Photo of solar panels in an arid region with blue skies

Innovative researchers from Loughborough awarded with Future Leader Fellowships from UKRI

Two outstanding Loughborough University researchers have been awarded prestigious Future Leaders Fellowships from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), receiving funding for projects worth £2.5 million collectively.

Dr Kate Mathers, who completed her PhD in the Department of Geography and will shortly be returning to Loughborough, and Dr Ignacio Martin-Fabiani – who is currently a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow based in the School of Aeronautical, Automotive, Chemical and Materials Engineering – were today announced as recipients of the fellowships.

Through the Future Leader Fellowships, UKRI aims to support new and innovative research leaders with links across different sectors and disciplines by awarding early-career researchers with funding of between £400k-£1.5 million across four years. Dr Mathers will receive UKRI funding for her £1.1 million project and Dr Martin-Fabiani’s research will be supported with funding for his £1.4 million project.

This grant will support the recipients with their challenging and ambitious projects as well as their career development, covering the costs of equipment and team members’ wages amongst other needs.

Dr Kate Mathers’ Fellowship will support her research on freshwater ecosystems, one of the most endangered habitats in the world.

One of the primary causes of reduced riverine ecosystem health is the loss of habitat linked to excessive fine sediment deposition (particles less than 2mm). Although a natural part of river systems, changes to land use over time, such as intensive farming and hydrological extremes caused by climate change, have significantly increased the quantity of fine sediment found in river channels. This causes the habitat to become unsuitable for flora and fauna to thrive in, affecting all components of the food chain.

Dr Mathers’ research project aims to understand which environmental factors influence the severity of fine sediment effects for river communities, to provide a framework which determines where and when rivers are most at threat from fine sediment pressures, within the UK and across the world.

Her research will focus on macroinvertebrates such as insects and crustaceans, and she will work alongside agencies such as the Environment Agency of England, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and the River Restoration Centre. The research will have important ramifications for how stakeholders effectively use resources, monitor and manage UK riverine ecosystems to produce optimal conservation and restoration plans.

Dr Martin-Fabiani’s Fellowship will help him to overcome the economic and societal challenges associated with the paint industry for coatings used in both healthcare settings and for renewable technologies.

Pathogenic bacteria has been proven to be one of the leading causes of healthcare-associated infections, killing thousands of patients and costing the NHS millions. Therefore, more effective antibacterial coatings are urgently needed to reduce bacterial accumulation on surfaces.

Although solar panels have the ability to convert a significant proportion of sunlight into electricity, their efficiency can be dramatically reduced due to dust and pollen accumulated on panels, particularly in arid regions.

Dr Martin-Fabiani hopes to create a platform technology inspired by the skin of insects that survive floods in the rainforests to develop the next generation of sustainable coatings; targeting the issues with healthcare-associated infections and solar panel efficiency reductions by designing structures that will impart self-cleaning properties to the coatings.

Nanomaterials that kill bacteria – such as copper or zinc oxide nanoparticles – will be added to the coating formulation to tackle healthcare infections, and, to increase the efficiency of solar panels, nanomaterials that have heightened resistance to wear and abrasion in very dry climates will be added.

He will collaborate alongside industrial paint partners to prepare pilot formulations to enable this innovative product development to proceed.

Talking about the announcement, Dr Martin-Fabiani said: "I feel extremely honoured and humbled to have been awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. The flexibility that this scheme provides will enable me to work on some the most challenging ideas that I have been brewing, in particular aiming to build bridges between state-of-the-art research and innovations in paints and coatings.

“I’m very thankful to all of the academic and industrial partners involved, as well as to all the colleagues that helped to get a proposal of this magnitude all the way through! I am truly excited to get the project started."

Dr Mathers added: “I am incredibly grateful and delighted to be awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. Having worked on the ecological consequences of fine sediment within rivers for over nine years, I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to pursue this further and to work with some of the leading researchers and industry partners across the world.

“I am looking forward to the opportunities but also the challenges that such a flexible and sizable fellowship award brings with it. I would like to extend a huge thank you to all my collaborators and mentors who I have worked with over the years and the project partners and colleagues who assisted in getting the proposal over the finish line, which was no small feat!”

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, commented: “The Future Leaders Fellowships are UKRI’s flagship talent programme, designed to foster and nurture the research and innovation leaders of the future.

“We are delighted to support these outstanding researchers and innovators across universities, research organisations and businesses."