Professor James Gleeson reflects on his work with the Irish Research Council



Posted: 2 February, 2018

‘Meet the Council’ is a series of blog posts that will profile each of the twelve board members of the Irish Research Council who give their time and expertise to support our work. The blogs will feature their own background in research and why they #LoveIrishResearch.

My professional background…

I am Professor of Industrial and Applied Mathematics at the University of Limerick. As a student, I studied mathematical sciences at University College Dublin, then travelled to Caltech in Los Angeles for my PhD in applied maths. After completing my PhD, I worked in Arizona State University before returning to Ireland, where I spent seven happy years at University College Cork and then moved to the University of Limerick in 2007.

So what is “Industrial and Applied Mathematics”? Basically, the name refers to mathematics that is not studied for its own sake, but instead is motivated by applications in the real world. Mathematics is a language that can be used to describe diverse applications, ranging from the percolation of coffee to the “viral” popularity growth of messages on Twitter. I am co-director (with my colleague Professor Stephen O’Brien) of MACSI, the Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry. MACSI is a group of like-minded mathematicians, researchers and students who all apply the language of maths to study real-world problems through research partnerships with industry and with scientists. Our work is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council, the European Union, and directly by industry. For example, every summer we help organise European Study Groups for Mathematics with Industry, which are one-week brainstorming sessions where applied mathematicians from all over the world come here to solve problems presented by industry partners.

A recent research interest of mine is the mathematical description of how information spreads from person to person via online social networks. With my students and our collaborators from a range of disciplines (including psychology, anthropology, physics and computer science), we study how “viral” information spreads on Twitter and Facebook. We are developing new tools – new parts of the language of maths – to help quantify the contagion of information, with the goal of using the methods to eventually predict virality and detect fake news.

My work with the Irish Research Council…

I was appointed to the board of the Irish Research Council in 2012. The role of the board is to advise the Council executive on strategy and represent the opinions of Irish researchers (it is important to note that the board members have no dealings with the decision processes for Council awards).

The distinguishing features of the Council are (1) its focus on the excellence of individual researchers and (2) the fact that it funds across all disciplines. I believe that supporting researchers from all disciplines (not just those associated with short-term priority directions) is vital to future-proof the Irish system, and to keep us at the leading edge of international research, and so I hope my time at the Council has contributed in some small way to ensuring its continued success.