Future focused research
A prestigious fellowship will support five University of Leeds researchers addressing global challenges.
Today Universities Minister Chris Skidmore announced the next cohort of 78 Future Leader Fellows, which includes Dr Laura Carter from the Faculty of the Environment, Dr Richard Mann from the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Dr Izzy Jayasinghe and Dr Laura Dixon, both from the Faculty of Biological Sciences, and Dr Karen Michelle Davies, who will join the same Faculty in January.
Funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Future Leaders Fellowship provides funding and resources to the best early-career researchers and innovators from across universities, business and other organisations.
The fellows’ ground-breaking work forms a key part of maintaining the UK’s status at the forefront of cutting-edge research and innovation long into the future.
Universities Minister Chris Skidmore said “Delivering on our research and innovation ambitions means putting people first, whether they are just starting out in their career or are leading major projects in academia or industry.
“These inspirational Future Leaders Fellows will generate the ideas of the future, helping to shape science and research for the 21st century. But to realise the full potential of these discoveries, their ideas need to be taken out of the lab and turned into real products and services, where they can actually change people’s lives for the better.”
The new Future Leader Fellows at Leeds will be focusing on bolstering resilience in a rapidly changing world by examining risks and adaptability for plant and soil systems, understanding community interactions and developing new technology to better understand our biological environment.
Boosting soil and plant health
Concerns about freshwater supply for irrigation and a growing need for sustainable agriculture have prompted a number of innovative techniques. However, the introduction of new farming practices, such as using treated wastewater for irrigation and organic fertilisers, are inadvertently introducing new contaminants to agricultural ecosystems.
The risks associated with introducing contaminants, such as bioactive chemicals like human medicines, into soil-plant systems are currently not well understood.
Dr Laura Carter from the School of Geography will lead a project to explore the impacts of these new contaminants on soil and plant health. She will determine if these impacts could affect crop productivity and the ability to meet growing food demands.
Dr Carter said: “Freshwater supply concerns and a move away from chemical-based fertilisers are giving rise to new and much needed agricultural practices. But, we need to ensure these new techniques will not cause additional harm to our environment.
“This project will establish a science platform that uses multidisciplinary approaches to evaluate the global risk of chemicals in agricultural systems. Through a combination of laboratory and field work, it will offer a fundamental change in how we assess the risks of emerging contaminants in the environment by combining expertise in the fields of agriculture, soil and plant health.”
Safeguarding communities and social behaviour
There are complex factors that dictate how and why animals and humans follow and imitate each other. From starling flocks to sardine balls, stock market bubbles to Twitter pile-ons, environment and community strategies influence how these groups pursue their goals.
Dr Richard Mann from the School of Mathematics aims to identify how rational individuals – human and animal – interact with their environment and each other, how they learn from observing others, as well as what actions and strategies they use to reach their objective.
Dr Mann said: “I hope to explain how evolutionary adaptation and optimisation has created the social behaviour we see in human and animal groups, and by doing this to understand how we can safeguard those communities in a rapidly changing world.
“I’m interested in the cognitive roots of social interactions, and how individual choices lead to collective behaviour. This could also give new insight into the connections between artificial intelligence and the cognitive processes of humans and animals.”
Bringing the laboratory in to the field
Super-resolution microscopy allows us to visualise the smallest building blocks of any biological sample. The ability to examine the relevant genes, proteins and cellular components of a biological sample is vitally important for scientists across disciplines – including medical, conservation and industry work. Super-resolution microscopy equipment is currently extremely expensive and only available in a laboratory setting.
Dr Izzy Jayasinghe from the School of Biomedical Science will use a radical new approach to make super-resolution microscopy portable, cheap and easy to use. This will include harnessing a novel chemical reaction that allows scientists to physically inflate a desired feature of a sample by over a 1000 times. With the physical inflation of the sample, its finer features will then become easy to visualise with a simple microscope. The key breakthrough which allows this principle to be adapted to a portable and affordable imaging technology is the new insights into the chemistry underlying the inflation process.
Dr Jayasinghe said: “Super-resolution microscopy gives us a window into how molecules and cells are affected by their environment. This can give us insight into how climate change will affect our food sources and how lifestyle affects major human diseases and ageing.
“Super-resolution microscopy has remained beyond the reach of field scientists and clinicians because it has always relied upon specialist skill for its operations and expensive and bulky equipment for its implementation. By giving scientists working in the field these tools we can help them to tackle today’s global challenges more rapidly.”
To field test the developed equipment, Dr Jayasinghe will work in partnership with experts who collect samples outside of the academic laboratory. These will include a field scientist studying sea urchins in the UK coast; doctors and sports scientists examining needle biopsies taken from human patients; and a partner of the ‘Worms in Space’ programme who will use the equipment to study the effects of zero gravity on the ageing of microscopic worms sent beyond the earth’s gravitational field.
Avoiding a global food crisis
Changes to global temperatures and lengths of growing seasons have a significant impact on the amount of crops harvested every year. Wheat, which makes up a large portion of global calorific intake, is particularly sensitive to temperature, which regulates several stages its development.
Dr Laura Dixon from the School of Biology and Centre for Plant Sciences will lead a project to identify and understand the genes controlling the different temperature responses in wheat. Combining molecular biology, genetics and fieldwork, the aim is to develop and improve temperature robustness in wheat crops – maximising crop yields in the major types of bread wheat.
Dr Dixon said: “Worst case scenarios of global temperature changes would have a devastating impact on wheat crops around the world. Finding the means to regulate when and for how long a crop can be harvested would impact wheat growers across the world and potentially help safeguard our food supply in a rapidly changing climate.”
Harnessing photosynthesis for food and fuel
The rapidly growing global population means that demand for food and energy has never been higher. However, available land for crops is diminishing and continued reliance on fossil fuels is causing significant damage to the environment.
There is an urgent need to develop alternative clean renewable energy systems to power modern lifestyles as well as improve agricultural outputs.
Dr Karen Michelle Davies aims to advance the fundamental knowledge of the molecular events that occur in photosynthesis. She will focus specifically on an understudied aspect of the photosynthetic light reaction called cyclic electron flow (CEF), which ensures the correct ratio of cellular energy compounds are generated from sunlight to power the conversion of carbon dioxide and water into sugar.
By understanding this process in detail, it should be possible to manipulate the photosynthetic pathway of plants, cyanobacteria and algae so that they can generate more biomass or bioproducts under defined conditions.
Dr Davies said: “Understanding the complete process of photosynthesis is the key to unlocking the full potential of plants. Currently, very little is known about the molecular mechanism of the cyclic electron flow pathway.
“This project will give scientist the knowledgebase to start manipulating the efficacy of photosynthesis and could help us maximize crop yields and produce cost-effective green alternatives to fossil fuels.”
Tackling global challenges
The University of Leeds is a leader in addressing global challenges and is ranked in the top three UK universities for global funding success.
The new Future Leader Fellows join Dr Lauren Gregoire, Dr Katie McQuaid and Dr Alexander Valavanis who were announced as Fellows earlier this year – highlighting the University’s ability to attract world-leading researchers who are making a difference to the world around them.
Leeds has received more than £45 million from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) over the last five years and supports more than 70 GCRF research projects across 30 different countries.
These projects range from research to improve the quality of life for people in developing countries, to building communities, developing skills and combating disease.
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