International Researchers Can Reach Their APEX in Cork

International researchers can reach their APEX in Cork, pictured at the launch of APEX, l-r: Dr Sally Cudmore, Manager APC Microbiome Ireland; Ms Oonagh Cahalane, APC; Dr Jill Haynes, APC; Prof Helen Whelton, Head of School of Medicine & Health, UCC and Prof Fergus Shanahan, Director APC Microbiome Ireland, UCC. (Pic: Catherine Buckley)

The SFI Research Centre APC Microbiome Ireland, based in University College Cork, has secured €1,416,000 in competitive funding from the European Union’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie programme, to bring 20 senior international researchers to Ireland, through a new post-doctoral fellowship programme, APEX. The new programme will further help cement Ireland’s international position as a leader in microbiome science.

APEX (APC Postdoctoral EXcellence) is an innovative, intersectoral and trans-disciplinary training, career development and mobility programme, which focuses on the research area of the microbial community (microbiome) living in and on humans and its role in health and disease.

The aim of APEX is to develop the next generation of international scientific leaders who will gain hands-on experience and develop cross-disciplinary and entrepreneurial skills through individual research projects with a mandatory secondment to a non-academic research partner during their two years of fellowship.

Fellowships will be offered in the four thematic APC research areas of ‘Microbes to Molecules’, ‘Diet and Microbes at the Extremes of Life’, ‘Brain-Gut-Microbiota Axis’ and ‘Host-Microbe Dialogue’. The fellowships are targeted at experienced researchers who must be in possession of a doctoral degree or have at least four years of full-time equivalent research experience in academia or industry.

International mobility is a core element of the APEX programme so applicants must be incoming fellows to Ireland.  There will be two calls under the APEX programme, with 10 fellowships awarded in each call. The first call is now open with a submission deadline of 9th April 2018, and a second call will close on April 9th 2019.

The programme was launched by the Director of APC Microbiome Ireland, Prof Fergus Shanahan. For more information on the programme and to check eligibility and mobility requirements visit http://apc.ucc.ie/apex/

UCC designated a University of Sanctuary

University College Cork (UCC) has been designated a University of Sanctuary after awarding seven refugees and asylum seekers full scholarships. The seven recipients will be entitled to free tuition from September 2018 and a number of annual bursaries covering travel expenses.

 

Commenting on the news, Professor Caroline Fennell, Senior Vice President of UCC, said: “Universities provide a key space in which to challenge societal assumptions and to support and highlight work aimed at fostering a culture of welcome for asylum seekers and refugees.”

 

Fennell continued: “Through the range of initiatives cultivated over many years in UCC, we are dedicated to providing spaces to learn about what sanctuary means, to develop a sustainable culture of welcome and to share our practices and initiatives with communities and other higher education institutions.”

 

UCC is the third Irish university to be designated a University of Sanctuary; Dublin City University (DCU) was designated the title in 2016 and the University of Limerick (UL) in July of last year.

 

The University of Sanctuary status was awarded to UCC by People of Sanctuary Ireland, a network of groups which share the objectives of promoting the integration, inclusion and welfare of refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants, by encouraging every sector of society to make a practical commitment to becoming places of welcome and safety. Trinity has yet to be awarded the status.

International Recognition for UCC Researchers

‘Seekers of Knowledge’ by artist Annette Hennessy

Four University College Cork (UCC) scientists feature in the latest “Highly Cited Researchers” list.

This annual list identifies scientists whose research publications, and the extent to which they have been cited by other scientists globally, place them among the top 1% most cited in their subject field.

The UCC researchers featured in the 2017 most Highly Cited List all work in the area of food, microbiome and health and are Principal Investigators at the APC Microbiome Institute based at UCC and Teagasc.

