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Bristol postgraduates reap research rewards

27 November 2015

Six Bristol postgraduates have been awarded prizes for the exceptional quality of their research degree theses in the academic year 2014/15.

One winner is selected from each faculty by members of the Research Degrees Examination Board, which oversees the exam process for research awards. 

The successful graduates, listed below, each receive a certificate of commendation and a cheque for £500 from the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education), Professor Judith Squires.

Dr Terry McMaster, Director of the Bristol Doctoral College, said: ‘It’s always a pleasure to see the sheer breadth and diversity of research that our postgraduates undertake at Bristol. The work of our doctoral candidates is of such high quality that each winner has beaten off stiff competition for these prizes. We congratulate this year’s winners, all of whom have made an exceptional contribution to their chosen area of research.’

Faculty of Arts:  Dr Emily Baughan - Department of Historical Studies

‘Saving the Children: British Humanitarianism in Europe and Africa, c1915-1945’

An examination of the work of the Save the Children Fund that reconstructs ‘dozens of poignant, heretofore lost episodes of good intentions gone awry’ that makes ‘subtle use of a broad range of sources’ and ‘makes a very strong case for the immense historical importance of such long-forgotten episodes’. The citation describes Dr Baughan’s dissertation as ‘conceptually and historiographically sophisticated’ and a work that ‘will make a significant contribution to our knowledge of humanitarianism in the 20th century’.

Faculty of Biomedical Sciences: Dr Richard Gardner, School of Physiology and Pharmacology

‘Forebrain Neuronal Dynamics during Sleep Spindle Oscillations in Rat’

A study of the precise nature of brain activity during sleep, assayed using a combination of in vivo and in vitro neural network recordings from rat thalamus, hippocampus and neocortex. The work is technically demanding, posing both experimental and analytical challenges. In 2012, Dr Gardner spent six months at Lilly UK working with Dr Stuart Hughes to establish a thalamocortical slice preparation for study of abnormal sleep neurophysiology in a rat model of schizophrenia; in the meantime he published the first ever in vivo study of simultaneously recorded reticular thalamic and neocortical activity during natural sleep (in the Journal of Neuroscience).

Faculty of Engineering: Dr Qiang Dai, Department of Civil Engineering

‘Radar Rainfall Uncertainty Analysis for Hydrological Applications’

This is the first comprehensive study of wind effects on radar and rain gauges, which are considered one of the essential components in processing radar observation data. Wind effects mean that raindrops observed by radar do not always fall vertically to the ground, and the raindrops arriving at the ground cannot all be caught by the rain gauge. Dr Qiang proposed a practical approach to simulate the movement of raindrops in the air and adjust these wind-induced errors on radar bias correction procedure. He also put forward a novel, fully formulated uncertainty model that can statistically quantify the characteristics of the radar rainfall errors and their spatial and temporal structure. This model makes radar more trustworthy for both hydrological and meteorological applications. 

Faculty of Heath Sciences: Dr Joanna Crichton, School of Social and Community Medicine

‘Peer-Led Intervention to Promote Chlamydia Screening among Young People’

This thesis examined chlamydia screening in young people from a public health perspective, and the health inequalities that can result if uptake of effective screenings is different across social groups. Dr Crichton examined the prevalence and socioeconomic patterning of chlamydia infections using a systematic review and epidemiological analysis of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children cohort. In both cases, she found that measures of social disadvantage were associated with higher risk of chlamydia infection. The thesis also involved research to inform the design of an intervention (developed by the School of Social and Community Medicine) to promote uptake of chlamydia screening through young people’s social networks. Dr Crichton found that a peer-screening intervention could build on existing factors among young people such as frequent and open conversations about sexual health, sharing experiences, and emotional support. The findings from the thesis have been published in two journal papers and presented at conferences and other meetings of academics, policy makers and practitioners.

Faculty of Science:  Dr Thomas Bloom, School of Mathematics

‘Quantitative Results in Arithmetic Combinatorics’

This thesis explores the interface between two branches of advanced mathematics: combinatorics and number theory. Among several significant results, it provides the best quantitative estimates on a question that has been open for more than half a century, and constitutes an achievement that had been unsuccessfully sought by a number of experts in the field. His examiners, including Fields Medalist Terry Tao, regard this as a true breakthrough. Given a subset of the rational integers, or of a polynomial ring, or some other interesting algebraic set, arithmetic combinatorics seeks to determine whether or not it is possible to infer the existence of arithmetically interesting structures merely from information concerning the number of elements in the set of a given height.

Faculty of Social Sciences and Law: Dr Rebecca Pillinger, Graduate School of Education

‘Differential Heritability and Environmentality of Intelligence and Achievement across Socio-economic Status’

This thesis investigates the extent to which the influences of genes and environment on intelligence, and its association with academic achievement, vary by socio-economic background. IQ tests are used as indicators of subsequent achievement in educational selection, for example in entry tests for grammar and private schools; the research aimed to identify sub-scales of standard IQ tests which might be adopted in fairer selection procedures. The research also makes a number of important methodological contributions concerning existing techniques and their limitations. The examiners commended Rebecca for ‘an ambitious and challenging project that combines state-of the art modelling with focused research questions’.

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