Life-saving collaboration rewarded with prestigious honour

Collaborative efforts to help save countless lives during one of the biggest ever international health crises has seen a leading academic honoured with a major accolade.

Life-saving collaboration rewarded with prestigious honour. August 2023

The Royal Society has awarded Professor Cath Noakes with its highest distinction for interdisciplinary work between life sciences and other specialties. Professor Noakes is both surprised and delighted to receive the 2023 Gabor Medal, though she believes it belongs to the many people she worked with – and often led – during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings in the School of Civil Engineering at Leeds said: “During the past three-and-a-half years, there has been such a collegiate effort to tackle the unprecedented challenge of a pandemic.

“The Gabor Medal is for leadership of a multidisciplinary approach, but I feel this award really belongs to the huge number of people I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the UK and internationally, who helped save countless lives during an extremely difficult time.”

Professor Noakes was a familiar face during the onset of COVID-19. Her expertise in the role of the environment in viral transmission saw her invited to serve on the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and to co-chair the Environment and Modelling Sub-Group – a role that earned her an OBE.

During this time, Professor Noakes also led several research studies. As a result, she worked with multiple organisations, together with senior scientists and policymakers through to PhD and undergraduate students, all of whom contributed crucial knowledge that helped key decision-makers understand how respiratory diseases spread in indoor environments – and how to respond to the pandemic in practical ways, from wearing masks through to ventilating buildings.

Changing perspective

Thanks in part to Professor Noakes’ collaborative approach, scientific and public interest in infection transmission – and the roles played by buildings and ventilation – has increased dramatically. 

She said: “It’s transformed from a niche subject to a mainstream interest, and the awareness of the importance of indoor air quality on health and wellbeing appears to be at an all-time high.” 

A direct outcome of this, Professor Noakes believes, is that research in these areas has become much more closely entwined. Now, more than ever, you’re likely to see expertise from disciplines such as engineering, microbiology, public health and behavioural sciences working much more closely together.

“It’s this step change that excites me,” added Professor Noakes. “There are so many possibilities about how we can find better and more effective solutions to reduce exposures to infection and air pollution, so long as we bring different perspectives together.

“It’s also fantastic to see so many early-career researchers entering this field and working at the interfaces of what, for many years, were separate disciplines.”

Investing in the best

Alongside the Gabor Medal, Professor Noakes was also awarded £2,000 by the Royal Society, which she plans to reinvest directly into interdisciplinary studies.

She said: “I’m incredibly grateful to receive the Gabor Medal – every time I look at it, I’ll think of those who worked alongside me. I’ve learned so much from my work in recent years to know that it’s important to reinvest this kind award from the Royal Society into another collaborative study.

“I’m exploring the opportunity to create an interdisciplinary meeting that focuses on infection control in built environments – one that could support early-career researchers from different disciplines, giving them an open and egalitarian setting to work together and explore new ideas.”

Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, said: “On behalf of the Royal Society, I offer my congratulations to all the 2023 recipients of medals and awards.

“The breadth and scope of scientific knowledge and experience reflected in this year’s nominations is nothing short of phenomenal. I am very proud to celebrate such outstanding scientific contributions from so many different specialisms around the world.”

Professor Noakes continues to call on governments, institutions and the public to avoid complacency with infectious diseases such as COVID-19, while also championing better building ventilation in workplaces and schools to create healthier and more productive environments.

“We do some incredible science and engineering in the Faculty,” added Professor Noakes, “and I can’t wait to see what Leeds, and our partners around the world, can do to keep changing the world for the better.”

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