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Rory Duncan (University Senior Academic Lead for Strategy and Development) was founding Head of the Institute of Biological chemistry, Biophysics and Bioengineering at Heriot-Watt University, applying advances in EPS to life science challenges. He is PI and Co-Director of the Edinburgh super-resolution imaging consortium (ESRIC, www.esric.org) with support from MRC/BBSRC/EPSRC and the Wellcome Trust, developing and applying super-resolution imaging modalities. This programme of work was awarded the Times Higher ‘STEM Research Project of the Year 2018/18’. 

Rory’s work spans many Disciplines and he has publications in leading biology, chemistry, engineering and physics journals, and he holds multiple patents. Rory sits on and is ad hocChair of STFC Science Board, the principal scientific advisory committee providing strategic oversight on all research activities for that Research Council and is part of the Accelerator International Strategic Review Panel, shaping strategy for the next 25 years. He is a member of the Scottish Parliamentary Cross-Party Group for Life Sciences. 

Rory has won several awards for science communication and was awarded the Royal Society of Edinburgh Senior Medal for Public Engagement in 2018 for his ‘passion and enormously productive advocacy for public engagement in Scotland, the UK and internationally’. His current role is as Senior Academic Lead for Strategy and Development for Heriot-Watt University, developing and implementing the instiutional 7-year Strategy between 2019-25.




Research interests

My immediate research focus is on regulated secretion and membrane fusion. Over the last decade, we have established a series of cutting-edge functional and super-resolution imaging techniques that address membrane trafficking in living cells in real-time. This has led to a number of high-profile publications in the current REF period in international Journals including Nature, the EMBO JournalCurrent BiologyNature Communications and Cell. Much of this work was established using cell-lines and as such was technically advanced, but somewhat limiting in terms of cell biology discovery science.

Thus, at present, this research is being extended to use primary, human donor material – pancreatic islets. Islets are the multicellular organoid structures that synthesise and secrete insulin and other hormones, and if this becomes misregulated, it leads to Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

I work within a growing international collaboration with US, Canadian (Edmonton and Toronto), EU and Korean partners with privileged access to healthy, and Type 1 Diabetic islets. My focus for the next 5 years therefore is to quantify in 4-dimensions, the dynamics and interactions of SNARE proteins and other accessory factors in diseases such as diabetes and also in fundamental studies of autophagy. I employ a range of molecular biology, biochemical and optical imaging and spectroscopy approaches; the latter including world-leading super-resolution and functional imaging spectroscopies. This work is presently being extended with mathematicians and computer scientists to use machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to predict the performance of pancreatic islets in vivo.

Roles & Responsibilities

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Devlopment Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being

External positions

Canadian Foundation for Innovation

Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland

Science & Technology Facilities Council

University of Edinburgh

Wellcome Trust


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