Cambridge

Why life on Earth first got big

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 06/25/2018 - 15:52

The research, led by the University of Cambridge, found that the most successful organisms living in the oceans more than half a billion years ago were the ones that were able to ‘throw’ their offspring the farthest, thereby colonising their surroundings. The results are reported in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Prior to the Ediacaran period, between 635 and 541 million years ago, life forms were microscopic in size, but during the Ediacaran, large, complex organisms first appeared, some of which – such as a type of organism known as rangeomorphs – grew as tall as two metres. These organisms were some of the first complex organisms on Earth, and although they look like ferns, they may have been some of the first animals to exist – although it’s difficult for scientists to be entirely sure. Ediacaran organisms do not appear to have mouths, organs or means of moving, so they are thought to have absorbed nutrients from the water around them.

As Ediacaran organisms got taller, their body shapes diversified, and some developed stem-like structures to support their height.

In modern environments, such as forests, there is intense competition between organisms for resources such as light, so taller trees and plants have an obvious advantage over their shorter neighbours. “We wanted to know whether there were similar drivers for organisms during the Ediacaran period,” said Dr Emily Mitchell of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, the paper’s lead author. “Did life on Earth get big as a result of competition?”

Mitchell and her co-author Dr Charlotte Kenchington from Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada examined fossils from Mistaken Point in south-eastern Newfoundland, one of the richest sites of Ediacaran fossils in the world.

Earlier research hypothesised that increased size was driven by the competition for nutrients at different water depths. However, the current work shows that the Ediacaran oceans were more like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“The oceans at the time were very rich in nutrients, so there wasn’t much competition for resources, and predators did not yet exist,” said Mitchell, who is a Henslow Research Fellow at Murray Edwards College. “So there must have been another reason why life forms got so big during this period.”

Since Ediacaran organisms were not mobile and were preserved where they lived, it’s possible to analyse whole populations from the fossil record. Using spatial analysis techniques, Mitchell and Kenchington found that there was no correlation between height and competition for food. Different types of organisms did not occupy different parts of the water column to avoid competing for resources – a process known as tiering.

“If they were competing for food, then we would expect to find that the organisms with stems were highly tiered,” said Kenchington. “But we found the opposite: the organisms without stems were actually more tiered than those with stems, so the stems probably served another function.”

According to the researchers, one likely function of stems would be to enable the greater dispersion of offspring, which rangeomorphs produced by expelling small propagules. The tallest organisms were surrounded by the largest clusters of offspring, suggesting that the benefit of height was not more food, but a greater chance of colonising an area.

“While taller organisms would have been in faster-flowing water, the lack of tiering within these communities shows that their height didn’t give them any distinct advantages in terms of nutrient uptake,” said Mitchell. “Instead, reproduction appears to have been the main reason that life on Earth got big when it did.”

Despite their success, rangeomorphs and other Ediacaran organisms disappeared at the beginning of the Cambrian period about 540 million years ago, a period of rapid evolutionary development when most major animal groups first appear in the fossil record.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Cambridge Philosophical Society, Murray Edwards College and Newnham College, Cambridge.

Reference
Emily G. Mitchell and Charlotte G. Kenchington. ‘The utility of height for the Ediacaran organisms of Mistaken Point.’ Nature Ecology and Evolution (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0591-6

Inset image: 
A close-up view of the Mistaken Point ‘E’ surface community. Credit: Emily Mitchell. 

Some of the earliest complex organisms on Earth – possibly some of the earliest animals to exist – got big not to compete for food, but to spread their offspring as far as possible. 

Reproduction appears to have been the main reason that life on Earth got big when it did.Emily MitchellCG KenchingtonArtist’s reconstruction of the community at Lower Mistaken Point


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Council works to ensure second dockless bike-share operator meets public need

Cambridge Council Feed - Mon, 06/25/2018 - 15:28

A SECOND dockless bike-share operator, Mobike, is to trial its hire bikes in Cambridge, following the arrival of its competitor Ofo’s yellow bikes last year.

Mobike advised Cambridge City Council that it would started a trial this week with 25 bikes on the city’s streets, building up to 100 over the course of a month as they establish their presence.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

University of Cambridge raises £600 million in pioneering bonds issue

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 06/25/2018 - 14:33

The proceeds will be used to invest in the University’s revenue-generating projects and other facilities, allowing Cambridge to further its mission to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.  

