Gender inequality is ‘drowning out’ the voices of women scientists

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 04/24/2018 - 16:00

Dr Heather Ford and her colleagues analysed data from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting and found that, overall; female scientists are offered fewer opportunities than men to present their research.

The team examined the gender, career stage and type of presentation delivered by each participant from 2014 to 2016. They found that female members are at a disadvantage because the majority of them are students or in the early stages of their careers, groups whose members are typically given fewer chances to present their research. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Conference speakers are often at more senior stages of their careers, where there are usually fewer women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields. A further problem is that men are more likely to provide speaking opportunities to other men, potentially limiting women’s career prospects.

“The burden of representation often falls on under-represented groups. We need the majority groups to think about representation, otherwise minority voices will continue to be drowned out,” said Ford, who is a NERC Independent Research Fellow in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences.

However, the research showed some positive signs, as women were invited at a much higher rate than men in the early and mid- career stages.

The researchers are calling for more students and early career researchers to have opportunities to speak at future conferences, in a bid to help some of the many female members who are at the beginning of their careers. They also want to see more women selecting the conference speakers, and suggest that all members may benefit from diversity training before they can invite speakers and assign conference presentations.

Attending and presenting at conferences helps academics at every stage of their careers to build their network, meet potential collaborators and share their research. Conferences are important for career progression, and can be key in helping researchers to find funding and receive job offers. Presenting at academic conferences can also help researchers to gain recognition and awards for their work. 

Ford says she and her co-author Petra Dekens from San Francisco State University were motivated to look into this topic after sitting in “too many conference sessions” with either no female speakers, or a single female speaker.

The global context is also an important issue for Ford, particular the ongoing campaign for gender equality. She said; “A lot of women have been motivated to speak out about gender inequality in the past year – people are much more vocal about how they’ve been treated. I wanted to find a productive way to channel my frustrations.”

The AGU Fall Meeting is the world’s largest geoscience conference, with more than 22,000 presentation proposals each year. The AGU has more than 60,000 members in 137 countries, and around a third of its members are women. Geoscience is one of the least diverse STEM fields.

Heather L. Ford et al. ‘'Gender inequity in speaking opportunities at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.’ Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03809-5

A University of Cambridge researcher is calling for the voices of women to be given a fairer platform at a leading scientific conference.

We need the majority groups to think about representation, otherwise minority voices will continue to be drowned out.Heather L. FordInternational Council for ScienceMargaret Leinen at the 2012 AGU Fall Meeting

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

YesLicense type: Attribution-Noncommerical
Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

New home for Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology officially opened

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 04/24/2018 - 14:00

The new building is the first of its kind to house the whole cycle of scientific investigation in chemical engineering and biotechnology, and its teaching and commercialisation, under one roof: from fundamental research right through to technology innovation, development and spin-out.

The Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology was formed in 2008 by the merger of Chemical Engineering with the former Institute of Biotechnology. The Department works at the interfaces between engineering, chemistry, biology and physics. Its scientists work together with industry leaders and entrepreneurs at the interfaces of these science disciplines to develop innovative solutions to a range of global challenges: from finding new ways to create sustainable energies and conserve the environment to developing innovative healthcare technologies to diagnose and combat disease.

“We create a unique multidisciplinary research environment within the University, in which collaborations with academic and industrial organisations flourish,” said Professor John Dennis, Head of Department

“In this new home the Department draws together expertise that bridges traditional boundaries of chemical engineering and biotechnology” said the Chancellor in his remarks. “It is also the home of a Department which has an outstanding track record of innovation. Its research spans from artificial heart valves to affordable disease diagnostic tools. Partnerships are the key: with entrepreneurs and companies around our city; with health partners near and far; with NGOs and institutes across the globe.”

Today’s opening ceremony was followed by tours of the new building, demonstrations of some of the department’s world-leading research, and overviews of its teaching and learning activities.

The construction of the building was supported by donations from the Wolfson Foundation, Infinitus (China) Company Ltd, Johnson Matthey Plc, the Garfield Weston Foundation, Dr Robin Paul, and the Gillham Charitable Trust.

The new building was designed by BDP architects, with a project team that includes Ramboll UK as civil and structural engineers and Hoare Lea as services engineers.

It features a wide range of biological laboratories to Bio Safety Levels Two and Three, cleanrooms, sensitive laser, optics and imaging laboratories, a Magnetic Resonance Research Centre, materials and processes laboratories and an undergraduate teaching laboratory.

The undergraduate teaching facilities support these laboratories through dedicated spaces that include two 120-seat lecture theatres, a postgraduate open plan researcher write-up space, and academic and administrative offices.

A new home for the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology on the University’s West Cambridge site was formally opened today by the University Chancellor, The Lord Sainsbury of Turville. 

In this new home the Department draws together expertise that bridges traditional boundaries of chemical engineering and biotechnology. Lord Sainsbury of TurvilleDepartment of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Sense of control and meaning helps protect women from anxiety, study suggests

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 04/24/2018 - 00:13

The study, published today in BMJ Open, found that women who had these traits did not have anxiety, even if they were living in the most deprived circumstances, but women who did not feel that they were in control of their lives and who lacked purpose and meaning in life had high levels of anxiety when facing the hardships of living in deprivation. The study could help researchers develop new ways of teaching women how to overcome anxiety.   

Anxiety disorders can manifest as fear, restlessness, an inability to concentrate on work or school tasks, and difficulty in falling asleep at night.  In some cases, anxiety can arise out of the blue as in a panic attack, when sudden spikes of intense anxiety make the sufferer think they are having a heart attack, ‘going mad’, or even dying.  In other cases, it is triggered by specific situations, such as being on a bus or at a social gathering, and symptoms such as sweating, gastrointestinal discomfort, dizziness, and chest pains may ensue. 

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health problems and their annual cost in the United States is estimated to be $42.3 billion.  In the European Union, they affect over 60 million people in a given year. 

Despite anxiety disorders being common and costly, few studies have looked at what makes some people have anxiety when going through tough times, while others facing the exact same situations are able to maintain good mental health.  National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)-funded researchers from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health used data from over 10,000 British women who had responded to a structured health and lifestyle questionnaire.  The questionnaire included a measure of Sense of Coherence, which is a personality disposition. 

Women living in deprivation but who reported the following traits were less likely to have anxiety: believing they were in control of their lives, believing their lives made sense, and having a purpose and meaning in life.  Women living in deprivation but without these desirable traits had high levels of anxiety.  In fact, women in deprived communities without these traits were almost twice as likely to have anxiety as women living in more affluent communities. 

“This study sheds light on inner strengths or qualities that we may have which can protect us from anxiety when we’re exposed to hardships, such as living in deprivation,” says first author and PhD candidate Olivia Remes. “Fostering such strengths or traits may be useful for people who do not respond well to medication or other therapies for anxiety, and further research would be needed on this.”

The researchers say that living in deprivation can lead to a sense of meaninglessness among individuals, and can give rise to poor mental health and suicide.  In deprived communities, people are more fearful of their neighbours, assaults are more likely to happen, and it is difficult to form close relationships with others.  The total number of people living in deprivation worldwide is large; as such, the results of this study are particularly important.   

“This study takes a different approach to mental health,” continues Professor Carol Brayne, Director of the Cambridge Institute of Public Health.  “Up until now, most studies have looked at what makes someone prone to disease, and the risk factors for ill health.  But we have taken a different approach.  Instead of looking at risk factors for disease, we are looking at traits or strengths that we have within us that can help us maintain good mental health and overcome adversity.

“The study could help researchers develop new ways to approach how women can be helped to overcome anxiety, and also highlights the key role of context in our mental health.”

Dr Louise Lafortune, Senior Research Associate at the institute, explains: “Anxiety disorders are common, debilitating, and impairing.  Now we know that people who feel that they are in control of their lives, who believe that life makes sense, and who have found purpose and meaning are less likely to have anxiety even if they are going through hardships, such as living in deprivation.”

Remes, O. et al. Sense of coherence as a coping mechanism for women with anxiety living in deprivation: British population study. BMJ Open; Tuesday 24 April; DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-018501

People who feel in control of their lives and who find purpose and meaning in life are less likely to have anxiety disorders even when going through the toughest times, according to a study led by the University of Cambridge.

