New Future Leaders Fellows announced

They are part of a cohort of 75 of the most promising research leaders who will benefit from £101 million to tackle major global issues and to commercialise their innovations in the UK.

UKRI’s flagship Future Leaders Fellowships allow universities and businesses to develop their most talented early career researchers and innovators and to attract new people to their organisations, including from overseas.

Dr Hana D’Souza, Dr Renata Jurkowska and Dr Cynthia Sandor join a growing community of FLFs at the University, taking the total number to an impressive 13 fellows across all three colleges. The fellows have benefitted from tailored support throughout the application process which has resulted in high quality proposals evidenced by these UKRI awards.

As a partner in the FLF Development Network, the University is actively involved in supporting the next generation of research leaders across the UK.

Dr Hana D’Souza, School of Psychology, is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Human Developmental Science and leads the Cardiff Babylab. She studies the development of attention and motor abilities, and how difficulties with these impact on learning, particularly in the early years. Her research focuses on infants and toddlers with neurodevelopmental conditions such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, and Williams syndrome.

She said, "Families and professionals working with children worry that the difficulties many young children have with focusing their attention and moving their bodies affects how they learn. These difficulties are common in early development across a range of neurodevelopmental conditions. The aim of my FLF is to integrate cutting-edge technology and current developmental frameworks to understand the everyday learning opportunities in the crucial first years of life. I hope to reshape our research practices and early years support, with the long-term goal of maximising the everyday learning opportunities of young neurodiverse children.

We know that to truly transform society, we need to work together, across disciplines and across sectors. This is why I was so keen to apply for an FLF. The scope and flexibility of the award will also provide me with the opportunity to train the next generation of scientists, with an emphasis on scientific excellence within a positive research culture."

Dr Cynthia Sandor is a UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) Emerging Leader. At the UK DRI’s Cardiff Centre, Dr Sandor’s research aims to use computational strategies to better understand Parkinson’s, by developing machine learning approaches to understand and predict the clinical presentation and progression of disease. Over the last four years, her research has aimed to explain the molecular mechanisms underlying the severity and progression of Parkinson’s disease. (PD).

She said: "My team and I develop statistical and machine learning approaches to analyse various data types and clinical datasets, to predict and understand the clinical presentation and progression of Parkinson’s in affected individuals.

My FLF aims to understand the role of T cells in PD. It is a relatively new hypothesis that T cells may play a key role in the disease’s development. Understanding how T cells contribute to PD could be crucial in developing preventive treatments for a disease that currently has no cure. My approach is unique in examining these T cells in current PD patients and also in individuals at risk for PD. Specifically, I aim to study those with a sleep disorder called REM sleep behaviour disorder, who are likely to develop PD in the next ten years. We will leverage advancements in single-cell platform technologies and use the information available in clinical cohorts and biobanks."

"This is a multidisciplinary challenge requiring a range of collaborators and is why I decided to apply for an FLF, as it is the ideal fellowship for integrating disciplines such as genetics, single-cell analysis, immunology, neuropathology, clinics, AI, and more."

Dr Renata Jurkowska, School of Biosciences, is a molecular biologist with interests in epigenetics, stem cells, and lung biology. Her fellowship focuses on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a devastating disease, where patients develop progressing breathlessness due to the irreversible scarring of their lungs. Currently, it is not possible to predict who will develop IPF, and which patients will get the severe form of the disease.

She said "Lung diseases affect a staggering 540 million patients waiting for curative treatments. I want to transform how patients are diagnosed and treated by targeting lung diseases right from the start. I hope to discover novel medicines for currently incurable lung diseases so that patients can regenerate their lungs and breathe normally. Something many take for granted, but they struggle with every minute."

Dr Jurkowska added, "There are no effective treatments and average survival is 3 years. To develop curative therapies, which are urgently needed, we need to understand what drives disease development. My fellowship will investigate epigenetic regulation as a mechanism driving IPF. These epigenetic modifications are chemical groups in our genetic code that control our genes, they get altered by environmental exposures causing disease and may also be manipulated with the potential to cure disease. My work will provide a first understanding of how epigenetic modifications drives disease, accelerating the discovery and validation of epigenetic therapeutics and biomarkers for lung fibrosis and other chronic lung diseases.

This ambitious research addresses a complex problem, which cannot be realised with other grant funding. We will be able to understand the basic science and get closer to turning it into improved detection and intervention for patients."

Professor Roger Whitaker, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research, Innovation and Enterprise said:

"Congratulations to Cynthia, Hana, and Renata on their success with this very competitive fellowship scheme. The Fellowships are a great opportunity to make valuable contributions to knowledge, research visibility, and research leadership.

The long term funding provided by the fellowships will help Cynthia, Hana, and Renata to deliver pioneering research that will make a real difference to the lives of those impacted by the conditions they are studying. I welcome them to our growing and vibrant community of UKRI Future Leaders Fellows.

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said:

"UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowships provide researchers and innovators with long-term support and training, giving them the freedom to explore adventurous new ideas, and to build dynamic careers that break down the boundaries between sectors and disciplines.

The fellows announced today illustrate how this scheme empowers talented researchers and innovators to build the diverse and connected research and innovation system we need to shorten the distance between discovery and prosperity across the UK."

The scheme helps universities and businesses in the UK recruit, develop and retain the world’s best researchers and innovators, regardless of their background. Researchers can apply for substantial long-term funding to support their research or innovation and develop their careers, with each fellowship lasting four to seven years.