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Women in STEM: Dr Jenny Zhang

Thu, 05/12/2019 - 07:00

It was my mother who first got me interested in science. When I was very young, back when I was growing up China, she used to tell me bedtime stories about the origins of thunder and lightning, how radios work, or how eggs became chickens. This apparently had a profound effect on me. Eggs would regularly go missing from the kitchen and turn up buried snugly under some blankets in bed. Or the new radio would be found dismantled, presumably taken apart by someone who wanted a better look inside...

My PhD research was in medicinal chemistry. My aim was to design anti-cancer drugs that could penetrate deep into solid tumours. To achieve this, I synthesised a library of novel DNA intercalators and anti-cancer platinum complexes and studied their bio-distribution and metabolism within 3D-tumour models using a variety of chemical imaging techniques. My research was very much directed by the problem, which gave me opportunities to travel around the world to work in different labs and disciplines. I was able to arrive at new drug design strategies using this approach.

Environmental sustainability is important to me, so that’s why I moved into artificial photosynthesis. My PhD research was highly interdisciplinary and I developed a deep appreciation of how different approaches can breathe fresh ideas into old problems and can often catalyse breakthroughs. Artificial photosynthesis for sustainable fuel development is also a highly interdisciplinary field, and as a research area, it aligns with my personal values about the importance of environmental sustainability.

I came to the Department of Chemistry more than five years ago as a Marie Curie Incoming International Fellow to work on artificial photosynthesis in Professor Erwin Reisner’s group. I was excited by the notion that, coming from quite a different background, I would be able to bring unique perspectives into the field. I also liked the idea of being immersed in a new learning experience. It turned out to be more challenging – and at the same time more fulfilling – than I expected.

We’ve designed new catalytic systems to turn sunlight into 'solar fuels'. In my postdoctoral research, I was interested in turning sunlight into chemical fuels we call 'solar fuels' – sustainable and green alternatives to our current unsustainable and polluting carbon-based fuels. Plants have been carrying out this for millions of years through the process of photosynthesis, enabled by a set of special proteins that make up the photosynthetic electron transport chain. I coordinated a team that studied these enzymes and the reactions that they carry out. We incorporated them into several prototype systems that can use sunlight to turn water into hydrogen. We hope this work will help make such fuels available to everyone in future.

We still need to understand the basic chemistry and physics behind many components of photosynthesis. There are many fundamental questions that remain to be answered both within biological and artificial photosynthetic systems. Mainly, these relate to the flow of electrons and how they can be more efficiently generated and used in catalysis. During my postdoctoral research, I wired photosystem II, nature’s water oxidation enzyme that kick-starts photosynthesis, to custom-made electrodes to study enzyme functionality and to perform light-driven fuel forming reactions. This allowed me to understand the ‘bottlenecks’ of different types of photosynthetic systems, and where improvements need to be made.

My BBSRC Fellowship allows me to drive my own research vision with my own research group. I started my own research group in 2018, and my focus is to develop new tools and approaches for studying photosynthesis (both biological and artificial) and utilising it in renewable energy generation and agricultural/sensor technologies. I’m supported by a generous grant that enables me to have postdocs and the necessary equipment – in particular, a sophisticated 3D printer that can print a large variety of materials, from living cells to metals.

The Fellowship will also help me build my leadership skills. It aims to get Fellows on the trajectory to leading our own research groups confidently and successfully. We have a BBSRC mentor that comes to visit our lab once a year. I’ve also attended workshops where I learned about the economy of science and leadership. I really like that this scheme offers not just money but the necessary support to help me become a well-rounded leader in science. I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity.

I hope my career will lead to the uncovering of many ‘unknown unknowns’. I want to drive innovative and high-value research that addresses important problems in our world today, and I want to achieve this while fostering a healthy and positive lab culture. Like any scientist, I hope my career will lead to the uncovering of many ‘unknown unknowns’ that will leave a positive impact on the world.

It’s important to me that we inspire more students – both girls and boys – to choose science. I still turn up to meetings and workshops where I am either the only woman or one of the few women present. However, this is happening less and less, and I feel that there is a real effort being made by our institutions to be inclusive and to lower barriers. The old barriers still exist, but I’m optimistic since I know how determined women can be.

In the meantime, I think we shouldn’t forget about positive action being needed to foster men to challenge their own status quo to become strong counterparts of the future.

 

Dr Jenny Zhang is a group leader and BBSRC David Phillips Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, where she is re-wiring photosynthesis to generate renewable fuels. Here, she tells us about why she switched from cancer research to sustainability, how her Fellowship programme is helping her develop leadership skills, and why eggs in her childhood home would regularly go missing.


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Yes

Smog-eating graphene composite reduces atmospheric pollution

Thu, 05/12/2019 - 06:30

Working in collaboration with the Italcementi HeidelbergCement Group and other partners, the Cambridge scientists developed a photocatalyst that degrades up to 70% more atmospheric nitrogen oxides (NOx) than standard titania nanoparticles in tests on real pollutants.

Atmospheric pollution is a growing problem, particularly in urban areas and in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, one out of every nine deaths worldwide can be attributed to diseases caused by air pollution. Organic pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and volatile compounds, are the main cause of this, and they are mostly emitted by vehicle exhausts and industry.

While researchers are developing new technologies and energy sources that will drastically reduce the volume of pollutants emitted into the atmosphere in the first place, they are also on the hunt for new ways to remove more pollutants from the atmosphere. Photocatalysts such as titania are one way to do this. When titania is exposed to sunlight, it degrades harmful nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds present at the surface, oxidising them into inert or harmless products.

Now, in a study published in the journal Nanoscale, the researchers demonstrated that a composite of titania and graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon - has significantly more powerful photodegradation properties than bare titania.

Researchers from the Cambridge Graphene Centre prepared and tested the composite, confirming its ability to photocatalytically degrade pollutant molecules, then researchers at Italcementi applied the coating to concrete to investigate its potential for environmental remediation.

“We decided to couple graphene to the most-used photocatalyst, titania, to boost the photocatalytic action,” said co-author Marco Goisis from Italcementi. “Photocatalysis is one of the most powerful ways we have to depollute the environment because the process does not consume the photocatalysts. It is a reaction activated by solar light.”

By performing liquid-phase exfoliation of graphite – a process that creates graphene – in the presence of titania nanoparticles, using only water and atmospheric pressure, the scientists created the new graphene-titania nanocomposite.

They found that it passively removes pollutants from the air when coated on the surface of materials. If applied to concrete on the street or the walls of buildings, the harmless photodegradation products could be washed away by rain or wind, or manually cleaned off.

To measure the photodegradation effects, the team tested the new photocatalyst against NOx and recorded a 70% improvement in photocatalytic degradation of nitrogen oxides compared to standard titania. They also used rhodamine B as a model for volatile organic pollutants, as its molecular structure closely resembles those of pollutants emitted by vehicles, industry and agriculture. They found that 40% more rhodamine B was degraded by the graphene-titania composite than by titania alone, in water under UV irradiation.

“Coupling graphene to titania gave us excellent results in powder form – and it could be applied to different materials, of which concrete is a good example for the widespread use, helping us to achieve a healthier environment. It is low-maintenance and environmentally friendly, as it just requires the sun’s energy and no other input,” said Goisis.

But there are challenges to be addressed before this can be used on a commercial scale. Cheaper methods to mass-produce graphene are needed. Interactions between the catalyst and the host material need to be deepened as well as studies into the long-term stability of the photocatalyst in the outdoor environment.

Ultrafast transient absorption spectroscopy measurements revealed an electron transfer process from titania to the graphene flakes, decreasing the charge recombination rate and increasing the efficiency of reactive species photoproduction – meaning more pollutant molecules could be degraded.

Based on this concept, scientists are also working on another product – an electrically conductive graphene concrete composite, which was showcased at Mobile World Congress in February this year. When included as a layer in flooring, it releases heat when an electrical current is passed through it. This could be used to heat buildings or streets without using water from a tank or boiler. It could also be used to create self-sensing concrete, which could detect stress or strain in concrete structures and monitor for structural defects, providing warning signals if the structural integrity is close to failure.

“An ever-increasing number of companies recognise the potential for graphene in new and improved technologies,” said Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre and co-author on the current paper. “This work has demonstrated a clear application of graphene for the degradation of environmental pollutants. This can not only have commercial benefits but, more importantly, a cleaner and healthier environment.”

