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Bristol scoops two Wolfson awards

Professor Nigel Smart

Professor Nigel Smart

Professor Peter Cullen

Professor Peter Cullen

Press release issued: 29 October 2008

Two scientists at the University of Bristol have each received one of the Royal Society’s most prestigious awards, a Royal Society-Wolfson Research Merit Award.

Two scientists at the University of Bristol have each received one of the Royal Society’s most prestigious awards, a Royal Society-Wolfson Research Merit Award.

The awards are given by the Royal Society ‘to individuals of proven outstanding ability to undertake independent, original research’.  Only 25 awards are given each year and the award lasts for five years.

Bristol University’s awardees are: Professor Nigel Smart in the Department of Computer Science and Professor Peter Cullen in the Department of Biochemistry.

Nigel Smart, Professor of Cryptology, has made major contributions in the area of public key cryptography.  In particular, working on systems based on mathematical objects called elliptic curves.  Elliptic curve cryptography is now being deployed in a wide range of applications since it offers higher security for a lower cost than previous systems.

People with a PlayStation 3, or a Windows-based computer, connect to a secure web site and if people have a Blackberry mobile phone, then they probably use elliptic curve cryptography every day.

In the last few years Nigel has turned his attention to another form of cryptography based on cryptographic pairings.  This new technology offers the prospect of new and interesting applications of cryptographic techniques, from simple to use secure email through to a policy based framework for accessing sensitive data.

Nigel’s work fuses deep pure mathematics with applied areas of computer science.  He works on the interface between theory and practice. 

Professor Smart, speaking about his research, said: “There is little point in doing theoretical work, unless you know whether your theory can be actually implemented.  On the other hand blindly just implementing something without understanding how your choices can affect the security properties of a system is also a recipe for disaster.”

Peter Cullen, Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology and Director of the Wellcome Trust PhD Programme in Dynamic Cell Biology, is studying a fundamental property of all human cells, namely the ability to detect and respond to changes in extracellular signals, for example hormones and growth factors circulating in the blood.  He is an internationally recognised expert in the cell biology of phosphoinositides - a family of membrane lipids that play pivotal roles in controlling events that allow cells to respond to these signals.  His research is of direct medical relevance, since losing the ability to control the production of phosphoinositides, and hence incorrectly interpreting external signals, results in cells taking on a variety of diseased states including cancer and diabetes.

In recent years Peter’s research has increasingly relied on using cutting-edge microscopy techniques to visualise the dynamic nature of phosphoinositide biology in living cells.

Speaking of his award, Peter said: “The School of Medical Sciences has an outstanding international reputation for utilising cutting-edge cell imaging to visualise disease-related aspects of cell biology, and is proud to be home to the Wolfson Bioimaging Facility.

“My research aims to combine these new imaging techniques with more classic biochemical approaches, to map, at an unprecedented level of detail, those molecular interactions that allow phosphoinositides to regulate cell function. We hope that this will allow us to identify new targets for drug intervention in a range of diseases.”

Jointly funded by the Wolfson Foundation and the Office of Science and Technology, the Royal Society-Wolfson Research Merit Awards scheme aims to give universities additional support to attract key researchers, with great potential or outstanding achievement, to this country or to retain those who might seek to gain higher salaries elsewhere.

Further information

The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, is at the cutting edge of scientific progress. It supports many of the UK’s top young scientists, engineers and technologists. It influences science policy, it debates scientific issues with the public and much more. It is an independent, charitable body, which derives its authoritative status from its 1,400 Fellows and Foreign Members.

Professor Nigel Smart originally trained in Number Theory and made the transition to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bristol after a spell working for Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, which is also based in Bristol.

Professor Peter Cullen moved to the University of Bristol after post-doctoral research at the University of Cambridge. He has previously received awards from the Beit Memorial Trust for Medical Research and Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine for his research into the biology of phosphoinositides.

Please contact Joanne Fryer for further information.
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