Vancouver Island, where some of Professor Onciul's work will be based

Three research projects are to each receive more than one million pounds in funding as part of a flagship programme that identifies future leaders in academic fields.

The projects, spanning oceanography, neuroscience and an interdisciplinary collaboration of heritage, archaeology, ecology and culture, have been chosen as Future Leaders Fellowships by UK Research and Innovation.

The awards mean that the academics – Dr Katy Sheen, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography; Professor Bryony Onciul, Associate Professor of Museology and Heritage Studies; and Dr Kyle Wedgwood, Lecturer in Mathematics – will be funded to pursue their investigations over a number of years.

The award to Dr Sheen – of the Centre for Geography and Environmental Science, based on the Penryn campus – will fund her research into ocean flows beneath the surface, known as sub mesoscales. As part of this, she will travel to the Southwest Atlantic, near to Argentina, and use acoustics to measure and model the flows that exist below the surface. These processes play a crucial role in the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere and the distribution of nutrients and oxygen to support marine ecosystems.

“I am really delighted to have received this Fellowship and looking forward to embarking on this exciting, international project,” says Dr Sheen. “I hope that this work will feed into the great marine science research already happening at Exeter.”

The relationship between the rights of Indigenous communities in Northwest coastal regions of Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand, and the impacts of climate and environmental change, is the focus of Professor Onciul’s fellowship.

Alongside co-investigator Dr Regan Early, Associate Professor in Conservation Biogeography, Professor Onciul will work with local Indigenous priorities around revitalising ancestral governance and stewardship of ancestral territories. Among several different strands to the project, the team will model the impacts that changing stewardship may have on culturally significant species and what climate and environmental factors like sea-level rises on coastal communities need to be considered in the current context of rapidly accelerating environmental change.

They will also work with community leaders to understand how upholding Indigenous rights, such as the return of cultural treasures and cultural practices, might impact environmental and cultural wellbeing of future generations.

“The environmental emergency is exacerbating longstanding global inequalities, disproportionately effecting frontline Indigenous communities,” says Prof Onciul, of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Cornwall. “This is a continuation of the ecological and social devastation wrought by colonisation, which left a legacy of racialized social and climate injustice. However, the recent commitment to align laws in Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP 2007) creates a unique and powerful opportunity to conceptualise and enact Indigenous-led change.”

Dr Wedgwood, of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, will, through his fellowship, investigate whether mathematical model-based control of synaptic interactions at cellular scales can shed new light on how electrical rhythms are generated in networks in the brain. These rhythms are fundamental to neurocomputational processes such as working memory – and potentially to the development of technology that might treat irregularities.

“I am thrilled and honoured to receive this URKI Future Leaders Fellowship,” he said. “This marks the start of an exciting scientific journey in which I will combine my skills in mathematical modelling and neurophysiology to develop new tools to understand and modulate neuronal activity. By collaborating with leading scientists at Exeter and beyond, I will use these tools to explore new approaches for managing conditions such as motor neurone disease. This work would not be possible without the support of this URKI fellowship scheme, which promotes ambitious interdisciplinary research.” 

In this year’s round of UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships, a total of 75 projects were chosen nationwide, totalling £101m. Exeter was one of a handful of institutions to secure more than two fellowships.

Their stated aim is to enable universities and businesses to develop their most talented early career researchers and innovators and to attract new people to their organisations, including from overseas.

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said: “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.”