Focus on research: Dr Michelle Kilcoyne, Curam

Dr Michelle Kilcoyne, Curam
Dr Michelle Kilcoyne, Curam

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31 October 2017 | 0

Dr Michelle Kilcoyne is a principal investigator at Curam, the SFI-backed centre for research into medical devices. In this interview she talks about her work in glycoscience and the importance of recognising women in academia.

Can you give us an overview of your current research?
My research is focussed around carbohydrates (sugars) and their critical role in biological processes. Every cell is coated with a layer of carbohydrates of complex structure which facilitates the interactions of the cell with other cells, their environment and microbes. I am interested in interactions and biological processes which involve carbohydrates and I develop techniques and technologies to study these interactions and to analyse the carbohydrate structures involved.

My background is in classical methods of carbohydrate analysis, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and mass spectrometry (MS), and I have gone on to develop high-throughput methods for profiling interactions and carbohydrate structures.

One of the main areas of interest of my group, the Carbohydrate Signalling Group, is in examining the role of pathogen glycosylation in immune evasion. Some of the core themes and methods are carried through in several other interdisciplinary projects that we are involved in, including examining alterations in tissue and cell glycosylation during injury or ageing and profiling serum for carbohydrate-based cancer diagnostics and prognostics.

How does your research fit within Curam?
Glycoscience, or the study of carbohydrates, has become a core theme of Curam since its foundation in 2014 and I believe it is something that distinguishes it from other international medical device and biomaterial-focused endeavours.

Since carbohydrates are so important on cells, in tissues and biological processes, it makes sense to examine what is happening with glycosylation in addition to proteins and nucleic acids, and also incorporate this extremely important class of biomolecules into biomaterial and medical device strategies.

Curam provides a highly multidisciplinary and innovative atmosphere with opportunities to work with biomedical engineers, clinicians and industry researchers. For example, I am working in collaborations in the areas of tissue regeneration after spinal cord injury, myocardial infarction [heart attack], and ischemia as well as with device-related infections and intervertebral disc degeneration. It seems like quite a diverse collection of research interests, but there is a strong thematic core of the impact of carbohydrates in these research areas.

Commercial partnerships underpin all the SFI research centres. Have you been surprised by some of the collaborations?
Over the years I have worked on projects with many different companies, from large multinationals to small local businesses. I am often surprised at some of the research questions or problems that companies want to solve, from extremely technical questions focussed on a niche area to larger more basic research questions. It is always interesting and informative to gain insight into the perspectives of industrial research and development. This type of collaboration can change your own perspective too, and can help keep your research focussed on questions which have direct impacts on real world problems.

Last year you were part of a delegation of women academics from NUI Galway to visit Aras an Uachtarain. How important is it for women scientists to be recognised in this way?
It was an honour to be selected by NUI Galway as part of the delegation to represent our active female scientists and of course I was delighted to attend. I do think that this kind of recognition of female scientists is still critical. For example, I was recently at a conference where I was the only invited female international speaker out of 11 invited international speakers, so seeking to promote equality of recognition in science is clearly still necessary. Hopefully we are making positive progress as a society towards this goal.

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