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Bristol postgraduates win Best Doctoral Research Thesis awards 2015/16

21 October 2016

Six University of Bristol postgraduates have been awarded prizes for the exceptional quality of their research degree theses.

An annual prize is made for the thesis considered to be the best within each faculty. Internal and external examiners were invited to nominate suitable theses and one winner has been selected from each faculty by members of the Research Degrees Exam Board, which oversees the examination process for research awards. 

Dr Terry McMaster, Director of the Bristol Doctoral College, said: ‘This is an inspiring and affirming set of excellent PhD research theses, and the researchers deserve the utmost congratulations for making such exceptional contributions to their respective fields. It’s evidence of the great support provided by the supervisors, academic and professional services staff, who help to create a vibrant postgraduate research environment for these groundbreaking pieces of research.’

The successful graduates, listed below, each receive a certificate of commendation and a cheque for £500.


Faculty of Arts: Esther Breithoff – Archaeology and Anthropology

‘Conflict Landscapes of the Chaco War’

Supervised by Professor Nicholas Saunders and Dr Volker Heyd

This represents the first-ever attempt at examining the landscapes and material culture of the Chaco War (fought between Paraguay and Bolivia from 1932 to 1935) by examining the complex entangled relationships between humans and things during the conflict and its aftermath. Dr Breithoff discusses the relationships between indigenous people, Mennonites and soldiers, and examines the material culture of the war in relation to concepts of recycling, trench art, and nonā€modern traditional worldviews. Her assessment of the archaeological remains at Fortín Nanawa, in collaboration with the Secretaría Nacional de Cultura in Paraguay, has led to the military outpost being declared a national cultural heritage site in 2013. Dr Breithoff’s research was funded by the Fond National de la Recherche Luxembourg and supported by two Santander Travel Grants for Research in Latin America on Business and Economic-Related Themes.

Faculty of Biomedical Sciences: Yiting Wang – Physiology and Pharmacology

‘Investigation of Defective Channel Gating and Thermo-instability by the Cystic Fibrosis Mutation F508del-CFTR and their Rescue using CFTR Modulators’

Supervised by Professor David Sheppard and Professor George Banting

The most common form of cystic fibrosis is caused by a mutation in the CFTR gene, which produces a disabled CFTR protein, referred to as F508del. This project developed a new test to measure the stability of individual CFTR proteins in cell membranes, and to examine the action of two new drugs, ivacaftor, and lumacaftor, on that stability. Dr Wang’s results pave the way for new research to develop better drugs to treat cystic fibrosis, and she is continuing her work as a postdoctoral scientist in the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience. She was awarded best poster prizes at both the European Cystic Fibrosis Society Basic Science conference, 2013 (Spain) and Physiology 2012, the main meeting of the UK Physiological Society. She is first author of one publication describing her research, with more papers expected to follow. Research in Professor Sheppard’s laboratory is supported by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.

Faculty of Engineering: Yuanfan Yang – Computer Science

‘Exploring Memristive Nano-scale Memory and Logic Architectures’

Supervised by Professor Dhiraj Pradhan and Dr Jimson Mathew

This thesis explores the various characteristics and applications of memristor and memristor-based devices. A memristor is a two-terminal non-volatile device, which is widely considered as a potential successor to the CMOS based elements. Dr Yang proposed a memristor model suitable for EDA simulation and analysis. Based on this proposed model, he further presented memristor-based stateful logic operations and extended these approaches for arithmetic circuits. He also proposed a novel crossbar memory and low-power associative memories suitable for full and partial match. The research explores memristive models, memristive nanoscale memories and logic architectures and makes an important contribution to the field of nanotechnology. The results from this thesis have been published in four journals and presented at conferences. 

Faculty of Health Sciences: Teri-Louise North – Social and Community Medicine

‘Genetic Epidemiological and Population Genetics Studies of Complex Ageing Traits’

Supervised by Professor Yoav Ben-Shlomo and Professor Mark Beaumont

Dr North pursued a range of mathematical and genetic epidemiological studies focused on traits of ageing, mainly underpinned by the pooled data of the Halcyon consortium, a UK-wide consortium (brought together by Professor Diana Kuh at UCL) of nine cohorts representing 20,000 older participants. Her analytical ability and attention to detail resulted in several publications, pulling order from chaos in large data sets and among intertwined research strands and ideas. One piece of work brought to light a remarkable and unexpected finding: that a classic respiratory disease gene allele causes greater height and size and seems to have been positively selected in human history, an observation with potential future therapeutic implications both in height and in respiratory disorders. This could easily have been overlooked, but Dr North's thorough checking, analytical dissection and follow-ups proved and elucidated the finding. This is but one illustration of her papers and training which ranged widely across her research area and involved mathematical and computational modelling, numerous statistical and statistical genetic approaches, and various associated bioinformatics, applied to traits of ageing.

Faculty of Science: Fabrizio Alberti – Biological Sciences

‘Reconstruction and Characterization of the Biosynthetic Pathway for Pleuromutilin in the Heterologous Host Apergillus Oryzae

Supervised by Professor Gary Foster and Dr Andrew Bailey

This thesis explores the production pathway for the important antibiotic compound pleuromutilin produced by the basidiomycete Clitopilus passeckerianus, which is important in combatting bacterial infections in human and veterinary medicine. These compounds belong to the only new class of antibiotics for human applications, with a novel mode of action and a lack of cross-resistance, representing a class with great potential. Basidiomycete fungi, being dikaryotic, are not generally amenable to strain improvement. This thesis reports the reconstruction of the seven-gene pleuromutilin cluster within Aspergillus oryzae giving production of pleuromutilin in an ascomycete, with a significant increase (2106%) in production. This is the first gene cluster from a basidiomycete to be successfully expressed in an ascomycete, and paves the way for the exploitation of a metabolically rich but traditionally overlooked group of fungi. The thesis also defined the individual genes and steps involved in the production pathway, allowing future new derivatives to be developed. 

Faculty of Social Sciences and Law: Nicholas Jepson – Sociology, Politics and International Studies

‘China and the Transformation of Accumulation in the Global South’

Supervised by Professor Jeffrey Henderson and Dr Malcolm Fairbrother

He was a recipient of an ESRC scholarship. In his thesis, Dr Jepson examined the relationship between China's economic need for 'hard' commodities (minerals, including oil and gas) and the way these demands provided the budgetary flexibility for some developing countries to deflect, or resist, neoliberal development strategies that would otherwise have been imposed upon them by external agencies. Studying 25 mineral-rich but economically poor countries, including three – Zambia, Ecuador and Jamaica – where he engaged in intensive fieldwork, he was able to deliver a thesis of enormous scope and ambition and one of outstanding theoretical and methodological originality. His examiners described his thesis as 'the best piece of scholarship that either of the examiners have had the pleasure of reading in the past five years.’ 


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