Pollutant problems and building for NASA: News from Imperial

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA
Here’s a batch of fresh news and announcements from across Imperial.

From a new grant to investigate how planets were formed, to a study that investigated how microbes are affected by river pollutants, here is some quick-read news from across Imperial.

Building for NASA

Imperial College London researchers are part of a successful bid to contribute to NASA missions. With £1.1 million funding from the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the University of Sussex-led research team will be working on developments for a potential far-infrared probe mission to investigate the formation of planetary systems and the evolution of galaxies.

The funding is part of a £7.4 million investment in UK space research from the UKSA, to enable UK scientists and engineers to play a role in major global space missions. The coalition of research teams, which also includes the University of Cardiff and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, will develop optics, filters and data pipelines for NASA.

Dr Dave Clements , from the Department of Physics at Imperial, is part of the team. He said: "With UK technology and scientific know-how, Imperial can play a key role in these fantastic new missions."

Read more on space funding from the UK Space Agency.

Indian high achievers

Three of Imperial’s Indian community have been recognised at the India UK Achievers Honours 2024.

The awards, organised by the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK (NISAU) in partnership with the British Council and the UK Government Department for Business and Trade celebrates India-UK educational ties and recognises those that have shown excellence in their field and made immense contributions to society.

Dr Nausheen Basha, Research Associate in the Department of Chemical Engineering , was recognised for her work in education, science and innovation.

Dr Basha said: "At Imperial I collaborate with a number of talented Indian students and researchers, benefiting from Imperial’s thriving international community that fosters a culture of innovation. This recognition highlights the role of education in strengthening the living bridge between India and the UK."

Two of Imperial’s alumni were also recognised. Conrad Sangma, Chief Minister of Meghalaya, won an award for achievements in government and politics, and Mehar Kaur Sindhu, founder and CEO of MSB Vision, was recognised for work in media and journalism.

Future Leaders

Three researchers have been named among the UKRI’s flagship Future Leaders Fellows. They will tackle major global issues - from energy infrastructure, to viruses and solar wind - and commercialise their innovations in the UK.

Dr Chao Wu from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering , Dr Lucy Thorne from the Department of Infectious Disease and Dr Martin Archer from the Department of Physics have been recognised as promising early career researchers, and are three of 75 researchers who will benefit from a combined £101 million from the scheme.

This funding allows institutions to develop their most talented early career researchers and innovators, and to attract new people to their organisations, including from overseas.

Cybersecurity research excellence

Imperial’s status as an Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Research has been renewed by the UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

Imperial’s vibrant, world-leading community of cyber security experts work on all’aspects of cyber security, including software security, operating systems security, security and resilience of cyber-physical systems, network and anomaly analysis, and privacy.

The university has been recognised centre of excellence in this field since the inception of NCSC’s award. This recognition will now extend until at least 2029.

Dr Soteris Demetriou , who leads the Centre from within the Institute for Security Science and Technology ( ISST ) at Imperial, said: "This recognition highlights Imperial’s presence as the home of cyber security research. It is a fantastic reflection of our research and education leadership in this field, and I am proud to be part of this cyber security powerhouse."

Chris Ensor, Deputy Director Cyber Growth at NCSC, which is part of GCHQ, said: "These recognitions are testament to the dedication of academics, support staff and senior management who have ensured that cyber security remains high on the university’s agenda. And they demonstrate that the UK has a growing number of world-class universities carrying out cutting-edge research into all’areas of cyber security."

Immune cell longevity

Why do some infections or vaccinations give lifelong protection, while others require frequent booster shots? One answer may lie in the way plasma cells - the immune memory cells that provide protection after vaccination or infection - sit on ’tipping points’.

Near ’tipping points’, even a small change may elicit a sudden and drastic response. In a new study, Dr Omer Karin from the Department of Mathematics at Imperial and Professor Ben Simons from Cambridge University show how plasma cells appear to be positioned near such a tipping point.

Using a mathematical model, the authors showed that the constant influx of new plasma cells from infections and vaccinations combined with competition over shared survival signals acts to ’self-tune’ the system close to a tipping point.

Dr Karin explained: "While most plasma cells die within a few months of infection, some survive and provide protection for decades. Although long known, the origin of these differences have remained a mystery.

"Our results show that, when positioned near a tipping point, such behaviour emerges naturally. Tuned to a tipping point, even small variations in cell fitness become amplified as huge differences in lifespan.

"The self-tuning model we developed promises new insights into the mechanisms that establish immune memory and how it becomes compromised by disease or mutation."

Read the full paper in Immunity.

Pollutant problems

Freshwater ecosystems, like rivers and lakes, are particularly at risk from multiple chemical pollutants like pesticides. However, the predicted impacts on important microbes in these ecosystems are often based on lab studies of single pollutants on certain ’model’ species of bacteria.

To understand more realistic impacts of multiple pollutants, researchers from Imperial assessed the growth of multiple strains of bacteria under all 255 combinations of eight common chemical pollutants (antibiotics, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides).

They found that mixed cultures of bacteria suffered less than single-strain cultures, in terms of growth and the interactive effects of multiple pollutants.

While they found that it was difficult to predict the responses of different strains based on how related they were, mixed cultures of bacteria were generally more resilient to multiple pollutants.

The team, led by Professor Thomas Bell and Dr Thomas Smith , from the Department of Life Sciences (Silwood Park), say the high-throughput method used shows the potential of more easily characterising the expected impacts of multiple pollutants.
and a related briefing in Nature Microbiology.

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