This study sheds light on inner strengths or qualities that we may have which can protect us from anxiety when we’re exposed to hardships, such as living in deprivationOlivia RemesLeon BissWoman contemplates sunriseResearcher Profile: Olivia Remes

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems, and if left untreated, can lead to substance abuse, depression, and risk of suicide. Yet little seems to known about its causes and consequences.

It is to address this gap in our knowledge that Olivia Remes, originally from Canada, is carrying out research for her PhD. She has been looking at who is most affected by anxiety, some of the factors that can give rise to it, and the impact that untreated illness can have on society. 

“Anxiety is not only very costly for society in terms of high health service use, work absenteeism and decreased work productivity, but it can cause much suffering to those affected,” she says.

To carry out her research, Olivia uses data from the European Prospective Investigation of Cancer in Norfolk, one of the largest cohort studies looking at chronic diseases, mental health, and the way people live their lives.

Olivia is keenly aware of the importance of sharing her research with other academics, policy-makers and the public, often through the media. This led to significant interest when she published her findings on the burden of anxiety around the world, with radio and TV interviews across the BBC and other media outlets.

“It was truly exhilarating. Knowing that I had done something to increase awareness about anxiety and that I was able to reach people with key messages from my research was very rewarding,” she says.

“As I started received personal messages from people suffering from anxiety, I felt that all the hard work I had done to bring this condition to light was truly worthwhile.  It made me persevere in my research and gave me hope that, through my work, I can have a positive impact on people’s lives.” 

Olivia hopes her research will help inform prevention and intervention efforts directed to help those suffering from anxiety, but also that it will lead to greater awareness of the condition. “I hope that, as more studies on anxiety come out, more people will start talking about this condition and will seek help if experiencing symptoms without feeling embarrassed or ashamed.” 

Studying at Cambridge has given her the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the brightest minds in the field, she says.

“The postgrad community is also very welcoming – the Colleges organize many events for students throughout the year, providing opportunities to meet many wonderful people from all over the world,” she says. “I have made many friendships here that I will treasure for many years to come. Cambridge is an inspiring place steeped in history, and is dedicated to inspiring innovation.  I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy every minute here.”

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

YesLicense type: Public Domain
Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Cambridge welcomes royal baby

Cambridge Council Feed - Mon, 04/23/2018 - 13:56

Following the announcement of the birth of the royal baby boy, Cllr George Pippas, Mayor of Cambridge, said: “This is wonderful news and I know there will be many people in Cambridge who will be delighted to hear of the new arrival.

“I have written to their Royal Highnesses to offer congratulations and to wish them joy and happiness.”

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Mechanism behind neuron death in motor neurone disease and frontotemporal dementia discovered

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 04/20/2018 - 14:14

Writing in Cell, the researchers from the University of Cambridge and University of Toronto also identify potential therapeutic targets for these currently incurable diseases.

ALS is a progressive and terminal disease that damages the function of nerves and muscle, affecting up to 5,000 adults in the UK at any one time. Frontotemporal dementia is a form of dementia that causes changes in personality and behaviour, and language difficulties.

A common characteristic of ALS and frontotemporal dementia is the build-up of clumps of misfolded RNA-binding proteins, including a protein called FUS, in the brain and spinal cord.  This leads to the death of neurons, which stops them from communicating with each other and from reaching the muscles.

FUS proteins can change back and forth from small liquid droplets (resembling oil droplets in water) to small gels (like jelly) inside nerve cells. As the FUS protein condenses (from droplets to gel) it captures RNA and transfers it to remote parts of the neuron that are involved in making connections (known as synapses) with other neurons. Here, the protein ‘melts’ and releases the RNA. The RNA are then used to create new proteins in the synapses, which are essential for keeping the synapses working properly, especially during memory formation and learning.  

In frontotemporal dementia and ALS, the proteins become permanently stuck as abnormally dense gels, trapping the RNA and making it unavailable for use. This damages nerve cells by blocking their ability to make the proteins needed for synaptic function and leads to the death of neurons in the brain and spinal cord.

In research funded by Wellcome, scientists used human cells that resembled neurons and neurons from frogs to investigate how the change in FUS from liquid droplets to small gels process is regulated and what makes it go awry. They found that this reversible process was tightly controlled by enzymes which chemically alter FUS making it able or unable to form droplets and gels. In frontotemporal dementia, the abnormal gelling was found to be caused by defects in the chemical modification of FUS. In motor neuron disease, it was caused by mutations in the FUS protein itself which meant it was no longer able to change form.

This research provides new ideas and tools to find ways to prevent or reverse the abnormal gelling of FUS as a treatment for these devastating diseases. Potential therapeutic targets identified by the researchers are the enzymes that regulate the chemical modification of FUS and the molecular chaperones that facilitate FUS proteins to change its form. These treatments would need to allow FUS to continue moving between safe reversible states (liquid droplets and reversible gels) but prevent FUS from dropping into the dense, irreversible gel states that cause disease.

Professor Peter St George-Hyslop from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research said: “This was a very exciting set of experiments where we were able to apply cutting edge tools from physics, chemistry and neurobiology to understand how the FUS protein normally works in nerve cells, and how it goes wrong in motor neurone disease and dementia. It now opens up a new avenue of work to use this knowledge to identify ways to prevent the abnormal gelling of FUS in motor neurone disease and dementia.”

Dr Giovanna Lalli, from Wellcome’s Neuroscience and Mental Health team, said: “Motor neurone disease and frontotemporal dementia are devastating diseases that affect thousands of people across the UK, resulting in severe damage to the brain and spinal cord. By bringing together an interdisciplinary team of researchers, this study provides important new insights into a fundamental process underlying neurodegeneration. Through their research, the team have uncovered promising new ways to tackle these diseases.”

Qamar, S et al. FUS Phase Separation Is Modulated by a Molecular Chaperone and Methylation of Arginine Cation-π Interactions. Cell; 19 Apr 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.03.056

Adapted from a press release by Wellcome

Scientists have identified the molecular mechanism that leads to the death of neurons in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or motor neurone disease) and a common form of frontotemporal dementia.

This was a very exciting set of experiments where we were able to apply cutting edge tools from physics, chemistry and neurobiology to understand how the FUS protein normally works in nerve cells, and how it goes wrong in motor neurone disease and dementiaPeter St George-HyslopColiN00BNerve cells

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

New innovation hub aims to take a 'moon shot' at cystic fibrosis

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 04/18/2018 - 15:01

John Winn’s office at Microsoft Research looks like that of any typical academic: on one wall is a whiteboard graffitied with impenetrable equations and mathematical scribblings, on the opposite wall books and files line shelves, and on his desk are photos of his family.

His desk, however, is somewhat different: it can rise or fall, depending on whether he wants to work standing or sitting – and underneath is a treadmill for walking and working at the same time. “There have been times when I’ve been deep in thought and almost fallen off it,” he jokes.

Winn has cystic fibrosis (CF) and keeping fit is an important part of managing his condition: the stronger his lung function, the better equipped he is to fight the potentially life-threatening infections that plague people living with the condition.

CF occurs when an individual inherits two copies of a single genetic variant, one from each parent. The disease causes a build-up of thick, sticky mucous in the lungs, intestines and organs, and those affected by the condition are particularly susceptible to lung infections leading to progressive inflammatory lung damage. Although life expectancy for people with CF has almost doubled in recent decades, it is still significantly below average.

Winn is a machine learning specialist and is using his expertise to fight the condition that affects his everyday life. Together with Professor Andres Floto from the Department of Medicine at Cambridge, he is turning data from the daily lives of people with cystic fibrosis into potentially life-saving information.

As part of this study, funded by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and Papworth Hospital, participants have been submitting data – everything from heart rate and lung function through to self-reported wellbeing – via an app that also monitors their activity levels. Machine learning then sifts through the data, looking for patterns and – it’s hoped – building a model that can predict when a patient’s health is about to deteriorate and advise them to seek medical help.

“The overarching principle is about giving people control over their own health data and making it work for them,” says Winn. “There’s some informal feedback that just participating in the study and taking these readings has already improved health outcomes for some individuals: for example, it’s helped with adherence with taking their medications as they noticed that if they missed taking certain medicines, their readings got worse.”

