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20 April 2012
Breakthroughs on the physical structure of memory and geo-environmental engineering processes have won two Cardiff academics one of the highest honours in world science.
Professor John Aggleton and Professor Hywel Thomas have both been elected Fellows of the Royal Society, widely regarded in the UK as second only to a Nobel Prize in prestige. The Society, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, includes Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Professor Stephen Hawking among its past and present members.
Professor Aggleton is a neuroscientist who has widely expanded understanding of how memory is stored in the brain. Professor Thomas has dramatically advanced understanding of transport processes in the ground.
The double success means Cardiff University now has a total of eleven Fellows of the Royal Society. The School of Engineering now has three Fellows and the School of Psychology has two.
Professor Aggleton, who was born in Cardiff, joined the School of Psychology in 1994. When he started his research, ideas about how day-to-day events are remembered were heavily focussed on one part of the brain called the hippocampus. Professor Aggleton’s highly influential research has revealed the roles of other brain structures to create a far more comprehensive picture of how different types of memory are formed and recalled.
He said: "The point of the research is to understand what happens when memory breaks down. I’ve shown that we can’t tackle these questions just by looking at the hippocampus. There is a long way to go, but we must look at the complex interplay between structures if we are to understand problems like amnesia."
Professor Aggleton is now working on exactly how the structures he has indentified, in the diencephalon and medial temporal lobe, work together to ensure memory function. As part of his research he is working with colleagues in the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre, which uses advanced imaging techniques to build detailed pictures of the human brain.
Of his election to the Royal Society, Professor Aggleton said: "I’ve been in a state of disbelief but also huge exhilaration. I have a huge debt of gratitude to all the people who made it possible. Research is a team business and everyone who has worked with me, whether for years or just a few weeks over a summer, has played a part in building the overall picture. The questions I’m trying to solve are old ones, but remain incredibly important. It is wonderful to have my research recognised in this way."
Professor Thomas, born in Llandovery, came to the School of Engineering in 1980. His research centres on highly complex movements of heat, liquids and gases through the soil. The models he has built have proved of worldwide importance in understanding thermal and physical conditions underground. Professor Thomas also created what is thought to be the world’s first research centre in this field at Cardiff.
Professor Thomas said: "We have applied this research in geo-environmental engineering, particularly in solving problems in waste management. I have worked in this area for twenty years, looking at how best to contain radioactive material deep underground. We are also setting up satellite research centres in Ghana and Nigeria to deal with problems of ground contamination, for example the case of Persistent Organic Pollutants. We are also working with the Indian Institute of Science on a sustainable groundwater project."
Professor Thomas’ expertise has been called upon by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation. He has also been appointed to a UNESCO Chair in the Development of a Sustainable Geo-environment. More recently he has been exploring the possibilities of underground heat as sources of renewable energy.
Of his Fellowship, Professor Thomas, also University Pro Vice-Chancellor, Engagement and International, said: "This really is a fantastic honour, right at the top of the scientific world. We are a relatively new field of science, which I and my colleagues at Cardiff have done much to establish, so this award is particularly pleasing."
The Vice-Chancellor, Dr David Grant, said: "I warmly congratulate Professor Thomas and Professor Aggleton on their election to one of the world’s pre-eminent scientific bodies. Professor Thomas has established soil transport processes as a scientific discipline of world importance, with applications in safe waste storage and sustainable energy generation. Professor Aggleton has transformed our understanding of the structure of memory in the brain, with important potential implications for treating memory loss.
"For the second year running, two Cardiff academics have been elected Fellows of the Royal Society – a record very few other universities can match. I’m sure the whole University community and our many partners in Wales will share my delight that our colleagues’ accomplishments have been recognised in this way."
Announcing this year’s new Fellows, Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society said: "Science impacts on most aspects of modern life, improving our understanding of the world and playing an increasing role as we grapple with problems such as feeding a growing global population and keeping an ageing home population healthy. These scientists who have been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society are among the world’s finest. They follow in the footsteps of luminaries such as Newton, Darwin and Einstein and I am delighted to welcome them into our ranks."
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