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Professor Maureen O’Leary Photo by: Stony Brook University

Daughter of Irish emigrants in leading scientific breakthrough may win Nobel Prize

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Professor Maureen O’Leary Photo by: Stony Brook University

A daughter of Irish immigrants, Professor Maureen O’Leary at Stony Brook University in Long Island, recently led a team of researchers whose findings may be deserving of science’s top prize. Her discovery made the front page of The New York Times.

O’Leary and her team of 22 scientists recently discovered a possible ancestor for all placental mammals. All mammals that nourish their offspring through a placenta in the uterus followed by birthing live young are considered placental mammals.

No surprise that discovering a possible ancestor for humans, whales, bats, and loads in between landed O’Leary on the front page of the New York Times and perhaps a bid for the Nobel Prize. 

O’Leary explained how about 10 years ago  the National Science Foundation realized that if more perplexing questions were going to be “tackled,” experts from around the world would have to be working  together in real time. Subsequently,  the foundation started the “Assembling the Tree of Life” and O’Leary’s work was a branch of the project. 

Read more: Irish American scientist leads breakthrough research that finds common ancestor for mammals

O’Leary and her team were able to regenerate the image of a hypothetical placental mammal by retracing the steps of thousands of species both extinct and present today. The MorphoBank was created to simplify this process. 

The online application stores incredible amounts of data and allows for collaboration. The MorphoBank itself became another prize to come out of the research. The application’s usefulness and sophistication has attracted scientists worldwide and has been used in many projects. 

O’Leary best summed up the MorphoBank’s importance by saying the research was “not possible without it.”

The six long years of research gave us an image of a logical but hypothetical ancestor for placental mammals. To date, no one can find the exact ancestor for placental mammals or know the exact date of great mammalian evolution but the research can be taken further. 

For O’Leary, “continuing the digging” and finding more evidence would be the only way to prove this hypothetical placenta ancestor to be not hypothetical.  

Maureen’s father was a 2nd generation Irishman from Kerry. Maureen’s mother, Stella, journeyed to America from Dublin in the 1960s. Stella O’Leary founded the Irish American Democrats and was appointed alternate observer of the International Funds for Ireland by President Obama. 

“The findings were not a total surprise,” O’Leary said. “But it’s an important discovery because it relies on lots of information from fossils and also molecular data.”

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