Two Bernal Institute researchers have been awarded highly prestigious European Research Council grants.

Bernal researchers’ Dr Eoghan Cunnane, senior research fellow at UL’s School of Engineering and Dr Sarah Guerin, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Physics, Faculty of Science and Engineering received almost €3m between them to carry out two groundbreaking projects looking at male infertility and energy efficient electronics.

The European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants, worth €1.5m each, aim to help ambitious young researchers ‘launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their best ideas’.

Dr Cunnane’s project is ‘RE3MODEL’ – Representative, Reliable and Reproducible in vitro Models of the Human Testes. Dr Guerin’s project is ‘Pb-Free’ – Piezoelectric Biomolecules for lead-free, Reliable, Eco-Friendly Electronics.

The ERC is to invest €619m under the Horizon Europe programme to 397 researchers after receiving over 4,000 proposals.

Professor Norelee Kennedy, Vice President Research at UL, said of the awards: The announcement of the two ERC starter awards to Sarah and Eoghan is a fantastic achievement for them and reflects their calibre as researchers. We are very excited at UL to support their novel and exciting research, which adds to the excellent research undertaken at the University.

“They are an inspiration to us all and to the next generation of researchers and I wish them every success in their work,” Professor Kennedy added.

Dr Guerin said her project would investigate if electronics could become lead-free, reliable and eco-friendly.

“Piezoelectric sensors sound exciting, and indeed they are! Used to interconvert electrical and mechanical energy, they are essential to many common devices that we rely on – pacemakers, microwave ovens, sonar equipment, diesel fuel injectors in cars,” she explained.

“Piezo sensors are often used to measure a change in pressure, acceleration or strain by converting them into electrical charge. However, they also have a huge environmental cost. Their production involves using toxic lead oxide, and the main alternatives to lead involve using expensive, non-renewable materials – also quite undesirable.

“In recent years, biological materials such as amino acids and peptides have been recognised as exciting new piezoelectrics. Gathering them into biomolecular-crystal assemblies could offer a revolutionary way to create these essential sensors.

“Crystals can be grown at room temperature with no by-products, and do not require an external electric field to induce piezoelectricity. Right now, however, no one knows how to develop these crystals as reliable, solid-state sensors that could be used in conventional electronic devices. Their high water solubility, uncontrolled growth, variable piezoelectric response, and difficulty in making electrical contact pose too high a challenge,” added Dr Guerin, who is also a researcher at SSPC, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals based at UL.

She will take on the groundbreaking task of developing biomolecular crystals as a new type of piezoelectric sensor.

“Such organic, low-cost, high-performance sensors, would out-perform and ultimately lead to the phasing-out of inorganic device components – with dramatically reduced environmental impact,” she added.

Dr Cunnane’s project will focus on the area of male infertility and he said he was “thrilled to receive this award and to begin establishing my own independent research group”.

“Recent research has identified that the number of sperm cells present in male ejaculate has dropped considerably over the last 40 years and is projected to reach zero by 2045. Such an event would render the human species unable to reproduce due to male infertility,” he explained.

“Despite this approaching crisis, clinicians have no effective treatment for male infertility and no means to test new treatments beyond animal models that poorly represent humans. This project will develop a truly representative model of the human testes that can act as a platform for identifying effective treatments in a reliable and reproducible manner,” he added.

Dr Cunnane received his PhD in Biomedical Engineering from UL in 2015 under the supervision of Prof Michael Walsh. He was subsequently awarded a Marie Curie Global Fellowship to transition his expertise from tissue characterisation to tissue engineering and modelling at the Macgowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the Royal College of Surgeons.

He was then awarded a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Fellowship to develop a platform for automated Raman analysis of cancer cell derived nanoparticles at Imperial College London under the supervision of Prof Molly Stevens.

Dr Cunnane is also a co-founder of the start-up company Class Medical which was spun out of UL to commercialise a patented urinary catheter safety device that is currently being supplied to hospitals across Ireland. He recently joined the School of Engineering as a Senior Research Fellow.

Speaking about the ERC grants, Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “With this very first round of long-awaited grants, I am glad to see the European Research Council remaining a flagship for excellent and curiosity-driven science under the Horizon Europe programme. I am looking forward to seeing what new breakthroughs and opportunities the new ERC laureates will bring, and how they will inspire young people to follow their curiosity and make discoveries for the benefit of us all.”

President of the European Research Council Prof. Maria Leptin said: “Letting young talent thrive in Europe and go after their most innovative ideas – this is the best investment in our future, not least with the ever-growing competition globally. We must trust the young and their insights into what areas will be important tomorrow.

“So, I am thrilled to see these new ERC Starting Grant winners ready to cut new ground and set up their own teams. Some of them will be coming back from overseas, thanks to the ERC grants, to do science in Europe. We must continue to make sure Europe remains a scientific powerhouse,” she added.