Bernal Institute Researchers have been awarded €2.26m under the SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme announced by Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris this Tuesday.

UL-based principal investigators Professor Usel Bangert, Professor Vivek Ranade, Dr George Barreto and Dr Christophe Silien were among 76 grants valued at €53.7 million to support frontiers research across ten Higher Education Institutions announced today.

The UL research will investigate areas such as traumatic brain injury, manufacturing, microscopy and nanoelectronics.

In line with SFI’s gender strategy, the programme seeks to provide opportunities to address gender imbalance and to provide support for investigators returning to research after a period of leave. 42% of the research grants supported will be led by female researchers and 32% by emerging investigators early in their research careers.

The programme is run in collaboration with Geological Survey Ireland and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) who are co-funding a number of the grants.

Commenting on the SFI Future Frontiers Programme, Minister Harris TD, said: “Congratulations to all the researchers who have received funding today as part of the SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme. I am delighted to support this programme which funds individual-led research, with an emphasis on fundamental research at the cutting edge of science and engineering which will help us build a better future for Ireland through discovery, innovation, and impact.

“Not only will these grants support research in important areas for Irish society, they will also fund 216 people in varying research positions across 10 Higher Education Institutes to further develop their research careers. We are investing in talent. I would like to offer my thanks to the Higher Education Institutions for their support in delivering this programme again this year.”

Luuk van der Wielen, Director of the Bernal Institute said: “I am delighted to see the continued support of SFI for our researchers in general and for the just granted projects that focus on our strategic commitment to health-related and other grand challenges.

“The four projects range from fundamental physics, biology and molecular mechanisms and their interactions to the development of new manufacturing processes for personalised health related products.

“All four projects are exciting new examples of what multidisciplinarity of science and engineering under a single Bernal roof can bring.”

Professor Philip Nolan, Director General of SFI, said: “After the success of the first SFI Future Frontiers Programme in 2020, I am delighted to see 76 research grants awarded. The research programmes are wonderfully diverse, but they have one thing in common: they ask fundamental questions and will lead to important scientific breakthroughs, with important applications in areas such as climate action, biodiversity, human and animal health and digital transformation, with real and lasting benefits to our society and economy.

“The SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme is a key element of SFI’s new strategy – Shaping Our Future providing support for excellent research.

“It is really encouraging to see that 42% of the research grants are led by female researchers for the second year running. SFI is committed to addressing the gender imbalance evident in areas of Irish research and this is another example of that commitment in action.”

Bernal Chair in Process Engineering Vivek Ranade has been awarded €988,667, for his project ‘Factory in a Box’ for Personalised Products based on Emulsions (FabPRO).

Personalised products are gaining significant attention in personal care, food and medicine sectors. There is an urgent need to develop new ways to manufacture personalised products with desired properties on-demand. This project aims to develop novel ways of producing liquid–liquid emulsions (used widely in upcoming personalised and nutritional products) with desired attributes using a compact and modular ‘factory in a box’ platform. The project will develop new insights, devices and computational models to realise such ‘factory in a box’ platforms. The project will facilitate realisation of personalised products close to the source of need and will have significant impact on manufacturing in Ireland and beyond.

Dr George Barreto will receive €479,713 for his project, ‘Coupling neurosciences and artificial intelligence to potentiate pharmacological actions of tibolone over neuroglobin signalling in traumatic brain injury’.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a complex disease and current treatments do not work well. Intriguingly, women have a speedier recovery from TBI than men.  Barreto believes this is due to a protein/molecule called neuroglobin, which is more abundant in the female brain and has vast protective effects in brain cells.  Previous studies by his research group, found that tibolone, a drug used as hormone therapy in postmenopausal women, increases the expression of neuroglobin giving it potential as a repurposed therapy for TBI.  Current drug therapies that are used to treat TBI patients do not have a broad spectrum of action and often the therapeutic effect diminishes after injury, in addition to the fact that certain drugs work better in men than women.

This new collaborative project with Dr Ramírez (Universidad de Concepción, Chile) and Dr Peláez (University of Salamanca, Spain will develop an artificial intelligence pipeline for the design and screening of ligands to potentiate the pharmacological effects of tibolone on neuroglobin in male and female cell cultures.

Developing a new drug costs millions of euros, and it can take at least 10 years to finally be put on the market.  This research will propose Tibolone as a new treatment for TBI patients as this drug has shown a great clinical potential and has broad anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Dr Christophe Silien has been awarded €440,497 for his project, ‘Illumination Diversity for Label-Free super-resolution Biological Multimodal far-field microscopy’.

An important limitation of light microscopy is that nanoscale elements of cells driving life are too small to be observed and tracked, impeding discoveries in biological and medical research.

It is ID-BioM’s purpose to demonstrate a super-resolution to facilitate biological imaging at the nanoscale.  Most diseases that challenge our society originate from perturbation of the natural life cycle of cells.  Photonics technologies use light that can penetrate and probe the corresponding mechanisms dynamically. The same technologies are relatively inexpensive and applied to diagnose from extracted biopsy as well as endo-biopsy.  This project will strengthen Ireland’s knowledge base in the photonics and medical device sectors, provide a platform for advanced biological research and enhanced knowledge on the cellular origin of diseases and aid diagnostic and therapy monitoring.

Bernal Chair in Microscopy and Imaging Prof Ursel Bangert will receive €351,292 for her project ‘Pushing the frontiers of next generation nanoelectronics and energy storage by establishing, tailoring and exploiting the functionalities of novel materials: 2-D ferroelectrics and their domains and dynamic 1-D domain walls’.

In this proposal a new class of 2-D materials, 2-D ferro-electrics, will be established, and their potential as essential components in novel, revolutionary nano-devices, used in memories, sensors and energy storage, explored. 2-D ferroelectrics may contain conducting atomic-scale channels, which could be used as mobile/electrical and novel line switches, for individual nano-devices.

The SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme supports the development of world class research capability and human capital in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that demonstrably support and underpin enterprise competitiveness and societal development in Ireland.

Working across ten Higher Education Institutes, 216 research positions will be funded including 93 Postdoctoral scientists, 105 PhD students and 18 Research Assistants/others across a variety of different areas.

46 industrial collaborators are engaging in the research programmes.

The research will be undertaken in the following Higher Education Institutions: RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, University College Dublin, Maynooth University, Trinity College Dublin, University of Limerick, National University of Ireland, Galway, University College Cork, Technological University Dublin, Tyndall National Institute and Dublin City University.