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Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal

Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal


​The Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal in Environmental Science and Geoscience, co-sponsored by Geological Survey Ireland and Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, was awarded to Professor Jennifer McElwain on Monday, 4 April 2022.

Professor Jennifer C. McElwain, MRIA

Citation on the awarding of the Academy Gold Medal in the Environmental Sciences and Geosciences

Professor Jennifer C. McElwain is an internationally recognised pioneer in the reconstruction of paleo-atmospheric composition using fossil plant proxies. For over two decades her research has focused on the interface between the biological and geological sciences, where she has crafted a unique niche as a renowned palaeobotanist, bringing palaeoecological insights to contemporary plant science and an Earth system perspective to palaeobotany. She has achieved this by positioning her work at the forefront of experimentally testing and applying paleo-CO2 proxies to intervals of past environmental and biotic change.

Professor McElwain has spearheaded the development of novel paleo-ecophysiological traits that can now be applied to fossil plants to test the role of vegetation change and the evolution of plant function in forcing critical shifts in Earth system processes. Her research has delivered major breakthroughs in understanding the coupled evolution of plants and the atmosphere on geological timescales with a major focus on atmospheric CO2 and O2.

The application of the stomatal proxy method and its continued refinement and experimental testing by McElwain and her research team have revolutionised understanding of changing atmospheric CO2 through Earth history. McElwain’s work has been underpinned by coupled perspectives in Earth system science and plant ecophysiology, ecology and evolution. Without McElwain’s continued improvement and application of the plant-based CO2 proxy to climate critical intervals in Earth history such as biological mass extinction events, oceanic anoxic events and extreme volcanic episodes, subsequent studies on the geological causes and biological consequences of major global change events would not have been possible. Similarly, advances in understanding of the factors and processes driving the long-term carbon cycle, climate and ice sheet/sea-level dynamics through Earth history have been shaped by McElwain’s major contribution to the baseline CO2 record over highly dynamic climatic intervals such as the Late Pennsylvanian and Eocene/Oligocene climate transition.

She has contributed to the global reach of her discipline through leadership and chairing of international conferences, invited commentary, interviews and via science-art collaborations and public outreach opportunities.

Professor McElwain has directed numerous high-profile, multi-million-euro research teams/projects, she has successfully mentored 14 post-doctoral fellows and 16 PhD students through these awards and she has played a leading role in the establishment and funding of award-winning national-scale experimental infrastructure in Ireland. She is a fellow of Trinity College Dublin, a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a President’s Medal awardee of the Palaeontological Society.


Professor McElwain is a highly regarded and innovative international leader in the field of palaeobiology. She holds the 1711 full Professorial Chair of Botany at Trinity College Dublin, Trinity’s oldest established Chair. She is the current Director of Trinity Botanic Garden, Head of the Department of Botany and Chair of the Royal Irish Academy’s Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee. She is the first female in all four leadership roles.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Professor Jennifer McElwain, Dr Mary Canning, President of the Royal Irish Academy.

Dr Marie Cowan, Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, Prof. Jennifer McElwain, Trinity College Dublin, and Dr Brian McConnell, Geological Survey Ireland.

Photo credits: Johnny Bambury.