Reference:
Gloria Guidetti et al. ‘Photocatalytic activity of exfoliated graphite-TiO2 nanocomposites.’ Nanoscale (2019). DOI: 10.1039/c9nr06760d

Adapted from a story by the Cambridge Graphene Centre

An international group of scientists, including from the University of Cambridge, have developed a graphene composite that can ‘eat’ common atmospheric pollutants, and could be used as a coating on pavements or buildings.

ItalcementiLeft: Photocatalytic panel exposed outdoor. The purple section is treated with a pollutant. Right: Three weeks later, pollutant has been degraded by the photcatalyst


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Yes

Green-sky thinking for propulsion and power

Wed, 04/12/2019 - 08:20

We’re seeing a transformational change in the propulsion and power sectors. Aviation and power generation have brought huge benefits – connecting people across the world and providing safe, reliable electricity to billions – but reducing their carbon emissions is now urgently needed.

Electrification is one way to decarbonise, certainly for small and medium-sized aircraft. In fact, more than 70 companies are planning a first flight of electric air vehicles by 2024. For large aircraft, no alternative to the jet engine currently exists, but radical new aircraft architectures, such as those developed by the Cambridge-MIT Silent Aircraft Initiative and the NASA N+3 project, show the possibility of reducing CO2 emissions by around 70%.

A common thread in these technologies and those needed for renewable power is their reliance on efficient, reliable turbomachinery – a technology that has been central to our work for the past 50 years. Currently we’re working on applications that include the development of electric and hybrid-electric aircraft, the generation of power from the tides and low-grade heat, like solar energy, and hydrogen-based engines.

We’re also working on existing technologies as a way of reducing the carbon emissions, like wind turbines, and developing the next generation of jet engines such as Rolls-Royce’s UltraFan engine, which will enable CO2 emission reductions of 25% by 2025. A great example is Dr Chez Hall’s research on a potential replacement for the 737. This futuristic aircraft architecture involves an electrical propulsion system being embedded in the aircraft fuselage, allowing up to 15% reduction in fuel burn.

A key element of meeting the decarbonisation challenge is to accelerate technology development. And so, over the past five years, our primary focus has been the process itself – we've been asking ‘can we develop technology faster and cheaper?’ The answer is yes – at least 10 times faster and 10 times cheaper. Our solution is to merge the digital and physical systems involved. In 2017, we undertook a pioneering trial of a new method of technology development. A team of academic researchers and industrial designers were embedded in the Whittle and given four technologies to develop.

The results were astonishing. In 2005, a similar trial took the Whittle two years. In 2017, the agile testing methods took less than a week, demonstrating a hundred times faster technology development.

We describe it as ‘tightening the circle’ between design, manufacture and testing. Design times for new technologies have been reduced from around a month to one or two days using augmented and machine-learning-based design systems. These make use of in-house flow simulation software that is accelerated by graphics cards developed for the computer gaming industry.

Manufacturing times for new technologies have been cut from two or three months to two or three days by directly linking the design systems to rows of in-house 3D printing and rapid machining tools, rather than relying on external suppliers. Designers can now try out new concepts in physical form very soon after an idea is conceived.

Testing times have been reduced from around two months to a few days by undertaking a ‘value stream analysis’ of the experimental process. Each sequential operation was analysed, enabling us to remove over 95% of the tasks, producing a much leaner process of assembly and disassembly. Test results are automatically fed back to the augmented design system, allowing it to learn from both the digital and the physical data.

There’s a natural human timescale of about a week whereby if you go from idea to result then you have a virtuous circle between understanding and inspiration. We’ve found that when the technology development timescale approaches the human timescale – as it does in our leaner process – then innovation explodes.

The New Whittle Laboratory will house the National Centre for Propulsion and Power, due to open in 2022 with funding from the Aerospace Technology Institute. A national asset, the Centre is designed to combine a scaled-up version of the agile test capability with state-of-the-art manufacturing capability to cover around 80% of the UK’s future aerodynamic technology needs.

Key to the success of the Whittle Laboratory has been its strong industrial partnerships – with Rolls-Royce, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Siemens for over 50 years, and with Dyson for around five years. So another component of the new development will be a ‘Propulsion and Power Challenge Space’. Here, teams from across the University will co-locate with industry to develop the technologies necessary to decarbonise the propulsion and power sectors.

The length and depth of these partnerships have so many benefits. They’ve enabled technology strategy to be shared at the highest level, and new projects to be kicked off quickly, without the need for contract lawyers. Joint industry–academic technology transfer teams move seamlessly between industry and academia, ensuring that technologies are successfully transferred into product.

Most importantly, the partnerships provide a source of ‘real’ high-impact research projects. It’s these long-term industrial partnerships that have made the Whittle the world’s most academically successful propulsion and power research laboratory.

We are at a pivotal moment, in terms of both Cambridge’s history of leading technology development in propulsion and power, and humanity’s need to decarbonise these sectors. Just 50 years ago, at the opening of the original Whittle Laboratory, research and industry faced the challenge of making mass air travel a reality. Now the New Whittle Laboratory will enable us to lead the way in making it green.

A bold response to the world’s greatest challenge
The University of Cambridge is building on its existing research and launching an ambitious new environment and climate change initiative. Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener technologies. It will harness the full power of the University’s research and policy expertise, developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our biosphere.

Read more about our research linked with Sustainable Earth in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

A rapid way of turning ideas into new technologies in the aviation and power industries has been developed at Cambridge’s Whittle Laboratory. Here, Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle, describes how researchers plan to scale the process to cover around 80% of the UK’s future aerodynamic technology needs.

A key element of meeting the decarbonisation challenge is to accelerate technology development. And so, over the past five years, our primary focus has been the process itself – asking ‘can we develop technology faster and cheaper?’Rob MillerWhittle Lab


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Yes

Study highlights potential for ‘liquid health check’ to predict disease risk

Mon, 02/12/2019 - 16:00

Preventative medicine programmes such as the UK National Health Service’s Health Check and Healthier You programmes are aimed at improving our health and reducing our risk of developing diseases. While such strategies are inexpensive, cost effective and scalable, they could be made more effective using personalised information about an individual’s health and disease risk.

The rise and application of ‘big data’ in healthcare, assessing and analysing detailed, large-scale datasets makes it increasingly feasible to make predictions about health and disease outcomes and enable stratified approaches to prevention and clinical management.

Now, an international team of researchers from the UK and USA, working with biotech company SomaLogic, has shown that large-scale measurement of proteins in a single blood test can provide important information about our health and can help to predict a range of different diseases and risk factors.

Our bodies contain around 30,000 different proteins, which are coded for by our DNA and regulate biological processes. Some of these proteins enter the blood stream by purposeful secretion to orchestrate biological processes in health or in disease, for example hormones, cytokines and growth factors. Others enter the blood through leakage from cell damage and cell death. Both secreted and leaked proteins can inform health status and disease risk.

In a proof-of-concept study based on five observational cohorts in almost 17,000 participants, researchers scanned 5,000 proteins in a plasma sample taken from each participant. Plasma is the single largest component of blood and is the clear liquid that remains after the removal of red and white blood cells and platelets. The study resulted in around 85 million protein targets being measured.

The technique involves using fragments of DNA known as aptamers that bind to the target protein. In general, only specific fragments will bind to particular proteins – in the same way that only a specific key will fit in a particular lock. Using existing genetic sequencing technology, the researchers can then search for the aptamers and determine which proteins are present and in what concentrations.

The researchers analysed the results using statistical methods and machine learning techniques to develop predictive models – for example, that an individual whose blood contains a certain pattern of proteins is at increased risk of developing diabetes. The models covered a number of health states, including levels of liver fat, kidney function and visceral fat, alcohol consumption, physical activity and smoking behaviour, and for risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The accuracy of the models varied, with some showing high predictive powers, such as for percentage body fat, while others had only modest prognostic power, such as for cardiovascular risk. The researchers report that their protein-based models were all either better predictors than models based on traditional risk factors or would constitute more convenient and less expensive alternatives to traditional testing.

Many of the proteins are linked to a number of health states or conditions; for example, leptin, which modulates appetite and metabolism, was informative for predictive models of percentage body fat, visceral fat, physical activity and fitness.

One difference between genome sequencing and so-called ‘proteomics’ – studying an individual’s proteins in depth – is that whereas the genome is fixed, the proteome changes over time. It might change as an individual becomes more obese, less physically active or smokes, for example, so proteins will be able to track changes in an individual's health status over a lifetime.

“Proteins circulating in our blood are a manifestation of our genetic make-up as well as many other factors, such as behaviours or the presence of disease, even if not yet diagnosed,” said Dr Claudia Langenberg, from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge. “This is one of the reasons why proteins are such good indicators of our current and future health state and have the potential to improve clinical prediction across different and diverse diseases.”