The project is just one strand of a major new Cystic Fibrosis Innovation Hub based on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus and run by Floto. The Hub is supported through a £5 million commitment from the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and matching funds from the University of Cambridge. It will strengthen existing collaborations across the University and with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, as well as build new collaborative research networks with CF centres around the UK. The Trust’s Chief Executive, David Ramsden, said it will “provide in CF research across the country”.

Floto agrees with this sentiment: “We have an opportunity to uplift UK CF research in general by providing knowhow, training and reagents in a number of areas including genomics, bioinformatics, stem cells and clinical trials technology.”

A major part of the Hub’s activities will be around developing new drugs that target chronic inflammation in CF, in collaboration with the pharmaceutical company GSK as part of the GSK/Cambridge Strategic Partnership, as well as new antibiotic therapy for the main causes of lung infection in the condition.

Finding new drugs against these bacteria is becoming increasingly urgent – Floto and Professor Julian Parkhill at Sanger recently showed that Mycobacterium abscessus, the pathogen behind one of the most serious infections, is becoming increasingly multi-drug resistant and spreading globally. This is one reason why people with CF are advised not to meet each other.

“Clearly the techniques that we develop – and the drug-like molecules that come out of it – will have more general applicability to patients with other multi-drug resistant infections,” Floto says. This will be welcome news to England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, who has warned of a future where “any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can’t be treated by antibiotics.”

The timing of all this is particularly good: Papworth Hospital, whose Adult Cystic Fibrosis Centre has gained a national and international reputation for its treatment of patients and its contribution to research, is due to move to the Biomedical Campus later in 2018. The CF wards will feature state-of-the-art air flow systems, designed with Floto’s work on the spread of multi-drug resistant CF pathogens in mind.

This close proximity between the patients and the researchers will help Floto test the new treatments he is pioneering. He is particularly excited about the potential for new cellular therapies he’s developing with Professor Ludovic Vallier at the Department of Surgery. Floto describes these as their “moon shot”. These would involve taking cells from a CF patient, re-programming them – correcting the genetic defect along the way – and then re-injecting them into patients. “This could provide a way to regenerate damaged lungs,” he says.

Floto knows his plans for the Hub are ambitious, but given that it’s almost 30 years since the gene that causes CF was discovered and there is still no cure for the disease, believes it’s time to take this shot at the moon.

Floto’s collaborators in the CF Innovation Hub include Chris Abell (Chemistry), Sir Tom Blundell (Biochemistry), Julian Parkhill and Ludovic Vallier.

Almost 30 years on from the discovery of the genetic defect that causes cystic fibrosis, treatment options are still limited and growing antibiotic resistance presents a grave threat. Now, a team of researchers from across Cambridge, in a major new centre supported by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, hopes to turn fortunes around.

We have an opportunity to uplift UK cystic fibrosis research in general by providing knowhow, training and reagents in a number of areas including genomics, bioinformatics, stem cells and clinical trials technologyAndres FlotoCambridge Biomedical CampusA no-strings-attached scientific relationship

Professor Claire Bryant, like Floto, works on an inflammatory lung disease as part of the GSK/Cambridge Strategic Partnership. In her case, she’s looking at chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is a condition caused by smoking, pollution and severe asthma. Bryant is looking in particular at how COPD makes the lungs ‘stickier’ to bacteria, increasing the risk of infections.

She holds two grants under the GSK/Cambridge Strategic Partnership, which aims to develop the next wave of ‘game-changing’ medicines by bringing academic and industrial expertise together to tackle often intractable disease. Based at Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, Bryant currently has a three-day-a-week sabbatical at GSK’s headquarters in Stevenage. As such, it’s arguable whether anyone embodies the partnership more than she does.

The three-year sabbatical provides Bryant with three postdocs, two PhD students and budget, with access to GSK resources, but with “no strings attached”. The only proviso is that if she works with a GSK reagent, they have first rights on what she does with this. Crucially, she says, it gives her “the space to think”.

Bryant is embedded in GSK’s Respiratory Drug Discovery Unit and attends its lab meeting every week. “I’ve met really smart, clever scientists at GSK, with different skills to those of us in academia,” she says. “I get to see all aspects of what happens at GSK, everything from how a target is identified to how drugs are developed to target it, through to taking these drugs to clinical trials. I see the whole spectrum.”

It is, though, a mutually beneficial programme, she stresses. Bryant brings her knowledge of innate immunity and her experience of multi-disciplinary collaborations, particularly in imaging. “It’s effectively like being a consultant,” she says. “I want them to get as much out of me as I do out of them.”

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Environmental report highlights Cambridge’s progress towards sustainability goals

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 04/18/2018 - 09:17

In the foreword to the report, Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope writes: “The University of Cambridge leads the world in many fields of academic endeavour, including making essential contributions to the global journey toward a more sustainable future. In the course of carrying out our research, we should not lose sight of the fact that how we carry out our research, and all of the work that supports it, also has an environmental impact.

“Through our 2015 vision, policy and strategy, we made a commitment to achieve outstanding environmental performance and we are seeing the positive impact of our efforts in some areas; however, we also recognise that we must do more to achieve our aspirations on a range of fronts.”

The report aims to be transparent regarding our progress and recognises that we need to do more emphasises the role that every member of the University has in helping the institution achieve its sustainability goals.

Among some of the highlights in this year’s report are:


The performance of the Universal bus, which operates from Madingley Park & Ride to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus via the railway station, has significantly exceeded expectations: the number of University passengers are up by 73%, and user satisfaction has increased to 85%. However, the percentage of staff using sustainable modes of transport to commute to work slipped just below our 75% target this year.

Energy and Carbon

The University spent £2.9 million on energy efficiency projects last year, the highest amount so far, and its direct carbon emissions fell for the third year running. However, its indirect emissions (from sources such as air travel) increased.


Despite its overall waste volumes increasing significantly due to several large construction projects, the University’s ‘zero waste to landfill’ contract has seen the environmental impact of its waste considerably reduced. It has also seen the rates of recycling for construction projects steadily fall over recent years.

“Virtually every aspect of activity across the University has some environmental sustainability impact,” says Kevin Couling, Interim Head of Environment and Energy. “Every individual working or studying at the University has a role to play in taking action to reduce their environmental impact. Cambridge is strongest when we work together. This is why we are encouraging everyone to take part in the Cambridge Green Challenge.”

The 2016 report, produced by the Environment and Energy team at the University of Cambridge, won a Green Gown award for Sustainability Reporting, with clear reporting of key performance indicators and progress against targets.

Environmental Sustainability Report 2017

The University has published its Environmental Sustainability Report 2017, setting out its progress over the past 12 months, including key achievements and where there is room for improvement.

Every individual working or studying at the University has a role to play in taking action to reduce their environmental impact. Cambridge is strongest when we work togetherKevin CoulingSir CamCambridge in Autumn: Bicycles at Trinity College

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

‘Cognitive flexibility’ associated with voting attitudes in EU Referendum, study finds

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 04/16/2018 - 20:01

A new study suggests that the way our brains process everyday information helps to shape our ideological beliefs and political decision-making – including attitudes towards the UK’s 2016 EU Referendum.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge combined objective cognitive tests with questionnaires designed to gauge social and political attitudes in a sample of over 300 UK citizens, to investigate the psychological underpinnings of nationalistic attitudes.

The study examined differences in “cold cognition”: emotionally-neutral decision making based on attention and recall (as opposed to “hot cognition”, which is influenced by emotion).

Researchers measured the extent to which an individual displays a more “flexible” or more “persistent” cognitive style. Cognitive flexibility is characterised by adapting with greater ease to change, while cognitive persistence reflects a preference for stability through adherence to more defined information categories.

The findings demonstrate that those who displayed higher cognitive flexibility were less likely to support authoritarian and nationalistic ideological stances. They were also more likely to support remaining in the EU as well as immigration and free movement of labour. Cognitive persistence was associated with more conservative and nationalistic attitudes, which in turn predicted support for leaving the EU.

The research was conducted by scientists from the University’s Department of Psychology and is published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Voting is often thought to be an emotional decision. People describe ‘voting with their heart’ or having a gut reaction to particular politicians,” said Leor Zmigrod, lead researcher and Gates Cambridge Scholar.

