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Winner of the Art Champlin Gold Medal Award 2020 is Niamh Casey

6 Nov 2020
Winner of the Art Champlin Gold Medal Award for 2020, Niamh Casey.

The Professor Art Champlin Gold Medal Award for academic excellence in Biochemistry was won in 2020 by Niamh Casey.

The Professor Arthur K. Champlin gold medal is awarded annually to the top student graduating BSc (Hons) in Biochemistry. The staff in the School of Biochemistry and Cell Biology would like to wish Niamh every success in her future career.

Niamh’s path to the Gold Medal…

"Reflecting upon my younger self, studying biochemistry would never have been on my radar, much less achieving such an award. I had always had a real interest in science. However, studying science for the junior cert, biology seemed the least exciting discipline in the field. It appeared to me that the subject held no intrigue. Chemistry was full of colourful experiments and mysterious concoctions and physics required abstract reasoning and creative thinking, while biology was just…there. This is a cell, and this is what it looks like. This is a heart, and this is how it beats. It seemed as though all of the questions had already been answered, so what was left to figure out?

Going into the leaving cert, I had picked chemistry and physics as my science subjects. Unfortunately, the physics class was full, and I was left to do biology. I quickly realised that there was quite a bit left to figure out. As the complexity of the topics grew, so too did my desire to learn. I became particularly interested in the nervous system and neurodegenerative disorders. This is how I discovered Biological and Chemical Sciences at University College Cork. I chose the course intending to eventually specialise in neuroscience.

However, on entering the course, I found myself fascinated by the intricacies of molecular mechanisms and signalling pathways. The fact that a microscopic change in the structure of a protein could lead to an entire system failing to function amazed me. This prompted me to specialise in biochemistry. The course allowed me to get to grips with the body on a microscopic level. Module content ranged from the interwoven pathways which allow cancer to spread, to the proteins that cause neurodegeneration. The course content was exciting and dynamic and always inspired me to research further. My constant desire to learn more, along with the support of the department, enabled me to earn the title of college scholar every year, as well as the Eli Lilly Award for Academic Excellence in second and third year.

In the summer of third year, I decided I wanted to gain some solo lab experience. I was generously awarded the SEFS bursary and worked in Dr Eoin Fleming’s lab on a project involving the purification of recombinant IL-8. I gained experience in spectrophotometry, western blotting, HPLC and cell culture. It was a steep learning curve, but the project gave me a lot more confidence in my own abilities. This was really beneficial for my final year project.

My FYP, entitled “The Synergistic Relationship between Interferon-γ and Tumour Necrosis Factor-α and their Effects on Colorectal Cancer Cell Death” was done under the supervision of Dr Ken Nally. The basis of the project was to characterise the response of mammalian cancer cells to treatment with the cytokines IFN-γ and TNF-α. The project required the culturing of two different colorectal cancer cell lines. The cells were subjected to various assays to assess characteristics of cell death including caspase activation, cell viability and chemokine production. The most rewarding aspect of the project was the confidence I gained, both in the lab, and in my area of study. Each person became an expert on their own FYP. It was always interesting to discuss our projects and play both the student and the teacher.

One of the standout experiences I had with the course was the opportunity to take part in the Cell Explorers SFI funded outreach programme. Organised by Dr Eoin Fleming and Dr Kellie Dean, the programme enables science students to bring the lab to primary schools. We became demonstrators for primary school children, teaching them how to extract DNA from bananas and getting them excited about science along the way. The programme was incredibly rewarding and really fun. One moment that stuck out for me personally was when one girl told me I did not look like a scientist. I asked what she thought a scientist looked like and she described an old man with crazy hair and big glasses. She then said it was really cool that I wasn’t an old man and that she wanted to be a scientist now too. I don’t imagine a simple experiment with a banana will inspire a generation of new scientists, but I do hope that it encourages children, and girls especially, to realise there is a place for them in science.

2020 is a scary time to be a graduate. The end of college marks a time of great change. For a lot of people, it is the first time in their lives where the next step is undefined. Mixing that with a worldwide pandemic creates a cocktail of confusion and anxiety. However, it is also an incredibly exciting time to be a graduate of biochemistry. Talk of viruses and vaccines dominate the headlines and my degree has never been more relevant to everyday life. The future is uncertain, but I suppose if everything were clear cut and well-defined, scientists wouldn’t have anything left to do. The past four years have been an amazing experience, and I cannot wait to see where my degree leads me."

Niamh's career path on LinkedIn

School of Biochemistry and Cell Biology

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University College Cork, Western Road, Cork.

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