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17 October 2019  


Dr Shane Hegarty

Dr Shane Hegarty, recipient of the NUI Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the Sciences 2014

Dr Shane Hegarty, recipient of the NUI Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the Sciences 2014.

 

 

Dr Shane Hegarty was awarded the NUI Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the Sciences 2014. He was a student, researcher and lecturer in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, University College Cork (UCC) between 2006-2017. Dr Hegarty then moved to Boston, USA to take up his positions as a Research Fellow in Neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) and Harvard Medical School (HMS), and as Adjunct Professor in Wentworth Institute of Technology. 


In your experience, what have been the benefits of holding an NUI award?


"At a crucial time in my early research career,
this unique award allowed me the freedom to
pursue my own research program, which otherwise would not have been possible. The gift of time and finances afforded by NUI was crucial to progressing my neuroscience research, led to important breakthroughs and publications, and laid the groundwork for an ongoing
international collaboration."

The NUI Post-Doctoral Fellowship has been a major springboard for my research career to date. At a crucial time in my early research career, this unique award allowed me the freedom to pursue my own research program, which otherwise would not have been possible. The gift of time and finances afforded by NUI was crucial to progressing my neuroscience research, led to important breakthroughs and publications, and laid the groundwork for an ongoing international collaboration. This NUI Fellowship played a defining role in my development as an independent researcher, leader and teacher by providing me with the opportunity to manage, establish and complete my own collaborative research project. After being granted the award, I believe its scholarly prestige has significantly aided my pursuit of research and teaching opportunities.

What has been the focus of your research work to date?

Before moving to Harvard, my research was primarily dedicated to understanding of the molecular mechanisms regulating the development of clinically-relevant subtypes of neurons, and the investigation of the potential developmental dysfunctions which cause neurological disorders. In order to understand dysfunction, and to restore function, in neuronal populations of the brain, my research aimed to characterize the molecular mechanisms regulating their development, survival and growth. This research work in UCC, which was primarily funded by NUI and IRC, has contributed to a deeper understanding of specification, differentiation, growth and survival of midbrain dopaminergic (DA) neurons, the neuronal population which progressively degenerates to cause Parkinson’s disease (PD). Such knowledge has the potential to be translated into novel therapies for neurological disorders, especially PD, which is the second most common neurodegenerative disease. After moving to Professor Zhigang He’s laboratory in BCH/HMS, I re-orientated this research focus to study the mechanisms regulating and preventing nerve regeneration in the adult central nervous system (CNS). The axons of neurons do not regrow in the mammalian CNS after injury or degeneration, which causes severe deficits (e.g. paralysis). Thus, the overarching goal of this work is to find novel clinical strategies to regenerate neuronal pathways after spinal cord injury, and other types of CNS degeneration, in order to restore lost functions. To do this, I have successfully scaled up a CRISPR-Cas9 mouse optic nerve crush model to facilitate the first genome-wide interrogation of the genetic mechanisms regulating adult, mammalian CNS nerve regeneration in vivo. I am hopeful that this ambitious, collaborative research project will significantly contribute to the international scientific community, and could benefit millions of lives across the globe.

What would you consider to be your major achievements to date?

To be honest, I am very proud of everything that we have achieved in our UCC research since I began my PhD in 2010. We had many successes during my time there, including a number of publications, grants, awards etc., which were the product of hard work and perseverance in times of failure. These achievements would not have been possible without the constant support and guidance of my supervisors Dr Gerard O’Keeffe and Professor Aideen Sullivan. I am also extremely grateful to UCC for teaching me how to become a Neuroscience researcher, in particular all those in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, and Dr. Barry Boland in the Department of Pharmacology. If I had to choose one major achievement that I am most proud of, I would have to pick our ‘BRAINTALK’ project which was supported by the Irish Research Council (IRC) New Foundations Award. This ongoing project aims to create an active and interconnected Parkinson’s community in Ireland, which together strives to improve the management and research outcomes for this disease. In 2015, we held the ‘Parkinson’s Community’ meeting, the ‘Living with Parkinson’s’ exhibition, and the ‘Exploring Parkinson’s with Art’ workshop, which received outstanding feedback, had overwhelming interest that lead to oversubscription, and were recognised and publicised by the IRC and a number of national and international Parkinson’s-related organisations, such as the Michael J Fox Foundation. It has given me great pride to facilitate researchers, patients, clinicians and the public to exchange and disseminate knowledge, and to outline why research is beneficial to society as a whole. I believe this project has had the greatest direct benefit to people with Parkinson’s to date, while our research strives towards new therapies.

What advice would you give to prospective applicants regarding the NUI Post-Doctoral Fellowship?

The most important thing is to develop a novel research project, based on your expertise that you are passionate about pursuing. Such enthusiasm will fuel your work and show the reviewers that you are committed to this research. For most people, this will mean building on previous PhD or postdoctoral research. As a result, your knowledge of the research area and competence in this type of research will be evident, but you must also demonstrate what is new and important about the proposed research. What major research question have you uncovered and wish to address, and how will this benefit the research and wider community? Once you can show how the proposal will advance your research, it is also essential to demonstrate how the Fellowship will develop your expertise, skills and research independence during the successful execution of the project. Finally, you must believe in yourself and trust your ideas. It is never too early to launch your own project, so just go for it! Thoughtful planning and your team will determine the success of your project, but there is always something to be learned through research. Remember that there is a lot to be gained by putting yourself and your work out there. While research can be an uncertain landscape for a career, because you are constantly working with the unknown, it is hugely rewarding.