“It’s remarkable that plasma protein patterns alone can faithfully represent such a wide variety of common and important health issues, and we think that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr Stephen Williams, Chief Medical Officer of SomaLogic, who led the study. “We have more than a hundred tests in our SomaSignal pipeline and believe that large-scale protein scanning has the potential to become a sole information source for individualised health assessments.”

While this study shows a proof-of-principle, the researchers say that as technology improves and becomes more affordable, it is feasible that a comprehensive health evaluation using a battery of protein models derived from a single blood sample could be offered as routine by health services.

“This proof of concept study demonstrates a new paradigm that measurement of blood proteins can accurately deliver health information that spans across numerous medical specialties and that should be actionable for patients and their healthcare providers,” said Peter Ganz, MD, co-leader of this study and the Maurice Eliaser Distinguished Professor of Medicine at the UCSF and Director of the Center of Excellence in Vascular Research at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. “I expect that in the future we will look back at this Nature Medicine proteomic study as a critical milestone in personalising and thus improving the care of our patients.”

Reference
Williams, SA et al. Plasma protein patterns as comprehensive indicators of health; Nat Med; 2 Dec 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41591-019-0665-2

Competing interests
The research was a collaboration with SomaLogic Inc, which has a commercial interest in the results. Several co-authors were or are employees of SomaLogic. The company has provided funding to the University of Cambridge. Dr Peter Ganz is a member of the SomaLogic Medical Advisory board, for which he receives no remuneration of any kind.

Funding
The research was supported by the UK Medical Research Council, US National Institutes on Aging, British Heart Foundation, National Institute for Health Research, the Norwegian Ministry of Health, Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Norwegian Research Council, Central Norway Regional Health Authority, Nord-Trondelag County Council, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. SomaScan assays and the Covance study were funded by SomaLogic, Inc.

Proteins in our blood could in future help provide a comprehensive ‘liquid health check’, assessing our health and predicting the likelihood that we will we will develop a range of diseases, according to research published today in Nature Medicine.

Proteins circulating in our blood are a manifestation of our genetic make-up as well as many other factors, such as behaviours or the presence of disease, even if not yet diagnosedClaudia LangenbergGeraltBlood plasma


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YesLicense type: Public Domain

Tributes paid to Cambridge graduates Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones

Mon, 02/12/2019 - 14:08
Friends and former colleagues have paid tribute to Cambridge graduates - and members of the Learning Together programme community - Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, who were killed at London Bridge. Among the three people injured, whose identities have not been publicly released, is a member of University staff. We have collated some of the messages below:

"Saskia’s warm disposition and extraordinary intellectual creativity was combined with a strong belief that people who have committed criminal offences should have opportunities for rehabilitation. Though she completed her MPhil  in Criminology in 2018, her determination to make an enduring and positive impact on society in everything she did led her to stay in contact with the Learning Together community. They valued her contributions enormously and were inspired by her determination to push towards the good. 

"All of us at the Institute will miss Jack’s quiet humour and rigorous intellect. His determined belief in rehabilitation inspired him to join the Institute as a staff member to work in the Learning Together research team after completing his MPhil in Criminology in 2017. Jack’s passion for social and criminal justice was infectious. He was deeply creatively and courageously engaged with the world, advocating for a politics of love. He worked tirelessly in dark places to pull towards the light."
Professor Loraine R Gelsthorpe, Director of the Institute of Criminology

I facilitated at a @JustisTogether course @Cambridge_Uni with #JackMerritt as coordinator, and saw first hand how worthwhile prisoner rehabilitation work is and what a kind man he was. My prayers for him and his family @butwhatifitsall #LondonBridgeAttack pic.twitter.com/uWTVaucCsF

— Nabila Idris (@NabilaIdris) December 1, 2019

 

"Jack. Your brilliant smile, your pragmatism, your commitment to prison education and reform inspired everyone who worked with you. I will miss your sense of humour and your focus while working together with  students in the toughest situations. You always remembered everyone's names, and their needs in the group. I saw the quiet courage and reassurance you imparted to those around you. From prison inmates to guards, students to colleagues, you ignited camaraderie and respect  for each other in all of us. Thank you for everything you did, every day, to make our world a more kind, more equal place." 
Dr Preti Taneja, leader of Jesus College's Writing Together programme

“Saskia’s passion for justice and her desire to pursue Criminology were apparent from the first encounter, when she telephoned the Institute to confirm her place on the MPhil course. She was a bright, determined woman possessing deep connection with the work of Learning Together, the loss of her talent is a tragedy for us all.

“I have had the great privilege of knowing Jack and am honoured to have had him not only as a colleague, but a like-minded friend. His lightness, sense of justice and unwavering integrity made him one of the best young men I have known. To also witness his deep creativity, resurface and find expression at the 2018 Learning Together alumni event and celebration, brought great joy to many and is a memory I hold very dear.”​
Rebecca L Greene, Honorary Artist in Residence, Institute of Criminology

A year ago I met Jack Merritt, who died in the London Bridge attack. His work on rehabilitation was difficult, inspiring and profoundly necessary, especially for the many of us with lives touched by serious crime.

May you RIP @JackmerrittJack https://t.co/o0iSBr5UEP

— Maria Farrell (@mariafarrell) November 30, 2019

 

"I just wanted to say that without Jack we would not have been able to do what we have been doing, he found hope and love and support for people that society had forgotten and he made it possible for us to help tell these people's stories as well. My heart goes out to his family, friends and colleagues and I will not forget his belief in the good of people even in the darkest of places."
Matt Brown, of video production company MBP

"Jack was one of the rare people we meet in the journey we call life. He was one of my best and dearest friends. Every time I met him, he greeted me with a big hug, a casual ‘you alright mate?’ and a smile that glinted behind his eyes. His kindness and love was boundless. He was also devoted to helping people that society had forgotten. He approached his work with care, wisdom and dedication. He had a natural gift of knowing what to say to make you feel better. He was at total ease in himself, with a humble confidence, which meant he could navigate both the prison wings and the corridors of Cambridge. He had an uncanny ability to bring calmness and perspective to difficult and challenging situations – of which he faced many – and yet his strength and compassion never faltered. He was steadfast in his commitment to social justice and his loss has impacted many of us. He will never be forgotten; we will carry him in our hearts always."
Ellie Brown, Doctoral Candidate, Institute of Criminology
 

 


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Yes

Study identifies brain networks that play crucial role in suicide risk

Mon, 02/12/2019 - 01:00

The facts in relation to suicide are stark: 800,000 people die globally by suicide every year, the equivalent of one every 40 seconds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death globally among 15-29 year olds. More adolescents die by suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. As many as one in three adolescents think about ending their lives and one in three of these will attempt suicide.

“Imagine having a disease that we knew killed almost a million people a year, a quarter of them before the age of thirty, and yet we knew nothing about why some individuals are more vulnerable to this disease,” said Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen, co-first author from the University of Cambridge. “This is where we are with suicide. We know very little about what’s happening in the brain, why there are sex differences, and what makes young people especially vulnerable to suicide.”

A team of researchers, including Hilary Blumberg, MD, John and Hope Furth Professor of Psychiatric Neuroscience at Yale, carried out a review of two decades’ worth of scientific literature relating to brain imaging studies of suicidal thoughts and behaviour. In total, they looked at 131 studies, which covered more than 12,000 individuals, looking at alterations in brain structure and function that might increase an individual’s suicide risk.

Combining the results from all of the brain imaging studies available, the researchers looked for evidence of structural, functional, and molecular alterations in the brain that could increase risk of suicide. They identified two brain networks – and the connections between them – that appear to play an important role.

The first of these networks involves areas towards the front of the brain known as the medial and lateral ventral prefrontal cortex and their connections to other brain regions involved in emotion. Alterations in this network may lead to excessive negative thoughts and difficulties regulating emotions, stimulating thoughts of suicide.

The second network involves regions known as the dorsal prefrontal cortex and inferior frontal gyrus system. Alterations in this network may influence suicide attempt, in part, due to its role in decision making, generating alternative solutions to problems, and controlling behaviour.

The researchers suggest that if both networks are altered in terms of their structure, function or biochemistry, this might lead to situations where an individual thinks negatively about the future and is unable to control their thoughts, which might lead to situations where an individual is at higher risk for suicide.

“The review provides evidence to support a very hopeful future in which we will find new and improved ways to reduce risk of suicide,” said Professor Hilary Blumberg. “The brain circuitry differences found to converge across the many studies provide important targets for the generation of more effective suicide prevention strategies. “It is especially hopeful that scientists, such as my co-authors on this paper, are coming together in larger collaborative efforts that hold terrific promise.”