“While emotion is clearly integral to political decision-making, our research suggests that non-emotional cognitive information processing styles, such as adaptability to change, also play a key role in shaping ideological behavior and identity.”

“By connecting the realm of cognition with that of ideology, we find that flexibility of thought may have far-reaching consequences for social and political attitudes,” she said.

All the study’s 332 participants were cognitively healthy adults who completed two classic evaluations of cognitive flexibility: a card-sorting task involving shifting categorisation by shape and colour, and a neutral word association task.

Participants also consented to providing responses to standardized questions on topics such as attitudes towards immigration and citizenship, and personal attachment to the UK. All data were anonymised and controlled for a number of factors including age and education.

With her Cambridge colleagues Dr Jason Rentfrow and Prof Trevor Robbins, Zmigrod constructed rigorous statistical models that revealed a tendency towards cognitive flexibility in the tests predicted ideological orientations that were less authoritarian, nationalistic, and conservative. This in turn predicted reduced support for Brexit.

“Our findings suggest that persistent adherence to a set of rules in a basic card-sorting game is associated with support for traditional social values and conservative political attitudes,” said Rentfrow. 

The researchers also found that participants who reported greater reliance on routines and traditions in their daily lives, and who strongly favored certainty over uncertainty, were more likely to prefer the traditionalism and perceived stability offered by nationalistic, authoritarian, and conservative ideologies. Increased dependence on daily routines was also related to greater support for Brexit and immigration control.

Participants were asked about their agreement with post-Referendum political attitudes. Those who supported the statement “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” and opposed the statement “the Government has a right to remain in the EU if the costs are too high” exhibited a tendency towards cognitive persistence.

“The results suggest that psychological preferences for stability and consistency may translate into attitudes that favour uniformity and a more defined national identity,” said Zmigrod.

The researchers point out that the sample size is limited, and the correlations – while strong – are on general trends in the data. “Ideologies such as nationalism are highly complex constructs, and there are many reasons people believe what they do and vote the way they do,” added Zmigrod.

“In today’s politically-polarised climate, it is important to understand more about the psychological processes behind nationalistic and social attitudes if we are to build bridges between communities.”

Latest research combining social and political surveys with objective cognitive testing suggests that “cognitive flexibility” contributes to formation of ideology. The study finds correlations between cognitive thinking styles and support for Brexit.

By connecting the realm of cognition with that of ideology, we find that flexibility of thought may have far-reaching consequences for social and political attitudesLeor ZmigrodMegan TraceBrexit March

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

YesLicense type: Attribution-Noncommerical
Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Some superconductors can also carry currents of ‘spin’

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 04/16/2018 - 16:00

Spin is a particle’s intrinsic angular momentum, and is normally carried in non-superconducting, non-magnetic materials by individual electrons. Spin can be ‘up’ or ‘down’, and for any given material, there is a maximum length that spin can be carried. In a conventional superconductor electrons with opposite spins are paired together so that a flow of electrons carries zero spin.

A few years ago, researchers from the University of Cambridge showed that it was possible to create electron pairs in which the spins are aligned: up-up or down-down. The spin current can be carried by up-up and down-down pairs moving in opposite directions with a net charge current of zero. The ability to create such a pure spin supercurrent is an important step towards the team’s vision of creating a superconducting computing technology which could use massively less energy than the present silicon-based electronics.

Now, the same researchers have found a set of materials which encourage the pairing of spin-aligned electrons, so that a spin current flows more effectively in the superconducting state than in the non-superconducting (normal) state. Their results are reported in the journal Nature Materials.

“Although some aspects of normal state spin electronics, or spintronics, are more efficient than standard semiconductor electronics, their large-scale application has been prevented because the large charge currents required to generate spin currents waste too much energy,” said Professor Mark Blamire of Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, who led the research. “A fully-superconducting method of generating and controlling spin currents offers a way to improve on this.”

In the current work, Blamire and his collaborators used a multi-layered stack of metal films in which each layer was only a few nanometres thick. They observed that when a microwave field was applied to the films, it caused the central magnetic layer to emit a spin current into the superconductor next to it.

“If we used only a superconductor, the spin current is blocked once the system is cooled below the temperature when it becomes a superconductor,” said Blamire. “The surprising result was that when we added a platinum layer to the superconductor, the spin current in the superconducting state was greater than in the normal state.”

Although the researchers have shown that certain superconductors can carry spin currents, so far these only occur over short distances. The next step for the research team is to understand how to increase the distance and how to control the spin currents.

The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Kun-Rok Jeon et al. ‘Enhanced spin pumping into superconductors provides evidence for superconducting pure spin currents.’ Nature Materials (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41563-018-0058-9

Researchers have shown that certain superconductors – materials that carry electrical current with zero resistance at very low temperatures – can also carry currents of ‘spin’. The successful combination of superconductivity and spin could lead to a revolution in high-performance computing, by dramatically reducing energy consumption. 

Jason RobinsonConceptual image of spin current flow in a superconductor

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Time running out for registering to vote on 3 May

Cambridge Council Feed - Mon, 04/16/2018 - 15:43

RESIDENTS who have not yet registered to vote in the local elections on 3 May are being urged to do so before Tuesday night’s deadline.

Residents wishing to vote in the city council elections can still register to vote online up until 11.59pm tomorrow, Tuesday 17 April.

To register, people need to visit and have their National Insurance number to hand. The process should only take a few minutes.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

New Cambridge institute to tackle policy challenges in our age of disruption

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 04/16/2018 - 00:06

A major gift from Cambridge alumnus and philanthropist Peter Bennett has enabled the launch of a groundbreaking new institute at the University of Cambridge dedicated to researching solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing society in the 21st century.

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy has been founded to address the new patterns of inequality and social unrest emerging around the globe, while training the policy-makers of tomorrow.

Its researchers will investigate the ways in which scientific or technical expertise and policy choices interrelate, in a world where so many now feel that the economic and political odds are stacked against them.

Led by inaugural Director, Professor Michael Kenny, and the Bennett Professor of Public Policy, economist Diane Coyle, the Institute will combine fundamental research and rigorous analysis with the search for new practical solutions to challenges such as the digital divide, resource scarcity and the need for more equitable growth.

“We live in an age of unprecedented disruption. More and more people are disenchanted with politics, and many feel that the rules of the economic game are rigged. At the same time, technological innovations and breakthroughs in scientific knowledge are gathering speed,” said Professor Kenny.

“Public policy thinking needs to engage much more deeply with the challenges which these trends pose. It is time to set aside the ingrained assumption that there are technical fixes or ready-made solutions to our most intractable problems.”

“We want the new Institute to become one of the primary academic venues across the world for understanding these changes and devising responses to them. It will offer a unique combination of deep research, high-level training and effective policy engagement.”

The Bennett Institute aims to blend Cambridge’s world-class research in technology and science with analysis of the political dimensions of policy. Based at the Department of Politics and International Studies, it will be launching interdisciplinary research programmes on policy challenges in different parts of the world – from California to Calcutta, as well as in the city of Cambridge itself.

The Institute is already establishing research projects on the constitutional future of the UK and Ireland post-Brexit and the increasing role of ‘GovTech’ as states grapple with digital technologies.

The territory linking the knowledge our societies produce with the decisions taken by policymakers is becoming harder than ever to navigate, says Professor Coyle.

“The tensions between expertise and public participation are an unavoidable feature of our complex, technology-powered global world. Universities have a vital civic role to play in this context, ensuring that their accumulated expertise and new knowledge contribute to the development of solutions to significant policy challenges.”

“The trend toward the creation of new independent policy institutes such as the Bennett Institute marks the growing recognition of this responsibility by the academic world. There could not be a more important time to be launching this endeavour.”

Peter Bennett established the Peter Bennett Foundation in 2012 to seek innovative ways to reduce poverty and promote equality. He has a long-standing belief in the role of public policy as the most effective way to reach solutions to major social issues.

He said: “It has long been my vision to see a global institute that can work to address one of the greatest challenges of our age – that for so many of the world’s citizens, the economic and political odds are stacked against them.”

