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First Future Leaders Fellowships give the freedom to deliver global impact

Future Leaders Fellowships gives the freedom to deliver global impact

A new generation of rising stars across research and business will tackle pressing global challenges through UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowships initiative. 

The prestigious Future Leaders Fellowships, supported by a £900 million investment fund, provide researchers and innovators from diverse backgrounds and career paths with the flexibility and time they need to make progress on truly challenging questions.

Announced today, the first wave of 41 fellows will investigate a diverse range of challenges from the effects of poverty on child development to climate change and next generation mobile networks, with the time, freedom and encouragement to cross boundaries and disciplines in pursuit of excellence

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said: “The Future Leaders Fellowships offer long-term support for the most talented researchers and innovators. Fellows will be encouraged to be adventurous in tackling tough and important research questions and opportunities for innovation.

“The Fellowships offer opportunities to move across disciplinary boundaries and between academia and industry. These Fellowships will enable us to grow the strong supply of talented individuals needed to ensure that UK research and innovation continues to be world leading.”

Science and Innovation Minister Chris Skidmore said:

“From Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the World Wide Web, to Rosalind Franklin whose work was critical in understanding DNA, we have a rich history of talented individuals who have paved the way for ground-breaking research and discoveries in their fields.

“Our investment in these Future Leaders Fellows will enable the brightest and best of our scientists and researchers to work with leading lights in industry, to help their research move from the laboratory to the commercial market.

“This support to the next generation of scientists and researchers is a key part of our modern Industrial Strategy, and our commitment to raise R&D spend to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 will maintain the UK’s position as a world-leader in science and innovation and building on our historic legacy.”

The Fellows will tackle a broad spectrum of challenges and global issues and are encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary and business-linked activities, for example:

  • Dr Hien Ngo from Queen’s University Belfast aims to revolutionise mobile networks to provide the capacity required to meet the ever-growing demand for connected devices and data.
  • Dr Anahid Basiri from University College London will work with companies to develop accurate 3D maps of cities using crowdsourced data on blockage of GPS signals for use by businesses and emergency services. 

Four or seven years of funding is provided and this stability, combined with commitments from host institutions for ongoing support after the Fellowship, gives researchers the time they need to make progress on truly challenging questions.  

The Future Leaders Fellowships are open to early career researchers in any field of research and innovation across UKRI’s remit. They can come from anywhere in the world to work at a UK institution or business.   

Researchers are encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary and business-linked research. To foster the movement of people and ideas between the academic and business sectors and support excellence wherever it arises, the Fellowships encourage applicants who work with, or be based in, businesses.  

UKRI will provide about £900 million in support over six competition rounds over three years, typically awarding around 200 new fellows each year. Find out about all 41 Fellows here.

Examples of Fellows include

Dr Fay Bound Alberti, University of York

Fay is investigating the emotional history and ethics of face transplants, which since 2005 have become an innovative yet problematic form of surgery. Face transplants have yet to take place in the UK, for emotional more than scientific reasons, and there are international concerns about their impact. Reactions to face transplants can be viewed through historical lenses, including the attachment of identity and beauty to the face, societal responses to (and definitions of) disfigurement, including horror and disgust, and anxieties about ‘Frankenstein science’. Fay will work with surgeons in the US and UK, policymakers, ethicists, artists, transplant recipients and people with facial differences to inform and help shape a global interdisciplinary framework.  Fay says: “I am thrilled to receive a fellowship that recognises the skills I’ve gained while following an unconventional career path, including working in senior management for funding organisations, acquiring skills in leadership, evaluation and public engagement, and as a freelance writer, researching and publishing on the history of bodies, emotion, surgery and gender. My research requires large-scale, sustained funding, which is scarce for non-tenured, interdisciplinary scholars. This flexible, seven-year Fellowship provides a fantastic opportunity for me to return to academia to pursue this critically-needed research at the intersection of science, social science and the humanities.”

Dr Anahid Basiri, University College London

Accurate, free and up-to-date 3D models of cities could be hugely valuable for location-based businesses such as firms requiring navigation and positioning or location-based games, emergency services, urban planning, autonomous cars and drone deliveries. The blockage, attenuation and reflection of signals of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as GPS and the European Galileo system, can be used to extract these models. Ana’s project is based on indicative data science – the mindset that considers the unavailability, and degradation of data as a useful source of data. Ana’s project will investigate how GNSS signals are altered as they interact with buildings and streetscapes. She aims to analyse the crowdsourced data using novel statistical and machine learning techniques to learn the patterns of unavailability and degradation of signals and estimate height, shape, and materials of the buildings. This would enable a globally available 3D mapping service that only needs free-to-use GNSS signals, which will improve the reliability of navigation and mapping – especially in ‘urban canyons’ and indoors when integrated with other signals such as Wi-Fi – and will put the UK at the forefront of the GNSS raw data industry. Ana said: “This Fellowship helps me to brings together multidisciplinary academic and industrial partners, including Ordnance Survey, The Alan Turing Institute and Uber, and make societal and economic impact.”

