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Winners of the prizes for the Best Doctoral Research Theses 2016/17

18 October 2017

Six University of Bristol postgraduates have been awarded £500 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. The Board is chaired by Professor Sally Heslop, Academic Director of Graduate Studies.

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

Faculty of Arts: Geoffrey Blumenthal

'The Nature of the Chemical Revolution'

Supervised by Professor James Ladyman

The progressive nature of theory change in the natural sciences is best understood in the case of the Chemical Revolution by paying particular attention to the chemistry of the ‘losing’ theories. The regularity in nature which was represented by Stahl’s phlogiston was ‘negative oxygen’, or the absence of oxygen, rather than a substance as Stahl thought. Once oxygen was discovered, all of the many substantial efforts to produce an adjusted phlogistic theory failed, and this is most clearly understandable in Cavendish’s papers and in the criticisms by the Royal Society phlogistians of each other’s work. By contrast, Lavoisier’s basic theory did accurately latch on to some regularities in nature. The whole process in the Chemical Revolution shows social factors that underpinned the self-correcting nature of science. Scientific revolutions do not involve ‘rupture’, and the progress of science is neither homogenously accumulative nor discontinuous – its progress is generally cumulative but uneven with some large changes such as the Chemical Revolution. 

Faculty of Biomedical Sciences: Daniel Watkins

‘Integrating peroxidase functionality into a de novo, in vivo assembled, oxygen-binding cytochrome c maquette’

Supervised by Dr Ross Anderson

Enzymes are essential biological molecules that are required by all living organisms. Many enzymes have substantial medical and commercial value. There is global interest in designing and constructing artificial enzymes, which although inspired by their natural counterparts have greatly enhanced properties and activities. Dr Watkins’ thesis focused on deriving simple principles from the study of natural enzymes and applying them to build highly active enzymes. The result of his labours was the creation of an artificial enzyme with exemplary properties. His enzyme has proven to be the most active example yet constructed, eclipsing not only the activities of other artificial enzymes, but also those of several natural enzymes. Dr Watkins published his landmark design in Nature Communications. In addition, his thesis has yielded an additional three papers and was discussed in two review articles. His work in Dr Anderson’s lab was funded jointly by the BBSRC and the ERC.

Faculty of Engineering: Wouter Berghuijs

‘Bringing structure to catchment-scale hydrological diversity around the world’

Supervised by Dr Ross Woods

Understanding the water cycle is key for the management of global freshwater resources, both for predicting natural hazards (eg floods and droughts) and for understanding the earth system more generally (eg climate change). It thereby provides a topic that will be at the heart of societal developments into the future. One of the key challenges that hydrology faces is dealing with the enormous diversity of environmental conditions across the world; no two watersheds are the same and, even when they appear near identical, their conditions are likely to change over time. Dr Berghuijs devoted his PhD studies to developing ways of better conceptualising the hydrologic similarities and differences of thousands of catchments across the world. His work provides insight into various aspects directly relevant to applied and more theoretical hydrology (eg flood risk, climate change impacts, prediction in ungauged basins).

Faculty of Health Sciences: Mairead Murphy

‘Development of a patient-reported outcome measure for primary care’

Supervised by Professor Chris Salisbury

The aim of Dr Murphy’s thesis was to develop a patient-reported questionnaire which captures the outcomes that patients seek, and which clinicians can influence through primary care. She developed the Primary Care Outcomes Questionnaire, or the PCOQ, which contains 24 questions in four areas: health and well-being; health knowledge and understanding; confidence in health plan; and confidence in health provision. Quantitative testing in a sample of primary care patients showed the PCOQ was valid and responsive to change, and it has been made available free of charge for researchers to assess the effectiveness of interventions in primary care. Mairead’s thesis used multiple methods and has produced methodological innovations in Delphi consensus studies and systematic reviews to identify papers describing the development of patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs). The examiners described it as ‘an ambitious and complex study that … would normally be produced by a group of researchers within the timescale of a PhD. It should be seen as a model for future PhD students.’ The thesis has resulted in four peer-reviewed publications, with two more expected.

Faculty of Science: Mark Puttick

‘Comparative phylogenetic methods and selectivity at mass extinctions’

Supervised by Professor Mike Benton

Dr Puttock’s thesis covered three themes: exploring novel ways to interpret the evolution of function through time; testing the suitability of different standard methods of phylogeny construction; and looking at the inclusion of fossil data in phylogeny-evolution calculations. These are all top-level problems of the moment, and of interest widely within the evolution-bioinformatics community. Dr Puttock’s thesis was essentially all published by the time of the viva: his first paper explored the coupled traits of miniaturisation and wing elongation in the origin of birds and showed that these features changed long before birds emerged. He then explored the role of fossils in modifying inferences of trait evolution based solely on living taxa, using the Afrotheria (African mammals) as his case study. He then explored how rates of genome size evolution correlate with speciation in angiosperms. Finally, he worked on a new, phylogenetically corrected method to assess selectivity of mass extinctions, using fishes across the end-Permian mass extinction as his example.

Faculty of Social Sciences and Law: Gwilym Owen

‘New methods, measurements and data in health geography: a study of obesity’

Supervised by Professor Richard Harris

Dr Owen’s thesis explored the frontier of modelling using multilevel approaches applied to a variety of complex and ‘big data’ looking at some of the causes and patterns of obesity at a range of scales and how those may respond to the neighbourhood conditions in which a person lives. This particularly involved data on twins and the effects of genetics and the social environment in determining obesity outcomes. During his PhD which was funded as an ESRC Advanced Quantitative Method bursary in the Centre for Multilevel Modelling and the School of Geographical Sciences, he published two articles in international journals (Progress in Human Geography and Social Science and Medicine). In addition, the ESRC funded an extended internship during the PhD with the Welsh Government where he conducted research on the National Survey for Wales and provided training from them on the quantitative modelling of discrete outcome data.


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