Cardiff University: Future research leaders to tackle global issues and commercialise innovations

Dr Angharad Jones, School of Biosciences, Dr Pete Barry from the School of Physics and Astronomy and Dr John Harvey, soon to join the School of Mathematics, have been awarded prestigious Future Leaders Fellowships from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

They are part of a cohort of 84 promising future leaders in research and innovation selected for fellowships in round six of the £900m scheme. The Fellowships provide researchers from diverse backgrounds and career paths with the flexibility and time they need to make progress addressing some of society’s most pressing issues.

Dr Angharad Jones is a plant scientist in the School of Biosciences. She joined the university in 2010 as a post-doctoral researcher developing methods for timelapse imaging of dividing cells within intact plant tissues. In 2019 she was awarded a place on the university’s Darlithwyr Disglair/Brilliant Lecturer scheme for researchers moving into their first independent position, and used this opportunity to develop methods for combining information collected at the cell level with whole plant phenotyping information. Her Future Leaders Fellowship will be used to develop a state-of-the-art technique to study how plants respond to fluctuating environmental conditions from the cell upwards to whole plants.

Dr Jones said: “Extreme and fluctuating weather conditions are a big problem for crop growers, because plants react to stressful conditions like drought by reducing their growth and limiting yield. If we can understand what happens to cells in the meristem, a special region of the plant that normally allows the plant to keep producing leaves and flowers throughout its lifespan, we can try and limit the effects of stress on the overall growth of the plant.

“I’m really excited to have the opportunity to bring together a group of researchers to tackle a really important problem in plant science. The scheme will also allow me to develop leadership skills which I can use to contribute to the continued growth of plant science research in Wales.”

Dr John Harvey joins the university with his fellowship after a career break. Returning to research was challenging, but the Daphne Jackson Trust supported him. The Future Leaders Fellowship means that he can continue to focus on building a strong research identity.

He said, “My research vision brings together two very different fields of mathematics. From pure mathematical research, I study Riemannian geometry, understanding distance properties on very abstract objects. From the statistical side, I research how to use geometry to study high dimensional data. Pursuing these challenges successfully requires the time to carry out work in both fields, and this award means I will be able to take on the full breadth of the subject area.”

The data structures which are modelled by high-dimensional geometric objects that Dr Harvey studies include configuration spaces. For example, if researchers can understand the ways that a protein molecule might fold up, they may be able to support better drug design.

Dr Pete Barry is an experimental cosmologist, who focuses on developing new technologies that target some of the most fundamental, but still outstanding questions in modern cosmology and astrophysics – “How did the universe begin?”, “When did the first galaxies form?”, and “What is dark energy”? Observations at mm/sub-mm wavelengths will be key to answering these questions, and he has over a decade of experience in the design, fabrication, and characterisation of mm/sub-mm superconducting detector technology and instrumentation.

After completing his Ph.D. working in the Astronomy Instrumentation Group at Cardiff University, he moved to the USA for a postdoctoral position at the University of Chicago, followed by a position in the Experimental Cosmology group at Argonne National Laboratory. He will return to the university to take up his FLF, which will concentrate on developing a new class of spectroscopic detector technology that will enable, for the first time, large format imaging spectroscopy in mm/sub-mm wavelength range.

He said, “ The ambition, scope, and flexibility of the FLF award will allow me to build a team and establish an independent research programme to develop the new experimental capabilities that are needed for the next generation mm-wave cosmology instruments. In addition, the opportunity to engage and interact with the broad and diverse community of current and new FLFs is a unique aspect of this scheme that I am really excited to be part of. “

Professor Roger Whitaker, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research, Innovation and Enterprise said: “The UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship scheme will provide Angharad, John and Pete with long-term funding to support their innovative research tackling three important, yet distinct, challenges: how plant life responds to a changing climate, the handling of high dimensional data, and the development of a new class of mm/sub-mm spectroscopic detector technology for use in cosmology”.”

The Fellowships provide an exciting opportunity to make valuable contributions to knowledge, research visibility, and research leadership. I wholeheartedly congratulate Angharad, John and Pete on their success with this very competitive fellowship scheme and welcome them into Cardiff’s growing cohort of UKRI Future Leaders Fellows.”

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said: “The Future Leaders Fellowships provide researchers and innovators with the freedom and generous long-term support to progress adventurous new ideas, and to move across disciplinary boundaries and between academia and industry.

“The fellows announced today provide shining examples of the talented researchers and innovators across every discipline attracted to pursue their ideas in universities and businesses throughout the UK, with the potential to deliver transformative research that can be felt across society and the economy.”

Building on the success of the £900 million invested in the first six rounds of Future Leaders Fellowship, UKRI has additionally committed £100 million for a seventh round.

The scheme helps universities and businesses in the UK recruit, develop and retain the world’s best researchers and innovators, regardless of their background. Researchers can apply for substantial long-term funding to support their research or innovation and develop their careers, with each fellowship lasting four to seven years.

The projects will be an important part of the government’s ambition to cement the UK’s status as a global leader in science, research and innovation.

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