The bonds are issued in two tranches:

1.    A £300 million bond with a fixed interest rate of 2.35%, repayable in 60 years’ time; and

2.    A £300 million bond with an interest rate of 0.25%, repayable in equal annual instalments between 10 and 50 years (‘amortising’), with those payments of principal and interest being linked to any rise in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), within a ‘floor’ and ‘cap’ of 0% to 3% per annum.

The amortising CPI-linked issue is particularly innovative, and is believed to be amongst the first of its kind in the UK bond markets.  Both bonds are expected to be rated Aaa by Moody’s, the highest credit rating that it awards.

Commenting on the bonds, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope, said: “We are delighted by the success of today’s bonds, which shows the confidence that investors have in the University, its mission, and its growth strategy in the years ahead.”

Barclays, HSBC and Morgan Stanley acted as Joint Bookrunners.  Rothschild provided independent debt advice to the University.  Clifford Chance and Mills & Reeve provided joint legal advice to the University and Linklaters provided legal advice to the Joint Bookrunners.

Cambridge Chief Financial Officer Anthony Odgers said: “We knew we were doing something unique with the CPI-linked bonds and that has really paid off with the enthusiastic reception in the market, the tight pricing and the collar.”

The University of Cambridge today announces that it has priced £600m of bonds. 

We are delighted by the success of today’s bonds, which shows the confidence that investors have in the University, its mission, and its growth strategy in the years ahead.Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope


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Cambridge researchers join new initiative on urban air pollution

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 06/25/2018 - 10:37

As part of the initiative, a network of air quality sensors will be deployed across the capital, measuring pollution levels in tens of thousands of locations. Findings from the project will be shared with other cities across the UK and globally, including the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

From July onwards, more than a hundred low-cost air quality sensors will be attached to lampposts and buildings in the worst-affected and most sensitive locations in the capital. These fixed sensors will be deployed alongside mobile sensors carried by Google Street View cars taking readings every 30 metres.

It is hoped that the resulting 'hyperlocal' network of sensors will create the world’s most sophisticated air monitoring system. Improving the monitoring of London air quality in this way should help identify those initiatives that make the biggest contributions to cutting air pollution.

Cambridge's Department of Chemistry is a pioneer in the use of low-cost sensors for the measurement of air quality and our researchers have used them in projects at Heathrow airport, in Beijing, and most recently Dhakar. Their role in this project is providing expertise in low-cost air quality sensors, and the analysis and interpretation of results from the static and mobile sensor networks.

This initiative brings together a range of partners from academia, industry and charity. It will be run by a team of air quality experts led by the charity Environmental Defense Fund Europe, partnering with Air Monitors Ltd, Google Earth Outreach, Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants, the University of Cambridge, the National Physical Laboratory and the Environmental Defense Fund in the United States. King’s College London will also be undertaking a linked study focused on schools that will form part of the year-long project.

According to the Mayor’s office, London already has one of the best networks of air quality monitors of any city. However, it does not cover enough of the capital. More sensors and more data are needed to say for sure which actions to tackle pollution are working best.

More sensors will also help to explain how air quality changes not just because of the amount of traffic, but also because of other factors such as the weather and the topography of the capital.

Online maps showing data in real time will be created, giving Londoners information on just how dirty the air they breathe really is as they move around the city. New tools like this will help the capital take action to tackle the most dangerous environmental threat to their health.

"This project will provide a step change in data collection and analysis that will enable London to evaluate the impact of both air quality and climate change policies and develop responsive interventions," said Baroness Bryony Worthington, Executive Director for Environmental Defense Fund Europe. "A clear output of the project will be a revolutionary air monitoring model and intervention approach that can be replicated cost-effectively across other UK cities and globally." 

"Addressing air pollution in cities is a vital but complex challenge," said Professor Rod Jones from the Department of Chemistry. "Many factors influence air quality and we are looking forward to working alongside our partners on this project as we know that by combining fixed and mobile monitors, and sampling air quality at so many locations, we will get a much more accurate picture of what is going on - I’m particularly excited by the potential of this project to be repeated in other megacities worldwide that have critical air pollution problems."

Originally published on the Department of Chemistry website.

 

Cambridge researchers are part of a cutting-edge project unveiled by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan last week to better understand Londoners’ exposure to air pollution and improve air quality in the capital.