The researchers named are:

  • Prof Elke Arendt, School of Food & Nutritional Sciences and APC Microbiome Institute, UCC. Her research in the area of food and health is related to cereals and beverages, including gluten free, starter cultures, antimicrobial agents, food structure, brewing and malting and functional foods.
  • Prof John Cryan, Head of Dept. of Anatomy & Neuroscience and APC Microbiome Institute, UCC. His current research interests include the neurobiological basis of stress-related neuropsychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety and drug dependence. Moreover, his group is also focused on understanding the interaction between brain, gut and the gut microbiome and how it applies to stress and immune-related disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome, obesity and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. He is also interested in applying novel approaches to facilitate drug delivery to the brain in vivo.

Computer Program Developed in Cork Can Detect Seizures in Newborns

A computer program that can detect seizures in newborns has been developed by researchers at the Infant perinatal research centre in Cork.

Tech companies have already expressed interest in the programme which has been tested cotside in a clinical trial involving more than 500 babies across eight European countries.

Prof Geraldine Boylan, principal investigator in the ANSeR study— Algorithm for Neonatal Seizure Recognition — said they have “trained the algorithm over many years to detect seizures”.

The success of the algorithm is proof of the usefulness of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare, she said, “not replacing jobs, but doing a job no-one else can do”.

“We hear a lot about AI taking over the world but there are certain areas in healthcare where we need this kind of help and this is one area where machines may do the job better,” she said.

The two-year trial, completed earlier this year, involved babies deemed at risk of seizure due to a difficult birth or who suffered hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) — a type of brain injury that occurs when an infant’s brain does not receive enough oxygen and blood.

“All the infants were full term but there were clinical concerns that the brain was at risk of injury and we wanted to monitor their brain patterns,” said Prof Boylan.

She said seizures are difficult to detect in babies “because they don’t often show any visible signs”.

“But we need to know when to treat and this AI is like having a tireless eye at the cotside, constantly monitoring the baby’s brainwaves. An alarm goes off if the baby is having a seizure.

“Up to now, the standard monitoring for newborns at risk of seizure has been an EEG, a test that monitors the brain’s electrical activity. We have developed an algorithm that has allowed constant analysis of the EEG.”

The trial showed that seizures can be detected when the algorithm is used in real-time at the cotside, providing expert help “so machine learning does help”, Prof Boylan said.

“EEGs can be hard to interpret so having this expertise cotside will help clinicians pick up seizures as they are happening.”

The algorithm, which has been patented, was developed by a multidisciplinary team of doctors, scientists, engineers and computer programmers at the Infant centre in University College Cork. The trial using the algorithm, the first of its kind, involved the collection of thousands of hours of data.

Prof Boylan said developments in artificial intelligence, offer “limitless opportunities to support our work in the area of neonatal research, monitoring and neuroprotection for babies”.

The preliminary ANSeR findings will be presented tomorrow at the Brain Monitoring and Neuroprotection in the Newborn conference, underway in Killarney.

Prof Boylan is director of the INFANT Centre, professor of neonatal physiology at UCC, and conference host and co-chair.

By Catherine Shanahan, Health Correspondent, Irish Examiner

New Study at UCC Shows How Your Gut Bacteria Could Influence Anxiety

As it turns out, a healthy gut microbiome could affect the development of conditions relate to anxiety or anxiety-like behavior. The new study by researchers from the APC Microbiome Institute showed the connection in tests involving mice.

 

IN BRIEF

As it turns out, a healthy gut microbiome could affect the development of conditions relate to anxiety or anxiety-like behavior. The new study by researchers from the APC Microbiome Institute showed the connection in tests involving mice.

A HEALTHY GUT MICROBIOME

A team of researchers from the APC Microbiome Institute of the University College Cork in Ireland has stumbled upon an intriguing connection between the bacteria living in the human gastrointestinal tract and anxiety. While there are studies that link anxiety-like behaviors to the gut microbiome, this is the first that makes a connection between the microbes and a particular kind of biological molecule called microRNA (miRNA) in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex of the brain.