The majority of studies so far have been cross-sectional, meaning that they take a ‘snapshot’ of the brain, rather than looking over a period of time, and so can only relate to suicidal thoughts or behaviours in the past. The researchers say there is an urgent need for more research that looks at whether their proposed model relates to future suicide attempts and at whether any therapies are able to change the structure or function of these brain networks and thereby perhaps reduce suicide risk.

The review highlighted the paucity of research into suicide, particularly into sex differences and among vulnerable groups. Despite suicidal thoughts often first occurring as early as during adolescence, the majority of studies focused on adults.

“The biggest predictor of death by suicide is previous suicide attempt, so it’s essential that we can intervene as early as possible to reduce an individual’s risk,” said co-first author Dr Lianne Schmaal from the University of Melbourne. “For many individuals, this will be during adolescence. If we can work out a way to identify those young people at greatest risk, then we will have a chance to step in and help them at this important stage in their lives.”

Even more striking, despite the fact that transgender individuals are at increased risk for suicide, just one individual in the 131 samples included for the review was identified to be transgender.

“There are very vulnerable groups who are clearly not being served by research for a number of reasons, including stigma and the need to prioritise treatment,” said van Harmelen. “We urgently need to study these groups and find ways to help and support them.”

In 2018, the researchers launched the HOPES (Help Overcome and Prevent the Emergence of Suicide) study, supported by the mental health research charity MQ. HOPES brings together data from around 4,000 young people across 15 different countries in order to develop a model to predict who is at risk of suicide. Over the course of the project, the team will analyse brain scans, information on young people's environment, psychological states and traits in relation to suicidal behaviour from young people from across the world, to identify specific, universal risk-factors.

The research was supported by the mental health charity MQ Brighter Futures Award Program, National Institutes of Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, NHMRC, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Brain and Behavior Foundation, Robert E. Leet and Clara M. Guthrie Patterson Trust, and For the Love of Travis Foundation.

Reference
Schmaal, L, van Harmelen, A.-L. et al. Imaging suicidal thoughts and behaviors: a comprehensive review of 2 decades of neuroimaging studies. Molecular Psychiatry; 2 Dec 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41380-019-0587-x

An international team of researchers has identified key networks within the brain which they say interact to increase the risk that an individual will think about – or attempt – suicide. Writing in Molecular Psychiatry, the researchers say that their review of existing literature highlights how little research has been done into one of the world’s major killers, particularly among the most vulnerable groups.

Imagine having a disease that we knew killed almost a million people a year, a quarter of them before the age of thirty, and yet we knew nothing about why some individuals are more vulnerable to this disease. This is where we are with suicideAnne-Laura van Harmelen_LewiZDepression


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YesLicense type: Public Domain

1/12/19: Statement regarding London Bridge incident

Sun, 01/12/2019 - 16:27
Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor:

I am devastated to learn that among the victims of the London Bridge attack were staff and alumni of the University of Cambridge, taking part in an event to mark five years of the Learning Together programme. What should have been a joyous opportunity to celebrate the achievements of this unique and socially transformative programme, hosted by our Institute of Criminology, was instead disrupted by an unspeakable criminal act.

I am sad beyond words to report that course coordinator Jack Merritt and former student Saskia Jones were killed. Both were Cambridge graduates. Among the three people injured, whose identities have not been publicly released, is a member of University staff.

Our University condemns this abhorrent and senseless act of terror. Our condolences, our thoughts and our deepest sympathies are with the victims and their families. We will be providing all the support we can to our colleagues, including counselling for staff and students who are affected by the event. We are grateful to the Metropolitan Police, to local emergency services, and to those members of the public – including students, staff, alumni and other participants at the event – who selflessly intervened to contain the incident.

Senate House


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Yes

Further statement regarding London Bridge incident

Sun, 01/12/2019 - 13:07
Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said:

I am devastated to learn that among the victims of the London Bridge attack were staff and alumni of the University of Cambridge, taking part in an event to mark five years of the Learning Together programme. What should have been a joyous opportunity to celebrate the achievements of this unique and socially transformative programme, hosted by our Institute of Criminology, was instead disrupted by an unspeakable criminal act.

I am sad beyond words to report that course coordinator Jack Merritt and former student Saskia Jones were killed. Both were Cambridge graduates. Among the three people injured, whose identities have not been publicly released, is a member of University staff.

Our University condemns this abhorrent and senseless act of terror. Our condolences, our thoughts and our deepest sympathies are with the victims and their families. We will be providing all the support we can to our colleagues, including counselling for staff and students who are affected by the event. We are grateful to the Metropolitan Police, to local emergency services, and to those members of the public – including students, staff, alumni and other participants at the event – who selflessly intervened to contain the incident.

Updated 16:50 on 1 Dec 2019


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Yes

Statement from Cambridge Institute of Criminology

Sun, 01/12/2019 - 10:29
Professor Loraine R Gelsthorpe, Director of the Institute of Criminology, said:

It is with great sadness that the Institute of Criminology acknowledges the deaths of both Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt who were killed in the course of events on and near London Bridge whilst participating in a Learning Together event organised by the Institute.

Saskia’s warm disposition and extraordinary intellectual creativity was combined with a strong belief that people who have committed criminal offences should have opportunities for rehabilitation. Though she completed her MPhil  in Criminology in 2018, her determination to make an enduring and positive impact on society in everything she did led her to stay in contact with the Learning Together community. They valued her contributions enormously and were inspired by her determination to push towards the good. 

All of us at the Institute will miss Jack’s quiet humour and rigorous intellect. His determined belief in rehabilitation inspired him to join the Institute as a staff member to work in the Learning Together research team after completing his MPhil in Criminology in 2017. Jack’s passion for social and criminal justice was infectious. He was deeply creatively and courageously engaged with the world, advocating for a politics of love. He worked tirelessly in dark places to pull towards the light.

We are grateful to other members of the Learning Together community who bravely risked their own lives to hold off the attacker until the police arrived. These men included Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service staff and several people who have spent time in prison. They worked together selflessly to bring an end to this tragedy and to save further lives.

Our thoughts and prayers are with their families, friends, and colleagues and students at the Institute and University more widely who were at the event, as well as others who were there and who have been affected and injured.

We would like to thank everyone for their messages of support.


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Yes

Statement regarding London Bridge incident

Fri, 29/11/2019 - 23:59
Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said:

"I am devastated to learn that today's hateful attack on London Bridge may have been targeted at staff, students and alumni attending an event organised by the University of Cambridge's Institute of Criminology. We are in touch with the Metropolitan Police, and awaiting further details of the victims. We mourn the dead and we hope for a speedy recovery for the injured. Our thoughts are with all their families and friends."


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Yes

Placenta changes could mean male offspring of older mums more likely to develop heart problems in later life, rat study finds

Thu, 28/11/2019 - 10:51

Both male and female fetuses do not grow as large in older mothers, but there are sex-specific differences in changes to placental development and function. These are likely to play a central role in the increased likelihood of later-life heart problems and high blood pressure in males.

In humans, women over 35 are considered to be of advanced maternal age. The study, published in Scientific Reports, looked at pregnant rats of a comparable age.  In aged mothers, the placenta of female fetuses showed beneficial changes in structure and function that would maximise the support of fetal growth. In some instances, the placenta even supported the female fetus better than the placenta of a younger mother.  In the case of male fetuses however, the placenta showed changes that would limit fetal growth in the aged pregnant rats.

“This new understanding of placental development and function could contribute to better management of human pregnancies, and development of targeted interventions to improve the longer-term health of children born to older mothers,” said Dr Tina Napso, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge and first author of the study.

Pregnancy in older mothers is associated with a heightened risk of complications for both the mother and her baby. These include preeclampsia - raised blood pressure in the mother during pregnancy, gestational diabetes, stillbirth and fetal growth restriction. Until now there has been limited understanding of how the placenta is altered by advanced maternal age. 

“With the average age of first pregnancy in women becoming higher and higher, and especially so in developed countries, it is very important to understand how the age of the mother and the sex of the baby interact to determine pregnancy and later-life health of the child,” said Dr Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri, lead author of the study and a Royal Society Fellow in the Centre for Trophoblast Research at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience. 

The placenta transports nutrients and oxygen from mother to fetus, secretes signalling factors into the mother so she supports fetal development, and is the main protective barrier for the fetus against toxins, bacteria, and hormones - such as stress hormones - in the mother’s blood. It is highly dynamic in nature, and its function can change to help protect the growing fetus when conditions become less favourable for its development, for example through a lack of nutrients or oxygen or when the mother is stressed.

