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The 10 brilliant Cambridge scientists honoured in 2020 with Royal Society medals and awards



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Sir Alan Fersht, of the University of Cambridge, has won the world’s oldest scientific prize, the Royal Society’s Copley Medal.

He was one of 10 Cambridge scientists who were among 25 awarded with Royal Society medals and awards this week.

Alan Fersht. Picture: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (40073503)
Alan Fersht. Picture: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (40073503)

Sir Alan, of the Department of Chemistry, and Gonville & Caius College, a leading pioneer in protein engineering, said: “Most of us who become scientists do so because science is one of the most rewarding and satisfying of careers and we actually get paid for doing what we enjoy and for our benefitting humankind. Recognition of one’s work, especially at home, is icing on the cake. Like many Copley medallists, I hail from a humble immigrant background and the first of my family to go to university. If people like me are seen to be honoured for science, then I hope it will encourage young people in similar situations to take up science.”

His work has helped to describe protein folding pathways at atomic resolution, revolutionising our understanding of these processes. He joins Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Dorothy Hodgkin in winning the medal.

Sir Alan was at the MRC Laboratoty of Molecular Biology from 1968 to 1977, as a member of scientific staff and a group leader. Following a stint at Imperial College, London, he became Herchel Smith professor of organic chemistry at the University of Cambridge, and simultaneously headed the MRC Centre for Protein Engineering from 1988 to 2010. He returned to the LMB in 2010 and is now an emeritus scientist.

Prof Julia Gog, of the University of Cambridge, receives the Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture
Prof Julia Gog, of the University of Cambridge, receives the Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture

The University of Cambridge’s Prof Julia Gog, of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and Queens’ College, received the Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture for her achievements in the field of mathematics. Her expertise in infectious diseases and virus modelling have contributed to the pandemic response, including as a participant at SAGE meetings.

The £40,000 STEM project grant that forms part of her award will produce resources for Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) maths pupils and teachers exploring the curriculum in the context of modelling epidemics and infectious diseases and showing how maths can change the world for the better.

Sir David Spiegelhalter
Sir David Spiegelhalter

Meanwhile, the society’s Michael Faraday Prize was awarded to the university’s Sir David Spiegelhalter, of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication and Churchill College, for vividly bringing home key insights from the disciplines of statistics and probability to the public and key decision-makers in entertaining and accessible ways, most recently during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Prof Steve Jackson, of the Wellcome / Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute
Prof Steve Jackson, of the Wellcome / Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute

Prof Stephen Jackson, of the Gurdon Institute and Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, won the Royal Society Mullard Award for his research which led to the development of blockbuster ovarian and breast cancer drug olaparib.

The Croonian Medal and Lecture was won by the University of Cambridge’s Prof Barry Everitt, of the Department of Psychology and Downing College, for elucidating brain mechanisms of motivation and applying them to important societal issues such as drug addiction.

Prof Barry Everitt. Pictiure: Darwin College
Prof Barry Everitt. Pictiure: Darwin College

He said: “In addition to my personal pride about having received this prestigious award, I hope that it helps draw attention to experimental addiction research, its importance and potential.”

And the university’s Prof Herbert Huppert, won the Royal Medal A for his research in fluid mechanics. An applied mathematician, he has consistently developed highly original analysis of key natural and industrial processes. He has also chaired policy work on how science can help defend against terrorism, and carbon capture and storage in Europe. Other winners were:

Prof Clare Grey, of the University of Cambridge
Prof Clare Grey, of the University of Cambridge

 Hughes Medal – Prof Clare Grey, of the Department of Chemistry and Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge, for her pioneering work on the development and application of new characterization methodology to develop fundamental insight into how batteries, supercapacitors and fuel cells operate.

Marta Zlatic. Picture: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (40073510)
Marta Zlatic. Picture: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (40073510)

 Francis Crick Medal and Lecture – Dr Marta Zlatic, of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, for discovering how neural circuits generate behaviour by developing and disseminating definitive techniques, and by discovering fundamental principles governing circuit development and function. Dr Zlatic joined the LMB as a group leader in December 2019, from HHMI Janelia Research Campus, where she was a group leader since 2009. Previously, she was a research and teaching fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Her work aims to understand how neuronal circuitry enables animals to learn and select actions, and she investigates the structural changes in the brain that are involved in storing memories. Prior to joining the LMB, Dr Zlatic developed a powerful approach combining connectomics with physiology and behaviour in Drosophila larva to study the circuit implementation of neural computations.

She said: “I was thrilled to receive the news and extremely honoured that our work has been recognised in this way.”

Prof Daniel Wolpert, of the University of Cambridge
Prof Daniel Wolpert, of the University of Cambridge

 Ferrier Medal and Lecture – Prof Daniel Wolpert, of the Department of Engineering and Trinity College, University of Cambridge, for groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of how the brain controls movement. Using theoretical and experimental approaches he has elucidated the computational principles underlying skilled motor behaviour.

 Milner Award and Lecture – Prof Zoubin Ghahramani, of the Department of Engineering and St John’s College at the University of Cambridge, for his fundamental contributions to probabilistic machine learning.

The president of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan, who works at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, said: “The Royal Society’s medals and awards celebrate those researchers whose ground-breaking work has helped answer fundamental questions and advance our understanding of the world around us.

The president of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan. Picture: Royal Society
The president of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan. Picture: Royal Society

“They also champion those who have reinforced science’s place in society, whether through inspiring public engagement, improving our education system, or by making STEM careers more inclusive and rewarding.

“This year has highlighted how integral science is in our daily lives, and tackling the challenges we face, and it gives me great pleasure to congratulate all our winners and thank them for their work.”

Each of the medals and awards include a monetary prize.

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