Young researchers presenting on the global stage (Part 2)

In the second edition of our researcher series, five rising scientists, competing for Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize, tell us how their research could change the world.

Marie Thomson

#organicchemistry #synthesis

Marie Thomson, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

Presenting at the 18th Tetrahedron Symposium — New Developments in Organic Chemistry in Hungary in June 2017.

How would you describe your research to your grandmother?

Plants have evolved over millions of years and have therefore become masters at making the materials they need to survive. I try to mimic the methods used by the plants, to make these important materials in the lab. Often these materials are valuable for us humans, as they can be used to make medicines.

“We must attempt to reduce the economic and environmental costs associated with producing organic substances: our medicines, agrochemicals and high-tech materials.”

How could your research change the world?

With our rapidly increasing global population, there is a requirement for chemistry to become more efficient. As such, we must attempt to reduce the economic and environmental costs associated with producing organic substances: our medicines, agrochemicals and high-tech materials. My research is focused on using reactions found in nature, to inspire the chemical approach taken in the lab. This allows for the development of new strategies, thus making synthetic methods towards these highly important substances more efficient and cost-effective.

What’s the best part of attending academic conferences, in your opinion?

The best part of attending academic conferences is having the opportunity to present my work to members of the global scientific community. It is an exhilarating and humbling experience to have the global experts in your research field listening to you and engaging in conversation with you. Not only does it provide an excellent networking opportunity, but it also allows me to gain potentially new insights into my projects and use the feedback constructively to further my research.

For more about Marie’s research go here.


Souvik Roy

#mathematics #optimalcontrol

Souvik Roy, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute of Mathematics at the University of Wurzburg, Germany.

Speaking at Inverse Problems, Modelling and Simulations in Malta, May 2018.

How would you describe your research to your grandmother?

I formulate innovative techniques to diagnose tumours and cancers in human beings using mathematical models. My research also aims to create better antibiotic products to combat diseases efficiently.

“I formulate innovative techniques to diagnose tumours and cancers in human beings using mathematical models.”

How could your research change the world?

My research could lead to more effective imaging techniques whereby patients are exposed to less radiation and have their tumours diagnosed faster and more accurately.

What’s the best part of academic conferences, in your opinion?

The best part of academic conferences is the new place one gets to visit and the diverse group of people which one can meet. It improves networking, helps in building friends and finally one gets to explore the world.

For more about Souvik’s research go here.


“Ultimately, science is about collaboration and sharing ideas. No great discovery comes in isolation.”
Gregory Fonzo

#Neuropsychopharmacology #mentalhealth

Gregory Fonzo, postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford School of Medicine.

Speaker at the American College of Neuropsycho-pharmacology in Palm Springs, California.

How would you describe your research to your grandmother?

I study how emotionally-charged experiences influence human brain function to impact mental health and the way people experience emotions, themselves, and their environment. I use this knowledge to identify how we can deliver certain therapeutic experiences to individuals suffering from emotional difficulties and in designing new therapeutic regimens. You might say I’m interested in “experiential medicine”, or how specific experiences can be used to heal or grow beyond past harmful experiences or conditioning.

How could your research change the world?

My research represents using neuroscience tools to characterise an individual’s brain and thereby identify people at risk for developing future mental health difficulties and those likely to benefit from particular treatment types. Importantly, we could use this information to prevent mental health problems before they even occur. Imagine we could identify a specific set of repeatable and widely-accessible experiences that would exert a beneficial or protective effect on your mental health and deliver this to individuals on a mass scale. We would then have a way to condition our brains to promote optimum mental health and resilience to the myriad of stressors we encounter throughout life. This is the vision I have for mental health care in the future. The same way that we engage in physical exercise to prevent heart attacks, we can identify and disseminate experiential exercises to prevent anxiety or panic attacks.

“The same way that we engage in physical exercise to prevent heart attacks, we can identify and disseminate experiential exercises to prevent anxiety or panic attacks.”

What’s the best part of attending academic conferences, in your opinion?

