Innovator of the Year 2014

Earlier this year we sought applications once again for the Innovator of the Year competition. This year we chose to support two prizes, one for pedagogical research and one for Pure and Applied Research in Science or Engineering. In the event we received a number of applications in each category. All were very worthy, but ultimately one was chosen as being particularly innovative in each category.

Turning first to Pure and Applied Research, after much deliberation we chose the submission in Marine Biotechnology from Prof. Grant Burgess entitled ‘A marine endonuclease for enhanced biofilm dispersal: a new weapon in the fight against bacteria’. Biofilms are slimey layers of microbes that grow on surfaces. These are a serious problem for medicine and industry, since they can protect harmful and infectious bacteria from attack by antibiotics. Biofilms are also a major factor in fouling and corrosion of sea vessels for example, and are a major cause of complications following implantations such as artificial hip surgery. Biofilms are very difficult and costly to remove, suggesting that a new approach is urgently needed. Prof. Burgess and his team have addressed this need using a biofilm dispersing compound secreted from a bacterium known as Bacillus lichenoformis. The innovative step involved the recognition that the dispersing compound is a small protein molecule (enzyme) known as an endonuclease, abbreviated NucB. NucB degrades extracellular DNA, which is an essential component of biofilms, thus disrupting the structure of the biofilm rendering it susceptible to antibiotics and biocides. Having made this discovery, Prof. Burgess and his team assembled a cross-faculty team of experts in SAgE and FMS to carry out toxicity testing to verify the safety of NucB in this application, and to allow defence of their patent applications by showing that NucB could effectively remove biofilms from a range of surfaces such as glass and stainless steel. In December 2013 NucB was successfully licensed to a reagents company and has received international interest from commercial partners for applications in other clinical, industrial and domestic applications.

In the pedagogical research section, again after much deliberation we chose the submission by Drs. Christie Harner, Alison Graham and Sara Marsham for their work on feedback and assessment. Their aim was to improve the clarity of marking criteria and link feedback comments more explicitly to the criteria, with a focus on comments that would improve student performance on future assessments. Additionally, they wanted to produce a system that created equity between marks and feedback comments even if the work was marked by different assessors.

Using GradeMark as an electronic marking platform, they developed libraries of feedback comments specific to a particular assessment and its marking criteria. This enabled  questions to be posed to students to improve their understanding of content and skills for future assessments and provide positive feedback. Using a bank of feedback comments improves consistency between markers and allows for a dialogue to take place that is not heavily reliant on staff time. Electronic marking also complements online submission, eliminating the physical retention of coursework and allowing for more efficient marking.

The innovative step was not simply about using an electronic platform but also about engaging students in the whole marking process, starting with talking through the marking criteria before the submission deadline and using tailored comments and rubrics to show students how they performed in each of the criteria. The latter can help to reinforce the importance of key transferable skills that students often undervalue.

The project has had an impact on our students, improving their engagement with the feedback process and satisfaction with the feedback provided. Funding was obtained from the Higher Education Academy to host a workshop on assessment and student dialogue in November 2013 – a direct result of success with GradeMark and an opportunity to engage the wider community. The 2013/14 academic year also saw key evidence of impact as several  colleagues agreed to adopt the software and embed workshops about marking criteria into additional modules. ULTSEC has also agreed to fund a number of additional pilots across the University, each influenced by the approach of using GradeMark and pre-submission workshops to engage students in the feedback process.

So many congratulations to the successful applicants. Many thanks also to those who submitted excellent proposals but were not successful on this occasion – keep innovating!








About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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