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RA5a: Structure,environment and staffing policy

Introduction and Self Assessment

Our first submission to this UoA was made in the 1996 RAE and was based on 11 staff, only one of which was under the age of 35. Ten research degrees had been awarded and our external research income was £240,000. We described 5 areas of research and our strategy was aimed at broadening our interests. We were awarded a score of 2.

Since 1996, the re-focusing of our research strategy to 2 sub-areas and our pro-active approach to "new blood“ recruitment have together paid many dividends in terms of increased quality of published papers, more research activity from younger members of staff (four of the submitted staff are under the age of 35) and improved external recognition of our research. We are submitting nearly the same number of staff as in 1996 but our external research income has increased to over £1.6 million and the number of research degrees awarded has trebled.

Research Strategy: Past

In 1997, we recognised that greater depth could only be achieved by focusing on fewer areas. We agreed to capitalise on three specific strengths of the group:

1. Links between Nutrition and Health, with special reference to fibre intake and bowel function, and trace element nutrition
2. Microbiological Safety and Quality of Food, especially food preservation and antimicrobial compounds, and chemical food safety
3. Enzyme Biochemistry, concentrating on enzyme isolation, purification and applications in foods, and plant biochemistry

Commitment to the new research strategy was underpinned by internal investment in two postdoctoral research fellowships and several new research scholarships. Prof B. Moseley O.B.E. was appointed as Visiting Professor to provide advice on research strategy, identify funding opportunities, review research proposals and help establish new collaborations with relevant research groups.

In 1998, the departure of several staff (Brownleader, Sumar and Trevan to the University of Westminster and Dickerson to retire) and our continued success in attracting external research funding for work on fibre and food preservation provided further impetus for refining our strategy. Our research now focuses on two specific areas of strength as shown below.

Research Strategy: Present

Both of these areas share the same principal aim, which is the application of knowledge for the promotion of health:

1. Diet and Health, with special reference to fibre intake and bowel health
2. Food Microbiology, concentrating on natural antimicrobial systems for food safety and preservation

Commitment to the re-focused strategy was underpinned once again by internal investment in five new appointments of which three are in this submission (Sharp, Murray and Hill). Sharp was recruited for his research background in microbial ecology of the gut and his appointment was key to our strategy of stimulating synergistic interaction between nutrition and microbiology as well as between traditional and molecular microbiology. In Diet and Health, Hill was recruited to underpin our work on the relationship between diet and cancer. In Food Microbiology, Murray was recruited for his expertise in fundamental microbial physiology. Our overall research strategy is in line with the Government’s identification of health and food safety as areas of national importance.

Prime Activities and Main Achievements of the Research Groups

Diet and Health

Our main strengths in this area include: nutritional assessment, measurement of objective and subjective parameters of bowel function, bile acid analysis, structural and compositional analysis of complex polysaccharides, computer modelling of fibre interactions and food product development. The specific objectives of this group have been to: (1) strengthen the methodological aspects of the work, (2) develop research collaborations to ensure a multidisciplinary approach and (3) engage in the design and development of food/pharmacological products.

At the beginning of the assessment period we took the broad view that projects in Diet and Health should be multidisciplinary across the University, to include links with, for example, nursing and health education. Areas investigated included factors determining the nutrient intake of children, hospital diets, the role of selenium (e.g. Food Chem., 62, 21-25), dietary restraint and iron intake of adolescents, symptom triggers in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), fibre intake in relation to constipation and IBS, the role of the bile acids and the nutrition/health balance in ballet dancers (e.g. J. Roy. Soc. Health 117, 23-31). This early work achieved many publications and conference invitations with positive feedback. In particular it produced validated methodology and standardised diagnostic criteria for functional bowel disorders as well as experience in the use of dietary survey and bowel habit questionnaires and focus group interviews (Davies’s Outputs 1 and 4). These studies also showed the importance of both exercise and stress (e.g. J.Nutr.Env.Med. 7, 307-318) on studies into diet and gastrointestinal function. A major achievement during this period was the successful completion of a single centre study of the effect of Fybogel® Orange on faecal output of bile acids in healthy volunteers (Chaplin’s Outputs 2 & 4). In order to concentrate our efforts in this most promising area of the association between dietary patterns and specific foods on gastrointestinal function, we have actively recruited to strengthen our team. Four young scientists, two of whom (Blackwood and Sharp) are included in this submission were recruited to strengthen our work on dietary fibre structure and function, colonic microbial molecular biology, bile acid/colon cancer and nutrition/bowel function. Furthermore, for balance and the broad view, Hill was recruited (2 days a week) as an experienced colonic microbial ecologist and epidemiologist. He spends his remaining time as a freelance consultant on similar activities.

