UCL: UCL academics named as UKRI Future Leaders Fellows

They are among 84 of the “most promising scientists and researchers” in the UK identified for government funding this year to help them develop their ideas from the lab and lecture theatre to the market, creating workable solutions to major global problems.

UCL’s four selected researchers span a range of disciplines including immunology, neurology, evolutionary biology and artificial intelligence.

The announcement, made today by Science Minister George Freeman as part of London Tech Week, will see researchers benefit from a total of £97.8m, with grants spanning between four and seven years.

Research projects awarded

Dr Rick Adams (UCL Computer Science)

Dr Adams is developing new ways of targeting drug treatments for schizophrenia, to improve their efficacy. He is studying whether drugs that target glutamate receptors in the brain can be given to people who would benefit most from them, using computational modelling of electroencephalography data. This could also reduce the burden of side effects, compared with existing medications.

Dr Adams studied medicine at Cambridge University and received his PhD at UCL, followed by post-doctoral work at UCL as well. His research uses computational modelling to better understand both the symptoms and the underlying neurobiology of psychotic disorders. In addition to his research, he is also a consultant psychiatrist working for the NHS in Camden treating early-stage psychosis.

Dr Laura Porro (UCL Biosciences)

Dr Porro is an evolutionary biomechanist studying how the forces of evolution have shaped reptile skulls over 300 million years. Using cutting-edge techniques including 3D imaging, experiments, and biomechanical computer modelling, she is exploring how the diverse range of reptile skull shapes, both living and fossilised, are adapted for feeding, communication and protecting vital organs.

Dr Porro hails from the city of Chicago in the United States, where she attended the University of Illinois Chicago before receiving a Gates Scholarship to pursue a PhD in paleobiology at the University of Cambridge. Following that, she held a Marie Curie Fellowship and several postdoctoral positions at institutions in the US and the UK – including the University of Chicago, University of Bristol and Royal Veterinary College – before joining University College London as a lecturer in 2018 where she teaches anatomy and evolution.

Dr James Reading (UCL Cancer Institute)

Lung cancer is the world’s deadliest cancer. To save lives we urgently need new methods to screen for and eliminate the disease at its earliest stage. Dr Reading will investigate a radical new approach to prevent lung cancer using the immune system, by testing if our body’s own immune response can be used as a warning sign to detect a developing tumour. Once detected, Dr Reading’s team will try to boost killer immune cells to eliminate pre-cancerous lesions before a tumour can form. By studying these processes Dr Reading hopes to generate future clinical strategies that will revolutionise how we detect and target cancer. In doing so, Dr Reading will challenge his team to unravel two unsolved mysteries in human biology:

i) When does the immune system first recognise the mutations that lead to cancer?

ii) What are the initial defects in this defence that allow tumours to develop?

Dr Reading received his PhD from King’s College London studying immunity to HIV infection, before developing a new cellular therapy platform for diabetes and transplant rejection. He joined the UCL Cancer Institute in 2016, where he explored how lung cancer disrupts immune defences, discovering new targets for immunotherapy. In 2020 Dr Reading was named lead of immunology at the Cancer Research UK Lung Cancer Centre of Excellence and was awarded a Biomedical Research Council fellowship to open the Tumour Immunodynamics laboratory at UCL.

Dr Leonie Tanczer, UCL Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP)

Dr Tanczer is working to stop gender-based technology-facilitated abuse (“tech abuse”) at its roots. Every year, more than a million women and girls report experiencing domestic abuse in the UK, while at the same time, the growing interconnectedness of the world puts even more at risk for online harassment and violence. Through her proposed “Gender and Tech” lab, Dr Tanczer will study how abusers might exploit the ever-expanding digital landscape in order to design new technologies, systems and policies to combat emerging abusive behaviours and protect victims and survivors of intimate partner violence.

Dr Tanczer studied political science as an undergraduate at the University of Vienna and the University of Limerick before receiving her master’s degree and PhD from Queen’s University Belfast. She is a lecturer in international security and emerging technologies in UCL’s STEaPP, with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and gender. She is a member of the Advisory Council of the Open Rights Group, a Steering Committee Member for the Offensive Cyber Working Group, affiliated with UCL’s Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Research, and a former Fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin.

The Future Leaders Fellowship is an effort by UKRI to help academia and businesses support innovative early-career researchers and scientists regardless of background. Since its inception in 2018, more than 400 fellowships have been awarded to researchers across the UK, including more than 30 at UCL.

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.”

Professor Geraint Rees, UCL Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation and Global Engagement), said: “My warmest congratulations to this year’s UKRI Future Leadership Fellows. These highly prestigious Fellowships recognise not only the excellence of their work, but the huge potential of their future plans and leadership abilities. Our Fellows come from different academic disciplines, highlighting the importance of comprehensive universities like UCL that can bring different disciplines together to help research transform lives.”

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