The awards celebrate the work of MPLS researchers who have made significant contributions to the economy or wider society at large, through their research.
This year's winners were selected from nominations representing MPLS researchers at all career stages. The winners will each receive a £1,000 prize in recognition of their achievements.
In addition to the six winning projects, the judging panel made a further two commendations.
Chair of the MPLS Impact Awards judging panel, Professor Dermot O’Hare, said:
‘One of the privileges of my role as MPLS Associate Head for Industrial Liaison and Innovation is chairing our annual Impact Awards judging panel. It has been a great pleasure to recognise the exceptional efforts and achievements of divisional colleagues that have ensured their research benefits society and the economy. The impact of our early career researchers is so impressive I was delighted to be able to announce two winners in that category.
‘The MPLS Impact Awards panel met to review nominations across several impact categories: early career, public engagement with research, social, and commercial, as well as new the fifth impact category – policy. Nominations have been of high quality, and the panel agreed on category winners and a commendation that, together, recognise the achievements of our students, researchers and academics. I continue to be impressed and find it tremendously reassuring to see how our colleagues’ efforts and research continue to bring benefits to the world.’
Professor Sam Howison, Head of the Mathematical, Physical and Life Science Division, said: ‘The MPLS Impact Awards recognise and celebrate the outstanding research impact of MPLS researchers. They raise awareness of the important areas in which MPLS researchers are leading the way, and they also help to identify examples of impact excellence we can use to prepare for future REF submissions and similar exercises. Congratulations to each of this year’s winners and those who are commended, on the impact they are making in the world around us.’
MPLS COMMERCIAL IMPACT AWARD: NIK PETRINIC (DEPARTMENT OF ENGINEERING SCIENCE)
The impacts on industry and society of systematic engagement in Impact Engineering
Impact Engineering has an important role to play in the world, in terms of protecting lives and assets during accidents or conflicts and bringing about operational savings through improvements to performance when products are threatened by impact loading in-service.
Professor Nik Petrinic's pioneering work in this field has enabled Impact Engineering at Oxford to evolve rapidly over the last couple of decades, with significant progress made in addressing both fundamental challenges in the laboratory and solving specific, industrially relevant problems through data-driven design. An example of this would be simulating the behaviour of various advanced materials when they are subjected to extreme loading conditions. This work and its impact on the wider world have been recognised by a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair grant and other funding awards (including several EPSRC Prosperity Partnership and InnovateUK projects) worth millions of pounds.
Over the last five years, we have seen significant economic impact from this work across the transportation (aerospace, land and marine) and defence sectors in particular, at all Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). Oxford's Impact Engineers have developed long-term collaborations with industry at local, European and global levels, including with Rolls Royce, BAE Systems and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) in the UK, and with multinationals such as BMW, Volkswagen, Airbus and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The successful commercial application of Nik's research has also brought more indirect social and environmental benefits, by influencing environmental policy and the evolution of career opportunities in transport and defence. In some cases, this has involved the creation of entirely new types of job roles, focused on environmental protection and sustainability.
Professor Ronald Roy, Head of the Department of Engineering Science, said: ‘We live in a world of materials, and the behaviour of materials to high-strain-rate deformation is key to understanding performance and resiliency in applications ranging from aerospace to defence. Working closely with Rolls Royce, the research councils, and other stakeholders, Professor Petrinic has built a world-leading capability in impact engineering studies. The Department is proud of what Nik has accomplished and pleased to see the ‘impact’ of his work recognised by the Division.’
MPLS SOCIAL IMPACT AWARD: RICHARD WALKER (DEPARTMENT OF EARTH SCIENCES)
Building earthquake resilience in Asia
Working with colleagues in the UK and overseas, Professor Richard Walker’s research group have devoted the last two decades to improving understanding of large earthquakes in continental interiors, with a particular focus on central Asia, where long recurrence times between seismic events mean that such risks are rarely on the minds or in the cultural memories of local communities and civic leaders. By utilising historic records from past disasters and a pristine landscape where earthquake ruptures have been preserved into the prehistoric period, the team have been able to map where active faults lie and analyse the types, sizes, and intervals between large earthquakes along them. These datasets have been used to develop officially recognised hazard maps that are now relied on for future planning decisions around urban expansion and future infrastructure development.