Work on the interaction of dietary fibre with water led to the discovery of the structuring that occurs in liquid water (Chaplin’s Output 1). We followed this up by originating and authoring a Web site on the structure and properties of water (http://www.sbu.ac.uk/water) that receives a thousand hits each day from over a hundred countries worldwide. This interest enabled the award of a Teaching Company Scheme (TCS) concerning the control of water binding in food and consultancy that has successfully developed an isotonic sorbet, due for its national launch at Easter 2001.

Our reputation in the design and use of diet and lifestyle diaries (e.g. Davies’s Outputs 1-4; Gut, 42 (Suppl. I) A99, 1998; Gut, 45 (Suppl. V) A339, 1999; Gastroenterology, 116 (Suppl.) A975, 1999) led to an invitation in December 2000 to participate in the 2-year industry sponsored project "The Barrett’s oesophagus risk evaluation database“ at Ninewell’s Hospital in Dundee. Our prototype stool assessment kit (patent application in previous assessment period) was developed thanks to industrial funding and has now been validated against traditional methods. This will revolutionize research into bowel function, for it is now possible to obtain data on stool wet weight and faecal form without the necessity of collecting stools.

External funding from industrial sponsors, especially Reckitt and Colman Products, for PhD studentships has provided an impetus to our research degree programme. Other industrial sponsors include Cow and Gate Nutricia, and the Meat and Livestock Commission. In June and July 2000, Reckitt Benckiser Healthcare funded a postdoctoral Research Fellow (Button) and Visiting Professorship (Hill), respectively.

In 1999 and in recognition of our food expertise, we were awarded funding by MAFF for the establishment of the London Food Centre within our School. Together with the biggest number of Teaching Company Schemes (TCSs) awarded to a UK university in the food area, this has provided substantial income e.g. for work on the optimisation of the safety, efficiency and profitability of calorie-controlled sandwich production which started in January 2001. Our expertise in product development has also been used in short-term projects e.g. development of salads for supermarket distribution, recipe formulation for indigestion and heartburn sufferers and the design of biscuits containing specific fibres for use in the pharmaceutical setting.

Food Microbiology

Our main strength in this area is in food preservation with particular emphasis on natural antimicrobial compounds. The strategic objectives specific to our group have been to: (1) introduce a steady input of expertise in molecular biology into all our projects, and (2) strengthen our expertise in fundamental microbial physiology to allow us to develop our interests in the mode of action of antimicrobial agents.

The main scientific breakthroughs have been in the identification of novel combination systems for food preservation. These are based primarily on chitosan, novel bacteriocins and/or carvacrol in combination with reduced levels of traditional preservatives (acetic acid, sulphite and benzoate) in chilled foods e.g. mayonnaise-based salads, fresh pork sausages and fruit juices. Furthermore, we have contributed to an improved understanding of the mode of antimicrobial action of chitosan in foods and we have developed a novel solvent-based extraction technique for bacteriocins (Roller’s Outputs 1-4). Much of this has been achieved thanks to funding from the EC and food companies. A 3.5-year FAIR project on "Novel Combinations of Natural Antimicrobial Systems“ was coordinated at SBU and completed in 2000. Funded at a level of £1.1 million, it involved 5 working partners and seven companies across Europe. Unusually for a university, we won top-up funding (about one-third of total) directly from the participating companies. The SBU funding allocation enabled us to recruit 4 contract research staff (not reflected in RA1). Industrial funding for complementary work on chitosan and carvacrol enabled us to hire two additional RAs in 1996 and 2000 (not reflected in RA1).

One of the strands of our research has been to seek out novel compounds with antimicrobial properties for applications at chill temperatures. To this end, we have isolated and characterised a number of organisms from Antarctic soils (resulting in 2 conference presentations) and we are currently characterising the antimicrobial agents produced by them. Prof Russell from Imperial College at Wye has provided the soil samples from Antarctica for this work. Similarly, we have sought novel applications for natural antimicrobials and have investigated the inactivation of microorganisms in biofilms using chitosan and carvacrol. One of our students (J. Knowles) was awarded the Seward Silver Medal in 2000 for his research in this area at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Food Protection in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

We are investigating the microbial ecology of raw and minimally processed apple juice with a view to exploiting some of the natural antimicrobial combination systems developed in our laboratory as novel control measures for both pathogenic and spoilage organisms in this product. In 2000, we won a prestigious Marie Curie Fellowship (57,800Euro) from the EU 5th Framework Programme for this work. The Research Fellow, Gabriella Kisko (Age 31), from Prof Farkas’ group in Budapest, Hungary, brings to us her complementary expertise in the mycology of spices (reflected in all her Outputs).

