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Best research thesis prizes

22 January 2009

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

One winner has been selected from each academic faculty by members of the Research Degrees Examination Board, which oversees the examination process for research awards. The successful graduates, listed below, each receive a certificate of commendation and a cheque for £500.

Heads of department and postgraduate supervisors had the following to say about the work of the prize winners:

Eliana Corbari
‘Eliana Corbari’s thesis examines the audiences and languages of Dominican sermons in late medieval Italy. It is a thorough analysis of how Latinate theological culture interacted with popular religious devotion. In particular it assesses the role of vernacular theology. Corbari defines vernacular theology as a form of theology that is based neither on a Latin scholastic model nor a monastic one. It is a “third dimension” of theology which was accessible to the laity, and in particular women, through their attendance at sermons and the reading of vernacular devotional works (in this case, medieval Italian treatises and sermons). Through painstaking manuscript work, Corbari makes an excellent contribution to many research areas: sermon studies; gender studies; medieval theology; and codicology. She demonstrates that Dominican friars preached to an active contingent of laywomen, usually members of confraternities, who not only attended these sermons but re-read them and also disseminated them through book production to the wider Florentine community.’
Dr Carolyn Muessig, Department of Theology and Religious Studies

Oreste Salvatore Bursi 
‘Professor Oreste Bursi’s thesis has brought together, for the first time, the principles of adaptive control embodied within Stoten’s MCS algorithm together with the numerical integration techniques for dynamic system simulation.  Both of these concepts feature strongly in current theoretical developments for dynamically substructures systems (DSS), which are now being used on a worldwide scale in advanced engineering test facilities. Professor Bursi’s work carefully examined the effect of combining MCS adaption with a new numerical integration algorithm, providing convincing theoretical and experimental evidence for the global asymptotic stability of the resulting real-time DSS structure.’
Professor David Stoten, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Joy Catherine Pritchard
‘Joy Pritchard’s work has huge relevance to the welfare of some 100 million working horses, mules and donkeys that provide transport and draft power to impoverished workers, families and communities in the developing world. The purpose of her thesis was to evaluate measures of heat stress and dehydration in these animals for assessing welfare and practical intervention. Her research methods had to be based on a realistic consideration of culture and economics, as well as being applicable for use in the field. Drinking behaviour emerged as a valid measure of hydration, leading to the recommendation that owners should use this single parameter as a basis to determine heat stress and treat it rapidly. Pritchard’s work in Pakistan was very challenging, both in terms of a woman working in a male-dominated culture and operating across different regional languages (Urdu and Punjabi). Most of her data collection was carried out during the hottest parts of the year, when daytime temperatures can regularly exceed 40C.’
Dr Frank Taylor, School of Clinical Veterinary Science

Katriina Heikkilä
‘Katriina Heikkilä’s prize-winning PhD was concerned with the role of inflammation in the aetiology, prediction and prognosis of cancer. This is important for public health and the clinical management of patients with, or at risk of, cancer, because cancer is a major cause of morbidity and mortality. Two very detailed systematic reviews of published evidence were undertaken, followed by primary research using two prospective cohort studies. A large quantity of cross-sectional evidence was found, but little prospective work essential to answer questions about aetiology, prediction and prognosis. Her own primary prospective research (including pooling this with previously published prospective research) suggested that inflammatory markers do predict lung, colorectal and breast cancer and that inflammation may be important in the aetiology of these cancers. However, markers of inflammation at the time of diagnosis did not appear to predict survival any more than in healthy individuals of a similar age.’
Professor Jenny Donovan, Department of Social Medicine

Jan van Dijk
‘Gastrointestinal nematodes increasingly pose a very serious threat to the welfare of sheep and the sustainability of sheep farming in the UK. Jan van Dijk’s thesis explores the contribution of climate, and recent climate change, to observed changes in parasite epidemiology. Analysis of a 30-year database found a significant rise in total disease incidence since the late 1990s. For one particularly dangerous nematode species, Nematodirus battus, existing knowledge could not explain observed seasonal patterns. Laboratory experiments on the effects of temperature on larval hatching and survival led to several new discoveries, including an upper temperature threshold for development, and a sophisticated ability of this parasite to hedge its bets against a cold or mild winter, enabling it to succeed in all years whatever the weather. Not only does this discovery explain observed epidemiological patterns and improve our ability to control disease in lambs, it also offers a fascinating insight into how parasites adapt to unpredictable environments and how they might evolve in the face of future climate change. Some of the main findings from the thesis have been published in the international scientific literature, and others – including experiments on the effects of moisture and ultraviolet light on larval availability on pastures – are being pursued by further work. Jan van Dijk has secured a prestigious postdoctoral research position at Liverpool University, and continues to collaborate with Bristol in following up these exciting leads.’
Professor Innes Cuthill, School of Biological Sciences

Michiko Kaneko
‘Michiko Kaneko’s PhD dissertation describes the formal, structural, literary and cultural aspects of sign language haiku. Her work has made a major contribution to an under-researched but rapidly expanding field of sign language literary theory. The dissertation represents a significant step forward in the British understanding of sign language poetry, providing a much-needed counter-balance to the dominance of American sign language poetics. There was no pre-existing corpus of British signed haiku for her work. The creation of an online corpus of over 50 signed haiku is of massive potential benefit to future researchers. It has made a major contribution to the corpus of signed literature at a world level, and more specifically to the British field, where again, resources are few compared with the material in American sign language.’
Roger Deeks, Head of School of Applied Community and Health Studies

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