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Meet the 12 Cambridge scientists made fellows of the Royal Society in May 2021

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A dozen Cambridge scientists have been made fellows of the Royal Society in recognition of their exceptional contributions to science.

The society, which recognises, promotes and supports excellence in science, announced a total of 52 new fellows, 10 foreign members and one honorary fellow last week.

Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said: “Our new fellows and foreign members are all at the forefronts of their fields from molecular genetics and cancer research to tropical open ecosystems and radar technology.”

Cambridge scientists made fellows ot the Royal Society in May 2021. Picture: University of Cambridge (47038837)
Cambridge scientists made fellows ot the Royal Society in May 2021. Picture: University of Cambridge (47038837)

University of Cambridge

Professor Julie Ahringer, director and senior group leader of the Gurdon Institute

Prof Ahringer’s contributions to molecular genetics come through work on the nematode C. elegans. She achieved the first systematic inactivation of all the genes in any animal, which pioneered genome-wide reverse genetic screening.

Her work has aided our understanding of the processes underlying cell polarity and gene expression.

“Much of science today is done in teams, and this reflects the tremendous contributions of my past and present lab members,” she said.

Professor Sadaf Farooqi, Wellcome principal research fellow and professor of metabolism and medicine at the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science

Prof Farooqi has discovered fundamental mechanisms that control human energy homeostasis and explained their disruption in obesity. She discovered that the leptin-melanocortin system regulates appetite and weight in people and that genetic mutations affecting this pathway cause severe obesity.

Her team’s findings have led to diagnostic testing for genetic obesity syndromes worldwide and enabled life-saving treatment for some people with severe obesity.

She said: “As a clinician scientist, I am absolutely delighted to be elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society. This prestigious honour recognises the work of many team members past and present, our network of collaborators across the world and the patients and their families who have contributed to our research.”

Professor Usha Goswami. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Usha Goswami. Picture: Keith Heppell

Professor Usha Goswami, professor of cognitive developmental neuroscience, Department of Psychology, and director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education

Pioneering the application of neuroscience to education, Prof Goswami’s research investigates the sensory and neural basis of childhood disorders of language and literacy, which are heritable and found across languages.

Her research shows a shared sensory and neural basis in auditory rhythmic processing. She has shown that this automatic process can be disrupted, affecting speech encoding for some children.

“I have been interested in children's reading and language development since training as a primary school teacher, and we have used neuroscientific insights to understand the mechanisms underpinning developmental language disorders. It is fantastically rewarding for our work to be recognised in this way,” she said.

Professor Rebecca Kilner
Professor Rebecca Kilner

Professor Rebecca Kilner, professor of evolutionary biology and director of the University Museum of Zoology

Prof Kilner’s research explores the evolution of animal behaviour, and how this behaviour affects the pace and scope of subsequent evolutionary change. She is using experimental evolution to investigate how quickly populations can adapt when environmental conditions change.

Using cross-fostering experiments in birds and insects, she showed how family members exert selection on each other, and discovered hidden evolutionary conflicts between parents and their offspring, and among adults caring together for offspring.

She said: “I’m astonished, honoured and delighted to be elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society. This honour is shared with everyone I have ever worked with. Science is a team effort and I’ve been incredibly lucky to collaborate with brilliant colleagues throughout my career.”

Prof David Rowitch, head of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Cambridge (18500233)
Prof David Rowitch, head of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Cambridge (18500233)

Professor David Rowitch, professor and head of the Department of Paediatrics, Wellcome Trust senior investigator

Prof Rowitch is focused on basic and translational research on glial cells, which comprise 90 per cent of cells in the human brain.

He has applied a developmental neuroscience perspective to better understand human neonatal brain development and white matter injury in premature infants, multiple sclerosis and leukodystrophy.

He said: “It is a great honour to be elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society, joining many of my esteemed Cambridge, and other scientific, colleagues.”

