COVID-19 - An extraordinary time for research
In our Zoom for Thought on June 8th, 2021, UCD Discovery Director Prof. Patricia Maguire spoke to Orla Feely, Vice President for Research, Innovation and Impact and Professor of Electronic Engineering at University College Dublin, about “COVID-19: An extraordinary time for research”. In case you missed it, here are our Top Takeaway Thoughts and a link to the video.
Orla’s portfolio of responsibilities encompasses UCD research activities across all disciplines, “from the humanities to the social sciences; science, medicine, engineering and so on”. She also oversees innovation activity; all the ways in which the university brings its research out to the world through commercialisation and other forms of impact. “It’s a huge portfolio, it's absolutely wonderful and I am privileged to work with an amazing, positive team. Every day there is something new and exciting going on.”
Orla was recently inaugurated as the 129th President of Engineers Ireland, which brings together engineers and engineering professionals in one of Ireland’s biggest professional bodies, with some 25,000 members. “Captivated” by engineering as a teenager, Orla’s area of research is nonlinear circuits and systems, “at the border where engineering meets mathematics”. She is “delighted and proud” to be leading Engineers Ireland over the coming year. “This is a really interesting time for engineering generally, and for engineering in Ireland. A lot of those big challenges that we face around the green and digital recovery are engineering challenges. The fact that we can bring our engineering insights to bear on these is a huge opportunity.”
Triumph for Research
The pandemic has showcased the importance of science and how quickly research and innovation can deliver global solutions. Orla describes as “extraordinary” the fact that eighteen months ago nobody knew anything about COVID-19 - and now we have several working vaccines.
“Forty years on there's still not a vaccine for HIV, so it was by no means a given that there would be a single vaccine, let alone multiple vaccines, or that they would have anywhere near the efficacy that we've seen.”
This achievement is thanks to “decades and decades of basic vaccine research”, funded when it was “neither popular nor profitable”. Basic research led to vaccine discovery - and clinical trials “gave us the confidence that this could be rolled out”. The successful vaccine roll-out in such a short time period has been “a real triumph for research”.
The “immediate response” of UCD researchers to the pandemic was to “help put people down at the frontline, put PPE down at the frontline, and then to start to deliver real research solutions”. She praises the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) and the other testing capability, sequencing capability, epidemiological modelling and successful clinical trials led by UCD researchers.
“The fact that our researchers are involved in the top international clinical trial networks meant that we had access to expertise and to drugs that we wouldn't otherwise have had. All that expertise has brought about real benefits for patients.”
This work was carried out when “researchers were also pivoting all their teaching online with zero notice - and managing all the demands of the pandemic at home”. She praises this “phenomenal response”.
Bringing people together across various disciplines is “hugely important” in order to address “all the big challenges that we face”, such as sustainability and digitalisation.
“These are by definition, multidisciplinary; they're so broad in scope that no one discipline could even start to think about solving them.”
Orla gives the example of AI in healthcare as “an extraordinarily exciting area” of interdisciplinarity. Zoom for Thought host Prof Patricia Maguire is involved in several such projects at UCD Discovery’s AI Healthcare Hub. Orla also mentions Ronan Cahill's work in real time AI support for colorectal surgery.
The best part of working in research is “not just delivering research yourself” but watching those you train flourish. Orla mentions Dr Elena Blokhina, a former postdoc in her research group, who is now an Associate Professor in UCD School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Chief Technology Officer for “one of our most exciting start-ups”, quantum computing company Equal 1. “For me, one of the most exciting things is when you see the people that have worked with you in your research programmes go on and do wonderful things themselves. As individuals we can achieve so much, but through the amplification of all our students it's extraordinary what we can achieve.”
The pandemic has inspired different ways of living and working.
“I think we will see a very different attitude to the way that we undertake collaboration and travel,” says Orla. “When you take the learnings and map them onto our sustainability obligations, I think that there will be really important things that we can do.”
A “very imminent decision” needs to be made about working from home.
Taking care of people is also a priority. “We will bear in mind the human factor in all the decisions that we make.”
Though the number of papers submitted by UCD researchers over the past year has “shot up”, Orla is “concerned about the gender implications” of the pandemic, where staff with small children and other caring responsibilities were not always in a position to pursue their research to the same extent as others. “That is something that we have to be very cognisant of as we go forward.”
Future of Research
There is a “new move” towards challenge funding with the prospect of “significant” funding for green and digital challenges. Orla encourages people to identify challenges that capture the public imagination. “We really want UCD researchers and the UCD community more broadly to make their voice heard.”
This article was brought to you by UCD Institute for Discovery - fuelling interdisciplinary collaboration.
Professor Feely is Vice President for Research, Innovation and Impact and a Professor of Electronic Engineering at University College Dublin. She holds a BE degree from University College Dublin and MS and PhD degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, where her PhD thesis won the DJ Sakrison Memorial Prize for outstanding and innovative research. While at UC Berkeley, she also won the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award. Her research is in the area of nonlinear circuits and systems, and she has been awarded research grants and prizes from a number of national, international and industry sources.
Professor Feely is a Member of the Royal Irish Academy and a Fellow of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), Engineers Ireland and the Irish Academy of Engineering. She has served as Chair of the Irish Research Council, the EU Advisory Group on Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions, and the IEEE Technical Committee on Nonlinear Circuits and Systems, and as a member of a number of Editorial Boards.
Professor Feely is Vice-President of Engineers Ireland and Vice-President for Resources and Treasurer of CESAER (the Conference of European Schools of Advanced Engineering Education and Research). She is a director of the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and Deputy Chair of the Higher Education Authority.