For me, the best part of attending conferences is the opportunity to share in the amazing work of the research community. As individuals, we only have so much time and energy we can devote towards our work, and there’s a tendency to get tunnel vision around what you’re working on at that point in time. This narrow thinking is the enemy of scientific innovation. Being able to step out of those narrow confines and see the broad scope of work that’s undergoing simultaneous development across the globe is invigorating and inspiring. Ultimately, science is about collaboration and sharing ideas. No great discovery comes in isolation. For me, the scientific conference is my venue for a fresh influx of new ideas and the opportunity to think collaboratively with colleagues.

For more about Gregory’s research go here.


Alexey Morgunov

#proteinsequence #computational molecularbiology

Alexey Morgunov, PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

Presenting at the Moscow Conference on Computational Molecular Biology in Moscow in July 2017.

How would you describe your research to your grandmother?

Proteins are diverse molecules that perform a huge variety of important functions in living cells. There is not one but many different ways in which to make a protein with the exact same function, as we see by comparing them in different organisms. What defines a certain protein type and how is that information stored in our cells?

How could your research change the world?

We are used to the idea that the information of how to make a certain protein is encoded by its amino acid sequence. With thousands of genome sequences becoming available in recent years, we are starting to realise that this view can be misleading — a protein with the same function is instead encoded by a diverse ensemble of different sequences found in various species. Coevolution is a principle describing conserved correlations between positions in such sequence ensembles and provides us with a framework to start pinning down the principles by which information to make different types of proteins is encoded beyond simple sequence conservation. Understanding this not only brings us closer to appreciating how biological information is stored and evolves, but also has implications for predicting protein structures from sequence alone and could even help us engineer proteins more efficiently. Thus, coevolution can have ramifications for both theoretical protein science and applied protein engineering in synthetic biology.

What’s the best part of attending academic conferences, in your opinion?

For me personally conferences are all about meeting people. It is a chance to meet people doing closely related work and discuss the nitty-gritty details that don’t usually make it into the publications. It is also a chance to meet people doing very different things, being introduced to new ideas and problems, broadening one’s horizon. And it is a chance to just meet people with similar interests and outlook on life — I’ve made new friends I’m still in touch with at every major conference I’ve been to so far!

“And it is a chance to just meet people with similar interests and outlook on life — I’ve made new friends I’m still in touch with at every major conference I’ve been to so far!”

For more about Alexey’s research go here.


Isaac Shaw

#kidneydisease #stemcellresearch

Isaac Shaw, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

Presenting at the International Society for Stem Cell Research Annual Meeting in Boston in June 2017.

How would you describe your research to your grandmother?

Granny, your kidneys are here to clean your blood, and if they’re not working properly all sorts of things in your body start to fail too, especially in an old girl like you. There are special cells in your kidneys called pericytes, that wrap around the blood vessels, that can cause scarring in the kidney, but also control blood flow and promote healing. I’m trying to find out whether there are different types of pericyte doing these contrasting jobs, so that eventually we might control them to keep your blood spic and span.

How could your research change the world?

Kidneys can be easy for most of us to forget, but actually as many as 1 in every 10 hospital patients has some form of kidney disease, and having that disease, regardless of whatever else is wrong with them, makes them much more likely to die compared to their fellow patients. An organ less easy to ignore, the heart, is closely linked to the kidney. Good kidneys are actually essential to good heart health, so much so that if you have a kidney disease, the thing you are most likely to die of is… heart failure! If we can effectively cure kidney disease and keep kidneys working effectively, cleaning our blood and therefore our bodies, there will be large subsequent benefits to health and lifespan.

What’s the best part of attending academic conferences, in your opinion?

Scientific conferences bring science off the page, off the screen and out of one’s personal thoughts into the real world. At a scientific conference it becomes clear how much the people involved in the research are genuinely engaged in their subject, by their eagerness to discuss their results and press home their conclusions, be it in the lecture theatre or, my personal favourite, in the poster hall. A few minutes around a poster can bring more insight and fresh ideas to one’s work than hours reading academic journals and combing through data.

“A few minutes around a poster can bring more insight and fresh ideas to one’s work than hours reading academic journals and combing through data.”

For more about Isaac’s research go here.


The above applicants are finalists in Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize that awards £500 to early career scientists who is presenting their work at an academic conference. To apply, follow this link to the 5-minute application form and use the Sparrho platform to share your research. The first round closes 30 June 2017, and applications after that date will be reviewed on a rolling basis.

Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prize now receiving entries!