Maynooth maps out its path to greatness

Published on 4 May, 2008.

Ireland’s fastest growing university, NUI Maynooth, is at the forefront of cutting-edge research — whether it be into superbugs or robots. John Reynolds spends a day on campus 

IT’S a mild spring morning at NUI Maynooth, Ireland’s fastest-growing university, and the future footsoldiers of the knowledge economy are beginning to pour onto the Co Kildare campus.

In recent years, the university has ploughed over €100m into developing its campus buildings to cater for its 7,000 students. A small boomtown has grown around it, with the picturesque former seminary at its heart.

Maynooth’s R&D spend is growing all the time as new funds are granted, and the figure is set to top €40m this year after recent awards. While this is a fraction of the R&D budget of the likes of Trinity College, it continues to punch above its weight, attracting world-leading experts in areas like robotics and geocomputation.

First preference nominations for the university have rocketed by 13 per cent, while the number of geniuses here who got over 500 Leaving Cert points — making up the top 8 per cent of students — has risen by 400 per cent in the last six years.

Partly in recognition of this, Maynooth has fostered close links with IT giant Intel in nearby Leixlip, with a Master of Engineering programme taught by one of its managers, and the co-funding of the Innovation Value Institute, a world-leading R&D facility.

“We’ve got a healthy tension between the academic side of education and the practical skills that are vital to the economy. When you get a real debate between industry and academics, you can identify challenges and then work together to overcome them,” Dr Robert Galavan, head of business and law tells me as we chat on comfy leather sofas in one of the university cafeterias.

Budding entrepreneurs here get a taste of the rigorous scrutiny their business ideas

‘I’ve worked at two other universities and in industry. But there’s a community feel on this campus.’

will undergo. In true Dragon’s Den style, entrepreneur Tadhg Foley — who sold his telecoms networking business to US giant Cable & Wireless — gives them real feedback.

Future horse racing tycoons are also uniquely catered for by Maynooth’s equine business course, featuring guidance from a group of industry professionals chaired by Anita Osborne, daughter of horse racing expert, the late Michael Osborne.

“The knowledge economy is about taking knowledge and then applying it to do something or create something that adds value, to a product, a service, a company or an organisation,” Dr Galavan says.

Reflecting this ethos, professionals at the cutting edge of all aspects of practising law, such as Peter Kelly, head of the Commercial Court, are involved at a teaching level with the university’s law degrees.

Assistant registrar John McGinnity joins me in the cafeteria, and describes what makes Maynooth unique.

“I’ve worked at two other universities and studied in another, and I’ve worked in industry after taking a business degree. The difference here is that there’s a community feel on the campus, and it’s a challenge to keep that spirit as we grow,” he said.

Fostering a greater interest in maths and science among young people is one of the many challenges the university is tackling head-on, he explains.

“Our four-year science education degree is of key importance to society and the economy. We aim to inspire people to teach science at secondary level, helping to create the next generation of advocates and ambassadors for the subject,” he says.

My next meeting is with psychology lecturer Dr Sinead McGalloway, and after a moment reminiscing about my own student days, I attend a packed lecture she is giving on Personality and Intelligence.

Apart from a brief pause to relate some theory to parents recognising particular types of intelligence in their children, and to recruiters using psychometric tests, I lack the intelligence required to make much sense of Dr Galloway’s lecture.

It seems I’m at odds with dozens of her students however, who are queuing enthusiastically outside her office afterwards to ask questions or request help with their assignments.

Retail giants Tesco and Argos have been beating a path to the door of Professor Rob Kitchin recently. The director of the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis reveals that they’re very keen to get their hands on the geotechnology he and his colleagues have developed, because it would help them in planning new store locations.

His work involves taking data from sources such as the Census and the Central Statistics Office and then combining it with mapping technology, he explains, adding that he has turned the retailers away for the moment.

“We might set up a company and licence or sell this technology. But its initial uses will be more social, helping infrastructure planning such as the ideal locations for new garda stations and hospitals. We will also be able to identify commuting patterns and houses with poor energy ratings, which will help with environmental issues and planning.

“We’ve got an edge in this area, and with the very strong collegiality here, we attract some of the best people in this field from all over the world,” he adds.

There aren’t many people who can say they have the whole world as their area of analysis, but that is how Dr Abdullahi El Tom, head of Maynooth’s anthropology department — the only one in Ireland — describes his role.

With academic staff from 14 countries, he was involved in the recent peace talks on Darfur, which were held in Nigeria, and he recently met US President George W Bush’s special envoy to Darfur in Paris to see if the peace talks can continue.

Another challenge that students, staff and researchers are addressing head-on is that of the MRSA hospital bug that often makes the headlines here and in Britain.

Immunology students here also take entrepreneurship and innovation classes, one of the many factors that led to an antibiotic for the MRSA hospital bug currently being developed here, Professor Paul Moynagh, director, Institute of Immunology explains as he shows me around Maynooth’s state of the art laboratories.

Ireland is ranked second in the world by citations per publication in terms of immunology research, and the university is unique in having the country’s only dedicated facility for this, he adds.

My last meeting of the day is for a well-earned lunch with President John Hughes in his plush office on the old part of the campus. A native of Belfast with a PhD from Queen’s University, Professor Hughes’ career has included stints at the University of Ulster, in Vienna and in the USA.

Computer science and psychology researchers here have jointly developed a facial expression software engine that they plan to commercialise, he explains.

It could potentially let people communicate with their PCs simply by smiling or frowning, for example, and also in its uses in security technology in the same way as fingerprint recognition systems.

“We’re also busy developing Wi-max technology with Intel and exploring new drug delivery technologies with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. My vision is to make Maynooth on a par with the best universities in the world and to be top class at R&D.”

Culture is equally important as commercialisation to Professor Hughes, and he has fostered links with Beijing University (“the Cambridge of the East,” he says), where there is a huge interest in Irish literature. “We’d also like to open a theatre here on the campus, that could be used by the whole community,” he adds.

Not forgetting sport, JP McManus recently donated €2m to the Padraig Harrington Golf Scholarships here, and along with scholarships in snooker, another sport Ireland excels at, these will be one of the highlights of a sports academy, which is part of Professor Hughes’s vision.

The vision is by no means complete yet. His ambitious plans also include a business incubation centre and an elite business school, which will be part of a €50m research and technology park on the nearby Carton estate.

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