The researchers analysed the placentas of young (3-4 months old) and aged rats (9.5-10 months old) that were pregnant with male and female offspring. The aged rats correspond to approximately 35 year-old humans. Rats are a useful model as their biology and physiology have a number of important characteristics in common with those of humans. 

The study found that advanced maternal age reduced the efficiency of the placenta of both male and female fetuses. It affected the structure and function of the placenta more markedly for male fetuses, reducing its ability to support growth of the fetus. 

“A pregnancy at an older age is a costly proposition for the mother, whose body has to decide how nutrients are shared with the fetus. That’s why, overall, fetuses do not grow sufficiently during pregnancy when the mother is older compared to when she is young,” said Dr Napso. “We now know that growth, as well as gene expression in the placenta is affected in older mothers in a manner that partially depends on sex: changes in the placentas of male fetuses are generally detrimental.”

The research involved a collaboration between scientists at the University of Cambridge, the University of Alberta in Canada, the Robinson Research Institute and the University of Adelaide, Australia. 

An earlier study performed by the collaborators showed that offspring from mothers who enter pregnancy at an older age have poor heart function and high blood pressure as young adults, and particularly so if they are male. This new research was conducted to understand why, and whether this sex difference may be due to how the male and female fetuses are supported within the womb in an aged mother.

Although further studies in humans are required, the results suggest the importance of considering the sex of the fetus when giving advice to older pregnant women.  The researchers also hope to build on these results and find ways of improving the function of the placenta to optimise growth of the fetus.

Reference
Napso, T. et al: “Advanced maternal age compromises fetal growth and induces sex-specific changes in placental phenotype in rates.” Scientific Reports (2019). DOI:10.1038/s41598-019-53199-x

Changes occur in the placenta in older pregnant mothers leading to a greater likelihood of poor health in their male offspring, a study in rats has shown. 

With the average age of first pregnancy in women becoming higher and higher, especially in developed countries, it is very important to understand how the age of the mother and the sex of the baby interact to determine pregnancy and later-life health of the child.Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri


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Yes

Women in STEM: Fiona Llewellyn-Beard

Thu, 28/11/2019 - 07:00

I study mud. To tell the truth, this is something that has interested me since about the age of three, when I enjoyed making mud pies at nursery school. I’m a bit more particular now though, and work specifically on the sediments and soils at the bottom of the ponds found in salt marshes. 

These ponds are super interesting. They’re full of life, ranging from crabs and worms to rare bacteria, and all of this life interacts with and affects the mud. I’m studying how the biology and chemistry interact, in particular looking at iron, sulfur and carbon cycling. This is really important, as salt marshes can sequester and store huge amounts of carbon, which would otherwise be in our atmosphere contributing to global warming. In order to look after our salt marshes and keep the carbon locked up in them we need to understand their biogeochemistry more fully, and that’s where my research comes in. 

Outside of my research, I enjoy anything to do with the mountains - climbing, walking, running, skiing - and am also a Scout Leader in Cambridge. I grew up in south Cambridgeshire, where I went to my local primary and secondary schools. I always loved science, and was encouraged by my teachers to apply to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, which is where I’ve been ever since!

The great thing about Cambridge is the community. There are so many great scientists here, and even if they’re not quite working in my field, they’re always keen to talk science and introduce you to their numerous contacts and collaborators.

My PhD involves a lot of travel, and I’m generally doing something different every day. This could be computational modelling, writing, lab work or fieldwork, depending on what I’m working on. My work is very interdisciplinary, so it’s good that I can visit other places to discuss my science with other experts!

The days I enjoy the most are when I go out to take sediment cores from the marsh ponds. I built corers out of a plastic tube, which is about 60cm long, and to take sediment samples I push it into the mud, before sliding my arm down the side to the bottom and pulling it up. It’s incredibly messy, and I usually get very wet!  In winter it can be really cold getting into a muddy pond on a salt marsh, but it’s an incredibly beautiful place to work, so it makes up for it.

Nothing in the environment can be considered in isolation. Everything impacts on everything else, the biology, the chemistry, the hydrology, the climate; everything interacts. Realising this was an important moment, and it made me see that to understand my mud I needed to go and learn more, and not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’, and find someone who does. My advice to others is to talk to as many people as possible, make lots of contacts, and always smile, even if things don’t look promising.

My research takes me to a number of different places. In Cambridge, I do a lot of reading and writing in the Department of Earth Sciences, but I often travel to the salt marshes at Norfolk to take samples, which I bring back to analyse in the labs. I also do quite a lot of work in the geochemical labs at the University of Leeds, where they have specialist equipment to look at the iron mineralogy of the sediments. I'm also working with the British Geological Society to look at carbon in the sediments, and have in the past worked at the University of York doing microbiology.

 

A bold response to the world’s greatest challenge
The University of Cambridge is building on its existing research and launching an ambitious new environment and climate change initiative. Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener technologies. It will harness the full power of the University’s research and policy expertise, developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our biosphere.

Read more about our research linked with Sustainable Earth in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

Fiona Llewellyn-Beard is a PhD candidate in the Department of Earth Sciences, where she studies salt marshes and how they store huge amounts of carbon. Here, she tells us about how a childhood love of mud pies led to her current research, her love of the outdoors, and how everything in the environment is interconnected. 


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Yes

Opinion: Depression - men far more at risk than women in deprived areas

Wed, 27/11/2019 - 10:10

Depression is a major cause of disability around the world, and if left untreated, can lead to substance abuse, anxiety and suicide.

Major depressive disorder is a particular form of the condition which affects many people, potentially causing loss of pleasure in activities that once used to bring joy. It can also lead to feelings of worthlessness, imbalances such as oversleeping or insomnia, and trigger thoughts of suicide. This is the condition we examined during our new study, which showed that living in a deprived area can lead to major depressive disorder in men, but not in women.

Before explaining these findings, it is important to provide some further background on this condition. There are certain factors which can place you at increased risk for major depression. Being diagnosed with a serious chronic ailment, such as diabetes or cancer, now or in the past, can increase your risk for it. As can experiences of trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, or being raised in a dysfunctional family in which there was a high degree of marital discord.

These, however, are all individual factors – or personal circumstances – which can negatively affect your mental health. And most of the research on depression has indeed focused on such personal factors. But there are characteristics beyond the level of the individual – such as attributes of the communities in which we live – that can also have a profound effect on our mental well-being.

Read more: People with depression use language differently – here's how to spot it

Previous studies have shown that living in communities characterised as deprived can lead residents of those areas to rate their health as suboptimal and experience early death. Through our study, we wanted to know if living in a deprived area can also influence the mental health of men and women – even after accounting for personal circumstances. That is, even after you take people’s socioeconomic status into account (in our study’s case, education and social class), does a person’s residential environment still affect their mental health?

The findings

To answer this question, we used data from one of Britain’s longest-running studies on health, chronic diseases, and the way people live their lives: EPIC-Norfolk. This study was based on over 20,000 people who filled out detailed questionnaires on their mental health and medical history.

Respondents’ postal codes were linked to the census to determine whether they lived in deprived communities. Five years after deprivation levels were measured, participants filled out a psychosocial questionnaire to determine whether they suffered from major depressive disorder. Using statistical techniques, the association between area deprivation and depression was examined while accounting for medical history, education, social class, and other important factors.

Our study showed that living in a deprived area does affect mental health – at least in men. In fact, we found that men living in the most deprived areas were 51% more likely to experience depression than those living in areas that were not deprived. Interestingly, the results did not reach statistical significance in women.

Loss of purpose. Shutterstock

Our study did not set out to determine why this might be the case – and further research is now needed to do this. Nevertheless, it is possible that many men in the UK and other parts of the world still feel a primary responsibility to provide for and support their families.

Read more: Men feel stressed if their female partners earn more than 40% of household income – new research

A recent study investigating depression risks for men and women indicated that men are more affected by “failures at key instrumental tasks, such as expected work achievements and failures to provide adequately for the family”.

Research shows that men seem to be more sensitive to certain stressors in their environment compared to women, such as those related to work and finances. Women’s depression levels, on the other hand, are more influenced by stressors stemming from relationships and the social networks they are embedded in. Factors such as low parental warmth and low marital satisfaction, for example, can really affect women’s mental health.

A great many factors may be behind this, but in the UK, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women and so root causes as to why men are struggling should be investigated.

While women are at a lower risk of depression than men in deprived areas, other research shows that they are more likely to experience anxiety. Again, further work is needed on the effect of the residential environment on mental health from a gender perspective.

