Each year, the Royal Society recognises exceptional research achievements through a series of prestigious medals and prizes named after great scientists of the past. Eight of the 2021-22 awards, announced today, honour Oxford University researchers for their outstanding contributions to science and medicine.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine Team receive the Copley Medal, thought to be the world’s oldest scientific prize, for their extraordinary achievement in rapidly developing a COVID-19 vaccine suitable for global distribution.
Professor Andrew Zisserman FRS receives the Bakerian Medal for his research on computational theory and commercial systems for geometrically analysing images, and for being a pioneer in using machine learning for vision, especially image recognition.
Professor Richard Moxon FMedSci FRS receives the Buchanan Medal, for helping pioneer the field of molecular microbiology, discovering ‘contingency loci’ in bacteria (repetitive DNA regions that can enable rapid adaptive evolution), and making key contributions to the development of meningitis vaccines.
Professor Saiful Islam receives the Hughes Medal for outstanding contributions to the deeper understanding of atomistic processes in new materials for use in energy applications, especially those related to lithium batteries and perovskite solar cells.
Professor Charlotte Williams OBE FRS receives the Leverhulme Medal for her pioneering work developing and understanding high performance carbon dioxide utilization catalysts and chemistry of next-generation plastic materials.
Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert FRS receives the Rumford Medal for his wide ranging contributions to atmospheric physics, employing fundamental principles of physics to elucidate phenomena across the spectrum of planetary atmospheres.
Professor David Rodney (Roger) Heath-Brown receives the Sylvester Medal for his many important contributions to the study of prime numbers and solutions to equations in integers.
Professor Iain McCulloch FRS receives the Royal Society Armourers and Brasiers Company Prize for making fundamental contributions to the application of materials chemistry to organic electronic applications, with an applied, results-oriented focus, demonstrating translational impact and commercial potential.
Professor Dame Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford said,
'We are absolutely delighted by this recognition of the depth, range, impact and talent of our extraordinary scientists.'
More about the medal winners
The Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID vaccine team
Awarded: Copley Medal
For the first time in the nearly 300-year history, the Royal Society’s most prestigious award - the Copley Medal- has been awarded to a team. The world’s oldest scientific prize, the Copley Medal recognises exceptional contributions to science, with previous recipients including Louis Pasteur, Dorothy Hodgkin, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. This year, the award honours the researchers, technicians, students and support staff responsible for the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine.
Accepting the Copley Medal on behalf of the team, Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert DBE, Saïd Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘It is wonderful to receive this recognition. When work started on the vaccine in 2020, we needed to bring together people with complementary expertise to allow us to move quickly and plan many stages ahead. Many people worked extremely hard for a very long time, and winning this prize lets the whole team know how much their dedication is appreciated.’
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard FMedSci, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group added, ‘It is a huge honour for the Oxford COVID-19 team to be awarded the Copley Medal for our work on the life-saving Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and it is a shining inspiration for us to continue our efforts to improve human health through immunisation and protect the world from future pandemic threats.’
Andrew Zisserman is Professor of Computer Vision Engineering at the Department of Engineering Science and a Royal Society Research Professor.
Awarded: Bakerian Medal
Professor Zisserman’s current research focuses on developing new ways for computers to learn to understand the content of video streams. This aims to move away from conventional ‘supervised’ forms of learning, where computers can only learn to recognise classes of objects they have been instructed to look for, to ‘self-supervised’ modes, where computers learn directly from the structure of the video stream, an approach inspired by how infants are thought to learn. Ultimately, this could enable computers to analyse, describe and search image and video content with human-like capabilities.
He said: ‘Computer vision is a fast moving field, and there are many exciting potential applications for this research. These include the use of visual understanding for the deaf, for example recognizing British Sign Language (BSL), and for the visually impaired. However, there are many problems still to solve, and many new challenges arise as the research progresses.’
I’m very honoured, and delighted to have this recognition for myself, for the research team, and for the computer vision field.
Richard Moxon is Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics and a Professorial Fellow of Jesus College
Awarded: Buchanan Medal
Professor Moxon has had a career-long interest in how bacteria cause the deadly diseases sepsis and meningitis, and how these can be prevented through safe, effective vaccines. He is the founder and was the first director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and the former Director of the Centre for Clinical Vaccinology, named in his honour as the Moxon Building in 2014. He has published more than 400 scientific articles and 5 books, his most recent being Brain Fever: How Vaccines Prevent Bacterial Meningitis and Other Killer Diseases (2021).
In particular, Professor Moxon was a pioneer in applying genome sequencing in vaccine development, a technology which led to the development of a vaccine against meningococcal meningitis that is now a routine immunisation for infants. He said: ‘As the COVID pandemic has taught us, it is through vaccines that we are able to prevent the deaths and disabilities caused by dangerous pathogens. No other intervention in the history of medicine confers a greater public health benefit than immunisation.’