Professor Richard Samworth, professor of statistical science and director of the Statistical Laboratory

Prof Samworth is recognised for his fundamental contributions to the development of modern statistical methodology and theory. He has developed statistical methods and theory to address contemporary data challenges that arise in the Big Data era.

“I was incredibly honoured when I found out I'd been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society,” he said. “It's a real thrill to become a small part of such a respected institution.”

Professor Benjamin Simons, Royal Society EP Abraham professor, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and senior group leader of the Gurdon Institute

From quantum condensed matter physics to developmental and cancer biology, Prof Simon’s has made a broad contribution. His research translates concepts and approaches from statistical physics to enable predictive insights in the collective dynamics of complex systems. His studies have revealed common mechanisms of stem cell regulation in biology and how these programmes become subverted during the early phase of tumour growth.

He said: “I hope that my election may serve to emphasise the value of multidisciplinary research that stands at the interface between physics and the life sciences.”

Wellcome Sanger Institute

Dr Peter Campbell, head of the cancer, ageing and somatic mutations programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Wellcome-MRC Stem Cell Institute

Dr Campbell was an early adopter of genomic technologies used to study the underlying mechanisms of cancer. His work has led to the development of an entirely new approach to investigating cancer. HIs research focuses on the genetic changes our cells acquire as we go through life, and how these mutations are related to ageing, cancer and other disease processes.

MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Dr Christopher Tate, MRC investigator, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Dr Tate joined the LMB in 1992 as a researcher in Richard Henderson’s group. In 2010, he started his own group, which focuses on understanding the structure and function of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). There are more than 800 of these membrane proteins encoded by the human genome, impacting processes including taste, smell and receiving neurotransmitter and hormonal signals. GPCRs are targeted by a vast number of drugs, which requires knowledge of their structure.

Chris’ group recently published the first structure of a fungal GPCR - a class of GPCRs that has received less scrutiny.

He said: “It is of course an honour to be elected as an FRS, but this was only possible due to the skill and expertise of the many excellent researchers who have worked over many years in my lab, alongside the extraordinary support offered by the LMB for challenging research.”

Dr Sjors Scheres, group leader, Structural Studies Division, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

A group leader since 2010, who also serves as joint head of division, Dr Scheres’ research has focused on the development of novel methods for cryo-EM structure determination. He developed algorithms for cryo-EM image processing in the computer programme RELION, which is used across the world and was recently employed to determine protein structures to an atomic level – a record-breaking resolution. His group also works closely with Michel Goedert’s group to study the structure of tau proteins, an integral component of the neurofibrillary lesions intrinsic to Alzheimer’s disease.

“I’m thrilled and honoured with this recognition of our work. The LMB is a wonderful place to do exciting science, and I’m grateful for the many contributions of my incredibly talented colleagues who made it all happen,” said Dr Scheres.

British Antarctic Survey

Professor Dame Jane Francis, director, British Antarctic Survey

Prof Francis has spent years researching geology in the polar regions and is heavily involved with the Antarctic Treaty – the unique international agreement protecting the world’s largest and most pristine wilderness. She specialises in the study of fossil plants, especially woods, and their use as tools for climate interpretation and information about past biodiversity. In 2020, Francis Peak on Adelaide Island Antarctica was named after her.

Professor Richard Horne, head of space weather and atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

As principle investigator of the Rad-Sat project, Prof Horne’s research models the acceleration, transport and loss of radiation belt electrons to protect satellites from space weather.

He led the EU-funded SPACECAST project to develop a space weather forecasting system for satellites, showing that including wave-particle interactions improves the forecast of space weather impacts significantly. He also led the EU SPACESTORM project, demonstrating that the risk to satellites by the space environment is much higher than previously thought.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, executive chair at Natural Environment Research Council, said: “Dame Jane Francis and Professor Richard Horne are first class scientists, and their fellowships are thoroughly deserved.”

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