“The Bennett Institute for Public Policy will harness the remarkable research in technology and science at Cambridge with the economic and political dimensions of policy-making. I am confident that under the leadership of Michael Kenny and Diane Coyle, it will be a leading force in achieving sustainable solutions to some of our most pressing global problems.”

The Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said: “This is a very significant launch for Cambridge. The world faces a new age of anxiety, marked by the widespread distrust in business-as-usual politics. Cambridge must take a lead in bringing its unique breadth and depth of expertise to respond to social, political and economic conditions. We are enormously grateful for this generous gift from Peter Bennett. I am certain that the Bennett Institute for Public Policy will be transformational.”

Cambridge launched its £2 billion Dear World… Yours, Cambridge philanthropic campaign for the University and Colleges in October 2015. To date more than £1.1 billion has been raised towards the total, including the gift from Peter Bennett.

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy will address emerging global patterns of inequality and social unrest by offering a unique combination of deep research, high-level training and effective policy engagement. 

It is time to set aside the ingrained assumption that there are technical fixes or ready-made solutions to our most intractable problemsMichael KennyAlice Donovan RouseDemonstration

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

YesLicense type: Attribution
Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Drinking more than five pints a week could shorten your life, study finds

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 04/13/2018 - 09:44

The authors say their findings challenge the widely held belief that moderate drinking is beneficial to cardiovascular health, and support the UK’s recently lowered guidelines.

The study compared the health and drinking habits of over 600,000 people in 19 countries worldwide and controlled for age, smoking, history of diabetes, level of education and occupation.

The upper safe limit of drinking was about five drinks per week (100g of pure alcohol, 12.5 units or just over five pints of 4% ABV beer or five 175ml glasses of 13% ABV wine). However, drinking above this limit was linked with lower life expectancy. For example, having 10 or more drinks per week was linked with one to two years shorter life expectancy. Having 18 drinks or more per week was linked with four to five years shorter life expectancy. 

The research, published today in the Lancet, supports the UK’s recently lowered guidelines, which since 2016 recommend both men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week. This equates to around six pints of beer or six glasses of wine a week.

However, the worldwide study carries implications for countries across the world, where alcohol guidelines vary substantially.

The researchers also looked at the association between alcohol consumption and different types of cardiovascular disease. Alcohol consumption was associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal aortic aneurysms, fatal hypertensive disease and heart failure and there were no clear thresholds where drinking less did not have a benefit.

By contrast, alcohol consumption was associated with a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks.

The authors note that the different relationships between alcohol intake and various types of cardiovascular disease may relate to alcohol’s elevating effects on blood pressure and on factors related to elevated high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) (also known as ‘good’ cholesterol). They stress that the lower risk of non-fatal heart attack must be considered in the context of the increased risk of several other serious and often fatal cardiovascular diseases.

The study focused on current drinkers to reduce the risk of bias caused by those who abstain from alcohol due to poor health. However, the study used self-reported alcohol consumption and relied on observational data, so no firm conclusions can me made about cause and effect. The study did not look at the effect of alcohol consumption over the life-course or account for people who may have reduced their consumption due to health complications.

Dr Angela Wood, from the University of Cambridge, lead author of the study said: “If you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions.

“Alcohol consumption is associated with a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks but this must be balanced against the higher risk associated with other serious – and potentially fatal – cardiovascular diseases.”

Victoria Taylor, Senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the study, said: “This powerful study may make sobering reading for countries that have set their recommendations at higher levels than the UK, but this does seem to broadly reinforce government guidelines for the UK.

“This doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels, many people in the UK regularly drink over what’s recommended. We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target, and try to drink well below this threshold.”

The study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council, British Heart Foundation, National Institute for Health Research, European Union Framework 7, and European Research Council.

Wood, AM et al. Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies. Lancet; 14 April 2018; DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30134-X

Adapted from a press release by British Heart Foundation.

Regularly drinking more than the recommended UK guidelines for alcohol could take years off your life, according to new research from the University of Cambridge. Part-funded by the British Heart Foundation, the study shows that drinking more alcohol is associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure and death.

If you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditionsAngela WoodRadovanGlass of IPA

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

“Little robots”: behind the scenes at an academy school

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 04/11/2018 - 10:49

‘Structure liberates’: the ethos behind one of England’s flagship academy schools.

Designed as an engine of social mobility, this school drills ‘urban children’ for the grades and behaviour considered a passport to the world of middle-class salaries and sensibilities.

The headline-grabbing exam results of this school have led politicians to champion its approach as a silver bullet for entrenched poverty, and ‘structure liberates’ has become the blueprint for recent urban education reform.

The school’s recipe has now been replicated many times through academy trusts that have spread like “modern-day missionaries” across the nation, says Dr Christy Kulz, a Leverhulme Research Fellow at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. Shortly after it opened, Kulz was granted permission to conduct fieldwork in the school, where she had once worked as a teaching assistant. Choosing to anonymise her research, she calls the school Dreamfields.

Her new book goes behind the scenes of life at Dreamfields, and is the only detailed ethnographic account of the everyday practices within this new breed of academy school. “Education has long been promoted as a salve that cures urban deprivation and balances capitalism’s inequalities,” says Kulz, who spent 18 months of observation in Dreamfields, interviewing parents, teachers and students

“The academy programme taps into ‘mythical qualities’ of social mobility: some kind of magic formula that provides equal opportunities for every individual once they are within the school, regardless of race, class or social context.” In 2012, then Prime Minister David Cameron described academies as “working miracles”.

Primarily state funded but run as not-for-profit businesses, sometimes with support from individual philanthropists, academies such as Dreamfields are independent of local authority control and sit outside the democratic process of local government.    

'Verbal cane'

The gospel according to Dreamfields’ celebrated head is described as a “traditional approach”. Kulz says she found a stress-ridden hierarchical culture focused on a conveyer belt of testing under strict – almost military – conditions, and suffused with police-style language of ‘investigations’ and ‘repeat offenders’.

Enforcement comes through what Kulz calls the “verbal cane”. Tongue-lashings administered by teachers regularly echoed around the corridors, and were encouraged by senior staff. One teacher told Kulz that seeing tall male members of staff screaming in the faces of 11-year-olds was “very hard to digest”.

This verbal aggression is heightened by the panoptic surveillance built into the very architecture of the school. All activity is conducted within the bounds of a U-shaped building with a complete glass frontage. Everyone is on show at all times, including staff, who felt constantly monitored and pressured into visibly exerting the discipline favoured by management.

Policing was not confined to within the school gates. Kulz goes on a ride-along with what’s known as “chicken-shop patrol”. Driving around the streets after school, staff members jump out of the car to intervene when children are deemed to be congregating or in scruffy uniforms.

Stopping off at one of the local takeaways is considered a major offence. “Fried chicken represents a ‘poor choice’ that Dreamfields must prohibit in order to change urban culture,” says Kulz. “Simply being caught in a takeaway after school is punished with a two-hour detention the following day.”

Students are also policed through exacting uniform adherence, with a ‘broken-window theory’ approach that sees deviation as opening the door to chaos.

The smallest rule infraction can be met with a spell in isolated detention. Staff would sometimes go to strange lengths to maintain conformity, she says. Suede shoes were subject to clampdown. Parental suggestions of a karaoke stall at a winter fair were considered far too risky. “There is no room for unpredictability at Dreamfields,” says Kulz. One student who shaved lines into his eyebrows had to have them coloured in by a teacher every morning.

'Cultural cloning'

As fieldwork progressed, Kulz began to notice discrepancies that tallied uncomfortably with race and social background. Black children with fringes, or children who congregated outside takeaways, were reprimanded immediately. White middle-class children with long floppy hair, or gathering en masse by Tesco, were ignored. Teachers troubled by this would hint at it in hushed tones.

“The approach of many academy schools is one of cultural cloning,” says Kulz. “The Dreamfields creed is that ‘urban children’, a phrase used by staff to mean working-class and ethnic minority kids assumed to have unhappy backgrounds, need salvaging – with middle-class students positioned as the unnamed, normative and universal ideal.”

