Annual Review 2016/17

Stimulating success through cross-border research

A mood of optimism prevails among Edinburgh’s early-career academics despite Brexit uncertainties.

ERC academics in Playfair Library Annual Review 2016-17
Left to right: Recipients of European Research Council Starting Grants funding Drs Alice Street, Kevin Myant, Sotiria Grek, Michael Cowley and Bin-Zhi Qian in the Playfair Library

It is Edinburgh’s global reputation for academic excellence that draws so many early-career researchers to the city; it is the University’s international outlook that convinces so many to stay.


A leading centre of excellence

Those who choose to develop their careers here are part of a continuing story, key to the University’s success since its earliest days when European influences first held sway: among them a curriculum taking its lead from Paris; and experimental methods inspired by the Dutch.

It has always been a two-way process. As the University played host to the Scottish Enlightenment’s great flowering of thought in the 18th century, the celebrated French philosopher Voltaire proclaimed: “It is to Scotland that we look for all our ideas of civilisation.” 

This appetite for endeavour that transcends disciplinary, intellectual and institutional boundaries endures to the present day, and in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum result, Edinburgh’s desire to be a leading centre of excellence, open to the world, is undiminished.

For the University, two priorities continue – to maintain the mobility of European staff and to sustain European-funded research partnerships. It is perhaps little surprise then, that in the past year, early-career academics at Edinburgh have secured €9 million from the European Research Council’s (ERC) Starting Grants programme. 

Working across borders 

The successful researchers, based across the University’s three Colleges, are quick to praise a funding scheme that enables ambitious, fundamental work. Among them is Dr Bin-Zhi Qian, Reader and Cancer Research UK Fellow at Edinburgh’s Medical Research Council Centre for Reproductive Health, whose research passion is cancer metastasis – how tumour cells spread – and therapy resistance. Working with teams in the US and Germany, his group’s goal is to develop effective treatments.

A sense of urgency pervades the work that informs his study into metastatic hormone refractory prostate cancer. Despite advances in early diagnosis, fewer than half of patients can expect to survive 12 months once tumour cells begin to resist current treatments. 

“Working across borders is critical for success,” says Dr Qian. “The University has been extremely supportive, helping us to attract excellent scientists. Our thoughts, looking forward, are positive.”

Time is of the essence too for Dr Jennifer Smillie, a Royal Society Research Fellow in the University’s School of Physics & Astronomy, who is drawing meaning from data derived from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva.

Collaboration across borders is vital. Brexit may impact recruitment, but the University has been very supportive. I am excited about what lies ahead. 

Dr Jennifer Smillie

The discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson makes this is a pivotal period for particle physics. The LHC is a discovery machine, designed to shed light on unanswered questions about physics at its smallest scale. With ERC funding, Dr Smillie can push forward: “With the LHC running, this is time-critical. Collaboration across borders is vital. Brexit may impact recruitment, but the University has been very supportive. I am excited about what lies ahead.”

In the School of Chemistry, Chancellor’s Fellow Dr Michael Cowley is seeking alternatives to costly, toxic metals that underpin much of the chemistry we rely on to make things such as plastics, drugs – even Post-it notes. By exploring the structure of new and unusual aluminium compounds, he hopes to devise cleaner, efficient alternatives, collaborating with other research groups. Having worked overseas, Dr Cowley knows the value of absorbing different techniques, scientific traditions and schools of thought. Such openness is vital: “The University is working to influence policymakers, trying to make it easy for people to cross geographical and scientific boundaries,” he explains. “If we lose this, our science and our society will be poorer.”

Creating opportunities through funding 

Another Chancellor’s Fellow, Dr Alice Street, is all too aware of barriers to progress. Based in the University’s School of Social & Political Science, she is striving to improve the efficiency of rapid, portable diagnostic medical devices in areas devoid of transportation, communication or electrical infrastructure. Working with research partners in Sierra Leone and India, her study will investigate the social, cultural and technical processes involved in developing and using diagnostic tools in settings where resources are limited.

For Dr Street, the ultimate goal is to guide global health policy: “ERC funding provides an opportunity to lead a large-scale, comparative, anthropological study that not only addresses an intractable challenge, but also helps to advance theoretical thinking.”

This approach chimes with that of Dr Kevin Myant, Principal Investigator at the Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre, who is seeking to understand how colon cancer spreads, specifically how genetic mutations drive its formation. There has been huge investment in identifying mutations that occur in cancer, but it is unclear which ones cause disease to form and spread. Dr Myant aims to solve the riddle and pave the way for new therapies.

“The ERC provides generous funding for relatively high-risk, high-gain projects that other funders may find too speculative,” he explains. “Projects such as mine, which work across international boundaries, are ideal for this type of funding.”

It sits well too with Dr Sotiria Grek, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, whose research explores how metrics – standards that measure efficiency, performance and progress – can actively contribute to policy decision-making across national borders, primarily in education and sustainable development. Her new project’s focus will be the complex relationship between international organisations and the production of statistical data. This comparative, transnational research focus has not only defined her career but also Dr Grek’s identity as a European citizen: “I have always considered the ERC more of an intellectual ‘home’ than just another funder. It values interdisciplinarity and nurtures in-depth study – the kind of slow social science that is so needed, yet is so rare.”


Photo © Tricia Malley Ross Gillespie