“Gut microbes seem to influence miRNAs in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex,” lead research Gerard Clarke said in a press release provided by BioMed Central. “This is important because these miRNAs may affect physiological processes that are fundamental to the functioning of the central nervous system and in brain regions, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, which are heavily implicated in anxiety and depression.”

The team was able to identify this connection by comparing mice grown in a germ-free environment (GF mice) with normal mice. In the GF mice, 103 miRNA’s in the amygdala and 31 miRNA’s in the prefrontal cortex differed with ordinary mice. Furthermore, adding back gut microbes into the GF mice later on normalized these levels.

A TREATMENT OPPORTUNITY

Within this study, published in the journal Microbiome, Clarke and his colleagues also observed how depleting the gut microbiota — the collective community of microscopic organisms — of adult mice using antibiotics affected miRNA levels in the brain in a manner similar to GF mice. How this worked remains unclear, so further studies are needed before it might be replicated in clinical tests.

Still, the potential of these findings could offer an alternative approach to treating anxiety-like behavior. Instead of targeting miRNA in the brain, which can be tricky, “our study suggests that some of the hurdles that stand in the way of exploiting the therapeutic potential of miRNAs could be cleared by instead targeting the gut microbiome,” Clarke explained.

According to the most comprehensive study on anxiety to date, about 1 in 13 people around the world experience anxiety or anxiety-related behavior. It’s the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting around 18.1 percent of the population or some 40 million adults every year. It may soon be possible to hep all these people by giving them a healthy gut microbiome.

UCC: Food and nutritional research improves cancer survival rates

The food industry of the future, producing products for the healthy and sick, will depend on the skills of graduates from programmes such as the four-year BSc in Food Science and Nutritional Science at UCC. Image shows Dr Aoife Ryan measuring body composition in a cancer patient's CT scan. Image: Jim Coughlan
The food industry of the future, producing products for the healthy and sick, will depend on the skills of graduates from programmes such as the four-year BSc in Food Science and Nutritional Science at UCC. Image shows Dr Aoife Ryan measuring body composition in a cancer patient’s CT scan. Image: Jim Coughlan

Up to 80% of cancer patients unintentionally lose weight which can have a devastating impact on their quality of life according to Dr Aoife Ryan, dietitian and lecturer in Nutritional Sciences at UCC.

The weight loss reduces their ability to tolerate chemotherapy and leading to poor survival rates.

The seriousness of this issue is illustrated by the fact that one in five cancer deaths are caused from wasting, not from cancer. The wastage affects not just the muscles involved in movement but also the muscles involved in breathing and in the heart. Dr Ryan says, unfortunately, there is no safe drug to prevent or reverse this or to safely stimulate appetite.

“It seems it is almost the norm to lose weight once you develop cancer. Ten years ago it was thought patients were losing fat. Now we can use their CT scans to measure exactly what patients are losing and we are gaining a huge understanding that that weight loss is actually muscle. It is the rapid loss of muscle.”

A great example of how the roles of nutritionists and food scientists can help cancer patients can be seen from current research at UCC into the development of innovative protein gels, dietary drinks and appetite-increasing supplements to assist cancer patients who are experiencing involuntary and at times life-threatening weight loss.

Cancer patients often develop severe muscle wasting called ‘sarcopenia’ which is most commonly seen in very elderly people and is an inevitable consequence of growing very old. Sarcopenia means a very low muscle mass (<5th centile). In cancer, it develops much more rapidly and at much younger ages. “I have seen cancer patients with a normal muscle mass at diagnosis and two months later they are sarcopenic”, says Dr Ryan who adds that, while severe muscle loss is very common in patients, it isn’t always hugely visible as a person can still be overweight or even obese.

Dr Ryan’s team of nutritional scientists at UCC have performed a detailed study of the nutritional status and quality of life in ambulatory Irish cancer patients attending for chemotherapy at Cork University Hospital and the Mercy University Hospital. In a study which has been on-going since 2011, 1,020 patients have been recruited to date.