High numbers of people are living in deprivation around the world and depression is a leading cause of disability on a global scale. Knowing how men and women are affected by the hardship of living in deprivation can help focus mental health treatment, and this is a valuable step forward.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Deprivation affects men and women differently, writes Olivia Remes, PhD candidate at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, with men more likely to experience depression.

Andrik LangfieldMan looking out of window


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YesLicense type: Public Domain

‘Trickster god’ used fake news in Babylonian Noah story

Tue, 26/11/2019 - 00:17

Dr Martin Worthington’s new research analysing the word play in the story has uncovered the duplicitous language of a Babylonian god called Ea, who was motivated by self-interest.

Dr Worthington, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, said: “Ea tricks humanity by spreading fake news. He tells the Babylonian Noah, known as Uta–napishti, to promise his people that food will rain from the sky if they help him build the ark. What the people don’t realise is that Ea’s nine-line message is a trick: it is a sequence of sounds that can be understood in radically different ways, like English ‘ice cream’ and ‘I scream’. 

“While Ea’s message seems to promise a rain of food, its hidden meaning warns of the Flood.  Once the ark is built, Uta–napishti and his family clamber aboard and survive with a menagerie of animals. Everyone else drowns.  With this early episode, set in mythological time, the manipulation of information and language has begun. It may be the earliest ever example of fake news.”

The Gilgamesh Flood story is known from clay tablets that date back around three thousand years. 

Dr Worthington is an Assyriologist who specialises in Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian grammar, literature and medicine. In his new book launched today (November 26) titled Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood story, he explores the tricks of ‘wily Ea’, who is also known as the ‘crafty god’ and the ‘trickster god’. This research focuses on nine lines in the 3000-year-old story which can be interpreted in contradictory ways.

Dr Worthington explains:  “Ea’s lines are a verbal trick which can be understood in different ways which are phonetically identical. Besides the obvious positive reading promising food, I found multiple negative ones which warn of the impending catastrophe. Ea is clearly a master wordsmith who is able to compress multiple simultaneous meanings into one duplicitous utterance.”

The Flood Tablet in the British Museum, which bears part of the Gilgamesh Flood story, is probably the world’s most famous clay tablet, and caused a global sensation when its significance was first discovered by Assyriologist George Smith in 1872.

Smith realised this tablet told the same story as Noah and the Ark in the Biblical book of Genesis. Although there were more gods involved than in Genesis, and the Babylonian hero had a different name, the two stories were recognisably the same, with animals taken aboard the ark before the flood and birds sent out at the end once the rain stopped.

Since Smith’s discovery many more clay tablets of the Babylonian flood story have come to light and academics are still analysing the meaning of stories in the ancient language that has not been spoken for 2000 years.

But why would a god lie in the Gilgamesh Flood story?

Dr Worthington explained: “Babylonian gods only survive because people feed them. If humanity had been wiped out, the gods would have starved.  The god Ea manipulates language and misleads people into doing his will because it serves his self-interest. Modern parallels are legion!”

Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood story, published by Routledge, will be launched tonight (November 26) in London.

An early example of fake news has been found in the 3000-year-old Babylonian story of Noah and the Ark, which is widely believed to have inspired the Biblical tale. Nine lines etched on ancient clay tablets that tell the Gilgamesh Flood story can now be understood in very different ways – according to a Cambridge academic.

Ea’s message seems to promise a rain of food, its hidden meaning warns of the Flood... It may be the earliest ever example of fake newsMartin WorthingtonThe Trustees of the British MuseumThe Adda Seal featuring the god Ea second from the rightAt dawn there will be cakes

Two of the nine lines from the flood story in Babylonian are:

ina šēr(-)kukkī

ina lilâti ušaznanakkunūši šamūt kibāti

The positive sounding interpretation:

At dawn there will be kukku-cakes,

in the evening he will rain down upon you a shower of wheat.

A negative interpretation:

By means of incantations,

by means of wind-demons, he will rain down upon you rain as thick as (grains of) wheat.

Another negative interpretation:

At dawn, he will rain down upon you darkness,

(then) in (this) pre-nocturnal twilight he will rain down upon you rain as thick as (grains of) wheat.


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Yes

Women in STEM: Amy Rankine

Thu, 21/11/2019 - 07:03

I first developed an interest in astronomy at high school during a project run by the University of St Andrews. I grew up in a small town on the East coast of Scotland, not far from St Andrews and so my high school was involved in the University’s First Chances project. The project was for pupils from the local area who would be the first in their family to go to university. I chose to investigate the different methods used to detect planets outside our Solar System and by the end of the project, I had decided that I wanted to study astrophysics at St Andrews. After graduating from university in 2017, I moved down to Cambridge to start my PhD in Astronomy.

Choosing to study for my PhD at Cambridge was the best decision I could have made.  The Institute of Astronomy is an extremely friendly, welcoming and inspiring place to work, with an array of research taking place — on exoplanets, star formation and galaxy evolution to name just a few areas. This really helps me to explore different ideas when it comes to my work; because I can speak to so many passionate researchers who each have a fresh perspective and their own expertise. Through my supervisors, I have access to international collaborators which will hopefully help broaden my career prospects in the future. I’m still considering what career path I want to take, but through my PhD, I hope to develop the skills to successfully transition into a postdoctoral researcher position, or into industry.

In my research, I investigate the relationship between galaxies and the supermassive black holes that sit at their centres. Hot gas swirls around the black hole before it reaches the event horizon, and just as hot metal shines red or even white, and stars shine bright, this hot gas emits a lot of radiation. We call these objects active galactic nuclei (AGNs) and some of them are the brightest objects we see in the Universe — so bright that they can outshine the rest of the host galaxy. I want to explore how the brightest of these objects (quasars) affect their host galaxies and investigate their role in galaxy evolution throughout the history of the Universe.

I spend most of my time writing code to analyse observations of these bright AGNs. At the moment, I work mostly with quasar spectra which tell us how much of different wavelengths of light is emitted by the quasars. The spectra can tell us a lot about the quasar; for example, how massive the black hole is. I also read a lot of scientific papers and attend talks at the Institute of Astronomy to keep up to date with my field and to satisfy my interest in other areas. I’ve given talks at international conferences which are also important in astronomy for sharing our work and forming collaborations.

A key moment for me was completing a summer research project during my undergraduate degree. I was awarded funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to complete the Cormack Vacation Scholarship, which allowed me to undertake a six-week research project. This was my first experience of research, and the project really opened my eyes to the possibilities of a career in academia. My project won the Cormack Undergraduate Research Prize, and the whole experience helped me decide to do a research degree. Beforehand, I didn’t think that research was something that I wanted to do, but after thoroughly enjoying the project I decided that a PhD was my next step.

There shouldn’t be anything that prevents anyone from following their passion.  My advice to any woman thinking about pursuing a degree or career in a STEM discipline would be to go ahead and do it! I was lucky enough to have a lot of support at home and at school but I know this isn’t the case for everyone. Reach out to other women in your chosen field and don’t be afraid to ask about opportunities open to you.

Amy Rankine is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Astronomy and a member of Clare Hall. Here, she tells us about being the first in her family to go to university, why she decided to pursue an academic career, and how the brightest things in the universe affect the formation of galaxies. 


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Yes

Students submit tips on preparing for University interviews

Wed, 20/11/2019 - 10:56

Current and former students offer tips on how to prepare for interviews and what to expect. Helpful hints range from chewing gum in the waiting room to relax, to wearing comfortable clothes and the advice covers the full range of Cambridge courses and Colleges.

The website has been used more than 20,000 times across 111 countries.

InsideUni (https://www.insideuni.org/about/) is the brainchild of Cambridge students Akil Hashmi and Tommy Gale. They set it up whilst Akil was in his second year of an engineering degree and Tommy was in his third year studying politics, after they were reminiscing about the “daunting” process of applying to the University. Both went to the same grammar school.

Tommy, who graduated last year and is now a social worker in London, was motivated by the challenges faced by students trying to apply without help from friends, family or their school.

“InsideUni was started to close the information gap between university applicants from different backgrounds. Some students get a lot of support when applying to university, others less so.

“The thing is, there's lots of great free support and advice out there. InsideUni hopes to crowdsource this knowledge and promote it in one place. That way everyone can get help.”

