World-class scientists awarded Royal Society Research Professorships

20 February 2024

Two world-class scientists have been awarded Royal Society Research Professorships, the Royal Society’s premier research awards. 

These prestigious appointments provide long-term support for internationally recognised scientists of exceptional accomplishments, helping release them from competing duties, such as teaching and administration, allowing them to focus on ambitious and original research of the highest quality.

This year’s awards include a biochemist studying plant photosynthesis and its potential to improve the efficiency of solar cells and crop productivity, and an astrophysicist using new tools to search for ‘kilonova’ produced when neutron stars and black holes merge.

Professor Linda Partridge, Vice President and Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, said:

“We are delighted to have appointed these exceptional scientists as Royal Society Research Professors. From global challenges to fundamental questions about our universe, this long term support and investment will allow them to pursue novel, world-class research that is essential to the continued success of science in the UK.”

The two appointments this year are as follows:

Professor Alfred (Bill) Rutherford FRS, Imperial College London – Photosynthesis beyond the red (energy) limit

Professor Bill Rutherford is the Chair in Biochemistry of Solar Energy in the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. His work explores the structure and function of photosynthetic reaction centres — the biological machinery that converts solar energy into the chemical energy that powers life.

Photosynthesis uses sunlight to provide the energy for life on Earth. While photosynthesis is inefficient, too inefficient for biofuels to replace fossil fuels, it remains a grand challenge to improve photosynthetic efficiency with the aim of making food and fibre production less energy intensive. Professor Rutherford will study two recently discovered low-energy, long-wavelength forms of oxygenic photosynthesis, and the information gained could allow new ways to increase the efficiency photosynthesis in crops and new design principles for solar cells. 

He will use molecular biological, biochemical, and biophysical approaches to improve our understanding of the three types of oxygenic photosynthesis, the two long-wavelength types and the conventional one, and to provide new strategies for improving photosynthetic efficiency in specific environments.

Professor Stephen Smartt CBE FRS, University of Oxford - A new dawn in astronomical surveys of the transient Universe

Professor Stephen Smartt is the Philip Wetton Professor of Astrophysics based in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford. Stephen is a global pioneer in the field of digital, time domain sky surveys. He discovered some of the Universe’s most luminous supernovae and played a leading role in the discovery and physical understanding of the first electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave source. 

He acts as the UK project Scientist for the Rubin Observatory, the largest survey telescope ever built. This will constantly survey the southern sky, delivering the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) over a ten-year period.  

His research aims to combine discoveries in the transient electromagnetic sky with data from the advanced gravitational wave detector network to discover kilonovae, produced when black holes and neutron stars collide, and use them as cosmological probes. His rapid data collection team will work with data from the Rubin Observatory, simultaneously with a new suite of instrumentation at the European Southern Observatory, to identify the most extreme, short lived astronomical explosions and determine their redshifts, distances and energies. This will probe physics in extreme environments, the origin of stellar mass black holes and neutron stars, and how the heavy elements are created. 

In previous years, the awards have also been used to enable distinguished, international research talent to relocate to a UK academic institution.