Murray’s strengths are in yeast physiology and fermentation. His innovative work on ultradian oscillations of Saccharomyces cerevisiae in chemostat cutlures is reflected in his Outputs. Murray (Age 30) was recruited in 1999 to study the mode of action of antimicrobial agents using the dynamic responses of continuously grown microorganisms as model systems. Murray has also studied the optimisation of polyxin production by Paenibacillus polymyxa in conjunction with a visiting researcher from Argentina in 2000.

Sharp’s research to date (reflected in his Outputs) has focused on the use of genotypic methods to study microbial populations involved in the breakdown of polysaccharides in microbial communities such as the human gut. Since the supply of substrates to the large intestine is determined by diet, these studies have implications for both Food Microbiology and Diet and Health. Sharp has begun a collaborative study with Roller and Prof D. Newell at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency on the interactions of Campylobacter jejuni with the indigenous microbial flora of minimally processed foods and the commensal flora of the human gut with a view to future work on microbial pathogenesis. He is also investigating the isolation of genes for non-digestible oligosaccharide degrading enzymes from Lactobacillus using mRNA differential display. Sharp is contributing his expertise in molecular methods for the identification and characterisation of organisms to all current microbiology research projects.

Enzyme Biochemistry, Trace Element Nutrition

Some of the papers in this submission (Chaplin’s Output No. 3 & all Ligthowler’s Outputs) reflect our achievements in Enzyme Biochemistry and Trace Element Nutrition (part of Diet and Health), areas that were part of our research strategy up to 1998. Chaplin completed structural modelling studies in collaboration with the Lomonosov University in Moscow, which resulted in the conformational lock theory for protein stability. He coordinated an INTAS (Independent and Associated States of the former Soviet Union) project on "Stability and Denaturation of Oligomeric Enzymes“ (1995-1998) that included Russian and Portuguese partners. With the successful completion of this project (producing five refereed publications) and the loss of several academic staff, we concentrated our efforts in the two following areas.

Research Strategy: Future

The overall aim of our research strategy for the next 5 years is to strengthen our research portfolio, improve our reputation in and continue the process of integration of the two areas of Diet and Health and Food Microbiology. As an example of the latter, we are bringing together the modelling expertise of Chaplin and Murray to elucidate mechanisms of antimicrobial action of food preservatives.

In Diet and Health, our specific objectives are to: (1) strengthen our work on diet and bowel function through the lifecycle (2) further develop our diet and lifestyle diaries as a research tool for greater use in the clinical setting (3) extend our work on the role of specific fibres on gastrointestinal function and (4) further investigate the role of diet and lifestyle in the prevention of oesophageal and colorectal cancer. We have already secured funding from three industrial sponsors for three PhD studentships. Two parallel projects, one on children and one on pregnant women, will investigate the relationship between diet and bowel function. The third project focuses on food sensitivity and functional bowel disorders. All of these projects will incorporate use of our portable stool assessment kit. Our Reckitt Benckiser Research Fellow (Button) has had her contract extended to allow her to participate in a study on irritable bowel syndrome at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport. Two applications to the Wexham Gastrointestinal Trust for PhD studentships examining the role of diet and lifestyle in relation to colorectal adenoma formation and Barrett’s oesophagus, respectively, are being submitted. All of these projects will involve further development of our diet and lifestyle diaries. We have been invited to submit a proposal under the TCS by Reckitt Benckiser Healthcare as part of a 5-year scheme involving 13 associates at 4 universities (5 at South Bank, 4 at Newcastle, and 2 each at Bristol and Dundee). Our contribution will be the clinical testing of existing and newly developed fibre products and product development for the laxative market. An application has been made to the EU (DG 24) on "European concertation towards the prevention of cancer of the oesophagus: The Barrett’s adenocarcinoma sequence“. Partners include representatives from Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Belgium. An application is being submitted to the Cancer Research Campaign on "Bacteria, bile acids and colorectal cancer“ in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene.

