Vice President for Research Professor Norelee Kennedy looks back on an eventful year

Researchers are essentially problem-solvers. They are intrinsically motivated to find answers to some of the world’s greatest challenges. Throughout the global research community, COVID-19 is forcing us all to adapt rapidly in the pursuit of answers. 

When I started in the role as Vice President for Research at University of Limerick in January 2020, I could not have foreseen how quickly we too would be forced to adapt in the face of a global pandemic

Lockdowns and restrictions have a major impact on research; from access to data and archives, impact on laboratories and experiments, restricted movement of researchers from around the globe and the additional juggling of roles when working from home. In this past year of uncertainty, I have been impressed by the resilience of our research community at UL and their in-built motivation to continue the pursuit of excellent and impactful research in spite of the many challenges. 

COVID-19 can seem like a virus without parallel, however the world has dealt with pandemics of this scale before from the Spanish Flu, Polio, Smallpox, HIV, among others. These viruses changed the way people lived then, as we are similarly being tasked to adapt now. Throughout all of these global events, it has been the actions of government, public and community response and the expertise of researchers that have been instrumental in dealing with the contagion. 

At a national level, members of the UL research community have been engaged in advising various government groups including the NPHET Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group and Behaviour Change subgroup and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on how best to manage the emerging impacts from COVID-19. 

Moving into the treatment and solution phase, UL colleagues are pursuing research funded by Health Research Board and Science Foundation Ireland across a range of areas linked to the pandemic. These include the development of a dashboard for policies to slow the spread of COVID-19 (Dr James Sweeney); ensuring Ireland’s self-sufficiency in lysis buffer (an essential chemical for  testing) (Dr Peter Davern and Dr Emmet O’Reilly); novel inhalable antiviral drugs to tackle COVID-19 (Dr Ahmad B. Albadarin); –uncovering evidence to inform Ireland’s digital contact-tracing strategy (Dr Jim Buckley); developing rapid advanced production responses to frozen supply chains in hospitals (Professor Leonard O’Sullivan); the development of a rapid resource repository for health professionals: (Professor Alice Coffey); investigating the psychological responses to COVID-19 in health care workers during the delay and mitigation phase of disease management: (Professor Donal Fortune). The impact of the virus on society is a major concern and in response to this a cross university group, the UL Research for Policy and Society post-COVID19 group, has formed to enable a faster response and to support colleagues in developing further COVID-19 related proposals. 

In parallel, UL staff also made significant contributions to the COVID-19 response including working on the frontline

From assessing contact tracing software for national roll out; the adaptation and implementation of software within the hospital for tracking hospital acquired infection; to the development of an online platform for the support of teachers and schools in the provision of interactive teaching tools for Leaving Cert students; provision of reliable and trustworthy information to the public through #COVIDWATCHIRL; to development of an evidence based clinical guidance platform for healthcare staff and the provision of PPE to the Gardaí and staff who remain on campus as well as printing PPE using 3D printing technology for those working on the frontline of this pandemic.

A significant collaboration between academia and healthcare in this region was the turning of UL Arena into an Intermediate Care Facility to provide multidisciplinary care for non-COVID patients – freeing up capacity in University Hospital Limerick. Some of our students have gained invaluable first-hand experience working in this facility supported by UL and UHL staff. 

Ireland’s dynamic research community was not born overnight, it is the result of years of investment. This cannot be forgotten

Commitment to investing in research and development is central to Ireland’s ability to address the sustainable development goals, to support a thriving economy and society. 

Therefore, the announcement from Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris of over €3.7 million in funding for UL to support research programmes which have been impacted by COVID-19 is a welcome step. This support recognises that high quality research is an important asset and must be a continued priority for our society. A dynamic research environment attracts and generates a talented workforce, resilient industry and an ability to respond to the challenges we face. 

There is no doubt, that as we emerge from these periods of uncertainty that the world will have changed dramatically. Some of these changes will be welcome, such as the impact on our environment, others will require new insights and supports to address, particularly in the areas of mental health and public health.

At UL we pride ourselves in our collaborative and collective strengths, we work with industry, government and society to ensure the benefits of research can be felt by all areas of our society. Indeed, Ireland’s investment in human capital and that interconnectivity of research to users will play an important role in protecting our economy and supporting quality of life for our citizens in the years to come. 

Throughout the past year the resilience of the UL community has been evident and a beacon of light during dark times for everyone

As we continue to work through challenging times, the experience we have had of working together to solve problems and share that learning to support others will continue to serve us well as we move forward. UL research has had an impact in the fight against COVID-19 and we will continue to respond to this and the other challenges ahead of us. 
-  Professor Norelee Kennedy