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Nature Research Awards for Driving Global Impact

The Nature Research Awards for Driving Global Impact, in partnership with Tencent, celebrate early-career researchers, whose work has made, or has the potential to make, a positive impact on society. 

Please note, the application window has now closed.

We are pleased to announce our 2019 winners

Winner

Tom Baden, University of Sussex, UK

One of the things that most excites me about my field of research is that I love stumbling across “weird” results and gradually, through experiments, coming to understand what they mean. Most of our work is in some way the result of some prior stumble - it’s a very engaging way to work as you never know what comes next!

Just as open hardware development is almost never a one-person effort, I cannot name one individual person who has particularly inspired my work but the concept of open hardware itself inspires me profoundly. Movements are not born from the leader, but the early followers. Paraphrasing Derek Sivers from his famous TED-talk: A leader without followers is just a lone nut!

What drew me to my current research path was less a single inspiring moment and more a gradual process. I first started to get involved in the field of “Open Hardware” some five or six years ago. At that time, scientists and hobbyists were just starting to discover the utility of things like 3D printing or low-cost microcontrollers for their own projects. Browsing through online repositories that showcase other people’s designs you’d come across a prototype for a little lab-toy every now and then. For example, I came across a simple 3D printed pipette that used a balloon spanned between two plastic halves and a piston to generate a suction effect. The pipette was not very precise, but it was enough inspiration for me to have a go at improving it. When I posted my design online, I got a lot of feedback from others with ideas for further improvement. Some of these people took the challenge very seriously. Five years on, if you now go to google and type “3D printed pipette” you will find a vast diversity of designs, most of them much better than what I did at the time. I think it is the realisation that community-driven innovation really works which ultimately led me to invest more and more time in this field. Labs are full of expensive and over-engineered tools. If we find we can build a useful pipette, let’s try our hand at more complex machines.

This also synergises very nicely with my work within TReND in Africa (www.TReNDinAfrica.org) – a science education NGO that I co-founded in 2011. Part of our work on the African continent seeks to improve the research infrastructure on the ground, and here the possibility to build useful lab equipment for a fraction of the commercial cost, and using local resources, is of course very attractive.

Open hardware starts in the real world, and it is here to stay. If you build something, there is no reason that you cannot immediately use it. Beyond that, open sharing of good build instructions is critical. That way others can reproduce, adapt and improve designs. The self-propagating spread of these possibilities is very real already.

One day I believe that open source hardware will be as ubiquitous as open source software is today. Commercial hardware companies will then have to adjust their business strategy – perhaps shifting towards increasingly becoming service providers. For example, they may offer to procure parts, and/or assemble and test openly available designs for a fee. In fact, this is already beginning to happen. Of course, there will always be hardware that is simply too specialised or complex to be readily turned into an open hardware design. But a new balance will have to be found that favours an open model of product design for all but the most specialised tools.

I have the great fortune to work with a fantastically interdisciplinary team, both within the immediate lab and across our local community. In the lab itself we have field-biologists, physiologists, molecular biologists, physicists and engineers. This creates a powerful dynamic, where no project remains confined to a specific discipline. In fact, we have a little lab rule: Anyone “new” needs to build something. It doesn’t really matter what they build, perhaps a little tool they will need for experiments, or simply to recreate someone else’s design based on a paper. Once you have built something, it takes away the fear from building more things. This means that there is a lot of necessity-driven innovation for all those little hurdles that one inevitably comes across in the lab. We aim to translate those innovations into build instructions for interested colleagues, either as formal publications, or simply as deposits on our lab’s GitHub.  Image credit: Tencent

Tom discusses his work in the Nature Careers podcast.

 

 

Runners up

Alan Gow, Heriot-Watt University, UK

I’m working in an area that I think has, and will continue to have, and important role to play for people’s lives. As we’re living longer, many more people will likely experience some changes in their thinking skills, but that will vary from person to person. I’m keen to better understand those changes to try and develop ways that we might all maintain, or even improve, our thinking skills throughout midlife and into old age.

Over time, I’ve become more and more interested in building from identifying the factors that might protect our thinking skills, to developing and testing interventions based on those observational findings. I particularly focus on real-world activities, that is, things that might already exist within our communities in terms of adult education or engagement opportunities. The hope is that if we can better understand how those accessible activities might benefit our thinking skills, we’ll have a better chance of supporting people to do more of those things, rather than something that might be designed from scratch within a research centre but that might not translate well to people’s lives. Along the way though, I also want to better understand what people think about their thinking skills changing as they age. If we know the beliefs or fears that people have, we can hopefully more effectively communicate the ways in which lifestyles and behaviours might have been beneficial.