“We have looked at over a thousand patients having chemotherapy here in Cork and only 4% of them look underweight. We rarely see obviously wasted cancer patients anymore, nowadays they look normal or overweight but, underneath that fat, there is very little muscle. Over 40% have sarcopenia and these patients live about half as long as people who maintain their muscle.”

It is known that protein intake is of fundamental importance in this regard, and so she is looking at ways to increase this intake and also to address why patients are losing weight in the first place.

“They are losing weight because cancer causes huge amounts of inflammation in their bodies. So can we dampen down inflammation which would cause them to stop losing weight? If they are weight stable they will live longer.”

Towards this goal, Dr Ryan has spent over 12 years studying the fish oil, EPA, which is found in salmon, mackerel and herring. Unfortunately, most people eat very little of it.  To provide new means of incorporating EPA into the diet, nutritionists at UCC have joined forces with food scientists to put a high dose of fish oil into a nutritional drink.  Dr Ryan says the results to date have been encouraging.

“Several clinical trials have shown that, if we give patients with cancer calories, protein and a very high dose of a fish oil, that it will dampen down inflammation and they will lose less muscle. Keeping patients active through exercise is also hugely important”

As part of this work, Dr Ryan develops products in conjunction with colleagues including Dr Shane Crowley and Professor Alan Kelly of the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at UCC.  Professor Kelly says this work is a perfect example of where a complementary relationship between Nutrition and Food Science can deliver hugely important outcomes.

“Food Scientists have the skills to develop products the design of which has been informed by the nutritional understanding of what food does to the body and, in this case, the particular issues of cancer patients are that we hope to solve.   But there might be other considerations to do with the texture or the structure, for example in terms of chewing and swallowing and digestibility or flavour. So the food scientist says “How do we design that product? How do we mask flavour?  Any product is ingredients plus a process we apply to it, so food scientists will find the right ingredients for the product properties that are needed and work out a way to turn these into a desirable, safe and high-quality product.”

Meanwhile, food scientists at UCC are also developing high protein gels for cancer patients, based on the fact that patients undergoing chemotherapy often suffer from metallic tastes in their mouths so they have taste challenges as well as appetite challenges. The gels would be tasteless and could be added in to food without affecting texture and yet deliver critical nutrients and taste sensations tailored to the sensory perceptions of cancer patients.

Scientists at UCC working as part of the national Food for Health Ireland consortium have also found small peptides, released from proteins from milk that can mimic the action of hunger hormones in the body. Initial studies in animals conducted at UCC showed increased food intake when given these peptides.  Dr Ryan says they have now encapsulated the peptides for trials in healthy humans to examine bioactivity and these may eventually be trialed in diseased populations including cancer.

“They take it in a capsule and it is released in the small intestine. And then it has actions there where we think it will stimulate appetite. If trials are positive it would represent a safe way of stimulating appetite.”

The food industry of the future, delivering products which meet the needs of the healthy and sick, will depend on the skills of graduates from programmes such as the four-year BSc programmes in Food Science and Nutritional Science at UCC.  For more information about Food Science and Nutritional courses at UCC visit https://www.ucc.ie/en/fns/   There is a huge demand for food science and nutritional graduates with over 93% of Food Science and Nutritional graduates in full-time employment or doing post-graduate courses according to the First Destination of UCC Graduates Surveyy 2015.

For more on this story contact:

Ruth Mc Donnell, Head of Media and PR, Office of Marketing and Communications, University College Cork Mob: 086-0468950

Single injection ‘could repair damaged hearts’ after world-first trial

(l-r): Professor Noel Caplice, Chair of Cardiovascular Sciences, UCC; John Nolan from New Ross, Wexford, who was a participant in the clinical trial. Photo: Clare Keogh.
(l-r): Professor Noel Caplice, Chair of Cardiovascular Sciences, UCC; John Nolan from New Ross, Wexford, who was a participant in the clinical trial. Photo: Clare Keogh.