One of the group’s local studies in China conducted with colleagues including a team led by Oxford’s Professor Philip England, led to this approach being widely adopted across the country. More recent studies have focused on fault lines in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with a significant impact on policy direction. Further work is now underway to carry out similar analyses for various major cities. As well as contributing to an improved understanding of hazards and hazard modelling, Richard and his colleagues are committed to strengthening capacity and training by working with partner institutes across central Asia, including through education and policy interaction, so that local agencies can continue to build and apply these datasets in future.
Professor Mike Kendall, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences said: ‘For many years, Richard and co-workers have led novel programmes studying earthquake risk in central Asia. Through his engagement with both local scientists and policymakers, this research is having a significant impact in many regions, informing hazard programmes, changing policy and building urban resilience.
‘The societal benefits of the earthquake hazard maps produced from Professor Walker's research include better planning decisions being made in earthquake-prone central Asia, which has the potential to save many lives in the event of a large earthquake.’
MPLS EARLY-CAREER RESEARCH IMPACT AWARD: SEBASTIAN KÖHLER (DEPARTMENT OF COMPUTER SCIENCE)
Security of electric vehicle charging
In 2022, doctoral researcher Sebastian Köhler identified a significant vulnerability in the network protocol of the Combined Charging System (CCS), a widely adopted standard for electric vehicle (EV) charging in the US, Europe and Asia. Sebastian found that CCS charging could be disrupted from a certain distance away, using a remote signal, with the potential to impact approximately 20 million EVs and any electric battlefield, and emergency vehicles, buses, heavy trucks, boats, ferries, mining machinery or small aircraft using the CCS standard.
This vulnerability, known as ‘Brokenwire’, was assigned a Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures ID in April 2022 and has since been formally recognised by the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (US). To protect vehicles, machinery and aircraft using the standard against the malicious Brokenwire attacks that Sebastian’s research scrutinised, adaptations to the CCS standard are required and hardware components in every affected car and charger will need to be updated.
Professor Leslie Goldberg, Head of the Department of Computer Science, said: ‘This is a great example of the exciting and impactful work happening in our Security research theme. Sebastian's research has immediate and significant implications for technology that is rapidly becoming a fundamental part of global infrastructure. An industry-wide response will be required to mitigate the vulnerability that Sebastian has identified and analysed.
‘His discovery will help to make these technologies more robust and secure in the future, and he is moreover making an ongoing contribution to the coordinated industry and government response. Impact on this scale is truly impressive for a researcher at Sebastian’s stage, and I'm very happy that it is being recognised through the MPLS Impact Awards.’
MPLS EARLY-CAREER COMMERCIAL IMPACT AWARD: HARRISON STEEL (DEPARTMENT OF ENGINEERING SCIENCE)
Development and dissemination of open-source bioreactor technology, supporting widespread innovation in biotechnology
Over the past four years, Professor Harrison Steel has advanced the capabilities of researchers in academia and start-up companies by creating the Chi.Bio Bioreactor platform. This automated robotic system provides unique capabilities for biotechnological research and development and has achieved broad impact via dissemination as an open-source technology, at a cost of less than 5% of commercial bioreactors tools.
Chi.Bio has been adopted by researchers around the world and is particularly benefiting early-stage companies, academics, and researchers in developing countries, with more limited access to high-end equipment. Harrison’s platform has opened up engineering and scientific opportunities in many domains, including in the study of antibiotic resistance evolution, engineering organisms for carbon sequestration, and the development of artificial meat products.
Professor Roy, Head of the Department of Engineering Science, said: ‘Professor Harrison Steel is one of the Department’s best and brightest young academics. His automated Chi.Bio bioreactor platform enables and accelerates low-cost biotech research at unprecedented scales. This unique capability currently underpins engineering and biology research globally and is particularly significant to work in under-resourced areas, where cost is a limiting factor. We are very pleased to see this work recognised by the Division.'
MPLS PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT WITH RESEARCH AWARD: KATHERINE SHIRLEY (DEPARTMENT OF PHYSICS)
Public engagement with planetary research
Dr Katherine Shirley has developed a toolkit of exciting and interactive activities which has successfully been used to engage audiences with planetary research. She has reached thousands of young people, families and adults through her work and has engaged with traditionally under-represented groups within physics, such as girls and children from disadvantaged backgrounds, to generate excitement and learning in space science. She has also explored a wide range of different platforms, including online talks and quizzes, night-sky observing, research showcase events and demonstration lectures.Katherine’s toolkit of activities includes a demonstration lecture with adaptable segments, a hands-on workshop and several table-top demonstrations. As public engagement with research (PER) representative for Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics (AOPP), she champions PER activity and mentors others within the Department of Physics.