I am very proud to receive this award, because the Royal Society champions excellence in research. I am also humbled, because my career was built on the shoulders of giants who have mentored, supported and encouraged me.
Saiful Islam is Professor of Materials Modelling at the Department of Materials
Awarded: Hughes Medal
Professor Islam’s research uses powerful computer modelling to deepen our understanding of atom-scale processes in energy materials, especially those related to lithium batteries and perovskite solar cells. He leads the Faraday Institution CATMAT project on next-generation lithium ion cathode materials, a partnership of eight universities and twelve industry partners. In 2016, he presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for BBC TV on the theme of energy, and he holds the Guinness World Record for the highest voltage from a fruit battery, reaching 2,400V from 3,000 lemons.
Developing low carbon energy technologies is one of the greatest challenges of our time to deal with climate change, and this depends critically on new materials and greater underpinning science.
Professor Islam said: ‘I’m absolutely delighted and honoured to be awarded this prize from the Royal Society. I’m grateful to my fantastic research group members and collaborators (past and present) for creating such an enjoyable and stimulating research environment to work in - reminding me how much we depend on others to reach the stars.’
Charlotte Williams is a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Associate Head of Department (Research) in Oxford Chemistry
Awarded: Leverhulme Medal
Professor Williams researches the chemistry of next generation plastics and materials: products designed to deliver high performances in applications but with minimal environmental impacts. Her work focuses on addressing fundamental challenges in catalysis (to reduce energy input in manufacturing) and on polymer chemistry, involving close collaboration with scientists and engineers in both academic and industrial laboratories.
She said: ‘I am inspired to work on applied problems and to try to reduce negative environmental impacts associated with polymer production. In particular, I am interested in carbon dioxide recycling to make useful products with lower greenhouse gas emissions, and producing materials from mixtures of raw materials – an achievement that nature makes look easy, but is a major challenge in chemistry.’
The award is a huge honour for me and my team, I have no doubt it will inspire us to work harder and try to accelerate catalysis and chemistry in the plastics area.
Raymond Pierrehumbert is the Halley Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford
Awarded: Rumford Medal
Professor Pierrehumbert researches the physics of climate of the earth and other planets, including newly discovered exoplanets, as well as the nature and impact of climate disruption resulting from anthropogenic climate change.
He said: ‘We now know over 5000 planets orbiting stars other than our own, and that even potentially habitable planets are quite common. Yet many, perhaps most, of the planets we find have no real counterparts in our solar system. This ranges from tiny gassy planets with liquid water clouds to planets so hot they have a permanent magma ocean from which rock vapour evaporates and later snows out. My work deals with determining the climates of these new planets, and how they evolve over time. It yields fresh and exciting new phenomena, but rests on the same fundamental building blocks of physics that we use to understand earth and other solar system planets.’
I have long thought that planetary climate was solidly rooted in fundamental physics, so it is especially gratifying to have my work recognized by this award for accomplishments in physics.
David Rodney (Roger) Heath-Brown is Professor of Pure Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute
Awarded: Sylvester Medal
Ever since he was inspired as a teenager by a book of puzzles, Professor Heath-Brown has been fascinated by mathematics. His work focuses on number theory, particularly questions about prime numbers, and in whole-number solutions to equations with many unknowns. His successes include creating a now widely-used simple formula for handling sums involving prime numbers (known as ‘Heath-Brown’s Identity’) and helping develop the ‘Determinant Method’, which shows that equations cannot have too many whole-number solutions. Applications of these ideas include the underpinning theories behind the construction of modern crypto-systems, and of attempts to break them.
He said: ‘My research area involves a combination of ideas from geometry and number theory, and has seen tremendous growth over the past twenty years or more. As a result, we are seeing solutions to long-standing problems that would never have been possible before.’
Previous recipients of this award include mathematicians who I have always regarded with awe, each with a lasting legacy, still influential today. It is a wonderful honour from my peers that my name will be added to this list.
Iain McCulloch is Professor of Polymer Chemistry, in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oxford.
Awarded: Royal Society Armourers and Brasiers Company Prize
Professor McCulloch’s research focuses on creating new organic materials which have unique electrical and optical functionality, capable of enabling new applications in displays, electronics, photovoltaics and sensors. Applications of these materials include transforming optical energy to electrical power in solar cells, detecting metabolites in bioelectronic sensors, acting as electrical semiconductors in transistors, and generating hydrogen fuel from the photochemical reduction of water.
Professor McCulloch said: ‘Climate crisis and the protection of our environment is one of the biggest societal issues facing us right now, and chemistry has a role to play in offering new alternatives and solutions. Our research in solar energy and solar fuels can help to move these technologies firmly into the mainstream, eliminating our dependency on fossil fuels.’
My research has always had a translational focus, and I am very fortunate to have patient, creative, and committed collaborators who are able to put the materials we develop to use in their applications.