our mentor! She’s everywhere!

Marie Curie and her fellows

 

Chemistry in the Rising Sun – ICCC in Sendai

Pictures of me presenting at ICCC in SendaiI am just after returning from the 43 (and largest ever) International Conference of  coordintion Chemistry in Sendai, Japan. This year’s ICCC had an awful lot to offer, with 2,500 of us in the Sendai International Centre, and spread over up to twenty parallel session at times, there is clearly a lot happening in inorganic and coordination at the moment. Some highlights included fascinating molecular machines (with an inspiring closing address from 2016 Nobel laureate Jean-Pierre Sauvage), catalytic approaches to the challenges presented by the need to find new fuel sources for a changing world, new pincer and NHC ligands, luminescent diagnostic probes and therapeutic agents and much much more.

Me speaking from the podium in the Exhibition Hall on Thursday morning

I was privileged to get the chance to present my work in Session 38 “Organometallic complexes for synthesis and polymerisation”, to a room full of my peers and leaders in the field, including people I had interacted with during the week and who came along to see what it is I am up to in my current work! My presentation on the catalytic activity of carbohydrate-functionalised N-heterocyclic carbene complexes went very well and there were even a few useful questions that prompted a bit of discussion afterwards.

After Thursday morning, I could relax a bit more and just enjoy attending the sessions without worrying about perfecting my talk! Luckily that afternoon had also been set aside on the programme for sight-seeing, so I wandered around the site of Sendai Castle and the adjacent shrine with a few other chemists. I also got to sample the regional delicacy of beef tongue and make my own chopsticks from scratch. A nice mix of learning, culture and networking.

 

I really enjoyed catching up with old colleagues from Europe and the UK and meeting new people from both hemispheres to share ideas with (as well as a fateful trip to karaoke after the conference banquet wrapped up earlier than necessary) as well as the engaging discussions had at the poster sessions. I’m also getting better at asking questions after lectures, as my confidence in the field grows with experience!

Looking forward to the next one in Rimini!

Thanks, of course, to my Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellowship (GLYCONHC) and the European Commission for funding the work which I presented

From Bern to CERN

From Bern to CERN

It’s always nice to have an opportunity to see behind the curtain, and all the better if you feel like you’re doing it for a good reason. I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the delegation of Irish parliamentarian James Lawless TD on a fact-finding mission to CERN, the particle physics research centre which straddles the Swiss-French border in a way that is a metaphor for how it brings countries together.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Deputy Lawless, Prof Ronan Nulty, Dr Kevin Byrne (both of UCD, Dublin; School of Physics and School of Medicine, respectively), and myself visited the facility and met with leaders and scientists who make it work. The aim of the trip was for CERN to put the case for Irish membership of the body to us, for us to see what benefits would come to the country via participation in the many exciting ground-breaking projects happening, and for Deputy Lawless, as opposition Science and Technology spokesperson on  to bring this back to the relevant Oireachtas committees and lobby for Ireland making room in its 2019 budget for CERN membership.

It was wonderful to tour the sprawling campus of rolling fields which lie no less than 50 metres above the Large Hadron Collider and visit the various experiments set up along its 26.7-km circumference. At ALICE, CMS and LHCb (‘b’ for ‘beauty’, a flavour of quark) we met scientists, enthusiastic to talk about their work in everything from fundamental particle physics, to medicine and data processing. I was particularly interested by some work at ISOLDE using radioactive lanthanide isotopes in medical applications in hospitals near the collider. It was noted that while a few of the staff were Irish, in almost every case they also held another passport, because as a non-member state, our citizens do not have the same access to employment in this project as those from the 22 member states.

What most surprised me, as we looked at Irish-made semiconductors in action, and visited the factory where they design and assemble particle-accelerator parts, was that, while Irish people do make a contribution here, it’s often relying on loopholes or having a unique product that no one else can offer. Membership, however, would ensure us access on an equal footing to all other partners. Importantly this would mean returns to the Irish economy in every sector, allowing Irish firms to tender for contracts in construction, cleaning, catering, office supplies etc. in addition to the obvious high-tech and engineering opportunities. Big optimistic scientific exploration has positive knock-on effects throughout society.

One of the most obvious examples of unexpected by-products of investing in fundamental research is the very technology by which you are reading this post now. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee. We were able to visit the office where this revolutionary technology came to life, almost as an afterthought, to share information from this worldwide collaborative research. And even if you don’t think quarks and neutrinos effect your life (they do!), at least the Web is tangible evidence that clever people allowed to create and explore together can do great things!

Where the Web was born

 

I’m calling this photo a Bunsen Byrner

Recently I was lucky enough to get an invite to the 11th CaRLa Catalysis Winter School in Heidelberg, and it was an eye-opening and engaging week, meeting with some of the rising talents within the fields of homogenous catalysis (among others) and hearing from speakers like Mats Tilset (check out his recent article on trans-mutation of gold – a pun I really approve of) and Ilan Marek about their contributions to the field. In particular, I enjoyed having a week to spend time discussing posters with the other attendees; normally this is the most rushed part of any conference, as you try to simultaneously stand by your own poster and see as many others as possible. The Winter School invited flash presentations on all the posters, and gave ample time and coffee over which to really get into the details!

I was able to present my on-going research from my Marie Curie Individual Fellowship (GLYCONHC, MSCA-IF 749549), where I investigate the impact of including carbohydrates in the structure of metal-NHC catalysts. The work is progressing well, and I think I benefited from being able to discuss hurdles in the project with catalysis experts and my peers during the week.

CaRLa (The Catalysis Reasearch Laboratory) is an institute at University of Heidelberg, supported by BASF, a giant of the chemical industry. As a result, the research they undertake is very aligned to real economic and market challenges. We were given a tour of the massive site at Ludwigshafen on the river Rhine, and the scale of production in just the one plant we visited was staggering – round-bottom flasks just can’t compete with building-sized reactors!

One interesting historical note about Heidelberg is that it is where Robert Bunsen did much of his pioneering work in 19th century chemistry and – famously – gifting us with the most widely known (and least widely-used nowadays) apparatus of the chemistry lab. I couldn’t walk past his statue without getting a punny selfie- the “Bunsen Byrner”!