Imperial scoops research fellowships worth £12 million


woman in lab coat in lab

Dr Vanessa Sancho-Shimizu will focus on the genetics underlying invasive meningococcal disease

Eight researchers from across all faculties have been awarded Future Leader Fellowships by UK Research and Innovation.

The fellowship will allow me to go from blue skies research all the way to application Yuval Elani new Future Leader Fellow

The prestigious fellowships were established to support a new generation of rising stars. They provide early career academics with the flexibility and time they need to make progress on pressing global challenges.

The fellowships are funded by UKRI, the national body which brings together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England. Imperial was one of the most successful universities in this round, with eight fellowships awarded out of nine interviewees. 

Professor Nick Jennings, Imperial’s Vice-Provost for Research and Enterprise, said: “Our new fellows have set themselves ambitious and challenging research questions – from understanding the genetics underlying life-threatening infections, to how to make synthetic cells from scratch.

"This sustained funding from UKRI will support our talented innovators to take on these difficult and novel challenges. I am extremely proud of our huge success which could only have been achieved through a truly cross-College effort, with contributions from many departments, as well as the Research Office and the Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre.”

Researchers who wanted to host a fellowship at Imperial were supported through the application process by Imperial’s Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre, a unique resource. “We worked closely with the Research Office to make sure we offered support proactively to everyone who was interested in applying, including staff who already held lecturer positions,” said Dr Liz Elvidge, who heads up the centre.

“Sometimes researchers can get stuck in the details of the science, but we know for this fellowship it’s important that they present themselves as future leaders, and we can help them do that. Being part of this application cycle was unbelievably rewarding – you meet these people and you just know they are going to fly.”

Below we meet three of the new Future Leader Fellows.

Dr Yuval Elani, Department of Chemical Engineering    

man in grey shirt against white backgroundThe aim of the fellowship is to devise an engineering rulebook to enable us to make synthetic cells from scratch. These artificial structures will be made of the building blocks of biology like DNA, lipids and enzymes, but manufactured from the bottom up, and engineered to mimic the behaviours that are considered the hallmarks of life (motility, replication, energy generation etc.). We will be fusing our cells with living biological cells to make hybrids. These will have functions that neither living nor synthetic cells could have in isolation.

The fellowship will allow me to go from blue skies research all the way to application. It’s entirely unique in the UK funding landscape – seven years of generous funding, supporting highly multidisciplinary research, and allowing flexible partnerships with industry. I’ll be working with academic as well as industrial partners like AstraZeneca and SMEs to realise the broader societal benefits of my technologies in the long term, including in smart targeted therapeutics and new screening platforms in drug development.

Most of the grant will fund the core activities of my lab and enable me to grow my group, hire postdocs, and purchase instruments. It will allow me to do risky, high-reward and ambitious research, the sort of research you can’t do without this level of support.

The support from the Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre was absolutely invaluable Yuval Elani new Future Leader Fellow

The fellowship is also focused on leadership development, both for me and for my team. We will be taking courses in entrepreneurship, innovation, academic leadership, and ExEd to help make us future leaders. It will also fund me to do placements at some big industrial collaborators in the pharma and synthetic biology sector. This will help me straddle the divide between academia and industry, which is of increasing importance.

The support from the Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre was absolutely invaluable through all steps of the process, from application reviews to mock interviews. Every fellowship has unique requirements and criteria, and the PFDC has the knowledge to help you meet them. It was genuinely instrumental in me being awarded the fellowship.

Dr Vanessa Sancho-Shimizu, Department of Infectious Disease 

My research focus is on understanding the genetics underlying life-threatening infections which affect children, such as herpes encephalitis and invasive bacterial disease. With this fellowship I will be focusing on invasive meningococcal disease.

During the fellowship I’ll be working to understand why certain children develop life-threatening infections from a disease which most of us carry asymptomatically in our noses – I have proposed a genetic hypothesis. With the flexibility of seven years’ funding, I’ll be able to hire a team to support the development of an in vitro variant testing pipeline as well as using zebrafish for in vivo studies.

The funding will also help me to continue recruiting patients thanks to a NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre funded Paediatric Infectious Disease Clinic. I work closely with clinical academic colleagues at Imperial who are also consultants at St Mary’s hospital. We have a dedicated clinic at the hospital each month where we can recruit patients and feed back any findings, which is really unique. I also have an established network of doctors across the world who contact me to refer patients.

Vanessa discusses her research and the importance of international collaborations

Certain aspects of the research will bring benefits over the longer term and may not affect treatment for the individual patients immediately. However if we do identify genetic anomalies, through the clinic we can offer genetic counselling to help families understand the results, and we can offer genetic testing for other family members who might be affected.

woman in lab coat working in labIn certain cases we may be able to provide prophylaxis or different treatment to best protect the individual from life-threatening infection. For example if genes in the complement pathway are affected – we know that the patient is at high risk of recurring infections and so we can tailor the treatment plan and offer prophylactic treatment. Around 10% of our sequenced patients have this type of anomaly, and this group will benefit from our findings immediately. 

The work that I will do during the fellowship will bring further understanding to the pathogenesis of not just meningococcal disease but also sepsis – which can originate from other types of infections and affect adults as well as children.

I feel very fortunate to be a Future Leaders Fellow and embrace this opportunity to further our understanding of these infections. I am appreciative of my mentors and peers as well as the PFDC who have supported me throughout the application process.

Dr Michael R. Vanner, Department of Physics 

man wearing glasses and blue striped shirtThe central theme of my UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship is how to generate and observe quantum states of motion of macroscopic mechanical objects. This goal will be pursued by exploiting the quantum properties of light and the forces that light can exert on matter. The experimental observations made during this project can shed light on the very foundations of physics, such as learning about quantum decoherence mechanisms, and can lay the groundwork for powerful new quantum technologies, such as memories to store quantum information.

As a new lecturer, this fellowship is an ideal vehicle with which to launch my new lab and research team. This £1.6M project will provide the necessary equipment and resources, as well as the stability and flexibility to pursue this ambitious research programme.

Whilst preparing for my application, I found the Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre to be immensely valuable. In particular, they provided a mock interview that mimicked the conditions of my actual fellowship application interview very well.

I’m tremendously looking forward to building up these experiments and my team in our new lab space in the Blackett Building, which is in the final stage of being refurbished.


Elizabeth Nixon

Elizabeth Nixon
Communications Division

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