Future leaders to deliver global impact

Three Leeds researchers have received a prestigious fellowship aimed at tackling global challenges.

Future Leaders Fellows Dr Lauren Gregoire, Dr Katie McQuaid and Dr Alexander Valavanis

Future leaders fellows May 2019

Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, announced today that Dr Lauren Gregoire and Dr Katie McQuaid, both from the Faculty of the Environment, and Dr Alexander Valavanis, from the Faculty of Engineering, have been awarded a Future Leaders Fellowship funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The scheme – one of UKRI’s flagship programmes – provides sustained funding and resources for the best early-career researchers and innovators, allowing them the time and flexibility to tackle ambitious research projects. This includes predicting extreme sea level rise, building inclusive, climate resilient cities, and developing new sensors to understand the chemistry of the changing climate.

Mr Skidmore said: “From Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the World Wide Web to Rosalind Franklin, whose work was critical in understanding DNA, we have a rich history of talented individuals who have paved the way for ground-breaking research and discoveries in their fields.

“Our investment in these Future Leaders Fellows will enable the brightest and best of our scientists and researchers to work with leading lights in industry, to help their research move from the laboratory to the commercial market."

Predicting sea level rise

Instabilities in Arctic ice sheets have the potential to cause more than one metre of sea level rise by 2100, threatening coastal regions that are currently home to some 100 million people.

Dr Lauren Gregoire, from the School of Earth and Environment, will lead a team of researchers to produce the first robust projection of future ice sheet instability informed by the past, with predictions for 'worst case' sea level change.

She said: “Instabilities in ice sheets can cause runaway ice loss and pose the largest threat of future rapid sea level rise. But predicting what potential instability triggers is extremely challenging because the only observations of ice sheet instabilities are from the geological past.

“In order to reliably translate our knowledge from the past into confident future projections, we need new statistical methods that can account for climate uncertainties. This will allow us to more confidently predict future change and adequately plan for the possibility of a ‘worst case’ sea level change.”

Building inclusive, climate resilient cities

Different genders and age groups can experience the effects of climate change differently. As extreme climate events increase across the world, and growing numbers migrate to urban centres, social inequalities will manifest in uneven impacts of climate change, such as access to resources or institutional support.

Focusing on two countries at high risk of rapid climate change and social inequality – Uganda and Myanmar – Dr Katie McQuaid, from the School of Geography, will lead a project to combine social science and the arts to strengthen the impact and inclusivity of climate resilient urban governance.

She said: “Current approaches to gender in climate policy, practice and urban governance tend to neglect age as a variable, and often aren’t inclusive of all genders and communities, such as transgender, queer and intersex people.

“This project will deliver critical new evidence on how gender, sexuality and age can intersect and increase vulnerability to climate change. We will use evidence-based arts to generate strategies for accommodating growing urban populations more equitably and driving the social transformation necessary to achieve gender equality and broader social justice in the face of climate change.”

Revealing the chemistry of climate change and star formation

Many of the invisible gases in the Earth's atmosphere and the dust and gas clouds between stars can only be detected in the terahertz part of the light spectrum – midway between infrared and microwaves. These gases glow with unique terahertz fingerprints, which provide a wealth of information about the birth of new stars and planets, and the chemical processes that govern the climate. However, most terahertz systems are too large, fragile and complex for space missions, and lack the sensitivity needed for studying reactive gases.

Dr Alexander Valavanis, from the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, will overcome the previous limitations of terahertz gas sensors by using Quantum-Cascade Laser technology developed at Leeds — compact yet ultra-powerful sources of terahertz waves. He will integrate these with satellite-ready systems and high-precision sensing techniques for the first time, enabling the first studies of key chemical reactions involved in climate change.

These advancements would also allow ultra-precise monitoring of chemical processes in industry or in research laboratories, such as ensuring that vehicles meet strict new emission targets or developing breath tests for detecting cancer and respiratory disease.

Dr Valavanis said: “Developing terahertz instrumentation will allow for the first lab-studies of key atmospheric reactions and underpin future satellite missions. An Earth-observing terahertz satellite would enable a more detailed study of climate and space-weather effects in the upper atmosphere, informing future climate predictions.

“The same gas-sensing technology has enormous industrial and clinical potential, including testing new clean-diesel vehicles and advancing our ability to diagnose diseases without invasive surgical tests.”

World leading fellows

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said: “The Future Leaders Fellowships offer long-term support for the most talented researchers and innovators. Fellows will be encouraged to be adventurous in tackling tough and important research questions and opportunities for innovation.

“The Fellowships offer opportunities to move across disciplinary boundaries and between academia and industry. These Fellowships will enable us to grow the strong supply of talented individuals needed to ensure that UK research and innovation continues to be world leading.”

UKRI’s flagship £900 million fund will provide enhanced flexibility, ensuring the UK can attract and support the very best talent.

The fellows’ ground-breaking work also forms a key part of maintaining the UK’s status at the forefront of cutting-edge research and innovation long into the future. The UK is already a research superpower, producing six per cent of the world’s total research publications and 15 per cent of the world’s most highly cited articles.

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