Addressing air pollution in cities is a vital but complex challenge. Rod Jones David HoltLondon Sunrise February 18 2018


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Low-cost plastic sensors could monitor a range of health conditions

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 06/22/2018 - 19:00

The sensor can measure the amount of critical metabolites, such as lactate or glucose, that are present in sweat, tears, saliva or blood, and, when incorporated into a diagnostic device, could allow health conditions to be monitored quickly, cheaply and accurately. The new device has a far simpler design than existing sensors, and opens up a wide range of new possibilities for health monitoring down to the cellular level. The results are reported in the journal Science Advances.

The device was developed by a team led by the University of Cambridge and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Semiconducting plastics such as those used in the current work are being developed for use in solar cells and flexible electronics, but have not yet seen widespread use in biological applications.

“In our work, we’ve overcome many of the limitations of conventional electrochemical biosensors that incorporate enzymes as the sensing material,” said lead author Dr Anna-Maria Pappa, a postdoctoral researcher in Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. “In conventional biosensors, the communication between the sensor’s electrode and the sensing material is not very efficient, so it’s been necessary to add molecular wires to facilitate and ‘boost’ the signal.”

To build their sensor, Pappa and her colleagues used a newly-synthesised polymer developed at Imperial College that acts as a molecular wire, directly accepting the electrons produced during electrochemical reactions. When the material comes into contact with a liquid such as sweat, tears or blood, it absorbs ions and swells, becoming merged with the liquid. This leads to significantly higher sensitivity compared to traditional sensors made of metal electrodes.

Additionally, when the sensors are incorporated into more complex circuits, such as transistors, the signal can be amplified and respond to tiny fluctuations in metabolite concentration, despite the tiny size of the devices.

Initial tests of the sensors were used to measure levels of lactate, which is useful in fitness applications or to monitor patients following surgery. However, according to the researchers, the sensor can be easily modified to detect other metabolites, such as glucose or cholesterol by incorporating the appropriate enzyme, and the concentration range that the sensor can detect can be adjusted by changing the device’s geometry.

“This is the first time that it’s been possible to use an electron accepting polymer that can be tailored to improve communication with the enzymes, which allows for the direct detection of a metabolite: this hasn’t been straightforward until now,” said Pappa. “It opens up new directions in biosensing, where materials can be designed to interact with a specific metabolite, resulting in far more sensitive and selective sensors.”

Since the sensor does not consist of metals such as gold or platinum, it can be manufactured at a lower cost and can be easily incorporated in flexible and stretchable substrates, enabling their implementation in wearable or implantable sensing applications.

“An implantable device could allow us to monitor the metabolic activity of the brain in real time under stress conditions, such as during or immediately before a seizure and could be used to predict seizures or to assess treatment,” said Pappa.

The researchers now plan to develop the sensor to monitor metabolic activity of human cells in real time outside the body. The Bioelectronic Systems and Technologies group where Pappa is based is focused on developing models that can closely mimic our organs, along with technologies that can accurately assess them in real-time. The developed sensor technology can be used with these models to test the potency or toxicity of drugs.

The research was funded by the Marie Curie Foundation, the KAUST Office of Sponsored Research, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. 

Reference:
A.M. Pappa et al. ‘Direct metabolite detection with an n-type accumulation mode organic electrochemical transistor.’ Science Advances (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat0911

An international team of researchers have developed a low-cost sensor made from semiconducting plastic that can be used to diagnose or monitor a wide range of health conditions, such as surgical complications or neurodegenerative diseases. 

This work opens up new directions in biosensing, where materials can be designed to interact with a specific metabolite, resulting in far more sensitive and selective sensors.Anna-Maria PappaKAUSTPolymer biosensorResearcher profile: Anna Maria Pappa

I strongly believe that through diversity comes creativity, comes progress. I qualified as an engineer, and later earned my Master’s degree at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. My PhD is in Bioelectronics from École des Mines de Saint-Étienne in France and leaving my comfort zone to study abroad proved to be an invaluable experience. I met people from different cultures and mindsets from all over the world, stretched my mind and expanded my horizons.

Now, I always look for those with different views.  I travel frequently for conferences and visit other laboratories across Europe, the United States and Saudi Arabia. When you work in a multidisciplinary field it is essential to establish and keep good collaborations: this is the only way to achieve the desired outcome.

Being part of a University where some of the world's most brilliant scientists studied and worked is a great privilege. Cambridge combines a historic and traditional atmosphere with cutting-edge research in an open, multicultural society. The state-of-the-art facilities, the openness in innovation and strong collaborations provide a unique combination that can only lead to excellence.

