University of Birmingham's 'top ten' celebrates global impact

Posted on Friday 9th May 2014
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For more than 100 years, research at the University of Birmingham has had a major impact on the world, from pioneering transplant surgery, the use of microwaves and creating artificial Vitamin C. This world-changing research is now being celebrated with a new ‘top ten’ list of academic pioneers.

In the year that the University has been named The Times and Sunday Times University of the Year, staff, students and alumni were encouraged to nominate Birmingham’s research heroes. Hundreds of names were suggested from across all of the University’s five Colleges.

The names have now been whittled down to just ten winners, who feature in a booklet – entitled Our Impact – detailing the impact Birmingham’s research has had over the past 100 years. They will also appear on ‘top ten’ coloured light bulb-shaped posters to be displayed around campus and beyond.

In no particular order, the ‘top ten’ list includes:

  • Professor Frank Hahn, who was Lecturer, then Reader, in Mathematical Economics at the University from 1948 to 1959, was one of the world’s most distinguished economists. His research incorporated money into the analysis of the growth and instability of economic systems: he was an exponent of ‘general equilibrium’, a branch of economics that tries to explain supply and demand. His book, The Share of Wages in the National Income, published in 1972, anticipated the heated debate current today. He reformulated and refined previous economic theory as the basis for decision-making on public policy. Born in Berlin to Czech parents, who moved to Britain in 1938, Professor Hahn is most popularly known as the co-instigator of a letter to The Times in 1981 signed by 364 of Britain's best-known economists, which questioned Margaret Thatcher’s economic policy, warning that it would only result in deepening the prevailing depression, erode the industrial base and undermine Britain’s social and political stability. He died in January 2013 at the age of 87.
  • The pioneering work carried out in Birmingham by physicists Sir John Randall and Dr Harry Boot not only influenced the outcome of the Second World War, it also revolutionised modern cooking. It was at the top-secret Admiralty Laboratory set up under Sir Mark Oliphant in February 1940 that the two colleagues first operated the Cavity Magnetron – the main generator of high power centimetre-wavelength electromagnetic radiation – to produce radar waves. Under the pressures of wartime, the first commercial model was in operation five months later – on 29 June – and these magnetrons were used by the Allies to detect aircraft and a submarine by radar in September that same year. In peacetime, radar has become vital in sea and air navigation, and it is also a key component in microwave ovens, which has transformed the way we cook.
  • David Lodge, CBE and Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University, is one of the most celebrated modern-day novelists and renowned literary critics. He is best-known for his satirical ‘campus’ novels about academic life, which broke new ground and helped to create a new genre of literature. Two were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Some of his books are set in the fictional city of Rummidge, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Birmingham. Features of the campus, such as the clock tower and Muirhead Tower, appear in a lightly disguised form as a background to a parade of recognisable academic types. Another major theme in Professor Lodge’s work is Roman Catholicism, starting from his first published novel, The Picturegoers (1960). It was in 1960 that he began teaching at the University, where he remained for 27 years. Since retiring, he has written insightful books on the art and craft of fiction, including his seminal texts The Art of Fiction and Consciousness and the Novel. His adaptations of his own novels, as well as Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, have appeared on television. He has won both the Hawthornden and Whitbread Prizes. Now aged 79 and still living in Birmingham, Professor Lodge’s legacy includes the burgeoning creative writing programme that now exists within the School of English, Drama, American & Canadian Studies.
  • Dave Charlton, Professor of Particle Physics at the School of Physics and Astronomy, is currently Spokesperson, or scientific head, of the ATLAS Collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) within the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva. He was Deputy Spokesperson when, in July 2012, the experiment announced the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson, the “missing link” of the Standard Model of Physics, which gives mass to fundamental particles. The LHC – which is in the middle of a two-year shutdown for repairs and upgrades – is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator ever built. About 3,000 scientists from around the world, including a team from Birmingham, are involved in the collaboration, which is expected to reveal new, exotic physics in the next few years. Professor Charlton came to the University in the 1980s to do his PhD, having gained his first degree at Oxford. He was part of Birmingham team involved in the Nobel Prize-winning UA1 experiment at CERN that revealed the existence of W and Z bosons. He started working at Birmingham as a Royal Society University Research Fellow in 1994, based initially at CERN. Then for ten years he was based in Birmingham, before moving back to CERN in 2007.