Interviews take place at any one of the 29 Colleges that admit undergraduates; applicants can apply to a particular College or be asked to be assigned to one randomly. Once there they’ll normally be given two interviews during the course of the day. Interviews are discussion based and are designed to be more of a conversation than an interrogation. What is being looked for is enthusiasm, and an ability to think independently about the chosen subject. The (normally two) interviewers might start with familiar material, but will then be interested in how candidates deal with increasingly unfamiliar ideas and problems.

But it can be hard to know how to prepare for the interview, especially if you haven’t had access to people who can give advice, and this can be nerve wracking. Akil and Tommy’s website is designed to give applicants reliable tips as well as insights into the experiences of others to help give everyone a good chance of doing themselves justice. What makes it special is that the advice provided comes directly from current students who have insights into the interview process.

Hundreds of students have volunteered to give help to those applying from state schools who may not have had much support in preparing for the interview. And the website has now expanded to incorporate advice to Oxford applicants too.

Akil says the not-for-profit enterprise would be nothing without the volunteers:

“The success of this project is really down to all the students who have shared their advice for no fee and shown they’re motivated more by mission than money. Applicants shouldn't have to pay for this information so it's brilliant to see how many young people our free website is now helping, particularly those who otherwise may have lacked free application support resources."

 

With the Cambridge and Oxford interview season around the corner, a website offering insider tips from well over a thousand Oxbridge students aims to support applicants who may have less understanding of the interview process.

Some students get a lot of support applying to University, others less soTommy Gale


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Yes

Wind more effective than cold air at cooling rooms naturally

Wed, 20/11/2019 - 07:30

The researchers found that a temperature difference between inside and outside has a remarkably small effect on how well a room is ventilated when ventilation is primarily driven by wind. In contrast, wind can increase ventilation rates by as much as 40% above that which is driven by a temperature difference between a room and the outdoors. The exact rate of ventilation will depend on the geometry of the room.

The results, reported in the journal Building and Environment, could be used to help designers and urban planners incorporate natural ventilation principles into their designs so that buildings can be kept at a comfortable temperature while using less energy

Heating and cooling account for a significant proportion of energy use in buildings: in the US, this is as high as 50 per cent. In addition, as global temperatures continue to rise, demand for air conditioning – which emits greenhouse gases – rises as well, creating a damaging feedback loop.

Natural ventilation, which controls indoor temperature without using any mechanical systems, is an alternative to traditional heating and cooling methods, which reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Natural ventilation is a low-energy way to keep buildings at a comfortable temperature, but in order to increase its use, we need simple, accurate models that can respond quickly to changing conditions,” said lead author Dr Megan Davies Wykes from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering.

There are two main types of natural cross-ventilation: wind-driven and buoyancy-driven. Cross-ventilation occurs in rooms that have windows on opposite sides of a room. Wind blowing on a building can result in a high pressure on the windward side and a low pressure at the leeward side, which drives flow across a room, bringing fresh air in from outside and ventilating a room. Ventilation can also be driven by temperature differences between the inside and outside of a room, as incoming air is heated by people or equipment, resulting in a buoyancy-driven flow at a window.

“We’ve all gotten used to having a well-controlled, narrow temperature range in our homes and offices,” said Davies Wykes. “Controlling natural ventilation methods is much more challenging than switching on the heat or the air conditioning, as you need to account for all the variables in a room, like the number of people, the number of computers or other heat-generating equipment, or the strength of the wind.”

In the current study, the researchers used a miniature model room placed inside a flume to recreate the movements of air inside a room when windows are opened in different temperature and wind conditions.

Using the results from lab-based experiments, Davies Wykes and her colleagues built mathematical models to predict how temperature difference between inside and outside affects how well a room is ventilated.

The researchers found that the rate of ventilation depends less on temperature and more on wind. Anyone who has tried to cool down on a hot night by opening the window will no doubt be familiar with how ineffective this is when there is no wind.

This is because in many rooms, windows are positioned halfway up the wall, and when they are opened, the warm air near the ceiling can’t easily escape. Without the ‘mixing’ effect provided by the wind, the warm air will stay at the ceiling, unless there is another way for it to escape at the top of the room.

“It was surprising that although temperature differences do not have a strong effect on the flow of air through a window, even small temperature differences can matter when trying to ventilate a room,” said Davies Wykes. “If there are no openings near the ceiling of a room, warm indoor air can become trapped near the ceiling and wind is not effective at removing the trapped air.”

The next steps will be to incorporate the results into building design, making it easier to create well ventilated, low energy buildings.

The study was part of the MAGIC (Managing Air for Green Inner Cities) project, which is developing computer models for natural ventilation, so that designers can incorporate natural ventilation into city design, reducing demand for energy. The MAGIC project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Reference:
M.S. Davies Wykes et al. ‘The effect of an indoor-outdoor temperature difference on transient cross-ventilation.’ Building and Environment (2019). DOI: 10.1016/j.buildenv.2019.106447

The effectiveness of non-mechanical, low-energy methods for moderating temperature and humidity has been evaluated in a series of experiments by researchers from the University of Cambridge.

Natural ventilation is a low-energy way to keep buildings at a comfortable temperature, but in order to increase its use, we need simple, accurate models that can respond quickly to changing conditionsMegan Davies Wykes Megan Davies Wykes and El Khansaa ChahourA laboratory experiment of a cross-ventilated room (side view)


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Yes

A decade after the predators have gone, Galapagos Island finches are still being spooked

Wed, 20/11/2019 - 05:01

The study found that the finches’ fearful responses – known as antipredator behaviour - were sustained through multiple generations after the threat was gone, which could have detrimental consequences for their survival.

The work by Dr Kiyoko Gotanda, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, is one of the first studies to look at behavioural adaptations in a species following the eradication of invasive predators. The research focused on one species of Darwin’s iconic finches - the small ground finch, Geospiza fuliginosa. Given their estimated life span, today’s finches are not likely to be the same birds that had originally developed the response to defend themselves from predators.

“These surprising results suggest that whatever influences this fearful behaviour is more complicated than just the presence or absence of invasive predators,” said Gotanda, sole author of the paper.

The Galapagos Islands provide a natural stage to compare different predator situations. Some islands have never had invasive predators, others currently have predators like domestic cats and rats that arrived with humans, while others have had these predators in the past and they have now been eradicated.

Gotanda found that finches on islands with predators were wary, and flew away from an approaching researcher - imitating an approaching predator - at a much greater distance than the finches on pristine islands without predators. This increased antipredator behaviour has been maintained on islands where invasive predators have been successfully eradicated, even though eradication happened eight and thirteen years earlier.

“While the mechanism for the transmission of the fearful behaviour through the generations requires further study, this sustained response has consequences for evaluating conservation efforts,” said Gotanda. “The time and energy finches spend spooking themselves by fleeing when they are not in danger could be better spent looking for food, mating, laying eggs, and rearing their young.” 

Conservation management of species of concern on islands often involves getting rid of invasive predators. Understanding how species adapt their behaviour once predators have been eradicated – and how quickly this occurs - could better inform efforts to support the recovery of a target species. Understanding the effects of human influence such as the introduction of invasive predators could help predict how species respond to rapidly changing environments.

Gotanda also looked at the effect of urbanisation on finch behaviour and found - as is generally seen in towns and cities - the birds were less fearful as they became used to the presence of humans. On some islands the urban finches were even bolder than those on islands that had never seen invasive predators at all. This could make them vulnerable to threats like these predators, which are present in urban areas on the Galapagos. This suggests that the effects of urbanisation on species are strong enough to counteract adaptations to other human influences such as invasive predators. 

When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands during his Voyage of the Beagle in 1835, he could famously get close enough to throw his hat over the birds. The animals were so unused to humans that they did not see Darwin – a potential predator - as a threat. Since then, the arrival of both humans and invasive predators such as cats and rats on many of the islands drove the birds to develop fear, and fly away at the sight of danger. Subsequent eradication efforts have been necessary to protect the iconic finches.

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship).

Reference
Gotanda, K.M. “Human influences on antipredator behaviour in Darwin’s finches.” Journal of Animal Ecology (2019). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.13127

On some of the Galapagos Islands where human-introduced predators of Darwin’s finches were eradicated over a decade ago, the finches are still acting as though they are in danger, according to research published today in the Journal of Animal Ecology

The time and energy finches spend spooking themselves by fleeing when they are not in danger could be better spent looking for food, mating, laying eggs, and rearing their young.Kiyoko GotandaKiyoko GotandaSmall ground finch Geospiza fuliginosaResearcher Profile: Dr Kiyoko Gotanda

Dr Kiyoko Gotanda is passionate about asking questions and working out how to answer them. She describes the Galapagos Islands as a ‘magical place’, with iconic species that do not exist anywhere else on Earth - such as Darwin's finches and marine iguanas. Her recent research on the Islands involved getting up each day at 4:45am.