As an engineer, creating solutions to important yet unresolved issues for healthcare is what truly motivates me. I’m working on a drug discovery platform using bioelectronics, and my work sets out to improve and accelerate drug discovery by providing novel technological solutions for drug screening and disease management. I hope my research will lead to a product that will impact healthcare. In the future, I imagine a healthcare system where the standard one-size-fits-all approach shifts to a more personalised and tailored model.

I’m a strong advocate for Women in STEMM, and in October 2017 I was awarded a L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship, an award that honours the contributions of women in science. For me, the award not only represents a scientific distinction but also gives me the unique opportunity, as an ambassador of science, to inspire and motivate young girls to follow the career they desire.

I think it’s absolutely vital, at every opportunity, for all of us to honour and promote girls and women in science. Unfortunately, women still struggle when it comes to joining male-dominated fields, and even to establish themselves later at senior roles. We still face stereotypes and social restrictions, even if it is not as obvious today as it was in the past.  A question I always ask girls during my outreach activities at schools, is, ‘do I look like a scientist?’, and the answer I most often get is no! I think this misperception of what STEMM professionals look like, or of what they actually do on a daily basis is what discourages girls early on to follow STEMM careers. This needs to change.


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The fifty-percenters: the economic value of education

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 06/22/2018 - 13:26

At the start of the 1970s there were 600,000 university students. Now there are 2.5 million. In 2017, the participation of young people in higher education reached 49% – the highest level since the introduction of tuition fees.

University offers the promise of life-changing opportunities and teaching that develops knowledge and skills. Individuals, society and the economy are all winners in the game of higher education.

On the other hand, students will face an average debt of £50,000, a rising drop-out rate in some institutions and an uncertain future job market.

Arguably it is the best of times and the worst of times to be a student.

And now experts are predicting that 300,000 new university places will be needed by 2030 to keep up with demand.

“Needed is an interesting word in this context,” reflects Professor Anna Vignoles from Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. “It indicates an assumption that is built into our society that everybody should try to go to university. If this is the case then it becomes absolutely vital that prospective students understand what this means in terms of their future employability.”

Education plus the jobs it leads to are major factors in improving social mobility and the growth of an economy. And while Vignoles doesn’t claim to have answers to how this works best, what she and her colleagues do have is access to the largest UK education dataset ever to link education with earnings – and a set of complex questions to ask of it.

The data has been collected as part of the Department of Education’s Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO). It’s actually two datasets: the educational performance of three million primary-school-aged children per year, followed through their secondary and further education to university, including the subject and university they choose; and their subsequent tax records data up to ten years after graduating.

Vignoles and colleagues in Cambridge and the Institute of Fiscal Studies are the first to be given access to such types of data, which they’ve been working on since 2013. Some of their results have been published, and many more are to follow.

“The top-line result is that graduate-level skill is valued in the labour market and that, for most graduates, higher education leads to much better earnings than those earned by non-graduates,” says Vignoles. “Tony Blair pledged in 2001 as Prime Minister to increase the proportion of young people progressing to university to 50%. It’s clear that the UK is now well on its way to this milestone and to achieving the ambition of becoming a graduate economy.”

But when the team looked in detail at how graduate earnings vary by institution, degree subject and parental income, they were struck by the sheer scale of the variation.

For instance, their initial study, published in 2016, showed that more than 10% of male graduates from the London School of Economics, Oxford and Cambridge were earning in excess of £100,000 a year ten years after graduation, whereas the median earnings of graduates from some institutions were less than the median earnings of non-graduates ten years on.

Medical students were the highest earners ten years after graduating, followed by economics graduates. Those studying the creative arts had the lowest earnings, but there were major differences depending on the institution attended.

Some of these earnings differences are attributable to differences in entry requirements and levels of prior achievement at A-level. The point that Vignoles makes is that it’s important for young people to be aware of these differences when they make their choices.

“Of course factors beyond graduate earnings, such as the student’s interest in a subject, will and should drive student choice, and we should value subjects irrespective of whether they have high earnings,” says Vignoles. “However, it is also important that we don’t hide this information from students in the hope that they won’t notice the lack of jobs or earning power when they leave.”

The team’s analysis of LEO doesn’t just give a full picture of what our education system is doing as a whole but also what it’s doing for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“It’s partly through analysis of these data that we show that a massive socio-economic gap in achievement at the point of entry into the school system actually worsens through primary and early secondary school. It is these early gaps in achievement that are largely responsible for fewer young people from poorer households going to university.”