A UCC professor has shown in a trial, the first of its kind in the world, that low dose insulin-like growth factor, injected into the heart to repair damage to the muscle, improves remodelling for heart attack patients.

Professor Noel Caplice, Chair of Cardiovascular Sciences at UCC, and his cardiologist colleagues at Cork University Hospital successfully tested the growth factor in the clinical trial (RESUS-AMI), funded by a €1 million grant under the joint HRB-SFI Translational Research Award programme, of 47 patients who had experienced large attacks.

Around 20% of people who suffer heart attacks have severe ongoing difficulties because of lasting damage to heart muscle even after the best current therapies, often resulting in patients developing long-term heart failure, associated with increased morbidity and mortality.

Patients received two different low dose preparations of insulin-like growth factor or placebo in a randomised double blinded clinical trial, with results showing those who received the higher dose had improved remodelling of their heart muscle in the two-month follow-up after their heart attack, which correlated with other measures of improved heart performance.

“We are delighted that an important human study like this could be funded in Ireland and performed in Cork. This pilot trial is the first of its kind worldwide showing that single injection of low dose IGF1 is safe and can improve cardiac repair after a large heart attack,” said Professor Noel Caplice, Chair of Cardiovascular Sciences, UCC.

“We hope that these findings can be replicated in potentially larger trials of many hundred subjects in the future. A significant minority of our patients currently remain unwell after a large heart attack despite best clinical practice and we are excited by the possibility that cardiac repair therapy may help these patients,” he added.

If future bigger trials are successful, the growth factor could be applied more widely to improve the quality of life and life expectancy of any patient who has suffered a large heart attack, and be financially beneficial to the health service by reducing ongoing care costs.

John Nolan from New Ross, Wexford, became one of the patients in the trial, after suffering a heart attack in December 2014. “I feel I was blessed to be asked to be involved; I had confidence that good would come from it, in terms of how they explained it to me. Looking back on it now, I feel it was the right choice.”

John’s wife, Margaret, added: “Even as a nurse, I felt very vulnerable at the thought that my husband could’ve died. I speak on behalf of myself and my children, I’m really grateful for the aftercare and attention John received as a result of being on his trial. They updated us after every procedure as to how he was doing.”

Professor Noel Caplice, Chair of Cardiovascular Sciences, UCC; pictured with John Nolan from New Ross, a participant on the trial, and his wife Margaret.

According to Dr Mairéad O’Driscoll, Interim Chief Executive at the HRB: “Results like these are a perfect illustration of why the HRB has invested so much in building Ireland’s capacity to conduct clinical trials; so that our brilliant researchers, like Professor Caplice, can conduct research that will improve the outcomes for patients. I’d like to congratulate everyone involved in this ground-breaking project, which could have a profound global impact.”

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, added: “I am delighted to learn about these exciting results emerging from the Translational Research Award Programme, and congratulate Professor Caplice and his colleagues on this important finding. Science Foundation Ireland is proud to invest in exceptional, collaborative research groups that can produce life-changing advances in health research, with the potential to positively impact on patient well-being globally.”

The research has been recognised and peer-reviewed by the European Society of Cardiology and the trial was presented for the first time at its Heart Failure 2017 conference in Paris this morning (April 29).

For more on this story contact:

Lynne Nolan, Media & PR Officer, UCC: 087 210 1119 or lynne.nolan@ucc.ie.

Next stop, Nobel Laureate Meeting, for UCC researcher

David McNulty, Postdoctoral Researcher, Applied Nanoscience Group, Department of Chemistry:
David McNulty, Postdoctoral Researcher, Applied Nanoscience Group, Department of Chemistry: “Attending the Lindau meeting will be a life changing experience for me.”

