Professor Jayne Birkby, an early-middle aged white woman with brown hair standing in front of a bookcase. Professor Fernanda Duarte, a women of Asian origin with long dark hair.
Left: Associate Professor Jayne Birkby. Photo credit: Dirk Gillissen/API/UvA. Right: Associate Professor Fernanda Duarte.

Oxford researchers honoured in 2024 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists

Two Oxford researchers have been named as Finalists in the 2024 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the UK. The prestigious awards celebrate the past accomplishments and future potential of the UK’s most innovative young scientists and engineers.

Every year, one Laureate and two Finalists are chosen in the three disciplinary categories of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Chemical Sciences. The 2024 Awards received 84 nominations from 40 academic and research institutions across the UK. This year, Associate Professors Fernanda Duarte and Jayne Birkby from the University of Oxford were selected as Finalists, and will each receive £30,000.

Professor Jim Naismith, Head of the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences (MPLS) Division at Oxford University, said: 'We are immensely proud of the ground-breaking achievements of Fernanda Duarte and Jayne Birkby, associate Professors in MPLS, who have been named as Finalists in the 2024 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists. Their exceptional contributions to computational organic chemistry and exoplanetary science exemplify the spirit of innovation and dedication that defines our institution. We congratulate them on this well-deserved recognition and look forward to witnessing the continued impact of their pioneering research in the scientific community and beyond.'

About the Oxford winners:

Jayne Birkby is Associate Professor of Exoplanetary Science in the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics.

The UK exoplanet community is a thriving success, whose discoveries are driven by the talent and hard work of many early career researchers. I am especially thankful to my students, my team, and collaborators throughout the world, without whom none of this would have been possible. It is a privilege to be on this incredible adventure with them, knowing that there is so much more discovery ahead of us.

Associate Professor Jayne Birkby, Department of Physics, University of Oxford.

The ongoing search for a second Earth has revealed an astounding diversity in planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets), from roasted gas giants to rocky lava worlds awash with magma oceans. Professor Birkby’s research looks to these extreme worlds to better understand the diversity of rocky exoplanets, the origins of life on Earth, and ultimately the prevalence of life throughout our galaxy. Ultimately, she seeks the detection of biosignatures, the tell-tale combination of molecules (e.g. oxygen, methane, water, and carbon dioxide) that could signal life on the nearest rocky exoplanets.

In 2013, Professor Birkby was recognised for detecting water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet unambiguously for the first time, using a technique she helped pioneer called High Resolution Spectroscopy. Since then, she has continuously advanced cutting-edge spectroscopy and imaging techniques for exoplanet research. This includes developing methods to calculate exoplanet spin rates and day length, measure high altitude winds in exoplanet atmospheres, and to create maps of gas giant exoplanet atmospheres. These approaches may ultimately bear fruit when the Extremely Large Telescope becomes operational at the end of the decade. This 39-metre diameter ground-based observatory will -for the first time in human history - provide the technological power to detect biosignatures on the nearest rocky exoplanets.

More information can be found on the website for Professor Birkby’s research group.

Fernanda Duarte is Associate Professor of Computational Organic Chemistry in the University of Oxford’s Department of Chemistry.

Professor Duarte and her team are pioneering computational tools to simulate chemical reactions, optimise chemical synthesis, and guide molecular design. Employing a bottom-up approach, they efficiently leverage chemistry knowledge, molecular modelling, and advances in computer science to address pressing challenges. Through integrating a broad spectrum of computational and theoretical techniques, they have tackled scientific challenges at the intersection of different fields. These include elucidating complex reaction pathways, realistically modelling solvent effects, and identifying potential therapeutic agents for global health challenges. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Duarte used these approaches to investigate the key interactions needed for the functioning of the main protein in SARS-CoV-2, that could inform inhibitory drugs.

This recognition celebrates the dedication, creativity, and collective efforts of the fantastic team I have had the privilege to lead. Many thanks to all of them, my mentors, parents, and husband.

Associate Professor Fernanda Duarte, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford.

The group have developed open-source platforms to streamline and automate reaction modelling tasks that have been traditionally computationally expensive and/or limited to experts. This work has attracted widespread interest from academia and industry, who are increasingly incorporating these methods to transform how chemical modelling is harnessed to predict new molecules and catalysts.

More information can be found on the lab group’s website.

Full details about the 2024 recipients can be found on the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the UK website. The Awards are generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and independently administered by the New York Academy of Sciences

The 2024 Laureates and Finalists will be honoured at a black-tie gala dinner and award ceremony at Banqueting House in Whitehall, London, on 27 February 2024. The ceremony will be presented by Professor Irene Tracey, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford.

The following day, on 28 February 2024 from 11:00 to 17:00 GMT, the honourees will present their research with a series of short, interactive lectures at a free public symposium at the RSA House located at 8 John Adam St., London. To attend the symposium, click here to register.