Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC) magnetic resonance imaging laboratory

Two academics from the University of Plymouth have been recognised as part of a new generation of rising stars across research and business.

Dr Elsa Fouragnan and Dr Oli Tills are among 90 early career researchers selected to receive one of UK Research and Innovation’s Future Leaders Fellowships.

The scheme provides researchers and innovators from diverse backgrounds and career paths with the flexibility and time they need to address truly challenging questions.

It is open to early career researchers in any field of research and innovation across UKRI’s remit, and they can work at any UK institution or business.

Dr Fouragnan, from the School of Psychology, is Head of the Brain Stimulation Laboratory, one of seven cutting-edge human research laboratories that make up the new Brain Research & Imaging Centre (BRIC).

She will use her Fellowship – which amounts to £880,000 over an initial four years – to work towards a revolutionary new treatment for addiction, having previously shown that low-intensity ultrasound can change decision-making processes in the brain.

Her new project will target ultrasound at extremely specific areas of the brain, using a new approach – transcranial ultrasound neuromodulation – to safely and temporarily alter brain activity at very high resolution.

The aim is to induce ‘plasticity’ in the brain’s reward circuitry, which could mediate some of the maladaptive behaviour and poor decision making seen in addiction. 

Through this research, she hopes to bridge the gap between laboratory neuroscience and mental health by providing the first evidence that ultrasound applied to particular brain areas can change the way addicts make decisions.

Read more about Dr Fouragnan's work

Dr Elsa Fouragnan

Dr Fouragnan said:

“The scale and duration of the fellowship are unique and a big attraction. Being able to be 100% committed to research will allow me to tackle very important challenges such as safety and ethics early on. This research crosses traditional boundaries as it involves engineering, computational neuroscience and ultimately a clinical trial. I will be able not only to work companies developing the technology but also with psychiatrists and neurologists who ultimately interact with patients.”

Dr Tills, Research Fellow in the School of Biological and Marine Sciences, will be using his award - of £497,000 over the initial four years - to create the next generation of technologies for harnessing the dynamic process of embryonic development in aquatic animals to address some of the most pressing challenges in biology today.

Our current understanding of biology is limited by the technologies available to observe it, and he will drive a new technology-enabled approach to understanding the most complex period of an organisms’ life history – its early development.

He has previously created revolutionary new technology to show how organisms’ early development will be impacted by climate change, and during his fellowship will draw on the enabling technologies of 3D printing, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data analytics to build new approaches to understanding embryonic development.

Supported by Plymouth Science Park, he will develop new instruments for measuring biological development, including a field instrument to be developed in conjunction with the British Antarctic Survey and tested in Antarctica itself.

Find out more about Dr Tills' research:

Dr Oliver Tills

Speaking about the award, Dr Tills said:

“The prestigious nature of this fellowship means a huge amount to me and the magnitude of this is a game changer. My research crosses traditional research council boundaries, but also naturally straddles both research and industry. This fellowship enables me to integrate this breadth into an ambitious and exciting programme of work and I am incredibly excited about this.”

Professor Jerry Roberts Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise

Professor Jerry Roberts, Deputy Vice-Chancellor – Research and Enterprise, added:

“As a University, we have many world-leading experts spanning our entire research agenda. However, a key part of our ethos is to support the research stars of the future to ensure they can develop. Elsa and Oli both fall into that category, and these fellowships not only represent a fantastic personal achievement but will enable them to continue their efforts in exciting and emerging fields of science.”

Ian McFadzen, CEO at Plymouth Science Park, said:

“It’s a fantastic accolade and opportunity for Dr Oli Tills to progress his pioneering work. We’re proud to have such talent at Plymouth Science Park and will continue to support and partner on the project as it develops and comes to fruition.”

Kirsty Grainger, Director of the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships, said:

“That businesses are hosting Future Leaders Fellows demonstrates the fellowships’ potential to create innovative solutions that can deliver transformational change for industry and wider society. The Future Leaders Fellows represent some of the most brilliant people working in the country. We’re supporting researchers from every background – from the arts to medicine, and the social sciences to engineering – helping them become the research and innovation leaders of the future.”

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, said:

“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.”

Read the UKRI news release about the new fellowships