For his work that includes better understanding infantile amnesia, Dr Tomás Ryan of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) has been named one of four winners of the 2020 Lister Institute Research Prize, worth £250,000 (€277,000) each. Every year, a small number of research prizes are awarded to early-career biomedical scientists who have demonstrated outstanding performance and potential.

Ryan is the first scientist in an Irish institution to secure a prize fellowship from the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. There have previously been Irish award winners working at UK institutions.
Though infantile amnesia is likely the cost of crucial cognitive developmental processes, it is also a constraint on learning during early life, according to Ryan. His research is focused on understanding the mechanistic neurobiology of this form of apparent memory loss.

Ryan said he will use the prize funding to pursue research into memory ‘engrams’ to better understand if – and how – we may retrieve misplaced infant memories in adults.

An ‘honour and privilege’

Rory Guinness, a senior member of the Lister Institute’s governing body, said Ryan’s award is an “immense and historic moment in the life of science in these islands”.

“It is recognition that there are some world-class scientists in Ireland, and we look forward to welcoming Tomás into the fabled Lister fellowship.”

Ryan added that receiving the award was an “honour and privilege” for him. “The freedom to pursue blue skies, fundamental research is at the core of the scientific enterprise and is the starting point for all societal benefits in medicine, education, and industry,” he said.

“The support of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine will directly enhance the autonomy and impact of my research team. I look forward to working with the Lister Institute to contribute to the scientific community in Ireland and the UK.”

In 2020, there were a total of 114 applicants for this prize – 55 women and 59 men – of which 11 were shortlisted and interviewed remotely. The Lister Institute’s chair, Prof Alex Markham, said of the winners: “In 2020, despite the threat of Covid-19 thwarting our usual interview plans, we awarded four prizes to four excellent scientists.

“This is the first time we have awarded the prize to a scientist in an Irish institution. Long may it continue!”

Colm Gorey

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