10 leading scientists reveal their unsung heroes

Behind every great scientist is a person or people who not only inspired them to pursue the career of their dreams, but helped them draw inspiration at times when the going got tough.

As part of our Science Uncovered series, we’ve been asking all participants who their unsung hero of science is. As you can imagine, given the broad range of research fields and personalities, there has yet to be a duplicate answer.

So, to mark Science Foundation Ireland’s Science Week, here are just a few responses from the past two years, with many more still to be revealed in future pieces.

Also, if you’d like to read more about their research, just click on their name and their full Science Uncovered profile will be revealed.

Prof Aaron Steinfeld – Carnegie Mellon University

My metallurgist grandfather was basically unrecognised outside of the corporate research lab he worked in. Like him, there are many scientists who are unable to talk about their work due to trade secrets or national security.

A science award from his company was proudly displayed in his living room, even though he could never tell us what it was for. I think more organisations should acknowledge high-quality contributions to science, even if the actual contribution is secret.

Prof Aaron Steinfeld is an associate research professor at CMU’s Robotics Institute.

Prof Susi Geiger – University College Dublin

The German turn-of-the-century sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel. He’s not exactly unsung, but little known outside sociology circles. Yet much of his work is extremely relevant and current, and it almost seems as if it had been written today rather than 120 years ago.

I particularly like his philosophy of money. Simmel would have had much to say about cryptocurrencies!

Prof Susi Geiger is a professor of marketing and market studies at UCD’s College of Business.

Dr Kathryn Schoenrock – NUI Galway

There are so many women who came before me and made it easy for me to have a voice and strong role in marine science. First, researchers like Sylvia Earle and my former adviser’s wife Maggie Amsler have had a place in science diving since it was formulated (in the US), and forged the way for my generation of women scientists.

But second, many of my contemporaries like Dr Laurie Hofmann and Dr Jessica Adams continue to inspire me by balancing their work with family life and staying at the forefront of their fields.

Dr Kathryn Schoenrock is an Irish Research Council postdoctoral researcher at NUI Galway.

Prof Jason Hong – Carnegie Mellon University

Mark Weiser was the former chief scientist at Xerox Research. Back in the late 1980s, he and his team envisioned how computers would be ubiquitous and come in forms that we would not normally think of as computers. They would be in our walls, our clothes and our houses.

It’s really amazing to think that, just a few years after the Macintosh came out, this visionary led a team that basically imagined and invented the modern computing landscape that we live in today. Weiser passed away too early, unfortunately, but his intellectual legacy is still going strong.

Prof Jason Hong is a professor at CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

Dr Niamh Nowlan – Imperial College London

My hero of science is Honor B Fell, who published amazing papers about embryonic organ culture starting from the 1920s and 1930s, which are still relevant to my own work today.

It’s so unusual to see female names on papers that old, and it’s gratifying to know that she was so successful in her career. Among numerous other awards, she was a Fellow of the Royal Society and was made a Dame in 1963.

Dr Niamh Nowlan is based at the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London.

Dr Anne Parle-McDermott – Dublin City University

Prof Anne Molloy from Trinity College Dublin is one of the most talented and insightful scientists that I know. She is a World Health Organization expert in the field of folate and vitamin B12 in human health.

She was one of the leading lights during my early career when senior female role models in science were rather thin on the ground.

Dr Anne Parle-McDermott is an associate professor and head of DCU’s School of Biotechnology.

Prof Andrew Parnell – Maynooth University

The inventor of one of the foundational methods in machine learning, Leo Breiman, is one of my unsung heroes. He was thinking about and publishing methods on statistical and machine learning way before they were fashionable or even practical, given the computing constraints in his day.

He wrote a wonderful textbook on probability, among many other important contributions. Possibly his most famous paper, ‘Random Forests’ from the journal Machine Learning in 2001 was published when he was 73! That should give hope to us all.

Prof Andrew Parnell is Hamilton professor in the Hamilton Institute at Maynooth University.

Dr Mark Jessopp – University of College Cork

Probably Alfred Russel Wallace. It was because of Wallace independently coming up with the same theory of evolution and sending it to Charles Darwin that prompted the joint publication of the theory. Darwin subsequently published his On the Origin of Species, for which he became recognised as the sole originator of the theory, relegating Wallace to obscurity.

But, in his own right, Wallace did other amazing work, discovering thousands of new species and was even one of the first biologists to seriously evaluate the likelihood of life on other planets.

Dr Mark Jessopp is a marine biologist currently working as a research Fellow at University College Cork.

Dr Rachel McLoughlin – Trinity College Dublin

I think that PhD students are the unsung heroes of scientific research. In labs all across the globe, armies of PhD students are the driving forces behind much of the cutting-edge research that is emerging. In fact, a lot of research labs consist solely of PhD students and rely on them exclusively for their research outputs.

Every time I attend a meeting and hear research talks from PhD students, I am reminded how talented and innovative these individuals are, and how committed they are to their specific research questions.

Dr Rachel McLoughlin is an assistant professor in immunology and leads the Host-Pathogen Interactions Lab at TCD.

Dr Martin O’Reilly – University College Dublin

My hero of science has always been my father, Prof Eoin O’Reilly. While his research is well recognised, he has an incredible attitude to life and research, which is truly unsung. The past few years have epitomised his special character, where I have witnessed him publish some of his highest-impact works and grow to be the interim CEO of Tyndall Institute, despite battling difficult medical circumstances.

In this same period, away from research, we even ran his first 5k together. The way he approaches life’s challenges, quietly and positively, stride by stride, is truly heroic and something that I continuously try to learn from.

Dr Martin O’Reilly is a researcher at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at UCD, and the UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing [email protected] with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.

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