Four young academics from across the University of Oxford have received Philip Leverhulme prizes – the largest number awarded to researchers of any university. Credit: Shutterstock.
Four young academics from across the University of Oxford have received Philip Leverhulme prizes – the largest number awarded to researchers of any university. Credit: Shutterstock.

Four Oxford researchers win £100,000 Philip Leverhulme prizes

Four researchers from across the University of Oxford have today been awarded Philip Leverhulme prizes – the largest number awarded to researchers of any single UK university.

Awarded by the Leverhulme Trust, Philip Leverhulme Prizes recognise the achievement of outstanding research scholars whose future career is exceptionally promising, and whose work has made original and significant contributions to knowledge as well as shown sustained international impact.

Only 30 prizes are awarded throughout the UK each year and the four Oxford winners come from the three eligible divisions: Humanities; Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences (MPLS); and Social Sciences. Each prize winner receives £100,000 which can be used for any purpose related to the advancement of their research.

The 2022 prize winners are:

Abi Adams-Prassl is a Professor and Associate Head for the Department of Economics. Her research develops new empirical techniques and harnesses new sources of data to understand the sources and consequences of inequality in the labour market and beyond. Her current work includes projects using job vacancy text to provide new insights on changing employment contracts and diversity in the workplace, with a focus on understanding why gender inequalities persist. She intends to use the prize to support new collaborations and to hire an early career researcher at Oxford to help drive forward the next phase of her work.

She says: ‘I am honoured and delighted to win the Philip Leverhulme Prize, but research is never a lone endeavour. I'm so grateful for the supportive research environment and culture at the Department of Economics and my brilliant co-authors. The prize will allow me to develop a new agenda uniting my research on gender inequality with that on flexible work arrangements and natural language processing of job advert text.’

Associate Professor Sebastian Bonilla. Image credit: Dr Christina HerovenAssociate Professor Sebastian Bonilla. Image credit: Dr Christina Heroven
Sebastian Bonilla is an Associate Professor in the Department of Materials. His research aims to understand and develop nanolayer materials to enable a new generation of advanced optoelectronic devices and integrated circuits. He intends to use the prize money to continue his work to help develop new materials to improve the efficiency of solar panels, and hence the uptake of solar energy and the mitigation of climate change worldwide.

He says: ‘I am deeply honoured to have been selected by the Leverhulme Trust for this great recognition of my work and their vote of confidence in me. I am thrilled by the new and exciting avenues of science that this prize will allow me to explore. I am also hugely thankful for all the support I have received from my colleagues at Oxford Materials, the funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering and EPSRC, and the work and dedication of my team, without whom this would not have been possible.’

Associate Professor Harrison Steel Associate Professor Harrison Steel. Image credit: Harrison Steel.
Harrison Steel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering. His team researches how to apply robotic tools and control algorithms to outstanding challenges in biotechnology, including carbon capture, cellular agriculture, and environmentally-friendly bio-manufacturing. This interdisciplinary work requires them to invent new hardware and instruments alongside directly engineering biological systems, such as bacteria. He will use the prize to scale up these technologies and to develop open-source resources so that these methods can be used by researchers and innovators across the world.

He says: ‘I was personally very grateful for this award's recognition of our long-term efforts to develop new technologies and share them as open-source projects. Ensuring that science and engineering is widely accessible for a diversity of participants is a big challenge for the future, and so I appreciate this opportunity to shine a light on impactful work being done in this space.’

Professor Sam Wolfe. Image credit: Sam WolfeProfessor Sam Wolfe. Image credit: Sam Wolfe
Sam Wolfe is Professor of French and Romance Linguistics in the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages. His work combines evidence from historical manuscripts with the latest tools from theoretical linguistics and language acquisition to develop theories on why the Romance languages – spoken by nearly a billion people on the planet – take the grammatical ’shape’ that they do. He will use the prize money towards conducting detailed research into how social structure and language acquisition interact to speed up or slow down grammatical change. This will involve fieldwork in France, Italy, Brazil, Canada, and Romania to explore how different languages have evolved in very different circumstances.

He says: ‘This award will have a transformational impact on my research and allow me to dedicate my time to better understanding how and why languages change very quickly in some circumstances but remain very stable in others. The project will be challenging but I am very much looking forward to seeing the results and the impact on our understanding of linguistic variation and change. I am very grateful to be part of a University, two Faculties, and a College that allow me freedom to pursue research questions which interest me, even if we don’t yet know what results this will yield.’

Professor Sam Howison, Head of Division for Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences (MPLS Division), says: ‘Many congratulations to the two MPLS researchers being honoured with the Philip Leverhulme Prize today: Sebastian Bonilla and Harrison Steel. This is wonderful recognition of the international impact and future potential of their research, and I look forward to seeing the fruits of their work as it develops.’

Professor Philomen Probert, Faculty Board Chair of the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, says: ‘I am delighted to see Sam Wolfe honoured by the award of a Philip Leverhulme Prize. His work on syntactic stability as well as change is at the cutting edge of historical linguistics—a field which has traditionally been synonymous with the study of language change, but is now on the brink of the idea that stability can be as intriguing as change, and as worth trying to explain.’

Professor Heather Viles, Associate Head of the Social Sciences Division (Research) said: 'I'm thrilled to congratulate Professor Adams-Prassl on receipt of this prestigious award and such deserved recognition of her outstanding work. The field of labour economics is of critical importance - now more than ever - and Abi's extensive work in the field, and in applied microeconometrics, highlight the important role of the social sciences in tackling society's most urgent and complex challenges.'

Philip Leverhulme Prizes have been awarded annually since 2001 in commemoration of the contribution to the work of the Trust made by Philip Leverhulme, the Third Viscount Leverhulme and grandson of William Hesketh Lever, the founder of the Trust.