“Black students were consistently more heavily policed in the playground, resulting in many consciously adopting ‘whiter’ styles and behaviours – a tactic that reduced their surveillance.” It is not just children who are driven hard through incessant monitoring. Staff at Dreamfields are subject to ‘teacher tracking’, a rolling system in which student grades are converted into scores, allowing management to rank the teachers – an approach staff compared with salesmen being judged on their weekly turnover.

This pressurised auditing resulted in rote learning to avoid a red flag in the system. “You put a grade in that satisfies the system instead of it satisfying the student’s knowledge and needs,” one teacher lamented to Kulz, explaining his ‘real job’ was not to teach understanding of his subject, but to get students to produce a set product quickly and accurately. One student described himself to Kulz as a “little robot”.

Most teachers exceeded a 48-hour week. The majority of staff were young – an average age of 33 – with fewer outside commitments, yet many expressed a sense of exhaustion. “If you’re not in a lesson we are expected to patrol,” one teacher told Kulz. “Every moment of every day is taken up with some sort of duty.” Unlike most schools, Dreamfields has no staff room.

Some staff discussed former colleagues who had suffered burnout or were asked to resign. During interviews, Kulz found conspiracy theories were rife among students because of the number of teachers that “just disappeared”.

Yet Dreamfields was – and still is – fêted by politicians and the media for its undeniably extraordinary exam results: over 80% pass rate at GCSE in an area where this was previously unthinkable. At the time, the school was vastly oversubscribed, with over 1,500 applications for just 200 places.

“Most of the students, parents and teachers were keen to comply to Dreamfields’ regime, despite its injustices. The school’s approach was seen as the best shot at securing grades and succeeding in an increasingly precarious economy," says Kulz. "Students, like staff, are trained to be expendable while the ideals of democracy and critical thinking we are allegedly meant to cherish are quashed in the process.”

This model of a disciplinarian school built for surveillance and which teaches market-force obedience has marched ever onward since her time in Dreamfields, says Kulz – arriving at new poverty front-lines such as rundown seaside towns. Yet, grassroots resistance to this style of education is increasing. Last year, a recently established academy in Great Yarmouth that forbade “slouching and talking in corridors” had pupils pulled out by parents objecting to the “draconian” rules that were central to the much-imitated Dreamfields playbook.

Kulz believes the grades achieved by these schools – far from universally high – come at a price. “We cannot continue to ignore the links between the testing regimes we put pupils through, the harsh school cultures they create, and the deteriorating physical and mental health of children and young people in the UK.”

‘Factories for Learning: Making Race, Class and Inequality in the Neoliberal Academy’ (2017) is published by Manchester University Press.

New research lifts the lid on an influential academy school and finds an authoritarian system that reproduces race and class inequalities.    

We cannot continue to ignore the links between the testing regimes we put pupils through, the harsh school cultures they create, and the deteriorating physical and mental health of childrenChristy KulzThe District

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Cambridge and four other universities form agritech partnership

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 04/10/2018 - 13:57

The Ceres Agritech Knowledge Exchange Partnership links the universities of Cambridge, East Anglia, Hertfordshire, Lincoln and Reading, as well as the John Innes Centre, NIAB and Rothamsted Research, to enable effective sharing of commercialisation expertise, a key aim of Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund, which has awarded the partnership £4.78 million in funding.

Ceres will work with business partners to identify, build, invest in and run the most commercially viable development projects, based on the needs of the agritech sector. The resulting technologies can then be licensed to industry or form the basis of start-up companies or partnerships with SMEs and large agritech corporations.

In addition to the funding from Research England, Ceres has secured funding commitments of over £15 million from industry and technology investors for further investment in commercial opportunities.

A 2016 government report estimated that the agritech sector was worth £14.3 billion and employed 542,000 people in the UK.

“The time is ripe for catalysing early stage technology transfer in the globally critical agritech sector,” said Iain Thomas, Head of Life Sciences at Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm. “Advances in nutrition, genomics, informatics, artificial intelligence, remote sensing, automation and plant sciences have huge potential in precision agriculture and food production. Farmers, food processors and producers are eager to explore and adopt new technologies to improve their competitiveness and efficiency.

“Cambridge University wants to play a significant part in the successful development of an agritech cluster. The Ceres Partnership builds on models of collaboration, technology acceleration and effective commercial demonstration of proof-of-concept from other technology sectors, such as the pharma-biotech cluster currently flourishing in the Cambridge region.”

The Ceres funding is part of an investment of £67 million through Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund in new collaborative projects to drive forward the commercialisation of university research across the country.  

Five leading universities, including the University of Cambridge, have formed a partnership to develop and commercialise agritech research, in order to improve sustainability, increase productivity and contribute to global food security.

Cambridge University wants to play a significant part in the successful development of an agritech cluster.Iain ThomasHauser Forum

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Prestigious award nominations for Greater Cambridge Shared Waste Service

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 04/10/2018 - 12:00

The Greater Cambridge Shared Waste Service, with the University of Cambridge, has been shortlisted for UK-wide awards that showcase the best in recycling and waste management, for work on a large underground bin system.

The service is a partnership between South Cambridgeshire District and Cambridge City Councils. Its efforts in helping develop and collect waste from the largest underground bin system in the UK at Eddington, the University of Cambridge’s North West Cambridge Development, have been recognised ahead of the MRW National Recycling Awards 2018.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Local election candidates announced for Cambridge

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 04/10/2018 - 09:52

ON THURSDAY 3 May, elections take place across the city for 15 of the 42 seats on Cambridge City Council.

Nominated candidates for the Cambridge City Council elections are as follows.

* Denotes sitting councillor seeking re-election



First   Names



Naomi Anne







Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Human anti-cancer drugs could help treat transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devils

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 04/09/2018 - 16:57

The research also found that the two Tasmanian devil transmissible cancers are very similar to each other, and likely both arose due to susceptibilities inherent to the devils themselves.

Tasmanian devils are marsupial carnivores endemic to the Australian island of Tasmania. The species is considered endangered due to devil facial tumour 1 (DFT1), a cancer that is passed between animals through the transfer of living cancer cells when the animals bite each other. DFT1 causes grotesque and disfiguring facial tumours, which usually kill affected individuals.

The DFT1 cancer first arose in a single individual devil several decades ago, but rather than dying together with this devil, the cancer survived by ‘metastasising’ into different devils. Therefore, the DNA of the devils’ tumour cells is not their own DNA, but rather belongs to the individual devil that first gave rise to DFT1 all those years ago. Remarkably, DFT1 cells can escape the devils’ immune systems despite being in essence a foreign body.

The DFT1 cancer was first observed in north-east Tasmania in 1996, but has subsequently spread widely throughout the island, causing significant declines in devil populations.

In 2014, routine diagnostic screening revealed a second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils, devil facial tumour 2 (DFT2), which causes facial tumours indistinguishable to the naked eye from those caused by DFT1, and which is probably also spread by biting. However, analysis showed that the two types of cancer differ at a biological level, and whereas DFT1 first arose from the cells of a female devil, DFT2 appears to have first arisen from a male animal. For now, DFT2 appears to be confined to a peninsula in Tasmania’s south-east.

“The discovery of a second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils was a huge surprise,” says Dr Elizabeth Murchison from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. “Other than these two cancers, we know of only one other naturally occurring transmissible cancer in mammals – the canine transmissible venereal tumour in dogs, which first emerged several thousand years ago.”

In fact, outside of mammals, only five transmissible cancers have been observed, all of which cause leukaemia-like diseases in clams and other shellfish.

“The scarcity of transmissible cancers suggests that such diseases emerge rarely,” she adds. “Before 1996, no one had observed them in Tasmanian devils, so finding two transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devils in just eighteen years was very surprising.”

In order to see whether the devil transmissible cancers are caused by external factors or whether the animals were just particularly susceptible to developing these cancers, a research team led by Dr Murchison analysed the genetic profiles of DFT1 and DFT2 tumours taken from a number of Tasmanian devils. The results are published today in the journal Cancer Cell.

The team found striking similarities in tissues-of-origin, genetics, how the cancer cells mutate, and possible drug targets. This implies that the two tumours belong to the same cancer type and arose via similar mechanisms.

The team studied the genetic and physical features of the tumours, and compared the two lineages with each other and with human cancers. In doing so, they identified an important role in the tumours for particular types of molecules known as receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) in sustaining growth and survival of DFT cancers.

