An MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis team and Dr Natalie Shenker from the Dept of Surgery and Cancer are finalists in two categories.
Scientists from Imperial – whose work ranges from supporting the extensive use of mathematical modelling during the UK’s COVID-19 response to reducing infant mortality with a national milk bank service – have been recognised for their far-reaching impact on health research.
Launched in 2022 by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the MRC Impact Prize recognises individuals or teams who have made outstanding contributions in medical research. Specifically, the prize rewards impact in three areas: open science impact; outstanding team impact; early career impact.
Dr Natalie Shenker: Early Career Impact finalist
Dr Shenker’s research focuses on investigating the evidence for the use of donor milk and how this impacts infant health, maternal physical and mental health, and breastfeeding rates.
In 2016, she co-founded the UK’s first non-profit human milk bank, the Hearts Milk Bank. Operating in a similar way to a blood transfusion service, the milk bank supplies surplus breast milk to feed sick premature babies whose mothers face breastfeeding challenges such as a cancer diagnosis or low milk supply.
Alongside providing donor milk to over 50 NHS hospital neonatal intensive care units, the Hearts Milk Bank is enabling a raft of research and innovation. This includes ground-breaking work into the optimal use of donor milk, as well as answering key questions about the composition of human milk.
Dr Shenker said: “I’ve been able to take an untested idea - that access to donor human milk might have broader impacts on public health than its traditional use for extremely preterm babies - and create this research facility that is reshaping what we know about perinatal support for families.
“Our findings have been instrumental in everything from the pandemic vaccination response to informing national recommendations. I’m now honoured to steer the course for a highly motivated team that includes scores of people across the country, working to implement innovations that have a direct impact on thousands of families each year.
“If we win, the funding will be used to create online education programmes that can disseminate what we are learning to healthcare professionals and the general public in the UK and beyond. The scale of the consequent impact on early years development and life-course health for both mothers and babies is breath-taking and motivates us all every day.
“Being shortlisted for this award has given me the confidence to start developing a pathway for more academics to spin out non-profits from the higher education sector. There may be many other early-career researchers envisaging non-profit ventures that would yield profound impact on environmental and public health, who may start to take steps in this direction as a result. It’s taken some courage to do things differently, but there is so much to be gained as a result.”
MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis team: Open Science Impact
Also shortlisted for the award in the category of Open Science Impact are members of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis team.
The team, comprising software engineers and analysts, researchers and communications specialists, has been nominated for ‘Enabling Rapid Communication, Dissemination and Uptake of COVID-19 Mathematical Modelling’. Their work supported the extensive use of mathematical modelling during the UK’s COVID-19 response by reporting outputs in the public interest in accessible formats and outlets, and in multiple languages.
Led Dr Richard Fitzjohn, Principal Architect from the Research Software Engineering Group, the team shortlisted for the award includes Dr Wes Hinsley, Dr Natsuko Imai (now based at Wellcome Trust) and Dr Sabine van Elsland.
Speaking on behalf of the nominated team, Dr Richard Fitzjohn said: “We are delighted to have been shortlisted for this MRC award, and it’s great that that work has been recognised.
“A key lesson to emerge early in the pandemic was that it's not enough just to do the science and publish it in journals. To this end, Sabine and Natsuko worked in real time to translate complex research, making it accessible to everyone from public health agencies and policymakers, to the wider public.
“On the analysis side, the software that myself and Wes wrote to underpin the modelling work meant that the researchers could spend more time focusing on the epidemiology, knowing their calculations could be scaled up when needed.”
The winners will be announced at a dedicated MRC awards ceremony in spring 2023, and will be awarded up to £20,000 to widen the outreach or impact of their work, or to advance their learning and development.
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