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Meet the 10 brilliant Cambridge scientists elected as fellows of the Royal Society in 2020




An extraordinary 10 out of the 62 newly-elected fellows of the Royal Society are Cambridge scientists.

Representing fields from genomics to astrophysics, artificial intelligence to crop science, they join a distinguished group of just over 1,700 scientists, including about 70 Nobel Laureates.

The 10 Cambridge scientists elected as fellows of the Royal Society in 2020
The 10 Cambridge scientists elected as fellows of the Royal Society in 2020

Among these Nobel Laureates is the president of the Royal Society, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, who said: “At this time of global crisis, the importance of scientific thinking, and the medicines, technologies and insights it delivers, has never been clearer.

“Our fellows and foreign Members are central to the mission of the Royal Society, to use science for the benefit of humanity.

“While election to the fellowship is a recognition of exceptional individual contributions to the sciences, it is also a network of expertise that can be drawn on to address issues of societal, and global significance. This year’s fellows and foreign members have helped shape the 21st century through their work at the cutting-edge of fields from human genomics, to climate science and machine learning.

“It gives me great pleasure to celebrate these achievements, and those yet to come, and welcome them into the ranks of the Royal Society.”

Here are the 10 newly-elected fellows from Cambridge...

Kevin Brindle

Professor Kevin Brindle at the CRUK Cambridge Institute. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Kevin Brindle at the CRUK Cambridge Institute. Picture: Keith Heppell

A senior group leader at the Cancer Research UK Cancer Institute, Prof Brindle is known for developing magnetic resonance techniques for investigating the biochemistry of cells and tissues.

His current research - for which the Cambridge Independent has helped raised £96,000 through its Rapid Scan Appeal - is focused on developing novel imaging methods to detect cancer progression and monitor early tumour responses to treatment.

The technique is designed to show whether cancer drugs are working or not within a day or two of treatment getting under way, compared to the weeks or months patients and doctors normally have to wait. The emphasis of Prof Brindle’s work is translating the technique to the clinic.

A professor of biomedical magnetic resonance at the University of Cambridge, he achieved his and DPhil in Oxford, before becoming a Royal Society university research fellow in 1986.

He moved to a lectureship in Manchester in 1990 and in 1993 to a lectureship in Cambridge, where he became professor in 2005.

He was elected a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2012, to the European Academy of Cancer Sciences in 2014 and to the presidency of the European Society for Molecular Imaging (2018-2019) in 2017. He was awarded the European Society of Molecular Imaging Award in 2013 and the Gold Medal of the World Molecular Imaging Society in 2014.

Vikram Deshpande

Vikran Deshpande, a professor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. Picture: University of Cambridge
Vikran Deshpande, a professor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. Picture: University of Cambridge

Based in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, Prof Deshpande has made key contributions in fields ranging from the design of micro-architectured materials to modelling soft and active materials, helping to define the modern frontiers of solid mechanics.

Among his achievements are:

- helping to invent ‘metallic wood’ - sheets of nickel as strong as titanium, but four-times lighter thanks to their plant-like nanoscale pores;

- developing theories to exploit fluid-structure interaction effects to enhance the blast resistance of land and sea vehicles;

- creating computational tools for interrogating the high-temperature performance of alloys used in engines; and

- unravelling the role of entropic forces in mechano-transduction within living cells.

Combining theoretical understanding with insightful experiments, his work has had a major impact in materials engineering, he is the recipient of awards including the 2020 Rodney Hill Prize in Solid Mechanics, the 2018 Sir William Hopkins Prize in Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and the Philip Leverhulme Prize.

Marian Holness

Marian Holness, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Picture: University of Cambridge
Marian Holness, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Picture: University of Cambridge

A professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, Marian Holness has devised a new approach to decoding rock history.

Combining detailed observations of grain-scale microstructure with more conventional field observations and geochemical analysis, she works to understand the evolution of bodies of magma trapped in the crust.

In particular, Prof Holness explores the way mixtures of crystals and liquid rock behave, which ultimately controls the eruptive behaviour of volcanoes.

This quantitative understanding of microstructural features - previously overlooked - enables her to trace how ancient magmatic intrusions cooled, explore their crystal-rich margins and work out whether the magma convected during solidification.