Dr David McNulty, a postdoctoral researcher at UCC, is one of just three people from Ireland selected to participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau in June.

Dr McNulty, a Postdoctoral Researcher in Dr Colm O’Dwyer’s Applied Nanoscience Group in UCC’s Department of Chemistry, described being one of only 400 young scientists from 76 countries invited to the meeting, this year focused on chemistry, as “a great honour.”

“Attending the Lindau meeting will be a life-changing experience for me, as it will give me an invaluable chance to meet some of the elite scientists in the world, share experiences with them, listen to their advice and essentially allow me to stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Dr McNulty’s research is focused on metal oxide and semiconductor nanostructures as electrode materials for next generation Li-ion batteries.

The scientists selected – all outstanding undergraduate students, graduate students and post-docs under the age of 35 conducting research in the field of chemistry – will meet with Nobel Laureates at Lake Constance from June 25 to 30.

UCC, Nobel Laureate Meeting

More than 30 Nobel laureates have already confirmed their participation, including Bernard Feringa and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016. Key topics to be discussed include Big Data, climate change and the role of science in a “post-truth” era.

Dr McNulty and the other scientists have successfully passed a multi-stage international selection process, and will come from countries including the US, Japan, Israel, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Benin, with a 45-55 female-male ratio.

“For the field of chemistry, that is a substantial number”, according to Wolfgang Lubitz, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion, Vice-President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings and scientific co-chairperson of this year’s meeting.

“The quality of applicants was again extremely high”, said Burkhard Fricke, professor emeritus for theoretical physics and coordinator of the selection process. “Some of the young scientists who applied had very impressive CVs. It is highly unfortunate that we can only invite 400 of them.”

“The Nobel prizes are the most prestigious prize in the intellectual realm. The findings of previous Nobel Laureates not only represent the most significant advances made within the scientific community, they have also had an immeasurable impact on the day-to-day lives of people worldwide,” Dr McNulty added.

UCC researcher honoured for brain seizure predictions

Dr Andriy Temko, a research fellow at the INFANT centre, was named winner of the Kaggle challenge.
Dr Andriy Temko, a research fellow at the INFANT centre, was named winner of the Kaggle challenge.

A UCC researcher has won a prestigious international competition for his work in predicting seizures in the human brain through long-term EEG recordings.

Dr Andriy Temko, a research fellow at the INFANT centre, was named as winner of the Kaggle challenge, and a $10,000 first prize.

Together with data scientists from Ornon, France; Curitiba, Brazil; and Minneapolis, US, Dr Temko developed an artificial intelligence solution that showed the highest accuracy among nearly 500 competing teams from around the world.

The aim of the event was to develop seizure forecasting systems with the potential to help patients with epilepsy lead more normal lives. Epilepsy afflicts nearly 1% of the world’s population, and is characterised by the occurrence of spontaneous seizures.

The challenge was organised and sponsored by the National Institute of Health, American Epilepsy Society and Melbourne University.

In order for electrical brain activity (EEG) based seizure forecasting systems to work effectively, computational algorithms must reliably identify periods of increased probability of seizure occurence. If these brain states can be identified, devices designed to warn patients of impending seizures would be possible. Patients could avoid potentially dangerous activities like driving or swimming, and medications could be administered only when needed to prevent seizures, reducing overall side effects.

For more information, visit: https://www.kaggle.com/c/melbourne-university-seizure-prediction

Dr Temko is a PI of the Wellcome Trust Seed Award in Science. In collaboration with Dr. Emanuel Popovici and Prof. Geraldine Boylan, he is working on the development of a newborn smart brain ‘stethoscope‘ — a portable device that will allow a medical professional to listen to an infant’s brainwaves and quickly assess their brain health status. Such a low cost device for sound-based observation of brain health could be used by all healthcare professionals globally, greatly improving access to diagnosis and treatment for disadvantaged communities.

