Fighting diabetes, understanding dementia and connecting people: This year’s Doctoral Prize winners are…
18 November 2022
Ways to detect diabetes early, protect against dementia and keep people connected through touch are all ideas that have won in this year’s Doctoral Prizes. Each year the University of Bristol picks six outstanding theses – one from each faculty – from hundreds of fascinating submissions by doctoral researchers in the last year. This year, they each receive £500 and a special certificate. Doctoral students finishing this year had to cope with pandemic lockdowns alongside the everyday challenges all researchers face.
“This year, 725 postgraduate research dissertations were submitted to the exam board," said Professor Robert Bickers, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor for Postgraduate Research, who chairs the selection board. “The quality of the work being undertaken here at Bristol is world-leading, and it’s a real pleasure to read these reports.
“It’s incredibly difficult to single any out for commendation, but these dissertations really stood out, and show the reach and quality of the doctoral and research masters’ work being undertaken here, and the breadth of training and engagement experience of our research community. I would like to congratulate all those who have completed their projects this year, and especially those whose examiners were so very impressed by them that they nominated them for these important awards.”
Professor Tansy Jessop, the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, said: “Doctoral researchers are a vital part of our University community, helping us to create a research-rich environment for students and staff alike. We are fortunate that so many choose to come to Bristol. This year saw another crop of brilliant researchers submit work which was full of exciting thinking that will help extend the borders of our knowledge in dozens of fields. A huge well done to all those who completed doctorates with us this year and particularly the winners of this year’s Doctoral Prizes.”
Below is a rundown of the six winners, with a special mention for the winner of this year’s Master of Science by Research (MScR) prize.
Engineering - Dr Alice Haynes
In Touch; Affective haptics for embodied communication and connection
We rarely consider the importance of touch until we are starved of it. But, as the pandemic showed, touch is an important part of our health, relationships and communication. Dr Alice Haynes’ research focussed on designing and making devices that promote connection and well-being through touch.
Her favourite project (funded by the University’s Brigstowe Research Institute; with assistance from textiles designer Annie Lywood) was a cushion that expands and contracts to simulate breathing, leading to a calming effect similar to mediation.
Dr Haynes said: “We also explored how the cushion could provide couples with a means of staying connected when in long-distance relationships by feeling each other’s breathing through the cushion.
“It offered a way for couples to feel present with one another without the need for a screen - which could be supportive at quiet times of day like going to sleep or watching a movie on the sofa 'together’.”
The PLOS ONE publication (about the calming cushion) was featured in several news stories such as CBS news, New Scientist and Neuroscience News. Dr Haynes also had publications in IEEE-RAL and CHI.
Dr Haynes is now doing a postdoc at Universität des Saarlandes, western Germany, with the HCI Group led by Prof. Dr. Jürgen Steimle.
Dr Haynes’ supervisors were Professor Jonathan Rossiter and Dr Chris Kent.
Life Sciences - Dr James Daly
Molecular Insights into the Role of Endosomal Recycling in Health and Disease
Recycling isn’t just important on a societal level, but also on a cellular level. While we recycle plastics and glass, our bodies are recycling important biomolecules such as proteins and lipids, reducing demand for raw materials and limiting the build-up of toxins.
Dr James Daly’s PhD focussed on endosomes, which act as waste management and recycling stations inside cells. He suggested a model for how a protein complex that regulates this sorting process protects against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
When the pandemic hit, Dr Daly became involved in a project investigating how a receptor protein at the surface of cells, Neuropilin-1, interacts with SARS-CoV-2 – the strain that causes COVID-19.
“Together, we demonstrated that Neuropilin-1 facilitates the infection process, which represented a significant advance into the understanding of this virus during the pandemic,” he said.
Dr Daly has now been awarded a Welcome Early Career Award to further explore the role of Neuropilin receptors in viral infection in Professor Michael Malim’s lab at King’s College London.
Dr Daly’s supervisors were Professor Pete Cullen and Professor Jeremy Henley.
Health Sciences - Dr Claire Williams
The natural history of the autoimmune response to zinc transporter 8 (ZnT8) in type 1 diabetes
In the UK alone, 400,000 people live with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D). Dr Claire Williams studied one of the lesser-known early signs of the disease, the body's immune response to zinc transporter 8 (ZnT8). She developed ways to understand which immune cells recognise ZnT8 and how (and how strongly) they bind to it. She also developed a cheaper and better way of detecting those cells.
“Our hope is that in the future we can identify individuals at-risk of T1D in the general population to prevent individuals presenting with T1D in hospital with the life-threatening condition of diabetic ketoacidosis,” said Dr Williams
Dr Williams received a full studentship from Diabetes UK. Another grant from the charity is allowing her to expand her work as a Post-doctoral Research Associate at Bristol.
Her supervisors were Dr Anna Long, Professor Kathleen Gillespie and Dr Alistair Williams.
