Mem­o­rable dis­cov­er­ies of a sci­en­tist and mum

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Opinion - daniela.on­[email protected] Daniela On­garo

As a young girl grow­ing up in Ire­land, Dr Muire­ann Ir­ish dis­cov­ered she pos­sessed a re­mark­able mem­ory.

She could re­call pre­cise de­tails of events and con­ver­sa­tions that oth­ers could not. “I was of­ten called upon as a re­li­able source of who said what to whom,” she says with a laugh.

Then, as a young woman she saw her grand­mother grad­u­ally dis­ap­pear into the depths of Alzheimer’s, she was dev­as­tated when her beloved Nan, a for­mer mid­wife with a prodi­gious mem­ory who could rat­tle off the birth dates and weight of ev­ery child she had ever de­liv­ered, could no longer recog­nise her.

Those two events sparked a fas­ci­na­tion with mem­ory and served to steer Dr Ir­ish’s ca­reer path into cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science and fu­elled a pas­sion for in­ves­ti­gat­ing mem­ory pro­cesses and the im­pact of de­men­tia.

“Watch­ing some­one you love suc­cumb to such a ter­ri­ble ill­ness pro­pelled me to do re­search and to make some con­tri­bu­tion in some small way to help some­one in the fu­ture,” she says.

“We know a cure lies some way on the hori­zon so I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in do­ing things now that can have a tan­gi­ble and prac­ti­cal ben­e­fit for the in­di­vid­ual in their daily life.”

Dr Ir­ish, a cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist at Neu­ro­science Re­search Aus­tralia and the Univer­sity of New South Wales is lead­ing the search for so­lu­tions ahead of what is pre­dicted to be a new wave of the de­men­tia epi­demic in the next 50 years.

In recog­ni­tion of her work, yesterday, Dr Ir­ish was hon­oured by the L’Oréal UNESCO For Women In Science Awards Pro­gram, win­ning a $25,000 Fel­low­ship along with three other fe­male sci­en­tists from Aus­tralia and New Zealand.


In her first re­search pro­ject at Dublin’s Trin­ity Col­lege, Dr Ir­ish dis­cov­ered sooth­ing, fa­mil­iar mu­sic such as Vi­valdi’s Four Sea­sons is help­ful in re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing mem­ory in pa­tients with Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

Since then she has ex­plored mem­ory struc­tures in the brain and has demon­strated that dam­age caused by dif­fer­ent types of de­men­tia can af­fect the brain’s abil­ity to re­trieve in­for­ma­tion.

Her re­search has also iden­ti­fied which parts of the brain are nec­es­sary for imag­in­ing fu­ture events such as our next hol­i­day or remembering to take our wal­let and keys when leav­ing the house.

Her study was the first to show de­men­tia pa­tients don’t just lose their abil­ity to re­mem­ber the past.

“One of my most im­por­tant find­ings is to demon­strate pa­tients with de­men­tia can­not imag­ine their fu­ture,” she says.

“We need mem­ory to help us plan, adapt, an­tic­i­pate and imag­ine our fu­ture.

“If pa­tients are un­able to pro­ject for­ward in time they may be un­able to con­sider out­comes of their ac­tions and ex­pe­ri­ence lapses in per­spec­tive mem­ory — per­haps for­get­ting to take med­i­ca­tion or for­get­ting to take the ket­tle off the stove — things that can have se­ri­ous con­se­quences in their daily lives.”

The L’Oreal Fel­low­ship will al­low Dr Ir­ish to build a re­search group to con­tinue her work and she hopes this will lead to early de­tec­tion and tar­geted treat­ment of var­i­ous forms of de­men­tia.

The funds will also al­low her to get her ca­reer back on track af­ter tak­ing ma­ter­nity leave last year and will pay for her to travel to the world’s big­gest mem­ory con­fer­ence in Europe.

“I’m re­ally keen to present my work back on the in­ter­na­tional stage and see all the ad­vances that have hap­pened over the past five years.”


Women in science strug­gle to main­tain ca­reer mo­men­tum if they take a break to have a fam­ily, says Dr Ir­ish.

Although on par with men as un­der­grad­u­ates they rep­re­sent just 20 per cent of pro­fes­so­rial ap­point­ments at univer­sity — thanks to the “leaky pipeline” where women fall away to have fam­i­lies.

“There is no ques­tion that go­ing on ma­ter­nity leave neg­a­tively im­pacts your track record,” says Ir­ish, who took six months’ leave af­ter the birth of son Fionn, now 18 months.

“I’ve changed a lot since be­com­ing a mother and re­turn­ing to science. I’m much more ef­fec­tive and more pro­duc­tive now, and I man­age my time as though it’s a pre­cious com­mod­ity.”

Dr Ir­ish says she al­ways as­pired to be a strong woman in science but with­out sac­ri­fic­ing hav­ing a fam­ily.

“I feel priv­i­leged that my achieve­ments have been recog­nised through the Fel­low­ship and want to use it now as an op­por­tu­nity to show younger girls that you don’t have to trade-off be­tween fam­ily and ca­reer — that you can in­te­grate the two.”

Dr Ir­ish’s best ad­vice for young women in science is to in­vest in a sup­port­ive part­ner and to find a col­leagues who will be on board when you re­sume your ca­reer.

“Hav­ing a part­ner who sup­ports your dreams and goals is one of the most im­por­tant de­ci­sion you will make in your ca­reer,” she says, adding her hus­band proudly refers to be­ing on “Team Muire­ann”.

For more in­for­ma­tion visit lo­real.sci­en­cein­pub­

L’Oreal For Women In Science win­ner, cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dr Muire­ann Ir­ish with one of her pa­tients.

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