Meet our Emerging Leaders Prize Alumni
The Emerging Leaders Prize is an annual award to recognise outstanding researchers in the early stages of independent research who have already had an impact in their field and have demonstrated their potential to be the research leaders of the future.
Prizes awarded for excellence in adolescent mental health research
Dr Jean-Baptise Pingault - first place - £100k
University College London
Dr Jean-Baptiste Pingault is an Associate Professor at University College London and a visiting researcher at King’s College London, his work aims to understand causes of adolescent mental health problems to help design better tools for prevention.
Adolescent mental health is influenced by many factors over time. Dr Pingault follows what he describes as a genetically informed approach to his research. By including a genetic element he hopes to better identify factors that influence risk of poor mental health in adolescence and factors that promote resilience. Funding from the Emerging Leaders Prize means he’ll be able to use this genetic approach to investigate intergenerational risks more fully.
Overall, Dr Pingault’s research suggests that repeated intervention at different stages is more effective than one-off early intervention to improve life for young people with mental health problems.
On winning the 2018 Prize he said: "I'm really proud to have been chosen as one of the Medical Research Foundation's Emerging Leaders. I was thrilled when I received the call. Mental health research is critical to improve adolescents' lives, so to have the Foundation's support is fantastic."
Dr Tobias Hauser - second place - £80k
University College London
Dr Hauser with the MRI scanner he uses to capture images of brain activity.
Dr Tobias Hauser is a Principal Investigator at the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research where he leads research in the newly emerging field of developmental computational psychiatry.
Adolescence brings about changes in the way the brain works and changes in mental health. The possibility of a relationship between physical changes in the brain and onset of mental health problems in adolescent is the subject of Dr Tobias Hauser’s research. He combines neuroimaging, computational modelling and clinical studies to try to establish whether changes in neural pathways are connected to mental health problems.
Funding from the Emerging Leaders Prize will allow Dr Hauser to explore how big data could reveal potential biomarkers indicative of adolescent mental health problems, he said: "I am really excited about the unique opportunity that the Medical Research Foundation has provided with this prize. I will use the funding to investigate how brain and cognitive functions develop during adolescence, and how these processes can go awry and lead to mental health problems."
Runners-up (all awarded £5k each)
Dr Helen Fisher
Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London
Dr Helen Fisher is a Reader in Developmental Psychopathology and Chartered Research Psychologist who uses interdisciplinary approaches to understand why some adolescents develop mental health problems and what protects others from doing so. Her team have already shown that exposure to air pollution is linked to developing mental health problems in adolescence, and that having one supportive friend or family member can help protect young people from developing psychotic symptoms (such as hearing voices).
On winning the Emerging Leaders Prize she said: “I’m absolutely thrilled that the Medical Research Foundation are providing me with this fantastic opportunity to develop the skills I need to manage a large longitudinal cohort study, which will not only have a major impact on my career but also enable numerous researchers to use this invaluable resource to answer important questions about the factors involved in risk and resilience for adolescent mental health problems.”
Dr Fisher has also worked to find new ways to encourage people to think about adolescent mental health. As a consultant on theatre productions she has helped to create more realistic portrayals of severe mental illness in young people, and she co-created with young people an immersive art exhibition to improve understanding of what it feels like to hear voices.
Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen
University of Cambridge
Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College
Up to half of all children all over the world experience adversity as they grow up. Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen describes this childhood trauma as psychiatry’s greatest public health challenge.
Dr Harmelen’s work looks closely at both risk and resilience in adolescent mental health. Her work has shown that emotional maltreatment in childhood or adolescence effects the brain in such a way that young people become more vulnerable to mental health problems. Harmelen’s research has revealed social, psychological and behavioural factors that can be used clinically to improve young people’s resilience and their mental health.
On winning the Emerging Leaders Prize she said: “Finding ways to improve adolescent mental health is hugely important because of the potential long-term effects for young people. I’m delighted to be awarded the Emerging Leaders Prize as it helps to bring attention to what is a hugely critical area of research. There is a genuine crisis in adolescent mental health right now and I look forward to using my prize to support more research.”
Dr Valeria Mondelli
King’s College London
Dr Valeria Mondelli is a Senior Clinical Lecturer at King’s College London, she leads research on the link between childhood trauma and mental health problems in later life. Her work has demonstrated that childhood trauma creates real biological effects that then influence a person’s risk of developing mental health problems and the course their illness takes.
She leads an international research project called IDEA – identifying depression early in adolescence. The aim is to prevent depression and the difficulties that follow by identifying children at risk before their symptoms begin.
On becoming one of the Foundation’s Emerging Leaders Dr Mondelli said: “I am delighted to have been awarded the Medical Research Foundation’s Emerging Leaders Prize, this is a truly important acknowledgement of the work I have conducted so far and I have no doubt it will help me to advance my research in this field. Adolescence is a critical time for development and a window of opportunity where we can still change trajectories, I am committed to find the best ways to tackle mental health problems as soon as they develop in adolescence so that we can help improve quality of life during youth and throughout life.”
Dr Catherine Sebastian
Royal Holloway, University of London
Dr Catherine Sebastian established and directs the Emotion, Development and Brain Lab at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her team follows an interdisciplinary approach to mental health research that considers neuroscience, psychology, education and other relevant perspectives.
