Dr Helen Chappell

Dr Helen Chappell


I was appointed as a University Lecturer in September 2017. With a background in chemistry and molecular biology I obtained a PhD in 2006 from the University of Cambridge (Churchill College), focussed on the computational modelling of bone graft materials. I have since held several research posts, including, most recently, a Career Development Fellowship (2013-2016) at the Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research unit (Cambridge), focussing on the modelling of endogenous calcium phosphate nanoparticles found in the human gut. During this period I also held a College Research Associate position at Wolfson College, Cambridge. Prior to joining the MRC I spent 4.5 years employed as a Scientific Advisor at English Heritage where I was involved in, amongst other things, the protection of the Must Farm Bronze Age Settlement, the archaeological assessment of the new Sizewell C Nuclear Power Station, and the scientific assessment of offshore archaeology for several large wind-farm arrays off the East Anglian coast.


  • B.Sc. & M.Sci. Food Science Programme Manager
  • Module Leader - Food1010 Food: Origins and Form
  • Module Leader - Food3140 Appraisal of Scientific Literature

Research interests

My research is focused on the computational modelling of organic-inorganic interfaces in biological materials linked to nutrition, health and disease.  With particular emphasis on composite nanoparticles and colloids (important in food, nutrition and medicine), I am interested in complex structures and interactions in nutrition (e.g. nanoparticle-protein corona), nanomedicine (e.g. drug delivery) and rational biomolecular design (e.g. nutritional supplements, bioactive compound delivery, anti-infective agents).

In particular, my group is interested in:

  • Structure-function relationships of novel supplements composed of both inorganic and organic phases.
  • Interactions between small organic molecules (e.g. phytochemicals & natural bioactives) and nanoparticles used as delivery systems.
  • Large-scale molecular dynamics simulations of particles (both inorganic and organic) crossing lipid membranes.
  • Interactions of pharmaceutical molecules with agricultural soils.
  • Molecular and atomic interactions at the interface of bacterial biofilms.
  • The effects of micronutrients on the structure and function of bone tissue and the implications for the onset of osteoporosis and other bone diseases. 

I'm very happy to speak with anyone interested in carrying out a modelling-based PhD in any of these areas. 

Computational Chemistry

Our group is focused on the computational modelling of organic-inorganic interfaces in biological materials linked to nutrition, health and disease. With particular emphasis on composite nanoparticles and colloids, which are important in food, nutrition and medicine, we are interested in complex structures and interactions in nutrition (e.g. nanoparticle-protein corona), nanomedicine (e.g. drug delivery), and rational biomolecular design (e.g. nutritional supplements, bioactive compound delivery, anti-infective agents).

Key Research Themes

Antimicrobials and Biofilms

This is a new area of research for the group, focussing on the structure and composition of biofilms and the development of novel antimicrobial molecules.

Pharmaceuticals in Agricultural Soils

Veterinary pharmaceuticals accumulate in agricultrual land through animal excretion and the spreading of animal manure as fertilizer. It is recognised that these bioactive drugs are able to have a broad and deterimental impact on soil structure. More worringly, certain catagories of drugs, e.g. antiobiotics, are implicated in the development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and the spread of AMR pathogens to humans in the food chain. We are therefore interested in how these drugs interact with soil components, e.g. clay minerals and organic matter, and how these interactions determine whether certain pharmaceuticals are retained in the soil structure or are released into pore-water, which provides a conduit to streams and rivers.

Nanoparticles in the Gut

We explore the structure and function of nanoparticles found in the human gut. These may be endogenous or man-made, but all have important properties linked to health and disease. In particular, our most recent work shows that calcium phosphate particles that are secreted in the gut (millions, every day, by everyone) act as Trojan Horses, delivering pieces of food protein or bacteria to the cells of the immune system, where they are 'unpacked' and start a cascade of immuno-tolerant signals.<br><br>Interestingly, in patients with Crohn's disease, this pathway fails, which leads to inflammation after consumption of food. We use computational modelling to understand the atomic structure of these particles and how they interact with protein fragments. Eventually, similar particles produced in the laboratory may be used as effective drug delivery systems, to treat chronic gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn's or ulerative collitis.

Inorganic-Organic Interfaces

In biology there are a surprising number of inorganic-organic interactions. For example, our bones and our teeth are composed of both strong mineral (inorganic) and mixtures of complex proteins (organic) and it is this composite nature that gives them their particular properties, e.g. bones are strong but they aren't brittle; if you fall over your bones don't just shatter because the mineral component is bound to protein.<br><br>These interactions are also becoming very important in the design and manufacture of complex nanoparticles - used, for example, as drug delivery systems, coatings or in imaging.

The Structure of Drugs and Supplements

Our aim is to establish the fundamental chemistry and characteristics of innovative medicines, for example iron supplements which consist of an iron-oxide mineral phase and a coating of organic ligands. When dealing with structures at very small scales, it can be very difficult to obtain experimental data that gives accurate information about the atomic and chemical structure.<br><br>This is where simulation and modelling plays a vital role. Our group works closely with experimental colleagues in throughout the world, to make sure that experiment and theory are used hand-in-hand to bring new understanding.

Our research is highly interdisciplinary. We are connected with various experts who have complementary strengths and facilities, both within our School of Food Science and Nutrition and outside in other schools, universities and institutions:

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="https://environment.leeds.ac.uk/dir/research-projects">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>


  • Ph.D, Bone Graft Materials Modelling, (Cambridge)
  • M.Phil. Modelling of Materials, (Cambridge)
  • M.Res. Biomolecular Science, (York)
  • B.Sc. (Hons), 1st Class, Chemistry, (Open)

Professional memberships

  • Member, Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Member, EPSRC Peer Review College
  • Member, NERC Peer Review College

Student education

  • Programme Manager for the BSc and MSci in Food Science
  • Module Leader and Lecturer on Food1010 Food: Origins and Form 
  • Module Leader Food3140 Critical Appraisal of Scientific Literature 
  • Lecturer in organic chemistry on Food1210 Physicochemical Properties of Food 
  • Research supervisor for final year undergraduate projects.
  • Research supervisor for Masters students on the Food Science, Food Science & Nutrition and Nutrition programmes.

Current postgraduate researchers

<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="https://phd.leeds.ac.uk">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>
    <li><a href="//phd.leeds.ac.uk/project/740-computational-modelling-of-bone-collagen">Computational Modelling of Bone Collagen</a></li> <li><a href="//phd.leeds.ac.uk/project/721-first-principles-computational-modelling-of-iron-based-dental-materials">First principles computational modelling of iron-based dental materials</a></li>