Dr Alistair Williams sadly passed away in September 2020 and Dr Claire Williams dedicated her thesis to him, calling him “a tremendous mentor, friend and colleague”. She also praised Dr Williams’ 30-year contribution to the Type 1 Diabetes field and the career help he gave her. Please read about Dr Williams’ life here.
Arts - Dr Luca Castaldo
Truth and paradox: a (mostly) proof-theoretic investigation
Truth and paradoxes have been fundamental to the development of philosophy. Paradoxes led to the foundational crisis of mathematics in the early 20th century, while truth is one of the key concepts inspiring philosophical investigations.
Dr Luca Castaldo’sthesis moves around two underlying questions:
1. Can different forms of reasoning capture the same conception of truth and paradox?
2. Can we provide a unique formal framework modelling the behaviour of both concepts?
The main contribution of Dr Castaldo’swas introducing new concepts and criteria for comparing different forms of reasoning, and in providing a unified theory of truth and paradox.
Luca said: “Research is a collaborative enterprise, and this thesis could not have been written without the expert guidance of my supervisors Johannes Stern, Philip Welch and Leon Horsten.
“By providing invaluable suggestions over the years, they contributed immensely to the development of this work. I owe them my deepest gratitude.”
Dr Castaldo has had publications in several journals, including Studia Logica, Review of Symbolic Logic and Erkenntnis.
Dr Castaldo is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Warsaw’s Department of Philosophy. His supervisors were Dr Johannes Stern, Professor Philip Welch and Professor Leon Horsten (Prof Horsten is an external supervisor).
Science -Dr Thomas Purves
Quantum Theory: Causality, Thermodynamics and Post-Selection
For Dr Thomas Purves, it isn’t easy to put into words why he was drawn to theoretical physics.
“But everyone can understand,” he muses. “You only need to sit out under the stars alone at night and you’re well on the way to knowing why I researched what I did.”
Dr Purves’ doctorate was on quantum mechanics and its intersection with thermodynamics.
This included how cause and effect work at the smallest level and what time itself looks like in quantum experiments.
He said: “One thing I learned is that research is not only about answering questions - it’s also about asking them.
“As scientists we create problems. It’s not just attempting to solve them. I feel very lucky that I got to do what I did, at the time I did it. Quantum information is particularly hot right now - it’s a big part of how to build and understand a quantum computer.”
Dr Purves is now a Senior Software Engineer with Riskaware, working on problems in cybersecurity. His supervisors were Dr Anthony Short and Dr Paul Skrzypczyk.
Social Sciences & Law - Dr Molly Bond
Un-earthing synthetic biology ‘natural’ products. A global ethnography of stevia / ka’ahe’ê.
What happens when we make ‘natural’ products in a lab instead of sourcing them from the 'wild' or growing them in farmers' fields?
Genetic engineering innovations promote lab-grown animal and plant products as a more sustainable means of production. But Dr Bond found that many small farmers, businesses and Indigenous Peoples groups disagree. Her research traced the diverse communities connected to a recently commercialised lab-grown commodity to understand the implications of this biotechnological shift.
“My fieldwork was an adventure with a nine-month-old baby,” Dr Bond said.“I travelled to Nebraska and across Paraguay meeting farmers, scientists, and government officials; I stayed with an Indigenous community fighting for rights, I observed UN negotiations on synthetic biology late into the night.
“Research journeys are complex and challenging, but physically going to these starkly opposite 'worlds' and tracing the connections between them made me see how important it is to do so.”
Molly has been awarded an ESRC Postdoctoral fellowship to do follow-up research and publish her thesis as a book at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.
Dr Bond’s supervisors were Professor Maria Fannin, Dr Karen Tucker and Professor Clare Saunders. (Prof Saunders is an external supervisor.)
Master of Science by Research (MScR) prize - Emma Chereskin
Communication is Key: Testing the social bonding hypothesis in male bottlenose dolphin alliances
Note: The Master of Science by Research (MScR) prize is a new initiative from the Faculty of Life Sciences and is available only to students from that Faculty. It ran for the first time in 2021/22.
Primates groom, birds preen and humans hug. There’s no doubt that bonding with others is an important part of group societies, but what happens when your group becomes too large to devote time to all your ‘friends’?
The ‘social bonding hypothesis’ suggests individuals use ‘vocalisations’ to maintain social relationships if they lack time or energy for bonding. Emma’s master's thesis examined the social bonding hypothesis in bottlenose dolphins and she was “thrilled” to find the first support for this hypothesis outside of primates.
Emma and her supervisor Dr Stephanie King, Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour at Bristol, found that within alliances, bottlenose dolphins whistle more with alliance members with whom they spend less time, maintaining those social bonds.
These results were published in Current Biology and she is now a PhD candidate at Bristol, examining the vocal mechanisms of cooperation in bottlenose dolphins with Dr King.
Emma said: “Researching group dynamics in animal societies is fascinating to me and the opportunity to study the amazing dolphin population in Shark Bay Australia drew me to this project.”
Emma’s supervisor was Dr Stephanie King.