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Five individuals and two teams from the University of Oxford have received prestigious prizes from the Royal Society of Chemistry today.

The Research and Innovation Prizes celebrate brilliant individuals across industry and academia.

The Horizon Prizes celebrate the most exciting, contemporary chemical science at the cutting edge of research and innovation. They are for teams or collaborations who are opening up new directions and possibilities in their field, through ground-breaking scientific developments.

  • Dr Emily Flashman from the Department of Chemistry has won the RSC’s Norman Heatley Award.
  • Professor Volker Deringer from the Department of Chemistry has won the RSC Harrison-Meldola Memorial Prize.
  • Professor Laura Herz from the Department of Physics has won the RSC Environment, Sustainability and Energy Division Mid-career Award.
  • Professor Peter Bruce from the Department of Materials has won the RSC Longstaff Prize.
  • Professor Timothy Donohoe, from the Department of Chemistry, has won the RSC Tilden Prize.
  • The Molecular Flow Sensor Team, based at the Department of Chemistry and Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics (DPAG), has been named the winner of the RSC’s Analytical Division Horizon Prize.
  • Team Nanobodies, led by The Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford and with collaborators from across the world has been named the winner of the RSC’s Chemistry Biology Interface Division Horizon Prize.

Team winners spotlight

Dr Helen Pain, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: ‘Some of the most incredible work in chemical science is carried out by teams and collaborations who use their diversity of thought, experience and skills to deliver astonishing results. These synergies are often at the very forefront of expanding our understanding of the world around us, and why our judges have such a difficult job selecting winners for our Horizon Prizes.’

Molecular Flow Sensor team – Analytical Division Horizon Prize
The Molecular Flow Sensor Team, a multidisciplinary team which is a collaboration between chemists, physiologists, computer modellers, clinicians at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, won the prize for the development of a novel device for lung function measurement: a molecular flow sensor for non-invasive breath analysis to provide measurements of respiratory disease and cardiac output.

Kevin Valentine, who led the electronic development of the sensor at the Department of Chemistry, said: ‘Designing the Molecular Flow Sensor has been really rewarding. To see the work carried out over many years by Professor Gus Hancock and Professor Grant Ritchie develop into a real-world application with the potential to help many people shows the importance of this type of research.’

This sensor has been used as a tool in several respiratory medical studies, including measuring the lung function of asthma and cystic fibrosis sufferers as well as for investigations into long Covid. All the results so far point to the effectiveness of the sensor in early diagnosis and management of lung disease.

Team Nanobodies – Chemistry Biology Interface Division Horizon Prize
Based across The Rosalind Franklin Institute, the University of Oxford, Diamond Light Source, Public Health England, and the University of Liverpool, Team Nanobodies has won a Horizon Prize for the development of tools to help fight Covid-19.

Team Nanobodies’ research has shown that nanobodies – a smaller, simple form of antibody generated by llamas and camels – can effectively target the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. They found that short chains of the molecules, which can be produced in large quantities in the laboratory, significantly reduced signs of the Covid-19 disease when administered to infected animal models.

Professor Jim Naismith of Team Nanobodies said: ‘This project was an amazing example of teamwork, everyone had their own role to play and they were able to slot into the team and drive this work forward. The biggest challenge of this project was to keep up morale, a lot of this work was done during the first lockdown when no one really knew what was going to happen. The problem felt urgent and the team wanted to move as fast as possible to make an impact but it wasn’t always that easy.’

Individual winners spotlight

Dr Helen Pain, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: ‘Great science changes the way we think about things – either through the techniques used, the findings themselves, the products that emerge or even in how we interact with the world and those around us. Importantly, it also allows us to reflect on the incredible people involved in this work and how they have achieved their results.

‘Although we are in the midst of negotiating a particularly turbulent and challenging era, it is important to celebrate successes and advances in understanding as genuine opportunities to improve our lives. The work of our Research & Innovation Prize winners is a fantastic example of why we celebrate great science, and we’re very proud to recognise their contribution today.’

Dr Emily Flashman – Norman Heatley Award
Dr Emily Flashman is recognised for her work on the elucidation of molecular mechanisms of oxygen-sensing enzymes in plants and animals, in particular around revealing the structural and kinetic properties of plant cysteine oxidases.

Finding inhibitors for plant oxygen-sensing enzymes or engineering changes to their structure and mechanism could slow their activity and help plants survive flooded (low oxygen) conditions for longer. This will be important in generating crops that are more tolerant of stresses associated with climate change.

Professor Laura Herz – Environment, Sustainability and Energy Division Mid-career Award
Professor Laura Herz is recognised for her pioneering work advancing the development of solar cells through fundamental understanding of electronic, structural and chemical properties of next-generation light-harvesting materials.

Professor Herz’s work is helping our understanding of how the energy provided by sunlight can be converted into electricity in solar cells based on new absorber materials. Such advances in solar cells are needed so we can make the switch to renewable energy generation affordable: to address climate change and for energy security.

Professor Volker Deringer – Harrison-Meldola Memorial Prize
Professor Volker Deringer is recognised for his innovative contributions to the modelling and understanding of amorphous materials.

Amorphous (non-crystalline) materials are important for many modern technologies: for example, encoding ‘ones’ and ’zeros’ in digital memories, or storing ions in rechargeable batteries. Professor Deringer's team is particularly interested in leveraging machine-learning methods to enable new insights in materials chemistry.

Professor Peter Bruce – Longstaff Prize
Professor Peter Bruce is recognised for his pioneering research on the chemistry of materials with applications in renewable energy, leading to fundamental changes in our understanding of solid-state electrochemistry.

The main focus of Professor Bruce’s work is to develop a fundamental understanding of the properties of materials and the processes taking place in batteries and use this knowledge to improve performance, for example increasing the range of an electric vehicle.

Professor Timothy Donohoe – Tilden Prize
Professor Timothy Donohoe is recognized for his innovative development of catalytic methods that activate organic molecules by redox processes.

Professor Donohoe’s work concentrates on making carbon-carbon bonds, which provide the skeleton or framework of a vast array of molecules. Some of these have fascinating and useful properties (for use in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, dyes, and polymers for example).

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Prizes portfolio is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the world, recognising achievements by individuals, teams and organisations in advancing the chemical sciences.

More information is available at rsc.li/prizes