Eight Oxford researchers win top UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships

Today eight Oxford University academics have been awarded significant financial funding from the UKRI ‘Future Leaders Fellowships scheme’ that was created to help develop the next wave of world-class research and innovation leaders in academia and business.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway announced nearly 100 new Fellows, who will share in £113 million funding, with individual researchers receiving up to £1.5 million.

The Oxford University winners are; Dr Regent Lee, Dr Louise Slater, Dr Weston Struwe, Dr Kirsty Duffy, Dr James Newton, Dr Alexander Davies, Dr Chris Vogel and Dr Robert Weatherup.

Dr Louise Slater’s fellowship will focus on developing a holistic understanding of changing river flood risk. Floods have multiple complex drivers that are challenging to disentangle, including river catchment characteristics, land changes such as urbanization and deforestation, antecedent soil moisture conditions, and how atmospheric circulation systems will respond to climate change. 

Her project, the Dynamic drivers of flood risk (DRIFT) is co-designed with key partners including the Environment Agency, Flood Forecasting Centre, European Weather Centre (ECMWF), UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Met Office, JBA, and United States Geological Survey.  

During his fellowship, Dr Davies and his team will investigate exactly how ‘killer’ cells target injured nerves, with the aim of developing a targeted immune therapy for neuropathic pain that avoids the side effects of existing treatments.

Chronic pain, often because of nerve injury, affects as many as 1 in 3 adults in the UK and costs the economy billions of pounds every year in treatment and lost productivity. The currently used drugs may either be ineffective or pose significant side effects for patients. Dr Alex Davies’s previous research has shown that injured nerves display distress signals that are received by specialised ‘killer’ cells of the immune system. The activity of these killer immune cells in turn appears to help relieve the pain of a nerve injury.

‘This fellowship gives me the support and resources I need to realise my vision of enhancing the body’s own ability to repair and resolve painful nerve injury’. Dr Alexander Davies

Dr Kirsty Duffy Followship will be focused upon Neutrinos, that might just be the most important particle you’ve never heard of. They are absolutely everywhere (about 100,000,000 pass through your thumbnail every second), but almost never interact with anything - most of the time they just fly through us without even noticing we’re there. That makes them difficult to study, and so neutrinos are one of the least-understood types of particle we know. Despite this, they could be incredibly important to the makeup of our universe - some theories predict that differences in physics of neutrinos and their antimatter equivalent, antineutrinos, could help explain why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter (or even why it exists at all).  

Dr James Newton works in an area of mathematics called number theory. This is a field which draws its inspiration from some of the most ancient problems in mathematics - for example finding integer solutions to algebraic equations - but it also provides the theoretical underpinnings for cutting-edge applications of mathematics to cryptography. Dr Newton's research investigates the symmetries of algebraic equations in the context of the Langlands program, an endeavour which seeks to build bridges between different kinds of mathematical structure. A key part of this work involves ideas and techniques first developed as part of the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem by Sir Andrew Wiles (Regius Professor of Mathematics at Oxford). 

‘I am delighted to receive a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. This will enable me to lead a research programme investigating fundamental, fascinating problems in mathematics, in the inspirational environment of the Mathematical Institute at Oxford’ Dr James Newton

Dr Regent Lee is a is a vascular surgeon and a clinician scientist. His research focuses on integrative assessments to define novel precision management for patients with abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA) – a condition that kills about 200,000 people globally each year. He will be developing novel blood and imaging tests to improve the management of these patients, as well as developing platform technologies that can be applied to other disease contexts.

Dr Weston Struwe’s team will develop novel protein engineering and chemical biology tools, as well as advanced methods in mass spectrometry and mass photometry, to uncover how specific glycans shape biological processes. This insight will help to not only understand the fundamental role of glycans in biology but support the development of biopharmaceutical drugs and structure-based vaccines designed to confront real-world health challenges. 

Dr Chris Vogel fellowship will focus on Offshore wind energy which is developing rapidly in the UK – reaching the net-zero emissions targets may require growth of the sector from around 10GW today to over 90GW by 2050.  The aerodynamic interactions between wind turbines, farms and atmospheric flows are becoming increasingly important for design and operational decisions and performance prediction. Building on his previous research, he will also look at how the offshore energy resource varies spatially and temporally around the country, and the implications that this has for energy storage needs as part of decarbonising the energy network.

‘Through my fellowship, I will be looking at how to successfully scale up offshore renewable energy to meet net-zero targets with a holistic view of how technology development and operation can contribute to a reliable and resilient electricity network’ Dr Chris Vogel 

Associate Professor Robert Weatherup is leading a project that aims to develop characterisation techniques to reveal the reactions occurring at interfaces within electrochemical devices as they happen. Electrochemical energy storage and conversion technologies will be vital as we transition towards intermittent renewable energy sources where they can help convert and store energy for when it is needed. 

However, improvements are needed in the battery and electrocatalyst materials currently available before they enter more widespread use. During Prof. Weatherup’s Fellowship he will take a new approach to drive the development of electrochemical energy storage and electrocatalytic synthesis technologies by understanding how materials that store and convert energy behave in real-world devices. This will involve the use of X-rays and Neutrons that to peer into the inner workings of these materials, and then using this understanding to inform the design and selection of new and improved materials.

‘I hope to establish a group that can tackle some of the big challenges related to developing sustainable electrochemical technologies, ultimately contributing to efforts to minimise climate change.’ Dr Rob Weatherup.

‘I am delighted that UKRI is able to support the next generation of research and innovation leaders through our Future Leaders Fellowship programme. The new Fellows announced today will have the support and freedom they need to pursue their research and innovation ideas, delivering new knowledge and understanding and tackling some of the greatest challenges of our time.’  Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, UKRI Chief Executive.