“The finches are most active at dawn, so we had to have the mist nets set up to catch them before the sun rose,” she says. “We closed the nets around 10 or 11am, when it gets too hot to handle the finches, and returned later in the afternoon to do more work such as running trials to observe how the finches behave.”

Gotanda’s research aims to understand and predict how wild animals will respond to human influences such as urbanisation, domestication, and the introduction of invasive species. 

“Humans are changing our environment so rapidly that wildlife must respond and adapt, or potentially run the risk of going extinct,” she says. “I hope my research will lead to us being able to mitigate the negative effects humans can have.” 

Before research, Gotanda had a career as a ballet dancer with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. When she retired from dancing, she took an undergraduate degree in biology and volunteered in research labs. She went on to do her PhD and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Behavioural Ecology group of the University’s Department of Zoology.

Being awarded her Fellowship at Cambridge was an exciting prospect. “It was a new country, new university, new supervisor, and new colleagues,” she says, and she has never looked back. “It's been an absolute joy being able to work at Cambridge - it has allowed me to interact and work with some amazing researchers, and provided fantastic opportunities I would not have elsewhere. The exchanges I've had here have really helped me to grow and develop as a scientist.”

 


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YesLicense type: Attribution

Climate change could double greenhouse gas emissions from freshwater ecosystems

Mon, 18/11/2019 - 20:00

Small shallow lakes dominate the world’s freshwater area, and the sediments within them already produce at least one-quarter of all carbon-dioxide, and more than two-thirds of all methane that come from lakes. The new research, published in the journal PNAS, suggests that climate change may cause the levels of greenhouse gases emitted by freshwater northern lakes to increase by between 1.5 and 2.7 times. 

“What we’ve traditionally called ‘carbon’ in freshwater turns out to be a super-diverse mixture of different carbon-based organic molecules,” said Dr Andrew Tanentzap in Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, who led the research. “We’ve been measuring ‘carbon’ in freshwater as a proxy for everything from water quality to the productivity of freshwater ecosystems. Now we’ve realised that it’s the diversity of this invisible world of organic molecules that’s important.”

As the climate warms, vegetation cover is increasing in forests of the northern latitudes. By simulating this effect in two lakes in Ontario, Canada, the study found an increased diversity of organic molecules – molecules containing carbon within their structure – entering the water in the matter shed by nearby plants and trees. 

Organic molecules are a food source for microbes in the lake sediments, which break them down and release carbon dioxide and methane as by-products. Increasing levels of organic molecules can therefore enhance microbial activity and produce more greenhouse gases. 

Since the same microbes can make greenhouse gases from many different organic molecules, the diversity of organic molecules was shown to be more closely linked with levels of greenhouse gas concentrations than the diversity of the microbes. In addition, an elevated diversity of organic molecules may elevate greenhouse gas concentrations in waters because there are more molecules that can be broken down by sunlight penetrating the water. 

To conduct the research, containers were filled with varying ratios of rocks and organic material - consisting of deciduous and coniferous litter from nearby forests - and submerged in the shallow waters of the two lakes. Analysis of the samples two months later, using the techniques of ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry and next generation DNA sequencing, showed that the diversity of organic molecules was correlated with the diversity of microbial communities in the water, and that the diversity of both increased as the amount of organic matter increased. 

Accurately predicting carbon emissions from natural systems is vital to the reliability of calculations used to understand the pace of climate change, and the effects of a warmer world.

“Climate change will increase forest cover and change species composition, resulting in a greater variety of leaves and plant litter falling into waterways. We found that the resulting increase in the diversity of organic molecules in the water leads to higher greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Tanentzap. “Understanding these connections means we could look at ways to reduce carbon emissions in the future, for example by changing land management practices.”

Changing the vegetation around freshwater areas could change the organic molecules that end up in the water. The team is now expanding their study by taking samples from 150 lakes across Europe, to understand the broader ecological consequences of organic molecule diversity in natural freshwater systems.

This research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Reference

Tanentzap, A. J. et al: ‘Chemical and microbial diversity covary in fresh water to influence ecosystem functioning.' PNAS (2019). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1904896116 

Every drop of fresh water contains thousands of different organic molecules that have previously gone unnoticed. By measuring the diversity of these molecules and how they interact with the environment around them, research has revealed an invisible world that affects the functioning of freshwater ecosystems and can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. 

What we’ve traditionally called ‘carbon’ in freshwater turns out to be a super-diverse mixture of different carbon-based organic molecules.Andrew Tanentzap Jondolar Schnurr on PixabayCanadian lake


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Yes

Saving ‘Half-Earth’ for nature would affect over a billion people

Mon, 18/11/2019 - 11:22

As the extinction crisis escalates, and protest movements grow, some are calling for hugely ambitious conservation targets. Among the most prominent is sparing 50% of the Earth’s surface for nature.

‘Half-Earth’ and similar proposals have gained traction with conservationists and policy makers. However, little work has gone into identifying the social and economic implications for people.

Now, researchers have produced the first attempt to assess how many and who would be affected if half the planet was ‘saved’ in a way that secures the diversity of the world’s habitats.

A team of scientists analysed global datasets to determine where conservation status could be added to provide 50% protection to every “ecoregion”: large areas of distinct habitats such as Central African mangroves and Baltic mixed forests. 

Even avoiding where possible “human footprints” such as cities and farmland, their findings suggest a “conservative” estimate for those directly affected by Half Earth would be over one billion people, primarily in middle-income countries.

Many wealthy and densely populated nations in the Global North would also need to see major expansions of land with conservation status to reach 50% – this could even include parts of London, for example.

The study’s authors, led by University of Cambridge researchers, say that while radical action is urgently required for the future of life on Earth, issues of environmental justice and human wellbeing should be at the forefront of the conservation movement.

“People are the cause of the extinction crisis, but they are also the solution,” said Dr Judith Schleicher, who led the new study, published today in the journal Nature Sustainability. “Social issues must play a more prominent role if we want to deliver effective conservation that works for both the biosphere and the people who inhabit it.”

Towards the end of next year, the leaders of most of the world’s nations will aim to agree global targets for the future of conservation at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing.

“Goals that emerge from the Convention on Biological Diversity could define conservation for a generation,” said Schleicher, who conducted the research while at the University of Cambridge’s Conservation Research Institute and its Department of Geography.  

“We need to be ambitious given the environmental crises. But it is vital that social and economic implications at local levels are considered if the drivers of biodiversity loss are to be tackled. The lives of many people and the existence of diverse species hang in the balance.” 

The idea of a ‘Half-Earth’ for nature was popularised by famed biologist E.O. Wilson in his 2017 book of the same name. More recently, a ‘Global Deal for Nature’ – aiming for 30% protection by 2030 and 50% by 2050 – has been endorsed by a number of leading environmental organisations. However, these proposals have been ambiguous about “exact forms and location”, say Schleicher and colleagues. 

Based on their analyses, researchers cautiously estimate that an additional 760 million people would find themselves living in areas with new conservation status: a fourfold increase of the 247 million who currently reside inside protected areas.

The team call for proponents of Half-Earth, and all supporters of area-based conservation, to “recognise and take seriously” the human consequences – both negative and positive – of their proposals.   

“Living in areas rich in natural habitat can boost mental health and wellbeing. In some cases, protected areas can provide new jobs and income through ecotourism and sustainable production,” said Schleicher.

“However, at the other extreme, certain forms of ‘fortress’ conservation can see people displaced from their ancestral home and denied access to resources they rely on for their survival.”

While conservation coverage has been increasing, species numbers continue to plummet – suggesting a “disconnect” between international targets and implementation at local and regional levels, argue the team. 

“Conservation needs strong action to protect life on earth, but this must be done in a way that takes account of people and their needs,” said co-author Dr Chris Sandbrook from Cambridge’s Department of Geography.

“Failing to consider social issues will lead to conservation policy that is harmful to human wellbeing and less likely to be implemented in the first place.”    

Conservation is not just a problem for people of the Global South. Recent reports on UK wildlife revealed devastating declines in iconic species. Yet the study reveals that achieving 50% ecoregion coverage could even see parts of central London become protected. “It highlights the absurdity of hitting arbitrary targets,” Sandbrook said.  

Plans to save biodiversity must take into account the social impacts of conservation if they are to succeed, say University of Cambridge researchers.

Goals that emerge from the Convention on Biological Diversity could define conservation for a generationJudith SchleicherKate Ter HaarProtected area


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YesLicense type: Attribution