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The Importance of International Collaborations and Academic Links

The Importance of International Collaborations and Academic Links

29 July 21
 | 13 MINS

Professor Laoise McNamara shares her journey from NUI Galway to Notre Dame….and back: the secrets behind an enduring, successful and rewarding transatlantic Biomedical Engineering research collaboration

Research internationalisation brings benefits, including access to different expertise and facilities, networking, assimilating a different culture, and raising international awareness of your university and your research.  However, through my roles as Vice-dean and international exchange coordinator, as well as my own research experiences, I have become keenly aware of the significant effect that internationalisation plays in the development of individuals and research ideas.


I have become keenly aware of the significant effect that internationalisation plays in the development of individuals and research ideas.

I was fortunate to spend two years at Mount Sinai School of Medicine (New York), where I witnessed – and absorbed – their enthusiasm, ambition, curiosity and work ethic. I have long recognised the importance of this period to my own career path. This spurred me on to develop research and education exchanges for Biomedical Engineering at NUI Galway. We have had particularly rewarding relationships with Purdue, Georgia Institute of Technology, Lehigh University and Notre Dame, who have welcomed many of our students onto their campuses and into their fantastic research laboratories, plus others in the USA, Canada and Europe.

Over the years I have observed many different approaches to research internalisation such as University delegations, faculty visits, joint seminars, formal exchange agreements and faculty match-making, all useful mechanisms to kickstart interactions. But it is based upon my own personal experience of a long-term collaboration with Professor Glen Niebur of Notre Dame that I share some of my “secrets” to an enduring, successful and rewarding research collaboration.

Embrace the opportunity to share your ideas and tackle a fresh research question

Prof. Niebur came on sabbatical under the SFI Walton Visiting Professor program to diversify his research into stem cells, working with Professor Peter McHugh and REMEDI. Evelyn Birmingham was conducting her PhD on bone mechanobiology with Professor McHugh and myself, and we jumped at the opportunity to bring in Glen’s expertise. Together we identified an exciting problem in bone mechanobiology and set about conceiving novel experiments and computational models. I have tried to replicate this approach for each research collaboration ever since, moving the conversation from the well-intentioned “we must collaborate some time” to developing a concrete plan. Unless you identify a shared goal, the intent to collaborate never moves beyond polite discussion. There is a concurrence by which research questions evolve across the world, and sharing ideas can identify truly novel approaches to tackle them.

Identify seed-funding, keep applying and make it stretch

Our collaboration was supported by numerous travel grants and studentships that we applied for (Fulbright, Whitaker Foundation, Science Foundation Ireland, the Orthopaedic Research Society, the Royal Irish Academy, NUI Travelling Fellowship, Notre Dame AD&T). While both Glen and I had our own research funding, these would have not funded the travel necessary for the collaboration. Although each joint grant was small, together our repeated seed-funding success and alignment to our funded research enabled the visits of six researchers. We are always looking for new opportunities and were recently among the first recipients of the Naughton Faculty Research Accelerator program, and have identified target funding streams and new partners plans beyond this.


Exchange experienced and enthusiastic researchers for long duration visits in both directions

Our collaboration involved shared studies and data generated through longer-term visits (3-12 months) and exchanging researchers in both directions. We sent competent and productive researchers, who were ready to learn new skills or start a new part of their study (3rd year Phd students!). Although some might be concerned that relocation could be a potential source of delay to a project, careful planning will prevent this. Indeed, international collaboration is a formative experience that I encourage every researcher that shows an interest (and whose personal circumstances allow for it) to consider. Adaptable team members, who can integrate both academically and socially, really help to ensure progress in the short time frames involved. The first researcher from Notre Dame, Tom Coughlin, arrived just before I went on maternity leave and I was naturally concerned by the timing. I need not have worried…he joined the Departmental Tag rugby team, made some gym buddies, provided the guitar songs for our Christmas party, and started a tradition of a PhD Thanksgiving dinner that continued for many years!

Support the exchange with regular remote interactions

When Glen returned to Notre Dame in 2010, Evelyn Birmingham followed over for 6 months and we kept the collaboration going by regular virtual meetings, first through Skype and later via Zoom (long before coronavirus and remote working became the norm). Researchers need the committed input of the home laboratory to keep things moving ahead and identify any potential issues early, because while they are integrating into a new environment they may not have the contacts on the ground to address things independently. So, although the coronavirus pandemic, with its related travel restrictions, has been disruptive to laboratory visits, it has accelerated the adoption of tools that can enhance international collaboration.

Expand the visit to industry

Dr. Eimear Dolan was funded through NUI Galway and Stryker Instruments (Cork, Ireland) and when she travelled to Glen’s laboratory in South Bend, we arranged time for her to spend at Stryker’s nearby facility in Kalamazoo. For other exchanges and research visits we have secured internships and research visits to other industry partners (Fort Wayne Metals, Hollister, Boston Scientific). We have also expanded industry related collaborative projects to continue to tackle medical device research questions while visiting the host laboratory (Stryker, Medtronic, Boston Scientific), putting in place the necessary legal agreements.

Reap the rewards

Our collaboration has led to many great publications, which have been very well recognised in our field. But the benefits to those researchers who relocated across the pond are possibly more important. Firstly, the researchers themselves often drove the application for seed/travel funding, providing them with their first experience of conceiving a project and securing funding. What is most striking is their transformation in terms of confidence, leadership and interpersonal skills, and their career successes thereafter. They have gone on to successful careers in medical device and pharmaceutical companies (Boston Scientific, Medtronic, GE Healthcare/Cytiva), small start-ups, or have become academic faculty. Many secured their own prestigious research awards (Royal Society Fellowship (Dr. Eimear Dolan), ERC Starting Independent Investigator Award (Dr. Ted Vaughan)). Eimear was named as one of 10 global visionaries on MIT Technology Review’s annual list of Innovators Under 35. I do not doubt that these international experiences, which enhanced their personal development, played a part in their successes.

Eimear is now working with Notre Dame to explore future Undergraduate student exchanges between Notre Dame and NUI Galway, so we can continue this relationship for many more years. We have also had discussions with Lisa Caulfield about running some joint research meetings in the beautiful Kylemore Abbey Global Centre, which we are excited to progress once travel restrictions lift.

In my role as Vice Dean for Research and Innovation in the College of Science and Engineering, I am particularly motivated to expand international research collaborations to enhance the international impact of NUI Galway.

I keep in mind the words of Henry Ford “coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success”.


Professor Laoise McNamara

Professor of Biomedical Engineering, School of Engineering, College of Science and Engineering, NUI Galway


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