Importantly, drugs targeting RTKs have already been developed for human cancer, and the researchers showed that these drugs efficiently stopped the growth of devil cancer cells growing in the lab. This leads to hope that it may be possible to use these drugs to help Tasmanian devils.

First author of the study, Maximilian Stammnitz, adds: “Altogether, our findings suggest that transmissible cancers may arise naturally in Tasmanian devils. We found no DNA-level evidence of these cancers being caused by external factors or infectious agents such as viruses. It seems plausible that similar transmissible cancers may have occurred in the past, but escaped detection, perhaps because they remained in localised populations, or because they existed prior to the arrival of Europeans in Tasmania in the nineteenth century.”

Why Tasmanian devils should be particularly susceptible to the emergence of DFTs is not clear. However, devils bite each other frequently around the facial area, often causing significant tissue injury. Given the important role for RTK molecules in wound healing, the researchers speculate that DFT cancers may arise from errors in the maintenance of proliferative cells involved in tissue repair after injury.

“When fighting, Tasmanian devils often bite their opponent’s face, which may predispose these animals to the emergence of this particular type of cancer via tissue injury,” adds Stammnitz. “As biting occurs on the face, this would simultaneously provide a route of cell transmission.”

The researchers say it is also possible that human activities may have indirectly increased the risk of the emergence or spread of transmissible devil facial tumours (DFTs) in recent years. For instance, it is possible that some modern land use practices may have provided favourable conditions for devils, leading to an increase in local population densities of devils, and to greater competition, interactions and fights between animals, which may in turn have raised probabilities of DFTs arising or spreading. Alternatively, early persecution of devils by European colonists may have additionally contributed to this species' documented low genetic diversity, a possible risk factor for disease spread and the ability of DFTs to escape the immune system.

The researchers also identified deletions in DFT1 and in DFT2 in genes involved in recognition of cancer cells by the immune system. This may help explain how these cancers escape the immune system.

“The story of Tasmanian devils in recent years has been a very concerning one,” says Dr Murchison. “This study gives us optimism that anti-cancer drugs that are already in use in humans may offer a chance to assist with conservation efforts for this iconic animal.”

The research was funded by Wellcome, the National Science Foundation, Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal, Leverhulme Trust, Cancer Research UK and Gates Cambridge Trust.

Stammnitz, MR et al. The origins and vulnerabilities of two transmissible 1 cancers in Tasmanian devils. Cancer Cell; Date; DOI: DOI: 10.1016/j.ccell.2018.03.013

Transmissible cancers are incredibly rare in nature, yet have arisen in Tasmanian devils on at least two separate occasions. New research from the University of Cambridge identifies key anti-cancer drugs which could be trialled as a treatment for these diseases, which are threatening Tasmanian devils with extinction.

This study gives us optimism that anti-cancer drugs that are already in use in humans may offer a chance to assist with conservation efforts for this iconic animalElizabeth Murchison Mathias AppelTasmanian devilResearcher profile: Maximilian Stammnitz

One of Maximilian Stammnitz’s best memories at Cambridge has been his encounter with Tasmanian devils on a field trip to Tasmania in 2016. “There is nothing more exciting than examining actual devils in the wild – they are truly majestic animals!” he says.

Stammnitz is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine. Originally from “Germany's sunniest spot: Heidelberg”, he came to Cambridge to join the Computational Biology MPhil program at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in 2014.

“This course provides fascinating opportunities to study biology through a big data lens, and to learn about vastly emerging genomics technologies from experts in the field,” he says. “The DNA-level expertise and collaboration at Cambridge surrounding topics of genetics, evolution, medicine and computational data analysis is breath-taking.”

It was a seminar by Elizabeth Murchison on transmissible cancers that caught his imagination, however, and he subsequently joined her group at Veterinary Medicine for a summer internship, and then as a PhD student and Gates Cambridge Scholar. The ultimate aim of his work is to save the largest carnivorous marsupial on the planet, but by studying the fundamental processes of cancer development in Tasmanian devils, his work could help us understand better how cancer develops in humans.

“I spend most of my working days behind a computer screen, processing and analysing large volumes of DNA and RNA sequencing data from Tasmanian devil tumour biopsies,” he says. “Occasionally, I also do molecular biology experiments in the 'wet lab', to validate our computational results or to establish testing protocols for the devils.”

It isn’t all about work, though. “Over the past year, I have been the captain of our university's Blues men's volleyball team and co-founded PuntSeq, a citizen science project aiming at cost-effective pathogen surveillance of our house river Cam's water,” he says.

“My biggest challenge of living here is to balance truly focused work life and quiet time with the many inspiring distractions that wait behind the corners of Cambridge's old walls. It’s a luxury problem to have as a PhD student.”

Follow Maximilian Stammnitz on Twitter @DevilsAdvoMax

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

What makes a faster typist?

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 04/05/2018 - 09:31

The data was collected by researchers from Aalto University in Finland and the University of Cambridge. Volunteers from over 200 countries took the typing test, which is freely available online. Participants were asked to transcribe randomised sentences, and their accuracy and speed were assessed by the researchers.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that faster typists make fewer mistakes. However, they also found that the fastest typists also performed between 40 and 70 percent of keystrokes using rollover typing, in which the next key is pressed down before the previous key is lifted. The strategy is well-known in the gaming community but has not been observed in a typing study. The results will be presented later this month at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Montréal.

“Crowdsourcing experiments that allow us to analyse how people interact with computers on a large scale are instrumental for identifying solution principles for the design of next-generation user interfaces,” said study co-author Dr Per Ola Kristensson from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering.

Most of our knowledge of how people type is based on studies from the typewriter era. Now, decades after the typewriter was replaced by computers, people make different types of mistakes. For example, errors where one letter is replaced by another are now more common, whereas in the typewriter era typists often added or omitted characters.

Another difference is that modern users use their hands differently. “Modern keyboards allow us to type keys with different fingers of the same hand with much less force than what was possible with typewriters,” said co-author Anna Feit from Aalto University. “This partially explains why self-taught typists using fewer than ten fingers can be as fast as touch typists, which was probably not the case in the typewriter era.”

The average user in the study typed 52 words per minute, much slower than the professionally trained typists in the 70s and 80s, who typically reached 60-90 words per minute. However, performance varied largely. “The fastest users in our study typed 120 words per minute, which is amazing given that this is a controlled study with randomised phrases,” said co-author Dr Antti Oulasvirta, also from Aalto. “Many informal tests allow users to practice the sentences, resulting in unrealistically high performance.”

The researchers found that users who had previously taken a typing course actually had a similar typing behaviour as those who had never taken such a course, in terms of how fast they type, how they use their hands and the errors they make - even though they use fewer fingers.

The researchers found that users display different typing styles, characterised by how they use their hands and fingers, the use of rollover, tapping speeds, and typing accuracy.

For example, some users could be classified as ‘’careless typists’’ who move their fingers quickly but have to correct many mistakes; and others as attentive error-free typists, who gain speed by moving hands and fingers in parallel, pressing the next key before the first one is released.

It is now possible to classify users’ typing behaviour based on the observed keystroke timings which does not require the storage of the text that users have typed. Such information can be useful for example for spell checkers, or to create new personalised training programmes for typing.

“You do not need to change to the touch typing system if you want to type faster,” said Feit. “A few simple exercises can help you to improve your own typing technique.”

The anonymised dataset is available at the project homepage:

Dhakal, V., Feit, A., Kristensson, P.O. and Oulasvirta, A. 2018. 'Observations on typing from 136 million keystrokes.' In Proceedings of the 36th ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2018). ACM Press.

Adapted from an Aalto University press release. 

The largest-ever dataset on typing speeds and styles, based on 136 million keystrokes from 168,000 volunteers, finds that the fastest typists not only make fewer errors, but they often type the next key before the previous one has been released. 