‘UCC’s the best thing that’s happened to me’

Samar Khan is studying for an MA in Women’s Studies at UCC.
Samar Khan is studying for an MA in Women’s Studies at UCC.

When I arrived in Ireland last September, alone on my first trip to Europe, I was reminded of how, as a young Muslim girl growing up in the State of Uttar Pradesh in India, I was always discouraged from travelling alone. Using public transport was prohibited because it would have exposed me to public gaze and increased the chances of harassment by strangers. My mobility was curbed for my own safety, I was told.

Living and studying away from home in New Delhi, for five years in a democratic and academic environment cultivated my personality, and my perceptions and beliefs evolved. Today, I see travel not only as a mode of exploring new geographical locations, but more importantly, of meeting new people with different perspectives and ideas.

Carrying my luggage on my back and travelling alone from one place to another on buses, trains and planes, has instilled in me the kind of self-confidence that no patronising protective institution ever could. As an Indian Muslim woman, I think this kind of self-realisation is a big achievement in itself.

I am currently pursuing my Masters in Women’s Studies at UCC and I’m able to study in this world-class institution because I was given this opportunity by the Irish Government in the form of a scholarship and for this, I am very grateful. I know that not all deserving people get to enjoy the privilege that I have been given.

I identify as an Indian Muslim woman because my personal experience and academic training gives me the confidence to assert my identity wherever possible and not just to be referred to as another ‘international student’.

I believe that our historical, political and social context play a vital role in shaping our future. My parents’ decision to send me away to study was one that led me to where I am today. It took me some time to comprehend that our political situation in society largely determines the kind of life we live. Discrimination is so rampant and systematic in society, that it has been internalised and normalised in our day-to-day lives.

If we critically analyse, we observe that the construction of language is also misogynistic. A girl like me at 24 would be expected to settle down, while for a guy this is the crucial time to establish himself professionally. The driving factor that led me to join the Women’s Studies MA programme at UCC was to challenge this social tendency and through my course, I intend to use gender as a tool of analysis for feminist research. After only one semester, I can already see my vision taking shape, thanks to the expert faculty and my amazing bunch of classmates.

Religion has always been used politically by the powerful elites to subjugate the weak. If we talk about Islam, it is seen to be a religion where women are treated as inferior to men with virtually no legal rights. However, we tend to forget that Islamic philosophy and Islamic practice are two different things. One of the most damaging phases for Islam was the age of feudalism that bred patriarchy, institutionalised misogyny and made a gender neutral compilation of the Qur’an and its interpretation something aggressively masculine.

As a critical believer who thinks that the emergence of Islam was a political response to the historical problems of that space and time, be it slavery, adultery, female infanticide, I challenge the perception that the same religion encourages gender discrimination.

I think the lack of female scholars in Islamic philosophy feeds into the misinterpretation of Islam. We need more women academics to research and investigate religious texts and to promote the basic philosophy before it can be manipulated against the economic and political development of women.

My aim is to become one of these academics by making the most of the resources I’ve been given by UCC so that we can be in a position to counter religious questions on a woman’s autonomy more theoretically. And thanks to the exposure and experience I have been given, I’m optimistic about that.

This university has given me the chance to speak, and more importantly, to be heard as a person of lower status, a woman belonging to a minority community in my country. In UCC’s conducive environment of bilateral learning, I feel comfortable and confident to voice what I think. In a set-up without hierarchy, I feel myself delivering my best and really being productive. It reaffirms my faith in academia and its role in building a better and more democratic world. Coming to Ireland and studying at UCC may be the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Samar Khan is studying for an MA in Women’s Studies at UCC. Students benefit from academic expertise across a range of disciplines including sociology, applied social studies, law, history, literature, philosophy, folklore, politics, linguistics, performance, popular culture, and religions. Find out more here: https://www.ucc.ie/en/womensstudies/mainwomensstudies/ or follow @uccwomenstudies on Twitter.