We know that as we age there are potential changes in our thinking skills. However, the variation from person to person directs our attention towards the opportunities for people to retain their thinking skills as we age. As maintaining our thinking skills is related to quality of life and independence, it is really important. Changes in thinking skills is also a concern people have as they age, worrying that these are inevitable or that these might be a sign of something more serious. While some people who show these declines do develop memory impairments or dementia, many do not, and so with this work we want to provide real-world, practical and accessible ways for people to maximise their brain health for as long as possible, in the same way we’ve seen changes in the ways people might consider their heart health.

I’d like to be able to contribute to our knowledge of the concrete actions people can take to better maintain their thinking skills. We can use that knowledge in directly speaking to people about those things, to raise awareness at the same time as balancing people’s concerns, while also working with our partners such as Age UK and Age Scotland to see where support is needed to ensure everyone has access to those kinds of beneficial activities. Ultimately, I’m interested in the kinds of activities and engagement opportunities that might benefit our thinking skills as we age, and by focusing on real-world activities I hope that we can provide clearer evidence for the aspects of mental, social or physical engagement that promote brain health so that activities and programmes might be better supported and available to everyone.

Luisa Alexandra Meireles Pinto, Life and Health Sciences Research Institute – University of Minho, Portugal

What most excites me about my work, is the possibility to perform important fundamental research but also add translationally relevant knowledge to the field of neurosciences, where we are still in an embryonic stage of understanding, compared to other areas of health sciences research. In particular, and regarding the context of my current field of research, recognizing that psychiatric disorders have a biological, visible and measurable basis represented a major step for investigation in this field, as it signified the shift to a neuroscience-based approach of this medical condition. This has opened the possibility to act upon it in a tool-oriented manner but that inherently depends on the how well we understand the biological basis of these disorders.

What really interests me about my current research is the possibility of providing novel insights into the cross-talk between astroglia and the pathophysiology of depression implying new directions for clinical research and improved therapies.

My first important inspiration came from my PhD supervisor, Dr. Magdalena Götz. She is definitely an excellent teacher and mentor, highly motivated about her research and pushing herself hard to pursue her goals. I could never see her giving up in front of an obstacle! She is, in my perspective, a great female champion for Science, always fighting for research innovation with high impact for brain sciences and for society. She was always a true inspiration to me. Most importantly she taught me to never give up on my goals no matter how difficult and to pursue my research always aiming to bring novelty to the field, with the highest standards of excellence and ethics.

My PhD studies led to the discovery of the essential role of AP2y in glutamatergic neurogenesis and visual acuity. After that necessarily basic project, I sought a postdoc where I could test and see translational aspects of my findings by designing a project based on a genes-to-organism approach; I chose to focus on the modulation of adult hippocampal cytogenesis in the context of depression. Happily, that pathway led to an editorial commentary in The NEJM (J. Yager, 2013) in which my studies showing the potentially important role of astrogliogenesis in the pathophysiology of depression were highlighted. That appreciation spurred me to build a work plan, pursuing investigation of how glio-plastic mechanisms participate in the manifestation of depressive behavior.

Depression affects around 300 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of disability. Moreover, more that 30% of the depressed patients do not respond to any of the available therapies. As such, finding novel targets for disruption is of major relevance for the development of novel, more effective therapeutic approaches.

Glial cells have been mostly disregarded in the context of mental health, namely depression. This project will provide an innovative and integrated view on the importance of hippocampal astroglial plasticity and function for the healthy and “depressed” brain, using cutting-edge methodology. It has the potential to open an entirely new array of sex-differentiated therapeutic targets for depression, promoting the re-investment of the pharmaceutical industry in neuropsychiatry and ultimately the development of novel therapeutic interventions to treat depression.

In fact, one of the major breakthroughs of this proposal is the fact that we envision to translate the basic knowledge regarding the role of both pre-existing and newly-generated astrocytes to the clinical setting. We will do this by identifying common imaging patterns of neural network recruitment between our preclinical model and a cohort of depressed patients that is being already evaluated.

I would like to break barriers by tackling the specific functional relevance of newborn astrocytes in the healthy and depressed brain, gaining advantage through lead discovery in depression and promoting the re-investment by the industry in neuropsychiatry. I expect this research to have significant societal end economic impact for the management of the increasing burden of depression worldwide.