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Title of full professor for two Oriel academics

Sumana Sanyal and Julien Devriendt have each been conferred the title of full professor at the University of Oxford, through the University’s annual Recognition of Distinction exercise.

Sanyal is working to advance our understanding of how mosquito-borne flaviviruses, such as dengue viruses and Zika virus, lead to adverse clinical outcomes.

The past seven decades have seen a remarkable increase in the prevalence of mosquito-borne flaviviruses. Over the past two decades Zika has gone from being an obscure virus with a relatively mild pathology to being a global threat, with infection linked to severe congenital defects, among other things. And dengue viruses now infect an estimated 400 million humans each year, according to one article published in Nature.

There are currently no available vaccines or anti-viral treatments for dengue viruses or Zika. We also have limited knowledge of the mechanisms underlying their ability to “evade or antagonize” our immune defences.

One of the main aims of Sanyal’s research is to elucidate these mechanisms. “Uncovering these viral strategies will not only shed light on the pathogenesis but also provide potential targets for therapeutic intervention and assist in vaccine design,” she said.

A second facet of Sanyal’s research is attempting to identify which cellular pathways are “hijacked” by the flaviviruses to facilitate their replication and spread within the body.

Success on this latter front will take researchers working on therapeutic approaches to dengue viruses and Zika part way there to developing effective antiviral treatments, Sanyal explained.

Devriendt, meanwhile, is in the heat of a debate about the validity of a cornerstone modern cosmology: the idea that our Universe emerged from a hot Big Bang and mainly contains invisible cold dark matter.

A cosmologist working in the field of galaxy formation and evolution, Devriendt is looking at how tiny fluctuations in ordinary matter just 400,000 years after the Big Bang has resulted in the present-day distribution of galaxies within the “cosmic web”.

Recent images by the new James Webb Space Telescope seem to show that very massive galaxies and supermassive black holes already exist less than a billion years (not long in cosmic terms) after the Big Bang. And it has been argued that this is impossible to explain with the current cold dark matter model.

Through performing elaborate simulations of mock universes — “the most realistic … to date”— Devriendt and his colleagues have found that the fact of the matter is likely much more prosaic: our models aren’t wrong, our methods to interpret the observations are.

The indicators used to characterize nearby galaxies do not apply to the far away galaxies closer to the Big Bang, and so the apparent “discovery” of early very massive galaxies and supermassive black holes is likely a misconception, Devriendt argues.

In terms of teaching and life at Oriel College more broadly, Sanyal and Devriendt have each made significant contributions. The title of professor reflects this, one of three criteria for its conferment being a demonstrable “ongoing record of effective teaching” and of “involvement in University and/or college administration”.

Devriendt is College’s tutor for Admissions and Outreach, and a tutor in Physics. Meanwhile, Sanyal is the main organizing tutor in Medicine at Oriel, meaning she oversees all teaching for pre-clinical Medicine students within College.

Both cite the tutorial system as one of the distinguishing features of an education at Oriel College. “How [students] come up with a creative solution, wonder whether it will lead to the correct answer while working their way through it, backtrack when realising they have made the wrong assumption, before finally nailing it down — it always amazes me to witness this process in action,” said Devriendt.