Silhouette of an upset-looking young woman viewing a message on her phone.

Spotlight on MSCA COFUNDS: Mairéad Foody

Posted: 3 July, 2023

An IRC-MSCA fellowship let Dr Mairéad Foody lead and see the impact of her research at an NGO and Tusla

Dr Mairéad Foody is an Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology, at the University of Galway, a role she started in September 2021. She was offered the role at the same time that her three-year IRC-MSCA CAROLINE COFUND project was nearing completion.

Mairéad is still releasing findings from her IRC (Irish Research Council)-MSCA (Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions) project, titled ‘SEXED: Investigating Online Sexual Harassment and Exploitation in Relation to the UN Sustainable Developmental Goals’, including a paper she has recently published on the non-consensual sharing of images online.

Mairéad’s IRC CAROLINE MSCA fellowship directly built on an IRC Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded to her in 2016, and which she credits with re-starting her Irish research career.

Mairéad explains how, in 2015, she was looking to return home to Ireland from London, where she had a postdoctoral role at Kingston University, on a project about cyberbullying in schools in Qatar.

At the time, Mairéad says, there wasn’t much research around cyberbullying, particularly in Ireland. This prompted her to apply for the IRC Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme for funding to do a similar project in Ireland.

Cyber bullying illustration: cartoon depicting distressed bullied girl character sitting in front of computer with negative online icons from social media.

Mairéad was successful and was awarded the postdoctoral fellowship, which was on a two-year project looking at cyberbullying in Ireland, based at the DCU Anti-Bullying Centre. She describes it as one of the best things that happened to her.

Mairéad says it was the first large-scale study to look at cyberbullying and image-sharing in Ireland, and at what children and young people were doing online, as well as the impact on their mental health and friendship quality.

She explains how the findings of the research showed that one of the biggest impacts on young people’s mental health was when images of them had been shared without their consent or without them knowing, particularly sexual images.

This led Mairéad to write a proposal for funding for a research project about that particular topic — online sexual image abuse — under the IRC CAROLINE (Collaborative Research Fellowships for a Responsive and Innovative Europe) MSCA COFUND Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme. The CAROLINE scheme, which launched in 2016, funded experienced researchers from any discipline to conduct research on the themes of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for shared economic prosperity, social development, and environmental protection. A key element of the programme was collaboration between the academic sector, non-governmental organisations, and international organisations.

Dr Mairéad Foody, headshot, taken in an office setting

Mairéad’s funding proposal was successful. She says, “I had all these ideas of my own and I wanted to start training and developing other researchers, too, so I’d be more of a leader. So that was my idea with the MSCA COFUND project and I was absolutely delighted when I got it, and really, it has been huge.”

The CAROLINE MSCA COFUND was international and Mairéad undertook a secondment with an anti-bullying NGO in Sweden called Friends. It also had a work placement element, normally undertaken outside of Ireland. Due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time, Mairéad did her work placement with Tusla in Dublin.

Mairéad says, “Both the secondment and work placement are a big part of the fellowship and they were brilliant because they were eye-opening in that you could see the direct impact of your research which is something I hadn’t had up until that point.”

Different training events organised by the IRC for MSCA fellows were a further highlight for Mairéad.

She says, “The first one was on open science and all about digital archives – that was really good. I thought it was very on the pulse. I had been reading about open science and open data myself, so it was great to be able to ask questions and get the training in. The IRC were ahead of it, in that they knew what European grants were looking for as well. I felt they knew how researchers should be being trained to be getting the next-level grants from the EU, which is what I’d be looking to now.”

As part of the team from the DCU Anti-Bullying Centre, Mairéad was invited to make submissions to and attend meetings of two Joint Oireachtas Committees; on Justice and Equality on Harmful Communication in 2019, and on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the topic of School Bullying and Mental Health in 2021. This provided further insights for her into how research projects, such as hers, can feed into Government policy.

Reflecting on the impact of the CAROLINE MSCA fellowship for her, Mairéad says, “The actual impact that the MSCA fellowship had on my career is massive. It strengthened my CV, but it also gave me independence. I was able to create really meaningful collaborations and networks. It gave me the space and time to focus on my research interests and then to upskill in lots of areas that I hadn’t the time to do before. I had more time to do training or a course. It gave me independence because then I was PI [principal investigator], and it let me lead and bring the project to where I wanted to go, which I hadn’t been able to do before.

“It improved my career, my skills and got me to where I wanted to go, which was to get a permanent position in academia.”

As a next step in her research career, Mairéad is planning a submission to another of the IRC’s PI-led awards programmes, with a view to building an application for European Research Council funding opportunities.

She says, “I can’t see where else I would go for funding – a lot of the programmes out there seem to be STEM-focused and health-focused, and on medical health rather than mental health. The IRC suited my work in mental health. They’re concerned with issues related to the child and to mental health. I can’t see another avenue that’s as good a fit for me at the moment.”

To read about other past MSCA COFUND programmes, go to the impact section of our website. For more information on our current MSCA COFUND, DOROTHY, please visit the DOROTHY funding page

Dr Mairéad Foody took part in a first-person interview in May 2023 for this feature.

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