Young people who react aggressively when they feel threatened, who find it difficult to calm down or who experience other extremes in emotion are at the heart of Dr Sebastian’s research. She is working to understand how emotional reactions lead to aggression and to answer questions like why are some young people better at controlling their emotions than others? A stronger understanding of which strategies help young people to regulate their emotional responses could help prevent everyday stresses escalating into violence for those who struggle to control their emotions.
On becoming one of the Foundation’s Emerging Leaders she said: "I'm delighted that my research has been recognised by the Medical Research Foundation through the Emerging Leaders Prize. My work looks at how young people cope in response to difficult situations and what influences how they respond. The prize funding will help strengthen our ongoing research collaborations and to explore new directions for our work."
Awarded for outstanding research into lupus
Dr David Hunt - first place
University of Edinburgh
Brain disease is a serious and common problem in lupus, but it’s molecular basis is still an unknown. This means there are no specific therapies available to stop the brain being damaged by lupus. Dr Hunt’s research is dedicated to what he describes as the neglected field of lupus brain disease. His long-term aim is to develop effective therapies personalised to each patient. His lab has already made progress by showing that it may be possible to combine results of a super-sensitive blood-test with images from brain scans in order to follow how lupus-related brain disease develops. This information could be used to design clinical trials aimed at preventing brain damage.
Dr David Hunt said: “My laboratory’s research is dedicated to addressing the unmet needs of people with inflammatory brain diseases - and lupus brain disease is our priority. My very first job in medicine involved looking after people with lupus, and this contact has inspired my research and clinical practice. I have been struck by the burden of lupus brain disease, and the relative lack of coordinated research effort in this area.
“Our ability to develop treatments to prevent or treat brain disease in lupus is hampered by two problems. Firstly, we understand very little of the molecular pathways which drive brain disease. Secondly, we don’t have good ways of measuring brain dysfunction in clinical trials. My group addresses both of these roadblocks, trying to decode the molecular pathways and develop practical biomarkers of brain disease.
“The Medical Research Foundation Emerging Leaders Prize will transform my group’s ability to pursue this research. We will use the prize funds to purchase cutting-edge equipment which can detect single protein molecules. This will allow us to develop precise tests of the molecular pathways involved in lupus brain disease and help us measure how the brain is affected. The funds will also allow us to develop collaborations with groups in other countries working in this field, accelerating clinical translation and linking our research to the needs of the lupus community.”
October 2018 update
"The Medical Research Foundation Emerging Leaders Prize has been transformative for my lab's research into lupus brain disease. The research funds have enabled me to purchase state-of-the-art equipment and develop bold new collaborations. Winning this award has also increased my group's visibility and allowed me to connect more closely with the lupus community."
Dr Tracy Briggs - second place
University of Manchester
Dr Briggs is a clinical geneticist who works with families and children. She is interested in how inherited information influences lupus and works to identify genes linked to lupus. Tracy aims to understand how changes in genes increase a person’s risk of developing lupus or other related autoimmune conditions. She has identified genes that cause severe lupus in children. For families, gene discoveries can help provide a diagnosis, inform family planning and improve care. In the future she plans to study the effect of medicines in people who have rare genetic conditions to help find the best treatment for each patient and will continue to look for the genetic cause of disease in adults who have less rare forms of lupus.
On winning Dr Briggs said: “The Emerging Leaders Prize means I now have funding for a technician to help with lab work and a bioinformatician to help analyse genetic data. I can start to ask new questions about the genetic drivers of lupus that I didn’t have the resources to before.
“It is wonderful to have recognition for the work we have already done in Manchester and to know that the Foundation supports my ideas for future research. I really want to understand why lupus happens from a genetic perspective. If we can find the causes in rare cases of lupus, which are very severe and associated with a high death rate, then that could have a huge impact for families. The fact that we can apply that knowledge of rare disease to a larger group of patients and hopefully have a bigger impact, well that’s what really drives me.”
Dr Briggs used the funds to pay staff salaries and for research consumables to help run more lab experiments and analyse complex genetic data.
October 2018 update
“My current research funding comes to an end this month but the prize means I can keep my research project going. Being selected as one of the Medical Research Foundation’s Emerging Leaders has also helped to extend my academic post at the university. The publicity around the award has been helpful too. It reached patients and families in the lupus community who now have an increased awareness of my work and of the role genetics can play in lupus.”
Dr Edward Vital - runner-up
University of Leeds
Research Background: All lupus is not the same. The organs affected, how severely and how the condition responds to treatment all vary between patients. Dr Vital is trying to find out more about what causes these differences so that better decisions can be made about who to treat, when and with which therapy. His research group’s work is patient focused – patients help to develop new funding applications and are invited to regular meetings for updates on research progress.
An important research area for Dr Vital’s group is what they call ‘at risk’ patients – people who have genes or blood test results that suggest that they may develop lupus in future. Only a small number of these people will go on to develop lupus and Dr Vital has shown that it is possible to predict who it most at risk. Better tests could mean lupus can be identified before the disease damages the body. By studying people who are likely to develop lupus it’s also possible to learn more about what happens at the earliest stages of the condition.
Dr Vital said: “I’ve spent the past five years creating a completely new lupus research group in Leeds that has research interests in many areas, this year we expect to publish a large number of findings from the work we’ve done so I’m delighted to have won support from the Emerging Leaders Prize. The award will allow me to establish new collaborations with researchers in the US to add value to the work we’ve already done.”
Dr Vital plans to use the funds to support new research collaborations with other lupus experts.
The 2019 prizes will be awarded for research into antimicrobial resistance.
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