  • Research carried out by COBUILD (Collins Birmingham University International Language Database) has transformed the study of English across the globe by a radical and highly innovative use of corpus-linguistic technologies to analyse computationally multi-million-word databases of the English language. The research facility was set up in 1980 and funded by Collins publishers. Led by Professor John Sinclair, the COBUILD team’s original approach to the description of English influenced the design and use of dictionaries, grammars of English and course materials. It has since led to revolutionary approaches to linguistic theory and practice.COBUILD’s impact has been world-wide: there is no approach to English language description and use today that can ignore the profound and seminal effects of the facility’s research.
  • In March 1940, while working together at the University, Jewish physicists Otto Frisch and Sir Rudolf Peierls, who had fled Austria and Germany respectively some years earlier, wrote a joint document entitled the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum. This detailed for the first time the feasibility of developing an atomic bomb. Because of their origins, Frisch and Peierls were classified as ‘enemy aliens’ and not allowed to work on the radar project (that also played a big part in the war’s outcome). Instead, they made ‘a rough estimate – on the back of the proverbial envelope’ of the size of the critical mass needed for a practical atomic weapon. Their memorandum, written to engage official attention, laid the foundations for the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bombs of the Second World War, heralding the beginning of the end of the conflict.
  • The most recent of the University’s eight Nobel Prize-winners is geneticist and cell biologist Sir Paul Nurse, who was honoured in 2001 for his seminal discoveries of protein molecules that control the division of cells in the cell cycle. His research enabled the development of new treatments and medicines for cancer. Sir Paul graduated from Birmingham in the 1970s with a BSc in biology. After carrying out much of his pioneering research in the ‘80s, he became the Director General and Head of the Cell Cycle Laboratory at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF). He then headed up the world’s biggest volunteer-supported cancer research body, Cancer Research UK, when ICRF and the Cancer Research Fund joined forces, before moving to the United States in 2003 to become President of Rockefeller University. He is now President of the Royal Society.
  • Another Nobel Prize-winner is Sir Norman Haworth – Mason Professor of Chemistry at Birmingham for 25 years, from 1925 to 1948 – who devoted his life to pioneering research into carbohydrates. He made extensive discoveries in the field, culminating in the synthesis of Vitamin C in 1933, which significantly helped to improve health and food production. His research defined the basic features of starch, cellulose, glycogen, inulin and xylan, and this knowledge has had broad impact far outside the remit of chemistry.
  • A finalist whose work has led to huge strides being taken in the field of cancer research is Professor Alan Rickinson, who spearheaded the development of the Institute of Cancer Studies (now the School of Cancer Sciences) from 1983 to 2001. He oversaw the Institute’s expansion from a small, non-clinical research department into a huge research centre integrating basic work on cancer genetics, viral oncology and tumour immunology with translational studies in gene/immunotherapy and what has become one of the largest cancer clinical trials units in the UK. From 2001 until he officially retired in April 2014, Professor Rickinson worked tirelessly to maintain Birmingham’s position as an international centre of excellence for work on human tumour viruses, leading a large research group focusing on the Epstein-Barr virus, a common human pathogen associated with several types of cancer such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • Sir Peter Medawar, Professor of Zoology at the University between 1947 and 1953, spent many years conducting experiments proving that tissue grafts were rejected by immune responses but tolerated if the host and donor were genetically related or if the host had been exposed to cells of the donor during foetal life. This work was fundamental to the practice of tissue and organ transplants, and won him the Nobel Prize in 1960.

Although there are no women in the ‘top ten’, such a list would almost certainly look very different a decade from now: Supporting women in traditionally male-dominated research fields is high on the University’s agenda, with 2013-14 being designated a year of Advancing Equality in Employment. Birmingham has also won a clutch of awards from the Athena SWAN Charter, which recognises commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in academia. 

A number of eminent women featured on the long-list, including Charlotte Anderson, who became the first female professor of paediatrics in the UK when she was appointed Leonard Parsons Professor of Paediatrics at Birmingham Medical School in 1968. She is best known for identifying wheat gluten as the cause of coeliac disease.

Also on the list were Professor Pamela Kearns, Director of Birmingham’s Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit – one of the largest in the country – and bioscientist Dr Angela Murray, who has developed a way to efficiently extract platinum, palladium and from road dust. Dr Tansin Benn was long-listed for her work on the effects of culture and religion on sport participation among Muslim females.

Winners were announced at the institution’s University Annual Meeting on Wednesday 7 May, that also highlighted the impact of Birmingham’s research on society.

ENDS

Notes to Editors

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