Crowdsourcing experiments that allow us to analyse how people interact with computers on a large scale are instrumental for identifying solution principles for the design of next-generation user interfaces.Per Ola KristenssonPhoto by Cytonn Photography on UnsplashWant to type faster?
  • Pay attention to errors, as they are costly to correct. Slow down to avoid them and you will be faster in the long run.
  • Learn to type without looking at fingers; your motor system will automatically pick up very fast ‘’trills’’ for frequently occurring letter combinations (“the”), which will speed up your typing. Being able to look at the screen while typing also allows you to quickly detect mistakes.
  • Practice rollover: use different fingers for successive letter keys instead of moving a single finger from one key to another. Then, when typing a letter with one finger, press the next one with the other finger.
  • Take an online typing test to track performance and identify weaknesses such as high error rates. Make sure that the test requires you to type new sentences so you do not over-practice the same text.
  • Dedicate time to practice deliberately. People may forget the good habits and relapse to less efficient ways of typing. 

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Online tool can measure individuals’ likelihood to fall for internet scams

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 04/04/2018 - 11:21

The psychometric tool, developed by researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Helsinki, asks participants to answer a range of questions in order to measure how likely they are to respond to persuasive techniques. The test, called Susceptibility to Persuasion II (StP-II) is freely available and consists of the StP-II scale and several other questions to understand persuadability better. A brief, automated, interpretation of the results is displayed at the end of the questionnaire.

The results of the test can be used to predict who will be more likely to become a victim of cybercrime, although the researchers say that StP-II could also be used for hiring in certain professions, for the screening of military personnel or to establish the psychological characteristics of criminal hackers. Their results are reported in the journal PLOS One.

“Scams are essentially like marketing offers, except they’re illegal,” said paper’s first author Dr David Modic from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology. “Just like in advertising, elements of consumer psychology and behavioural economics all come into the design of an online scam, which is why it’s useful to know which personality traits make people susceptible to them.”

Modic and his colleagues at the University of Exeter designed an initial version of the test five years ago that yielded solid results but was not sufficiently detailed. The new version is far more comprehensive and robust.

“We are not aware of an existing scale that would measure all the constructs that are part of StP-II,” said Modic, who is also a senior member of King’s College, Cambridge. “There are existing scales that measure individual traits, but when combined, the sheer length of these scales would present the participant with a psychometric tool that is almost unusable.”

The questions in StP-II fall into 10 categories, measuring different traits which might make people more susceptible to fraud: the ability to premeditate, consistency, sensation seeking, self-control, social influence, need for similarity, attitude towards risk, attitude towards advertising, cognition and uniqueness. Participants are given a score out of seven in each of the ten areas.

Using a large data set obtained from a collaboration with the BBC, the researchers found that the strongest predictor was the ability to premeditate: individuals who fail to consider the possible consequences of a particular action are more likely to engage with a fraudster. However, they found that the likelihood of falling for one of the measured categories of Internet fraud is partially explained by at least one of the mechanisms in StP-II.

“Over the past ten years, crime, like everything else, has moved online,” said co-author Professor Ross Anderson, also from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science. “This year, about a million UK households will be the victim of typical household crime, such as burglary, where the average victim is an elderly working-class woman. However, now 2.5 million households will be the victims of an online or electronic scam, where the victims are younger and more educated. Crime is moving upmarket.”

“Scams have been around for hundreds of years, and over the centuries, they haven’t really changed that much – the only difference now is with the internet, it requires a lot less effort to do it,” said Modic.

The researchers say that despite the changing demographics of crime victims, there isn’t a ‘typical victim of cybercrime. “Older generations might be seen as less internet-savvy, but younger generations are both more exposed to scams and might be seen as more impulsive,” said co-author Jussi Palomӓki, from the University of Helsinki’s Cognitive Science Unit. “There isn’t a specific age range – there are many different risk factors.”

“The immediate benefit of StP-II is that people will get an indication of the sorts of things they should look out for – I’m not saying it’s a sure-fire way that they will not be scammed, but there are things they should be aware of,” said Modic. “StP-II doesn’t just measure how likely you are to fall for scams, it’s how likely you are to change your behaviour.”

Ross Anderson’s blog on the paper can be found at:


David Modic, Ross Anderson and Jussi Palomäki. ‘We will make you like our research: The development of a susceptibility-to-persuasion scale.’ PLOS ONE (2018). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0194119

Researchers have developed an online questionnaire which measures a range of personality traits to identify individuals who are more likely to fall victim to internet scams and other forms of cybercrime. 

Scams have been around for hundreds of years, and over the centuries, they haven’t really changed that much – the only difference now is with the internet, it requires a lot less effort to do it.David ModicPhoto by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Research shows first land plants were parasitised by microbes

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 04/04/2018 - 09:42

Why do some plants welcome some microbes with open arms while giving others the cold-shoulder? Like most relationships, it’s complicated, and it all goes back a long way. By studying liverworts – which diverged from other land plants early in the history of plant evolution – researchers from the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge have found that the relationship between plants and filamentous microbes not only dates back millions of years, but that modern plants have maintained this ancient mechanism to accommodate and respond to microbial invaders.


Liverworts are small green plants that don’t have roots, stems, leaves or flowers. They belong to a group of plants called Bryophytes, which also includes mosses and hornworts. Bryophytes diverged from other plant lineages early in the evolution of plants and are thought to be similar to some of the earliest diverging land plant lineages. Liverworts are found all over the world and are often seen growing as a weed in the cracks of paving or soil of potted plants. Marchantia polymorpha, which is also known as the common liverwort or umbrella liverwort, was used in this research.

Published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a new study shows that aggressive filamentous microbial (fungi-like) pathogens can invade liverworts and that some elements of the liverwort’s response are shared with distantly related plants. The first author of the paper, Dr Philip Carella, said the research showed that liverworts could be infected by the common and devastating microorganism Phytophthora: “We know a great deal about microbial infections of modern flowering plants, but until now we haven’t known how distantly related plant lineages dealt with an invasion by an aggressive microbe. To test this, we first wanted to see if Phytophthora could infect and complete its life cycle in a liverwort."

Above image: ​A healthy Marchantia polymorpha liverwort (left) and one that has been infected by Phytophthora palmivora (right).

"We found that Phytophthora palmivora can colonise the photosynthetic tissues of the liverwort Marchantia polymorpha by invading living cells. Marchantia responds to this by deploying proteins around the invading Phytophthora hyphal structures. These proteins are similar to those that are produced in flowering plants such as tobacco, legumes or Arabidopsis in response to infections by both symbiont and pathogenic microbes.”

Above image: Microscopy image of a cross-section of a Marchantia polymorpha thallus showing the Phytophthora infection (red) in the upper photosynthetic layer of the liverwort plant.

These lineages share a common ancestor that lived over 400 million years ago, and fossils from this time period show evidence that plants were already forming beneficial relationships with filamentous microbes. Dr Carella added: “These findings raise interesting questions about how plants and microbes have interacted and evolved pathogenic and symbiotic relationships. Which mechanisms evolved early in a common ancestor before the plant groups diverged and which evolved independently?”


Phytophthora is a water mould. Although it looks like it, it is not a fungus at all. Instead it belongs to the oomycetes and is a type of filamentous microbe. Phytophthora pathogens are best known for devastating crops, such as causing the Irish potato famine through potato late blight disease as well as many tropical diseases. This research used the tropical species, Phytophthora palmivora, which causes diseases in cocoa, oil palms, coconut palms and rubber trees.

Dr Sebastian Schornack, who led the research team, says the study indicates that early land plants were already genetically equipped to respond to microbial infections: “This discovery reveals that certain response mechanisms were already in place very early on in plant evolution.” “Finding that pathogenic filamentous microbes can invade living liverwort cells and that liverworts respond using similar proteins as in flowering plants suggests that the relationship between filamentous pathogens and plants can be considered ancient. We will continue to study whether pathogens are exploiting mechanisms evolved to support symbionts and, hopefully, this will allow us to establish future crop plants that both benefit from symbionts while remaining more resistant to pathogens. “Liverworts are showing great promise as a model plant system and this discovery that they can be colonised by pathogens of flowering plants makes them a valuable model plant to continue research into plant-microbe interactions.” Read the full paper online. This research was funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Royal Society, the BBSRC OpenPlant initiative and the Natural Environment Research Council.

Relationship between plants and filamentous microbes not only dates back millions of years, but modern plants have maintained this ancient mechanism to accommodate and respond to microbial invaders.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire