University of Oxford: Five Oxford researchers awarded Future Leaders Fellowships

Five Oxford researchers are among 84 of the most promising research leaders across the UK to benefit from £98 million of UKRI funding to tackle major global issues and to commercialise their innovations in the UK.

UKRI’s flagship Future Leaders Fellowships (FLF) are designed to enable universities and businesses to develop their most talented early career researchers and innovators and to attract new people to their organisations, including from overseas.

The Fellowships were announced by Science Minister George Freeman, to help the UK’s most promising science and research leaders to tackle major global issues and commercialise their innovations within the UK.

The Oxford recipients are Professor Laurence Brassart (Department of Engineering Science), Dr Helen Barron (MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit), Dr Neil Hart (School of Geography and the Environment), Archie Bott (Department of Physics) and Dr Anwen Cooper (School of Archaeology).

Laurence Brassart, Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Science, is investigating the interplay between mechanics and chemistry in the degradation of biodegradable polymers used in medical, agricultural and packaging applications.

Many of these applications require a precise understanding of how the material deforms, and ultimately fails, as it degrades under external forces. This is particularly true in biomedical applications (e.g. stents, orthopaedic fixtures and tissue scaffolds), where an implant’s mechanical and degradation responses simultaneously affect healing outcomes.

Commenting on the award, Professor Brassart said: ‘This Fellowship gives me the support and resources to build an integrated research programme combining experiments, theory and numerical simulations. This is a unique opportunity to address fundamental scientific questions while solving important engineering problems related to sustainability and healthcare.’

Anwen Cooper’s research, ‘Rewilding’ later prehistory, is a collaboration between Oxford Archaeology, the Universities of Oxford, Exeter and Toulouse, the Archaeology Data Service, Historic England and Knepp Estate rewilding hub, which will trial a new mode of industry-led cross-sector research in exploring later prehistoric wildlife and its relevance to contemporary ecological debates. The nature conservation concept of ‘rewilding’ will be recast in order to reveal the ‘wonder and enchantment’ (Monbiot 2013) of archaeological wildlife during the Bronze and Iron Ages (from 2500 BC to AD 43) – a key period in the transition from ‘wild’ to ‘farmed’ landscapes in Britain.

Neil Hart’s research project, First Rains: Fast-tracking multiscale prediction of rainfall onset across tropical and subtropical regional climates, looks at how the rapid rate of climate change is upending centuries of local knowledge about the arrival of the first rains.

Vast regions of Earth’s surface experience months-long dry periods before the start of the rainy season. Onset of these rains has defined the start of agricultural calendars for millennia, however, Pre-onset heat extremes are amplifying and the risk of delayed onset is increasing as the planet warms to current CO2 levels; these are risks already committed to irrespective of future CO2 emission. Dire impacts on water, food, health and energy systems accompany such delays. First Rains sets out a research programme to fast-track advances in onset prediction and make the breakthroughs integral to unlocking robust climate adaptation in the face of fickle first rains.

Dr Helen Barron leads her own research team across the MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit and the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging, both of which are hosted by the Nuffield Department for Clinical Neurosciences. Over the last few years Helen has worked as a Postdoctoral Neuroscientist in Professor David Dupret’s Group, where she has used a cross-species approach to uncover cell- and circuit-level mechanisms of memory in the brain. The goal of Helen’s new research programme funded by UKRI is to establish the specialized biological mechanisms that gate and control selective memory recall and explain why disturbances in memory gating may underpin core symptoms in neuropsychiatric disease.

Dr Archie Bott is a plasma physicist who specialises in the study of astrophysical and laser-produced plasmas. He completed his DPhil in Atomic and Laser Physics at the University of Oxford in 2019, before moving to the USA to work as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. His research interests include magnetised plasma dynamics, plasma turbulence, plasma dynamo processes, and laboratory astrophysics.

Archie Bott said: ‘I am delighted that I will be moving back to Oxford Physics as a Future Leaders Fellow at the end of the summer to study the exotic material properties of weakly collisional plasmas. I believe that Oxford is one of the best places in the world for doing research in plasma physics, and so to have the opportunity to start my own independent research group there is a dream come true.’

The goal of Archie’s FLF programme is to characterise systematically the anomalous material properties of magnetised, weakly collisional plasmas. This extreme type of plasma, which is common in astrophysical environments and laser-plasma experiments, is quite unlike the plasma and gas usually found in terrestrial contexts because of its complicated microphysics, and so classical plasma models are typically inadequate. Constructing new models should help address several long-standing astrophysical puzzles, refine interpretations of astronomical observations, and aid efforts to realise laser-fusion power.

As part of his FLF, Dr Bott will be running start-of-the-art kinetic simulations of weakly collisional plasmas, such as this one shown here of an expanding plasma. The video illustrates the complicated microscale magnetic fields that generically arise in weakly collisional plasmas in response to their macroscopic evolution.

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