Top-ranked IRC postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers win 2020 ‘Medals of Excellence’

Posted: 9 December, 2020

Every year, in addition to the Researcher of the Year awards, the Council presents ‘Medals of Excellence’ to four early-career researchers.

Each of the ‘Medals of Excellence’ have been named after previous Chairs of the Irish Research Council and recognise excellence in the 2020 postgraduate and postdoctoral funding calls run by the Council in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS).

The 2020 medal-winners are:

Edmond Gubbins, Mary Immaculate College, was awarded the ‘Eda Sagarra Medal of Excellence’ for being the top-ranked postgraduate researcher in the AHSS category.

Mr Gubbins’s is currently completing his PhD in music education at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. His research investigates generalist primary teachers’ musical backgrounds and experiences and the impact of participatory action research on music teaching and learning using the Musical Futures approach. Musical Futures is an informal pedagogy which spans 20 years of research into music education. It was originally developed by Professor Lucy Green in the UK and this will be the first time that a project of this nature will see the approach adapted for the primary level in Ireland.

Mr Gubbins’s love for music has led him to research in this area: “Music has always been a passion of mine, both personally and professionally. I have played music my whole life, and when I became a primary school teacher, I wanted to instil the same love of music in my students. I feel that doctoral work is a natural step on my educational journey that will enable me to create a significant impact on the teaching community at the primary level, while I work closely with teachers throughout this project.  I am excited to contribute to this field in Ireland and am extremely grateful to both Mary Immaculate College and the Irish Research Council for their support and assistance in allowing me to undertake this research.”


Shane Somers, University College Cork, was awarded the ‘Jane Grimson Medal of Excellence’ for being the top-ranked postgraduate researcher in the STEM category.

Mr Somer’s research seeks to determine the drivers of variation in the gut microbiome of a wild bird – the great tit. His research so far has linked gut diversity (or the number of bacteria in the gut) to weight gain in nestlings (baby birds still in the nest). Weight is a key trait in dictating which nestlings survive. Heavier nestlings are generally healthier and more likely to survive the difficult first days and weeks of independence. This study also identified individual bacterial species which were linked to nestling survival. His follow up experiments aim to show a causal link between some of these bacteria and the birds survival by separately culturing the bacteria in a lab and adding this to the nestling birds diet and then tracking their survival outcomes.

Telling us about his research, Mr Somer’s said: “The microbiome consists of all the micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi etc.) of a particular environment. The gut microbiome is of particular interest because it appears to interact with the host (the owner of the gut) a lot, obviously nutrition is an important aspect of this but behaviour is another trait that is affected by the microbiome. Other researchers in UCC have linked the gut microbiome to depression and there appears to be an important link with anxiety. My research group has been investigating cognition and personality in great tits (a wild ‘model’ organism) for the last few years and we have recently expanded this to include the gut microbiome.”

Mr. Somers also noted that reading the book ‘I contain multitdes’ by science writer Ed Yong, “which is maybe the best pop-science book (he) ever read”, influenced his career. He said it caused him to: “open my eyes to the potential of microbiome research and the kind of brave new world it represented, where an individual isn’t simply a collection of organs but an ecosystem in and of itself….The potential for microbes to effect the brain and behaviour is really fascinating and the opportunity to make a mark on the field at this early stage is very exciting.”

Dr. Edward Molloy, University College Cork, was awarded the ‘Maurice J Bric Medal of Excellence’ for being the top-ranked postdoctoral researcher in the Arts Humanities and Social Science category.

Dr. Molloy’s research explores the nature and form of Irish separatism and the ideas that informed radical Irish nationalism in the long nineteenth century. A key part of his work is reading the works of prominent Irish nationalists to excavate the justifications that they use for their assertions of the right of Ireland to be independent of Britain. Dr Molloy also looks at the memoirs, novels, newspapers, pamphlets and plays produced by the nationalist movement from the 1790s to 1916.

According to Dr. Molloy, two types of argument for Irish independence can be discerned. One is based on a language of rights largely inherited from liberal revolutionary traditions from Ireland, England, America and France. These arguments usually follow from the idea that people are imbued with natural rights that entitle them as individuals to political equality and access to democratic representation, against claims that there is any basis for inherited power or privilege.

The other major type of argument used in this period is one based on the idea that Ireland exists as an historical entity and that this is the basis of its independent existence. This relies not on a claim to individual rights, but rather that the historic right of nations to govern themselves is the basis of the moral and political order. The central aim of this project is to demonstrate how the different iterations of advanced nationalist movements in Ireland during the long nineteenth century perform a modulation between these two poles of argumentation.

Commenting on what attracted him to his areas of specialism, Dr. Molloy said: “The question of the ideological composition of separatist nationalism is a question that has concerned me for most of my life. I grew up in Belfast and Tyrone in the latter years of the conflict in the North of Ireland and the ideological shifts and fissures within nationalism over those years always held an immediate and abiding interest for me. Although I went to Britain for my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I followed these shifts closely throughout the years. In many ways, my studies were an extension of that early impetus to try to understand the motivations and ideological roots of present political events.”

Dr. Tara Dirilgen, University College Dublin was awarded the ‘Thomas Mitchell Medal of Excellence’ for being the top-ranked postdoctoral researcher in the STEM category.

Dr. Dirilgen’s research investigates soil, plant and pollinator interactions.

With a growing global population, and increasing concerns around environmental degradation and climate change, sustainable solutions for food production need to be found. While the value of biological diversity (biodiversity) to agriculture is being increasingly recognized such as the role of belowground organisms to healthy soils, and the contribution of insect pollination to crops, there is growing evidence that what happens belowground can have impacts on how plants respond aboveground and vice versa.  However, we do not yet know how belowground soil organisms (e.g. microbes, nematode worms, mites, springtails, etc) might be indirectly affecting above-ground pollinators such as bees, by altering floral rewards (e.g. nectar and pollen chemistry), and how these might be affected by agricultural management practices. This has important implications not only for the maintenance of biodiversity, but also for the healthy functioning of agricultural systems.

Dr Tara Dirilgen’s research sets out to explore this by investigating how belowground interactions (soil biodiversity and plant roots) effect plant-pollinator interactions and how the use of pesticides in crop protection might alter this. The findings will inform management of agricultural systems to promote both biodiversity conservation and food production.

Commenting on what attracted her to this area of research, Dr. Dirilgen said: “The diversity of life that surrounds us, (be it plants, insects, birds and so on) fascinates me to no end. With this comes the desire to understand biodiversity, the threats causing its loss and the subsequent impact on services the environment provides (i.e. ecosystem services) such as pollination.  I am driven by curiosity and wanting to add to the existing pool of knowledge that feeds into developing solutions to current threats to biodiversity. For example, as pollinators are important components of aboveground diversity, bottom-up effects of soil biodiversity on pollinators such as bees, could have widespread ecological and economic consequences.”

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