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Sarah Guerin, SFI Early Career Researcher of the Year
November 20, 2023

Assoc Professor Sarah Guerin being presented with the Early Career Researcher award by Philip Nolan, Director General – Science Foundation Ireland and Prof. Norelee Kennedy, Vice President for Research (VPR), University of Limerick.

Assoc. Professor Sarah Guerin is the Principal Investigator of the Actuate Lab, currently working on both in-silico and ex-silico engineering of biomolecular crystals, primarily for application areas in eco-friendly sensing and pharmaceuticals at the University of Limerick. Sarah is an established member of SSPC’s Modelling Theme, working with experimentalists and industry to make more efficient drug products.

Sarah’s research has led to significant breakthroughs: her development of a quantitative predictability model to screen organic piezoelectric materials initially led to the discovery of three highly piezoelectric amino acid crystals (β-glycine, DL-alanine and hydroxy-L-proline) with potential for use in medical implants and drug delivery devices. This is the first time that quantitative theoretical data is being produced on the piezoelectric response in amino acids and peptides, with individual piezoelectric constants being verified experimentally.

The work has been published in Nanoscale, Nature Materials, Physical Review Letters, and formed the basis of a Thesis in 3 talk with the title ‘Nature’s Shocking Secret’, which was the Thesis in 3 National Winner in 2016.

Assoc. Professor Guerin has spent 2022 building her multidisciplinary research group, the Actuate Lab in the Department of Physics in the University of Limerick. She currently supervises three PhD students, two postdoctoral researchers, and six undergraduate final year project students. She established a piezoelectricity summer research programme in the Department of Physics which saw four further undergraduate students undertake active research under her supervision this year. Her group members have already received multiple acknowledgements such as placing in the British Association of Crystal Growth Research Image Competition and the European Crystallography Meeting’s Science Slam. Her mentoring began in September 2017 with the co-supervision and design of a BSc. Applied Physics undergraduate research project.  This work led to the article Racemic Amino Acid Piezoelectric Transducer in Physical Review Letters and also led to a successful Irish Research Council PhD application for the student. In 2021, she began collaborating with Prof. Vikram Pakrashi in University College Dublin to validate the first flexible amino acid sensor for pipe damage detection.

The work gained international attention and was an Influential Paper for 2021 in Cell Reports Physical Science. She currently works with a large number of international research groups as a world-leader in computationally predicting the electromechanical properties of novel molecular crystals, including groups in IISER Pune, IISER Bhopal, IISER Kolkata, Tel-Aviv University, NYU Abu Dhabi, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Zhejiang University and Aliah University. She has also previously worked with groups in Singapore and Switzerland, and her research has been cited across five continents. Her research collaborations have been featured on the cover of JACS, CrystEngComm, the Journal of Materials Chemistry B, and Accounts of Material Research.

One of her proudest achievements has been incorporating predictive design into the global field of crystal design and beyond, via establishing an extensive international network of world-leading collaborators that allows her to maximise the impact of her models. This has led to the rationalisation and design of complex crystal phenomena such as bending, twisting, photosalience, and self-healing.

Nationally she has collaborated and published with researchers across five higher education institutes and three SFI research centres. To date Sarah has given over 24 oral presentations, 7 of which were invited and has won 4 awards. Within SSPC she regularly gives talks on research collaboration and multi-disciplinary research and has delivered workshops on everything from science communication to image processing.

Sarah currently leads the SOPHia Project: Science Outreach to Promote Physics. She has worked with SSPC’s Education and Public Engagement Team to develop the ‘Crystal Clear’ citizen science project around her research on biomolecular crystal growth, which will target 200 families nationally in 2023.

In the pharmaceuticals sector, the impact will be generated via advancing Sarah’s DFT predictions beyond the state-of-the-art to become a commercial software. This will be used in the pharmaceutical industry as an in-silico tool kit to accelerate drug discovery and development. The reduced drug-to-market time will lead to high performance, low-cost drugs.  The goal of her Actuate lab in UL is to help position Ireland and Europe as leaders in the realisation of eco-friendly, self-powered sensor technology.

In addition to having over 32 publications to date with over 514 citations, Sarah has contributed to the wider research community by reviewing for world-leading journals such as Nature Materials, Angewandte Chemie and Chemical Society Reviews, as well as specialist journals such as Crystal Growth and Design, CrystEngComm, and the Journal of Physics and Chemistry of Solids. She was awarded an Outstanding Reviewer Award from Materialia.

At the annual SSPC Symposium, Sarah spoke on “Molecular Modelling for Sustainable High-Throughput Screening of Multi-Component Pharmaceuticals” ⏬

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