She has also identified the microstructural signature of liquid immiscibility - when a magma splits into two like a mixture of oil and vinegar.

And she has documented the effects this has on mass transport within intrusions.

Giles Oldroyd

Giles Oldroyd, director of the Crop Science Centre at the University of Cambridge and group leader at the Sainsbury Laboratory. Picture: University of Cambridge
Giles Oldroyd, director of the Crop Science Centre at the University of Cambridge and group leader at the Sainsbury Laboratory. Picture: University of Cambridge

A director of the Crop Science Centre at the University of Cambridge, Prof Oldroyd studies interactions between plants and beneficial micro-organisms - bacteria and fungi - that aid the uptake of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from the environment.

These associations are intracellular, allowing tight control of nutrient exchange. Sources of carbon are delivered to the microorganisms from the plant in exchange for nitrogen and phosphorus. Prof Oldroyd has dissected the signal transduction pathway in plants.

The ability to apply nitrogenous fertilisers has led to significant yield improvements with many cereal crops but these benefits have not been achieved equally around the world - and fertilisers represent a significant proportion of the pollution from agriculture.

A group leader at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, Prof Oldroyd leads an international research programme aimed at creating more equitable and sustainable agriculture through the enhanced use of these beneficial microbial associations.

Hugh Osborn

Hugh Osborn, emeritus professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Picture: University of Cambridge
Hugh Osborn, emeritus professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Picture: University of Cambridge

An emeritus professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, Hugh Osborn studied quantum field theory, particularly conformal field theory.

This is key to theoretical physics - notably the standard model of high energy physics and the theory of condensed matter.

Prof Osborn’s work has aided our understanding of how quantum field theories change, or flow, as the energy scale changes, something known as the renormalisation group flow.

Didier Queloz

Nobel Prize winner Prof Didier Queloz. Picture: University of Cambridge
Nobel Prize winner Prof Didier Queloz. Picture: University of Cambridge

Prof Queloz’s appointment to the fellowship comes after he was jointly awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the first exoplanet - that is, a planet outside our solar system.

Professor of physics at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, with a part-time role at Geneva University, his spectacular find came in 1995 during his PhD under the supervision of Prof Michel Mayor. They announced that they had found a gas-giant exoplanet, orbiting star 51 Pegasi, about the size of Jupiter and with a surface temperature of more than 1,000 degrees. It changed humankind’s understanding of our place in the universe, kickstarting the search for exoplanets - thousands of which have now been identified.

Prof Queloz has spent 25 years helping to progress the detection and measurement of exoplanet systems, and aiming to retrieve information on their physical structure.

He has conducted and worked on programs that have led to the discovery of hundreds of planets and most recently has focused on finding Earth-like planets and the search for life on them.

Prof Queloz and Prof Mayor shared their Nobel Prize with Professor James Peebles of Princeton University in the US.

William Schafer

William Schafer, of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Picture: MRC LMB (34191003)
William Schafer, of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Picture: MRC LMB (34191003)

A group leader in the Neurobiology Division at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, William Schafer studies nematode worms to explore the mechanisms by which nervous systems process information and generate behaviour.

These worms - C. elegans - have simple and well-characterised nervous systems and have enabled him to study how sensory neurons detect environmental stimuli, how neuromodulators control behavioural state and how patterns of neuronal wiring relate to brain function.

He has introduced new methods for detecting and recording the activities of neurons in living animals and for quantitatively defining the effects of genetic mutations on behaviour - achievements widely applied now in neuroscience.

“I am incredibly grateful to all the postdocs, students and other lab members who contributed to the work honoured by this fellowship. I would particularly like to mention Dr Denise Walker who has been my lab manager at the LMB for almost 13 years,” he said.

He obtained his PhD in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and began work on nematode neurobiology as a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, San Francisco. He was a faculty member in the biology division at University of California in San Diego, before moving to the LMB in 2006. He is also a member of EMBO and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Sarah Teichmann

Dr Sarah Teichmann in front of the computer cluster at the Sanger Institute. Picture: Pari Naderi
Dr Sarah Teichmann in front of the computer cluster at the Sanger Institute. Picture: Pari Naderi

Head of the cellular genetics programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Dr Teichmann’s fellowship recognises her outstanding contribution to scientific understanding, through computational biology and genomics.

