Memorable discoveries of a scientist and mum
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.
IMAGINING THE FUTURE
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.”
RETURN TO WORK
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.scienceinpublic.com.au
L’Oreal For Women In Science winner, cognitive neuroscientist Dr Muireann Irish with one of her patients.