Professor Dame Carol Robinson at the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery

Philanthropy Report 2022/23

Discoveries through interdisciplinary nanoscience


Oxford’s Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery is the newest addition to the prestigious roll call of 20 Kavli Institutes around the world addressing some of the 21st century’s most serious problems.

‘Antimicrobial resistance, cancer and brain health… these are all things that people care about – especially brain health, brought on partly by the pandemic,’ says Professor Dame Carol Robinson, Director of the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery in Oxford. The institute is an interdisciplinary research centre working to solve some of the great challenges of our times. ‘We bring physics and chemistry together with biology to try to understand what we can learn about something that’s very natural using physical techniques. We don’t see many institutes like this one. I’m very happy to be part of the Kavli family.’

Although Professor Robinson – a chemist – didn’t previously consider her research to be ‘nanoscience’, she was soon convinced by the Kavli Foundation. ‘It was actually a great way of bringing together all the different departments behind this common theme,’ she says. ‘I wanted to show how physics, chemistry and engineering can influence biology and help us to understand at the molecular level what is going on.’

Professor Robinson established the institute in 2021 thanks to an endowment by the Kavli Foundation. She now has two co-deputy directors – physicist Professor Achillef Kapinidis and, most recently, bionano engineer Professor Molly Stevens – evidencing the institute’s absolute commitment to interdisciplinarity. ‘We cover a very broad range of topics and skill sets in this building,’ says Professor Robinson.

‘Bringing the physical sciences into the living cell’ is the institute’s strapline and researchers there are working on the premise that by understanding the cell, it’s possible to understand it in disease situations. This allows the Oxford Kavli scientists to exploit their knowledge in different ways. For example, one of multiple projects on antimicrobial resistance at the institute is tracking the movement of bacteria to try to identify them as quickly as possible. Their goal is to do so within an hour. Another group is looking at how bacteria die in order to help design new antibiotics.

‘I measure how many interdisciplinary projects we have, how many applications we get for our seed fund – these kind of very physical things – but also the growing community spirit’

Professor Dame Carol Robinson

Brain health is a big theme at the institute, from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to depression. There are projects looking at depressed brain tissue versus healthy brain tissue. By trying to understand what is happening at the blood–brain barrier, the team is aiming to improve diagnostics and provide more ‘intelligent prescriptions’, avoiding the current, unsatisfactory ‘try this and see if it works’ approach. ‘This is a brand-new way of looking at the brain where we hope that we will be able to learn from the post-mortem brain to feed back to what’s happening in the living brain,’ says Professor Robinson.

Referencing research areas such as antimicrobial resistance and cancer that are being tackled by her own team, Professor Robinson says: ‘You give drugs and then after a while they stop working. What is the chemistry behind that mechanism that is stopping them working? We’ve just started looking at how cells change as cancer progresses – not in a physiological way, but more in a chemical way. What are the changes that are happening on the cell surface that mean that cancer cells can become resistant to drugs?’

There is also a great deal of innovation happening at the Kavli Institute in terms of the design of exciting new technologies. ‘We have a great example in the building: mass photometry – a new way of measuring protein interactions. We also have new ways of looking at antibodies and how proteins work with viruses, which means we can hope to stop them in their tracks,’ says Professor Robinson.

Professor Dame Carol Robinson working at the computer in the lab at the Kavli 			Institute for Nanoscience Discovery.
Professor Dame Carol Robinson in the lab at the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery. Photo by John Cairns

Mass spectrometry was originally located in the chemistry laboratory but here it is available for use by everyone in the building. This has had a major impact as researchers trying to solve specific problems are now accelerating the development of new technologies.

Interdisciplinary collaboration and team building are firmly embedded in how the institute operates. ‘Being in one building has huge advantages,’ says Professor Robinson. ‘Collaborations spring from speaking to each other face to face, bumping into each other for coffee and striking up ad hoc conversations. Those are the very interactions that the institute is trying to promote and so one of the first things we did was to set up a culture – or ‘community building’ – programme to encourage people to mix. We had away days, introduced coffee- and tea-times, and we have three-minute thesis presentations that everyone can attend.’ Professor Robinson thrives on people-matching and facilitating. ‘It’s got to be better than the sum of its individual parts. I’m trying to get across the excitement of science and working with people you don’t at first understand. It’s often at the interfaces of different disciplines that new discoveries are found.’

‘It’s important to remember that everybody matters, everybody buys into the success of the institute, and everyone is a part of it. And I think because of that it becomes more successful’

Professor Dame Carol Robinson

The Kavli Institute is now oversubscribed – which is exactly what Professor Robinson wanted. ‘I thought that if it was successful, everyone would fight to come in,’ she says. ‘We are at capacity. We have to offer ‘affiliation’ because we can’t offer a physical space anymore, so affiliation means, for example, having access to the seminars and being part of the away days.’

The endowment model works well for Professor Robinson as, in addition to the security it offers, it’s possible to build on the endowment fund through further donations. This additional endowment income finances a seed fund that supports in-house projects, enabling bold exploration of innovative ideas. The seed fund is only available to interdisciplinary projects, so it’s another way of sparking new interactions and is something of a passion for Professor Robinson. ‘Currently we have at least tenfold more applications than we can actually afford to fund but these projects are amazingly valuable and more funding would allow us to be more ambitious. I’d like to have lots of these bottom-up projects from the younger generation that we can try for six months or a year in established labs.’

Professor Robinson is pleased with the Kavli Institute’s progress to date: ‘It does feel to me as though it’s going very well,’ she says. ‘I’ve heard from other people that there’s a growing excitement and they like working here and others would like to work here, so that’s how you really know.’ However, she is constantly looking to the future, adding: ‘It’s the young people who we really need to nurture. What could we do if we could fund that next generation of scientists at an early level when they’re having all their creative ideas? I think it could be amazing.’

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