This includes her role as co-founder and co-leader of the international Human Cell Atlas consortium initiative, which is mapping every cell type in the human body.

Dr Teichmann has created methods to understand biophysical principles of protein assembly and she is a pioneer in large-scale single cell genomics.

Also a director of research at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, her discoveries have transformed our understanding of fundamental biological pathways in health and disease.

Arguably her most ambitious work involved co-founding the Human Cell Atlas consortium in 2016, which aims to use single cell genomics and spatial technologies to create a high resolution map of the human body that will offer new understanding of human tissues in both health and disease.

From the body’s development, to its immune reaction to viruses and cancer, it has the potential to drive forward healthcare and advances in regenerative medicine.

Dr Teichmann said: "I am delighted and humbled to be elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society. This great honour is a testimony to the dedicated work, skills and creativity of my team, colleagues and collaborators, both here at the Sanger Institute and elsewhere, who have contributed to our exciting technological and biological discoveries.

“We hope that understanding organs and tissues at single cell resolution will not only reveal fascinating insights into human biology, but also transform our understanding of disease and healthcare.”

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute at Hinxton, said: “Sarah’s election to the Royal Society is richly deserved. Her commitment to understanding the human body using large scale single cell and computational methods, together with her passion for bringing people and communities together has led to the global Human Cell Atlas consortium.

“This huge collaborative network is revealing insights into human disease including cancer, auto-immune disease, respiratory disease and even virus targets and will have profound implications for diagnostics and therapeutic development.”

Jack Thorne

Jack Thorne, a professor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pure Maths and Mathematical Statistics. Picture: University of Cambridge
Jack Thorne, a professor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pure Maths and Mathematical Statistics. Picture: University of Cambridge

At 32, Prof Jack Thorne, of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pure Maths and Mathematical Statistics, has become the youngest living member of the fellowship.

It acknowledges the multiple breakthroughs he has made in diverse areas of algebraic number theory.

He studies the interaction of number theory with representation theory, and the theory of automorphic forms - in other words, the role played by symmetry in solving equations.

Most importantly, his work includes:

  • the proof of new cases of functoriality for holomorphic modular forms
  • the modularity of elliptic curves over any layer of the cyclotomic tower
  • the existence of Galois representations associated to regular algebraic automorphic forms; and
  • the potential automorphy of local systems on curves over finite fields.

He has already been awarded a Clay Research Fellowship, the LMS Whitehead Prize and the SASTRA Ramanujan Prize. In 2018, he gave an invited address at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Rio de Janeiro.

Steve Young

Steve Young, a professor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. Picture: University of Cambridge
Steve Young, a professor in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. Picture: University of Cambridge

Siri, who is Prof Stephen Young?

Your iPhone may help you discover that he has played an important role in developing the speech recognition products now commonplace in our homes.

They rely on a statistical approach to language processing, which artificial intelligence and machine learning specialist Prof Young has pioneered.

The approach treats conversation as a reinforcement learning problem.

He is based in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering and was a major contributor to the early development of large vocabulary speech recognition. Head of the School of Technology from 2001-4 and senior pro-vice chancellor from 2009-15, he was also a founder and VP Engineering at Entropic Inc, which was acquired by Microsoft in 1999, and founder of VocalIQ Ltd, which was acquired by Apple in 2015.

From 2015-19 he was a senior member of technical staff in the Siri development team in Cambridge.

A fellow and trustee of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and a fellow of the IET and IEEE, he has won numerous awards, including the ISCA Medal for Scientific Achievement.

Read more

The pioneering scan that could tell Cambridge cancer patients if treatment is working within days

Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to University of Cambridge’s Didier Queloz for first discovery of an exoplanet

World’s first cell atlas of developing liver created by Cambridge scientists

MRC LMB's Michel Goedert receives Royal Society's 2019 Royal Medal for his neurodegenerative disease work

University of Cambridge’s Dame Ann Dowling receives Royal Medal for work on reducing aircraft noise

Congenica co-founder and genetics pioneer Dr Matthew Hurles elected to fellowship of Royal Society



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