In Food Microbiology, our specific objectives are to: (1) strengthen our work on natural antimicrobial agents by focusing on combination systems and mode-of-action studies, (2) maintain a steady input of expertise in molecular biology and fundamental microbial physiology into all our projects via internal involvement and external links with recognised research groups, and (3) extend our work with foodborne pathogens with particular emphasis on control in foodstuffs and pathogenicity in the human gut. We have already secured two projects from the EU 5th Framework Programme: the Marie Curie Fellowship (described in more detail above) and a new project (Antimicrobials On/Line) on the development of an expert knowledge system on natural antimicrobials (nisin, lysozyme, natamycin, lactic acid and carvacrol) recently approved by the Commission and currently in contract negotiations for 250,000Euro. Other applications to the EC and several food companies for work on the minimal processing of fruits have also been made and will continue to be pursued. We hope that several papers by Murray will allow us to capitalise on his knowledge of fundamental yeast physiology and to apply for BBSRC funding. In order to gain access to existing research networks in the area of foodborne pathogens, we have set up joint supervisory and training arrangements with, for example, Prof Newell (Coordinator of the EU 5th FP Campynet Concerted Action on Campylobacter spp.).

Structure and Environment

Research in Diet and Health and Food Microbiology is led jointly by Chaplin, Davies and Roller with specific responsibilities for food biochemistry, nutrition and microbiology, respectively. Strategic decisions and the allocation of resources, particularly from HEFCE funding, are made jointly.

The research infrastructure consists of three dedicated research areas: a Microbiology Suite of laboratories including a Fermentation Pilot Plant containing more than 12 computer-controlled fermenters ranging in size from 150 litres down to 250 ml and including stirred-tank, air-lift and constant depth biofilm configurations, and facilities for both classical and molecular characterisation of microorganisms; a biochemical and analytical laboratory suite including GC, GC-MS, MALDI-TOF MS, an ICP-AES and a range of HPLC equipment; and a nutritional studies suite including volunteer interview rooms. Additionally, the Food Processing Hall (approximately 330 m2 in size) housing a variety of equipment for pasteurisation, UHT-treatment, sterilisation, texture analysis by Instron, spray-drying, freeze-drying, flour and dough-testing, and baking is used for research purposes in conjunction with the teaching commitments of the university. Our research students have dedicated office and laboratory space and are supported by a comprehensive range of IT and library resources.

Mechanisms and Practices for Promoting and Disseminating Research

Our programme of weekly research seminars is designed to (1) stimulate a research ethos amongst all staff and students (2) disseminate the results generated by active researchers, and (3) develop networks with external experts. Seminar speakers alternate between PhD and MPhil students, Research Fellows, Teaching Company Associates, academic staff and visiting lecturers. The latter have included invited speakers such as Profs Gibson, Brul, Wedzicha, Wimpenny, Russell, Magan, Mead and Newell; Drs Mackey, Delves-Broughton, Frewer, Mela, McClure, Roberts, Rogers and Shepherd; and representatives of MAFF and the Food Standards Agency, notably Ms Suzi Leather.

Our research students each give at least two internal seminars and are sponsored to present their work at both national and international conferences. Whenever appropriate, students also give presentations at seminars and meetings held by research sponsors e.g. every 6-months in a different European host country for EC projects. Students’ research projects are monitored by a team of three supervisors, headed by a Director of Studies. The university has a number of formalised research reporting procedures (including an Annual Summary, a 10-Month Report, and an MPhil/PhD transfer system), monitored by its University Research Degrees Committee.

Staffing Policy: Support for Young and Aspiring Researchers

A mentor scheme operates to support new staff. The University adheres strictly to the Research Concordat. Appraisal interviews to assess training needs and assist with career planning are held at regular intervals. The University provides a wide range of training courses in research management, proposal and paper writing, information technology and time management. New academics are provided with "pump-priming“ support for consumables and/or research studentships. New or inexperienced academic staff and Research Fellows are encouraged to join the supervisory teams of research students in order to gain experience of research supervision. The School operates a teaching relief scheme for new academics with research potential and a staff development budget for research conference attendance (allocated competitively on the basis of intention to present a scientific communication and compliance with agreed research strategies). Applications for external research funding are supported by a central Research and Development Office to assist with writing and costing proposals and contractual/IPR matters.


Users of this website should note that the information is not intended to be a complete record of all research centres in the UK

Copyright 2002 - HEFCE, SHEFC, ELWa, DEL

Last updated 17 October 2003

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