Professor Ian Shipsey, Head of the Department of Physics: ‘Katherine’s PER work is exemplary. She is an excellent physicist working on high profile projects which are demanding and intense so to be able to dedicate time and creative energy to developing innovative, high-quality public engagement activity is extraordinary. Through the toolkit she has created, and her leadership in championing public engagement within the Department of Physics, Katherine’s impact goes beyond her own work. She is an inspiration to others and this award is thoroughly deserved.’
MPLS POLICY IMPACT AWARD: NOA ZILBERMAN (DEPARTMENT OF ENGINEERING SCIENCE)
Sustainable and resilient computing infrastructure
Professor Noa Zilberman leads Oxford’s Computing Infrastructure group, which is exploring ways of designing and maintaining scalable, sustainable and resilient computing infrastructure. The research-based evidence and expertise gained from this work has opened doors for her to interact with policymakers and influence national, computing-related policy decisions. Research collaborations with academic and industrial partners on sustainable computing, for example, have led to recommendations for standardisation and policy changes, enabling carbon reductions in computing infrastructure.
Noa is a member of multiple policy advisory groups, including the DCMS College of Experts, the UKRI EPSRC e-Infrastructure Strategic Advisory Team, and the UKRI NERC Digital Research and Infrastructure Group.
Professor Roy, Head of the Department of Engineering Science, said: ‘Computing infrastructure affects almost every aspect of our life. Professor Zilberman, who serves on multiple policy advisory groups, is leading the charge with regards to the design and maintenance of sustainable and resilient computing infrastructure. She engages policymakers and influences national policy decisions, using research-based evidence and expertise. The impact of Noa’s work is deep and broad, and we are pleased to see it recognised by Division.’
MPLS EARLY CAREER IMPACT (COMMENDED): MOLLY GRACE (DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGY)
Delivering a novel impact assessment framework to enable ambitious and effective species conservation action
Dr Molly Grace’s research focuses on measuring species recovery and conservation impact, primarily through her work with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to develop, evaluate, and promote the Green Status of Species (GSS) assessment. This has generated impact in three major areas:
- Impact evaluation in conservation has historically been poor or non-existent but GSS provides an important universal mechanism for evaluating the effectiveness of conservation interventions and it is now being considered as an indicator for measuring progress toward the United Nations’ Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
- GSS provides a high-profile platform for publicising the many conservation successes that have been achieved around the world, and this is helping to shift the ‘global mood’ around biodiversity from pessimism to optimism about what is possible.
- GSS is now being used by funders to identify conservation actions likely to give the highest ‘return on investment’ for wildlife.
Professor Tim Coulson and Professor Mark Fricker, Joint Heads of the Department of Biology, said: 'Biodiversity is in decline globally, with significant implications for humanity. In order to halt declines, and to provide incentives to protect biodiversity, it is necessary to quantify what is happening. Molly has been conducting some excellent and exciting research, with enormous opportunity for impact. Her work is important, innovative, and high profile, and she thoroughly deserves this commendation.'
MPLS PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT WITH RESEARCH AWARD (COMMENDED): FRANCES COLLES; CHARLENE RODRIGUES; HOLLY BRATCHER; KEITH JOLLEY; SOPHIE MACKAY; MARTIN MAIDEN (DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGY)
Genome Detectives citizen-science project: decoding bacterial DNA to help fight infectious disease
Recent advances in DNA sequencing technology have left us with a ‘Big Data’ problem – there is more data produced than scientists available to analyse it all. Genome Detectives, an innovative online citizen-science project based on the Zooniverse platform, was designed and launched in July 2022 by researchers Dr Frances Colles, Dr Charlene Rodrigues and Dr Holly Bratcher, in Professor Martin Maiden’s research group, and receives ongoing input from all members of the group. Members of the public volunteer to help categorise bacterial genes, which will ultimately support research into the prevention or treatment of infectious diseases.
The impact of this project is that an extra 11,000 gene classifications have been made, thanks to more than 4,000 volunteers who have registered so far. This project is proving to be a valuable tool for engaging and inspiring amateur scientists aged 14 upwards, from many walks of life.
Professor Tim Coulson and Professor Mark Fricker, Joint Heads of the Department of Biology, said: 'The Genome Detectives project uses citizen science, coupled with DNA genotyping, to help identify emerging clusters of disease, including new variants, and has enormous potential for reducing the burden of infectious disease. We are impressed by how many people have engaged with this group's research and the impact it is having. They thoroughly deserve this commendation.'