Dr John Biggins, University of Cambridge

John is designing soft stretchy machines powered by artificial muscles rather than electric motors. This technology could especially benefit miniaturisation – for example a chip the size of a postage stamp with valves and pumps made of artificial muscle that could test a drop of blood or a sequence a genome. It’s difficult to make traditional machines this small because they need many even smaller moving parts. Artificial muscles could also be used to create 3D touch displays, or switchable braille e-readers. John’s research will utilise liquid crystal elastomers, which are soft polymers that can look like rubber bands, but are made up of many tiny molecular rods and contract like muscle fibres when they are heated or illuminated. John said: “This amazing new material really comes to life when you stimulate it, enabling machines that look more like animals than engines. However, although I have the theoretical mechanics background to design them, I need new skills and facilities in chemistry and fabrication to actually make them. The unique structure of the Future Leaders Fellowship, which is both a fellowship and a grant, will give me the time and resources I need to make these machines reality.”

Dr Esther Breithoff, Birkbeck, University of London

Many nations across South America are still coming to terms with the torture, censorship, forced ‘disappearances’ and murder associated with twentieth century military regimes in the region. Esther will investigate sites of conflict and human rights violations – such as a secret detention centre turned museum – and explore the role of material culture and memory in processes of reconciliation and remembrance. She will combine the techniques of archaeology, critical heritage studies, and material culture studies to explore alternative narratives relating to the dictatorship through the documentation and presentation of artefacts, e.g. through archaeology, museum displays, memorials, photography and archives. Esther will work with heritage professionals, museum staff, local communities and international organisations such as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. Esther said: “I’m moving back to the UK for this fellowship because it allows me to do a lot more than a traditional grant would – I can foster long-term international collaborations, develop a challenge-led interdisciplinary teaching programme and become a leader in my field. I hope that through an engagement with the material legacies of violence I can create practices that actively drive reconciliation processes and the development of more peaceful and inclusive societies in Paraguay, South America and the wider world”.

Dr Paul Donaldson, STFC's Central Laser Facility

Better understanding the ultrafast chemical reactions within batteries and catalysts is key to improving sustainable technologies, such as renewable energy and electric vehicles. Catalysts are substances which increase the rate of chemical reactions – and have many important applications such as generating biofuels and catalytic converters for fossil fuel emissions. Paul is using new techniques with lasers to study the how the chemicals within both battery electrolytes and within catalysts react and move around at the molecular level. The lasers reveal the extremely fast motions of molecules that take place in femtoseconds – a millionth of a billionth of a second – during chemical reactions. Paul will study these reactions in the laboratory and then apply these discoveries to improving the design of industrially relevant systems. Paul said: “Battery and catalysis researchers are really excited about using these new techniques at the STFC laboratory’s world-leading laser facilities, so we can develop catalysts and batteries that are more flexible and cheaper. I have support on this project from Johnson Matthey, a British multinational science and chemicals company, to enhance translation of my research into benefits for British industry and the development of more sustainable technologies.”

Dr Mathilde Jauzac, Durham University

Mathilde will search for the missing 80% of our universe’s matter – dark matter – by tracking its behaviour in the most massive galaxy clusters, also called ‘cosmic beasts’, which are the biggest observable objects in the universe. Dark matter cannot be observed directly, but astronomers can predict it is there, because they observe its mass having gravitational effects and bending light coming from more distant objects. Mathilde has been awarded observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope to obtain the widest imaging of galaxy clusters and she will develop new techniques to combine analysis of different wavelengths of light (e.g. infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray) simultaneously. These will allow her to observe matter being sucked into the galaxy clusters and narrow down the likely properties of dark matter. Mathilde said: “Most postdoctoral positions only run for a precarious two or three years of funding, whereas with the FLF not only are you getting seven years of funding, but also engagement with your host institution to provide you with a job at the end, which is absolutely unique and I haven't heard about any fellowships like it in the US or Europe – so you can build your leadership of a research group and really dig in-depth into your main research problem.”  

Dr James Lea, University of Liverpool

The effects of climate change on the stability of hundreds of glaciers across the entire Arctic and Antarctic could be monitored automatically using new computing techniques. Monitoring the behaviour of glaciers and ice sheets is time-consuming, meaning that only the largest glaciers are often studied. By applying machine learning and cloud computing to analyse the profusion of satellite imagery, and linking this to new computer simulations of glacier behaviour, James aims to better understand how glaciers will change across both polar regions. As well as informing climate change policy, improved monitoring of glacier stability will help those living and working in these environments deal with hazards arising from rapid glacier change. Icebergs will affect the safety of the newly opening Arctic sea routes, so understanding the hazards to polar shipping, ports and other infrastructure will become increasingly important to UK supply chains. James said: “My fellowship aims to fill a significant gap in our understanding of how climate change is impacting glacier stability on unprecedented scales. Whether it’s melting glaciers causing increases in global sea level, or icebergs creating risks for new shipping routes, the effects of future changes in the polar regions will not stay in the polar regions.”

Dr Sarah Lloyd-Fox, University of Cambridge

We know remarkably little about the development of babies’ brains in the first days and months of life. Furthermore, while we know poverty in childhood impacts on academic achievement, mental health and economic status we know almost nothing about how it affects early brain development as most research is done in older children and adults. Sarah has been developing a non-invasive and safe technique which uses light to detect activity in babies’ brains, called functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). This tool, which looks like a swimming cap with wires, is transportable – so she can scan babies in their homes. In this fellowship Sarah will investigate baby’s brain development and how it is altered by poverty both here in the UK and in Africa, and work with communities to develop and test interventions to enable parents to support early child development.

“This fellowship will enable me to radically change the way we study families living in low resource areas by bringing tools to measure brain development into the home and engaging with communities to create intervention programmes for parents to support early child development. It’s wonderful to have a fellowship that allows long-term continuity for my research and career progression around part-time childcare commitments.”

Dr Rod Mitchell, University of Edinburgh

For young boys with cancer, chemotherapy can be life-saving, but it can also damage the stem cells in their testicles, which means they may be infertile when they grow up. More children than ever are surviving cancer – currently one in 500 adults is a survivor of childhood cancer. For pre-pubescent boys, techniques which would harvest their stem cells and re-implant them later when they could mature into sperm (as sperm is only produced after puberty) have not yet been shown to work and carry risks associated with surgery or re-introducing cancer cells. Rod will study how chemotherapy drugs damage these stem cells with the aim of identifying drugs that could protect the cells during chemotherapy – without protecting the cancer cells. Rod said: “This fellowship has a critical combination long-term funding and a focus on interdisciplinary research and translation, which enables a project like this to go from fundamental research through to the clinic. As a paediatric endocrinologist, I’m thrilled this gives me the opportunity take this project all the way from the lab to potentially testing our ideas with patients, and also work with drug development companies, so we could get this to the childhood cancer patients who need it.”

Dr Hien Quoc Ngo, Queen's University Belfast

Hien aims to revolutionise the design of mobile networks to provide the capacity needed to serve the exponentially growing demand for connected devices and data, plus predicted future growth such as the Internet of Things. Currently, networks are divided up into cells, each is served by a base station, but this network is already running out of capacity. Hien plans to develop a cell-free network where many (thousands or more) access points are distributed over a large area without cells, called cell-free massive multiple-input multiple-output, to improve data speed, reliability and connectivity. To do this, he will exploit/model new methods of signal processing before moving to test successful models in the laboratory. Hien aims to make these technologies a reality through his collaborations with telecommunications companies. Hien said: “The seven-year duration of the fellowship, and being able to recruit three postdoc researchers and a PhD student, gives me the time and resources to deal with a very big and complex problem and accelerate the research outcomes. Also, the flexibility to amend the project after four years through peer review is important as we’re dealing with a big new problem and we don’t know in advance which solutions we will progress.”

Dr Natalie Shenker, Imperial College London

Natalie cofounded the UK’s first independent non-profit human milk bank just under two years ago. The greater availability of safe, screened donated milk means studies can begin into how donor milk can be used most effectively beyond extremely premature babies, including if it can act as a bridge to support new mothers in stressful circumstances to establish their milk supply. She will also study how the diverse composition of human milk – for example the types of fats – changes up to two years after birth – about which surprisingly little is known. Better understanding of these changes could help match donor milk to babies with different illnesses. Natalie is also using the unique opportunity that human milk provides to study healthy breast cells from the mother. Changes in these cells’ epigenetic profiles (how genes are switched on or off) could help predict a woman’s future risk of breast cancer, allowing better screening tests to be developed. Natalie said: “This Fellowship is a unique opportunity to start a much-needed programme of collaborative research with support for mothers at its core. I am passionate about enabling both women and men to understand more about one of our most fundamental abilities – nourishing the next generation.”

Dr Anna Lisa Varri, University of Edinburgh

Anna Lisa’s research focusses on some of the most ancient structures in the universe – globular clusters – dense groups of about a million stars emerged the dawn of the formation of galaxies. The new European space observatory Gaia can now observe these stellar systems with unprecedented detail; LIGO has detected gravitational waves from merging binary black holes, possibly formed in dense cluster cores. A revolution in our understanding of these building blocks of our universe has therefore started. Anna Lisa will use applied mathematics techniques, including sophisticated numerical simulations, to study how this new-generation data can shed light on three big questions in modern astrophysics: the origin of the first stellar aggregates, the existence of intermediate-mass black holes, and the nature of dark matter. Anna Lisa, who is moving from Tokyo to take up the fellowship, said: “This scheme is unique in empowering people like me with a mixed scientific background – straddling the different cultures and tools of applied mathematics and astronomy – to conduct truly interdisciplinary research. When I read the guidelines, I almost couldn't believe my eyes: for the first time there was a funding support that would allow me to be myself and reward my research vision, without labels!”.