Young Scientists Awards 2018

01 October 2018 - By: Alex Evans & Jonathan Smith

Young Scientists Awards 2018

Tim Gordon
Tim Gordon (Universiy of Exeter, UK) giving his talk at SEB Florence 2018. photo: Simon Callaghan.

By Alex Evans and Jonathan Smith

Each year, at the SEB Annual Meeting, young scientists submit their abstract to the Young Scientist Award Session and compete for the award of ‘best research presentation’. Our science writers Alex Evans and Jonathan Smith have summarised the research presented by our 2018 winners.


The beautifully delicate coral reefs of the world play an essential role in marine ecosystems, but right now they’re dying. Not only can we see this happening at an unprecedented rate – we can hear it too. This year’s winner of the Animal Section Young Scientist Award, Tim Gordon (University of Exeter, UK), presented a dynamic and emotional talk on his research into the rapidly changing bioacoustics of coral reef communities.

Tim first got interested in coral reef ecology while working off the coast of Kenya during his time as an undergraduate. “I was struck by the beauty and the value of coral reefs, but also by their vulnerability, and was inspired to do more research into their conservation,” he explained. Building on this interest, Tim then completed a Master’s course with Steve Simpson’s team at the University of Exeter and stayed on to pursue his current PhD in coral reef soundscapes. Now, Tim and his team eavesdrop on reef communities in order to assess their health and interpret what this could mean for their future.

During the first half of his talk, Tim outlined the sad state of Australia’s Northern Great Barrier Reef and played actual audio recordings of the reef soundscapes as they are today alongside recordings from just 4 years earlier – and the difference was startling. “Reefs get quieter and sound characteristically different when they are damaged by bleaching and tropical cyclones,” explained Tim. “It’s really heart-breaking to hear.” During his PhD, Tim and his team collected soundscapes from the Great Barrier Reef and conducted field experiments by replaying the sounds of healthy and degraded reefs in the ocean, finding that degraded reef sounds were much less attractive to juvenile fish than healthy reefs. Unfortunately, this degradation appears to signal the start of a devastating feedback loop where quieter reefs attract fewer fish, which in turn causes further degradation. On the brighter side, Tim spent the second half of his talk explaining how his work with reef bioacoustics can be used to monitor reef health and develop ways of using soundscapes in mitigating further degradation and encouraging reef rehabilitation. On winning the award, Tim commented: “It’s a real honour to win the Young Scientist Award, but also very humbling - research is a team game and we all work together.”

Tim ended his talk by graciously thanking his fellow researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Bristol and reminding us that effective change in this field can only be made when researchers work together with conservation practitioners and policy makers, as well as in collaboration with each other. “We have a lot of fun working together, so it’s great to be able to celebrate our successes together as well,” Tim concluded.
Radka Slovak
Radka Slovak (University of Oxford, UK) giving her YSAS award winning talk. Photo: Simon Callaghan.


Roots are incredibly dynamic organs in a plant’s toolkit. Not only are they stable anchors in the soil and efficient water and nutrient-delivery systems, but the root tips also undergo complex cellular changes to allow root growth. Interestingly too, the growth rate of roots is not fixed in a species; some genetic strains have been found to be better than others at putting down roots and understanding more about how these plants can vary their growth is crucial for understanding how they survive and thrive, and has implications, especially for agriculture and conservation.

Radka Slovak (University of Oxford, UK), winner of the YSAS from the Plant Section, introduced her investigations into the question of how such strains vary in their root growth rate: “We know some of the developmental regulators in plant growth, but it’s not clear which genes are involved in the natural variation of root growth”. Based at the time in the Gregor Mendel Institute in Austria, Radka first set out to identify particular genes that vary and shape the root growth of Arabidopsis thaliana strains. She continued: “I combined a genome wide association study with an innovative root phenotyping study, and found a key candidate gene linked with variation in root growth: Adenylate Kinase (AK)”.

While knocking down the function of AK in mutant strains of A. thaliana, Radka found a surprising effect on the root. “Without AK, roots grew less and had fewer cells than the wild-type strains, however the cells present were elongated to compensate; something that we did not expect to see in roots,” she confirmed. Thus, Radka’s experiments indicated that AK contributes to production of new cells in the meristematic zone of the root. At the same time, her experiments hinted at more complex genetic control of the roots than previously suggested.

With this in mind, how does the gene AK influence cell production to promote root growth? Radka responds: “Further experiments indicated that AK promotes the biogenesis of ribosomes, the intracellular machines crucial for protein production”. With a higher efficiency in manufacturing ribosomes, plant cells would be able produce proteins faster, and undergo mitosis more rapidly, growing the root tissue. Excited about the implications of this work, Radka concludes: “Now that we know that ribosomal biogenesis is a factor in root growth, this opens the way for more detailed work into how this affects the variation in plant growth in general.”

Radka delivered a winning presentation in the YSAS session, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to disseminate her research. “The YSAS gave me an excellent opportunity to present my PhD work to a really broad audience,” she concludes. “It was a great experience and I would recommend everyone to try it as well.”

Category: Cell Biology

Alex Evans & Jonathan Smith

Alex Evans is a PhD student at the University of Leeds investigating the energetics of bird flight. In his spare time, Alex enjoys writing about the natural world, contributing to the Bird Brained Science blog and exploring other avenues of science communication.

Jonathan Smith served as the SEB’s press intern for the annual meeting in summer 2016, and has since contributed articles for the SEB’s bulletin. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Bristol, he is currently studying for a PhD in locust neurobiology in the University of Leicester and runs an active Twitter account communicating his work.