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Six best postgraduate research students honoured

30 October 2014

Six Bristol postgraduates have been awarded prizes for the exceptional quality of their research degree theses in the academic year 2012/13.

An annual prize is made for the thesis considered to be the best within each faculty and for which a degree has been awarded in the relevant academic year. Internal and external examiners were invited to nominate suitable theses and one winner has been selected from each faculty by members of the Research Degrees Exam Board.

The successful graduates, listed below, each receive a certificate of commendation and a cheque for £500.

Professor Sally Heslop, Academic Director of Graduate Studies and Director of the Bristol Doctoral College, said: ‘Warm congratulations to this year’s winners. It is always a great pleasure to read the citations for these awards, and to be reminded of the very high quality of the work of our top doctoral candidates. These prizes are very competitive and each winner has made an exceptional contribution to their chosen area of research.’

The 2013/14 Faculty Research Prize winners are:

Faculty of Arts: Dr Megan Blomfield (Department of Philosophy)
‘Global justice, natural resources and climate change’

Dr Blomfield’s thesis proposes a set of principles to guide the fair division of the burdens of climate change and the allocation of rights over natural resources. She shows that equal per capita emissions, a principle widely defended in political philosophy and environmental ethics, is not tenable because the absorptive capacity of the biosphere includes carbon sinks, such as forests, that are distributed unevenly across communities with different claims to those resources. She argues for a new approach to natural resource rights, called Contractualist Common Ownership, that involves a commitment to the basic needs of individuals and the self-determination of communities. The thesis was judged by the examiners to be of a standard suitable for publication by the top international philosophy journals and university presses.

Faculty of Engineering: Dr Victor Brena Medina (Department of Engineering Mathematics)
‘Modelling initiation of plant root hairs: A reaction-diffusion system in a non-homogeneous environment’

Dr Medina’s research studied the biochemical interactions in root hair cells that occur between a class of proteins called Rop (represser of primer) and a class of plant hormones called auxins. These interactions cause the formation of root hairs at a specific time and location. Dr Medina’s PhD used applied mathematics to model the processes involved in these biochemical interactions at different levels and scales, in order to help understand the extent to which they contribute to specialisation of functions in cells.

Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences: William Razzell (School of Biochemistry)
‘Studies of wound inflammatory calcium signalling and mechanical forces during wound healing in drosophila’

Dr Razzell’s thesis was awarded a Wellcome Trust-funded, four-year PhD studentship. After his rotation year, he chose to undertake his PhD in Professor Paul Martin’s lab (School of Biochemistry/ School of Physiology and Pharmacology) with a collaborative link to Professor Will Wood’s lab (then in Bath but now also in Bristol; Centre for Comparative and Clinical Anatomy/School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine). His work involved two major studies. First, he showed that a very rapid calcium flash at the time of tissue damage, leads to activation of the NOX, DUOX, which triggers H2O2 release and recruitment of immune cells to wounds. In this way he uncovered the first immediate damage signal causing a wound inflammatory response. He published the results from this study early in 2013 in Current Biology. Second, he showed that the key roles of cell:cell junction contractions and cell intercalation events within the wound epithelium recapitulate many of the mechanisms utilised during earlier embryonic morphogenetic episodes. This work was published in 2014 in Development. He was awarded the Beddington Medal for best PhD (2013) in the field of Developmental Biology by the British Society of Developmental Biology.

Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry: Dr Neil Uptal Barua (School of Clinical Sciences)
‘Convection-enhanced drug delivery and its application to Alzheimer’s disease’

Dr Barua’s project explored the feasibility of convection-enhanced delivery (CED – a method of delivering drugs directly into the brain) of, first, different forms of amyloid-β peptide (Aβ), to model the accumulation of Aβ in Alzheimer’s disease, and, second, the Aβ-degrading enzyme neprilysin, as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Barua used a range of neurosurgical, neuropathological and biochemical techniques and included some highly innovative methods for which there was no published precedent. In addition, he made substantial novel contributions to scientists’ understanding of how drugs behave when they are administered directly into brain tissue and how and how this method of delivery affects the spread of viruses and the movement of molecules and nanoparticles that could offer the possibility of novel therapies.

Dr Barua also examined the  merits of administering repeated doses of drugs by CED using a novel skull-mounted drug delivery port, which allows repeated drug administrations without the need for repeated surgical intervention. These observations have had a major impact on the design and implementation of devices that are now being used to administer neurotrophic and chemotherapeutic drugs.

The research has led to the publication of 13 peer-reviewed papers, multiple invitations to give presentations at international scientific meetings, and several awards.

Faculty of Science: Dr Liam Thomas Ball (School of Chemistry)
‘Oxidative gold catalysis’

Biaryls – two directly connected aromatic rings – are common motifs in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and organic materials. When chemists want to synthesise them, they usually turn to cross-coupling methods whose development led to the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2010. Dr Ball’s pioneering work led to a new method that offers an alternative by making use of a gold catalyst that offers distinct advantages over existing methods. In particular, the gold catalyst can ignore the chemical decoration on the aryl groups that are key to defining its properties, thus making this strategy widely applicable. Dr Ball not only developed the conditions that enabled this process to work efficiently but also gained a deep understanding of the fundamental mechanistic steps that make it so effective. 

Faculty of Social Sciences and Law: Dr Lydia Jane Hayes (University of Bristol Law School)
‘Discrimination and disconnection: Grammars of sex-based pay justice and the framing of equal pay law’

Dr Hayes’ thesis, supervised by Professors Harriet Bradley and Tonia Novitz, combined analysis of equal pay law with an empirical study of women’s experience of pay-based injustice, building on the theoretical work of Nancy Fraser. Her argument was that the injustice of women’s lower pay in the care work industry can be interpreted through two distinct ‘grammars’: a legal grammar of discrimination and an experiential grammar of disconnection. This would enable lower-paid workers to place their experience of pay injustice on a spectrum of sex-based legal entitlement, and would provide a platform for reform of equal pay law in the interests of wider social justice. Dr Hayes has subsequently used a Journal of Law and Society Research Fellowship at Cardiff University to expand aspects of this research to examine the framing of legal entitlements and their impact on working-class women in the care industry.

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