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8 November 2011

Future bright for Dundee's Leverhulme prize winners

a photo of Dr Cataluna

Two researchers in the School of Engineering, Physics and Mathematics at the University of Dundee have been named among the winners of this year’s Philip Leverhulme Prizes, awarded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Dr David Pontin, Lecturer in Mathematics, and Dr Maria Ana Cataluna, Royal Academy of Engineering/EPSRC Research Fellow & Lecturer, each receive £70,000 to fund activity around their research.

a photo of Dr Pontin

The Prizes are awarded to outstanding scholars who have made a substantial and recognised contribution to their particular field of study, recognised at an international level, and where the expectation is that their greatest achievement is yet to come.

The Prizes commemorate the contribution to the work of the Trust made by Philip Leverhulme, the Third Viscount Leverhulme and grandson of the Founder.

The broad fields of research covered by this year’s awards were:

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Economics
  • Engineering
  • Geography
  • Modern European Languages and Literature
  • Performing and Visual Arts

Dr Pontin's research examines the behaviour of magnetic fields, which play a crucial role in the dynamics of plasma on all scales, from galaxies to the Sun, the Earth's magnetosphere and laboratory nuclear fusion devices.

'My work is based around modelling the behaviour of these magnetic fields, which typically have a highly complex three-dimensional structure,' said Dr Pontin. 'One particular focus is on understanding ‘magnetic reconnection' - the process which allows a magnetic field to change its structure, often accompanied by an explosive release of energy. Studying this underlying physical mechanism of energy release can help us understand a wide variety of phenomena, such as solar flares, the formation of stars, magnetospheric substorms in the Earth's upper atmosphere, and disruptions that halt the production of energy in nuclear fusion machines.

'One research topic that this award will help me pursue is the evolution of the magnetic field in the Sun's atmosphere (or 'corona'). One of the greatest puzzles in solar physics is how the corona is heated to temperatures of millions of degrees, while the solar surface temperature is only a few thousand degrees. One key aim of my research will be to understand under what conditions explosive energy release can occur, and the details of how this may heat the coronal plasma.'

Dr Cataluna is engaged in the research and development of a new generation of miniature and versatile ultrafast lasers.

'Instead of emitting light in a continuous manner, an ultrafast laser generates incredibly short bursts of light. Ultrafast lasers have important applications in medicine, micromachining, optical communications, spectroscopy, and other applications which require extremely high optical peak powers or extremely short time scales. For example, ultrafast lasers have shown a tremendous potential for non invasive imaging techniques which can probe into live cells or tissues, without disrupting their biological activity. However, most of the currently available ultrafast lasers are bulky, costly and complex, which inhibits the widespread uptake of these non-invasive diagnostics.'

'This award will be really helpful in accelerating the development of these miniature lasers and maximise their far-reaching impact in a number of imaging and sensing applications, particularly in the biomedical sciences,' said Dr Cataluna.

Professor Gordon Marshall, Director of The Leverhulme Trust, said 'The standard of the nominated candidates was encouragingly high, and the eventual recipients of Prizes were judged by the panel to be truly outstanding in their fields, with records of proven achievement, as well as telling promise for the future.'


The Leverhulme Trust was established in 1925 under the Will of the first Viscount Leverhulme. It is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £50 million every year. For further information about the schemes that the Leverhulme Trust fund visit their website at and

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