2008 UK and Ireland Fellows

2008 winners

The winners of the four 2008 L’Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland Fellowships For Women In Science were announced on 2 July 2008 at an awards ceremony at the Royal Institution in London.

Dr Sarah Bridle, University College London

To undertake research quantifying the dark universe using cosmic gravitational lensing

Dr Sarah BridleDr Sarah Bridle will use her For Women In Science Fellowship to support her research at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College London. Her work uses cosmic gravitational lensing to measure dark energy in the universe in order to help understand how the Universe appears to be accelerating in its expansion.

In 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered that the Universe is expanding, which led to the Big Bang theory. Gravity was expected to gradually slow the expansion, and might even cause the Universe to collapse back inwards in a “Big Crunch”. However, over the past decade detailed observations have shown that the Universe appears actually to be accelerating in its expansion. Understanding this surprising observation is the biggest challenge in cosmology today. Cosmologists have suggested the existence of a new type of material, “dark energy”, to explain the acceleration.

Several new telescopes are planned to investigate this dark energy further and Dr Bridle is already heavily involved in two of these. They are expected to tell us about the dark energy through observations of the shapes of distant galaxies. This is possible because distant galaxies appear distorted by “gravitational lensing”, due to the bending of light by the gravitational pull of matter. Similarly, streetlamps seen through a bathroom window appear distorted due to the varying thickness of the glass; by analyzing the apparent shapes of the streetlamps we could deduce the variations in the thickness of the glass. Dr Bridle’s work will use the images of distant galaxies to discover the distribution of matter in the Universe.

Dr Sarah Bridle became interested in astrophysics at school. She went on to undertake a PhD in cosmology at the University of Cambridge before pursuing postdoctoral work at the Laboratorie D’Astrophysique in Toulouse, France, the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, and University College London. It was during her year in Toulouse, at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique, that Dr Bridle started working on gravitational lensing, the subject that she is still grappling with at UCL.

Dr Ashleigh Griffin, University of Edinburgh

To undertake research understanding social behaviour in microbial infections

Dr Ashleigh GriffinDr Ashleigh Griffin will use her For Women In Science Fellowship to support her research at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh. Her work on cooperative behaviour in microbes will investigate what kind of social strategies are advantageous in populations of bacteria infecting, for example, the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. Her work will help to also understand why cells are able to switch off growth and so become resistant to antibiotics.

When you acquire a bacteria infection, you are under attack from a band of individuals working together with staggering efficiency to overcome your immune system and plunder your body’s resources. To understand cooperation between cells in an infection, we must refer to evolutionary theory, developed over decades to explain cooperative behaviours in much larger organisms. Dr Griffin proposes to apply evolutionary theory to two aspects of cooperative behaviour in microbes that have major clinical implications. Firstly, to determine whether behavioural changes over time in bacterial infections can be explained by social evolution theory; especially important for infections that persist over long periods. And secondly, to understand why cells are able to switch-off growth; medically important as non-dividing cells are immune to antibiotics. This strategy will have consequences for neighbouring cells but as yet the social consequences of this behaviour have been completely ignored.

The unifying feature of Dr Griffin’s research is social behaviour. Dr Griffin spent her PhD studying meerkats before turning to microbes in her present postdoctoral work. She has published on cooperation in a range of animals along the way. After two recent career breaks, Dr Griffin works part-time at the University of Edinburgh as a Research Fellow. Having a family has not stopped her taking up opportunities when presented to her; the whole family has currently relocated to Oxfordshire while she spends a six month’s sabbatical as a full-time Associate Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford.

Dr Tamsin Mather, University of Oxford

To undertake research testing theories of the sources and sinks of volcanic volatiles at Kilauea hotspot volcano, Hawaii

Dr Tamsin MatherDr Tamsin Mather will use her For Women In Science Fellowship to support her research at the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford. Her work on volcanic emissions will help determine which volcanoes worldwide may be the source of potentially harmful chemicals to the environment such as halogens and mercury.

One outstanding question in Earth Sciences is what the relationship is between what is taken down into a subduction zone (when one tectonic plate sinks below another taking its fluids and sediments) and what is emitted in the gases from the volcanoes associated with it. Understanding this relationship enables predictions to be made about which volcanoes might be the greatest sources of certain chemicals of environmental importance like halogens (which can destroy stratospheric ozone) and mercury (a bio-accumulating poison). An important piece of information still needed to solve the puzzle is what composition volcanic emissions have when there is no subducting plate. The ideal place to make these measurements is a hotspot volcano, like Kilauea. Dr Mather will make measurements of many different chemical species in the emissions from Kilauea and compare them with previous measurements. The ratios of different components will provide vital clues about whether they originated from the subducting plate or other more primeval sources like the mantle.

Dr Mather’s research takes her all around the world to analyse samples of volcanic plumes. Dr Mather undertook her PhD in atmospheric chemistry on volcanic emissions at the University of Cambridge where she stayed to begin postdoctoral work, before moving to base herself at the University of Oxford two years ago.

Dr Sarah Reece, University of Edinburgh

To undertake research on the social lives of protozoan parasites, in particular the role of apoptosis in the transmission of malaria

Dr Sarah ReeceDr Sarah Reece will use her For Women In Science Fellowship to support her research at the Institutes of Evolution, Immunology and Infection Research, University of Edinburgh. Her work will apply evolutionary questions to malaria parasites to discover how they maximise their chances of infecting mosquitoes.

Malaria and related Apicomplexan parasites cause some of human’s most serious infectious diseases.

Much is known about the biology of asexual malarial parasites, but little about the male and females. These parasites need to reproduce sexually to transmit to new hosts. Dr Reece’s strong feeling is “if we don’t really understand their sex lives, how can we interfere with them successfully in the long term?” Her research has shown that these parasites show a level of cunning adapting to their circumstances that is normally associated with big animals, fine-tuning the number of male and female offspring produced depending on the environment, to best transmit genes to the next generation.

Recently it has been discovered that, after mating, some fertilised parasites under-go apoptosis (programmed-cell-death) inside their mosquito’s gut rather than infecting their mosquito, which seems to contradict ‘the survival of the fittest. Dr Reece will harness recently developed experimental techniques to answer two key questions: what are the fitness benefits of apoptosis and do parasites use apoptosis to benefit their kin or compete with non-kin? Given the medical and economic implications of these parasites and the drive to develop transmission-blocking intervention strategies, understanding their transmission biology from an evolutionary perspective is timely and important.

Dr Reece is based in Scotland. After some initial work on sea turtles, she decided to apply evolutionary questions to malaria parasites for her PhD. Post doctorate, she worked as a teaching fellow at the University of Stirling before returning to the University of Edinburgh to begin her own research.