But the inequality doesn’t end there. “What you really want to know is what about the students from poorer backgrounds who have managed to achieve in the system? We shouldn’t expect any difference between their success in the labour market and that of their advantaged peers – if education is the route to social mobility then they’ve done their bit.”

In fact they found that students from richer backgrounds still did better in the labour market than other students. “Even students who studied the same subject at the same university earn on average 10% less than more affluent peers if they come from poorer backgrounds,” she says.

“Why is there this second socio-economic gap? Is it around ‘social capital’ networks that they don’t have? Or types of postgraduate study they can’t afford? It’s really important for us to know what we’re dealing with so that we can get to the root causes.”

The team’s findings are also relevant to discussions around the demand for skills that will advance the success of the UK’s economy and the level at which the state subsidises higher education. “How these relate to higher education are controversial issues,” says Vignoles, “It’s important that the intrinsic value of going to university is not lost in discussions that focus on the economics of human capital investment.”

Yet, according to the 2017 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey, 61% of businesses said that they fear a shortage of people with the necessary skills to fill their predicted increase in high-skilled roles over the coming years.

Meanwhile, the government underwrites student loans; graduates pay 9% of their earnings above an income threshold of £25,000. “For around three quarters of graduates, it’s unlikely they will have paid off the loan by the end of their working lives,” says Vignoles.

“This income contingency is crucially important – we can’t give students mortgage-sized debts and ask them to take the risk of not being able to repay them. The state has to subsidise students. But, as a consequence, the state will be subsidising some subjects that attract lower earnings more than others. And subsidy for higher education may mean less resource for further education or apprenticeships. We need a public debate on this.

“We might argue the government should be investing more in education across the piece because we want a highly skilled future, but some hard choices need to be made about where to invest. That’s where big data approaches can inform a wider debate – helping us to dig deep below the surface of these complex issues.”

Inset image: read more about our research on the topic of work in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

 

Almost half of young people in the UK now go to university. Who gets in – and what and where they study – affects a person’s place in society and their future earnings, as well as the skills available to the job market. Can big data help the ‘fifty percenters’ make one of the most important decisions of their lives – and advance the success of the UK’s graduate economy?

We might argue the government should be investing more in education across the piece because we want a highly skilled future, but some hard choices need to be made about where to invest. That’s where big data approaches can inform a wider debateAnna Vignoles


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What causes the sound of a dripping tap – and how do you stop it?

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 06/22/2018 - 09:00

Using ultra-high-speed cameras and modern audio capture techniques, the researchers, from the University of Cambridge, found that the ‘plink, plink’ sound produced by a water droplet hitting a liquid surface is caused not by the droplet itself, but by the oscillation of a small bubble of air trapped beneath the water’s surface. The bubble forces the water surface itself to vibrate, acting like a piston to drive the airborne sound.

In addition, the researchers found that changing the surface tension of the surface, for example by adding washing-up liquid, can stop the sound. The results are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Despite the fact that humans have been kept awake by the sound of dripping water from a leaky tap or roof for generations, the exact source of the sound has not been known until now.

“A lot of work has been done on the physical mechanics of a dripping tap, but not very much has been done on the sound,” said Dr Anurag Agarwal of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who led the research. “But thanks to modern video and audio technology, we can finally find out exactly where the sound is coming from, which may help us to stop it.”

Agarwal, who leads the Acoustics Lab and is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, first decided to investigate this problem while visiting a friend who had a small leak in the roof of his house. Agarwal’s research investigates acoustics and aerodynamics of aerospace, domestic appliances and biomedical applications. “While I was being kept awake by the sound of water falling into a bucket placed underneath the leak, I started thinking about this problem,” he said. “The next day I discussed it with my friend and another visiting academic, and we were all surprised that no one had actually answered the question of what causes the sound.”

Working with Dr Peter Jordan from the University of Poitiers, who spent a term in Cambridge through a Fellowship from Emmanuel College, and final-year undergraduate Sam Phillips, Agarwal set up an experiment to investigate the problem. Their setup used an ultra-high-speed camera, a microphone and a hydrophone to record droplets falling into a tank of water.

Water droplets have been a source of scientific curiosity for more than a century: the earliest photographs of drop impacts were published in 1908, and scientists have been trying to figure out the source of the sound ever since.

The fluid mechanics of a water droplet hitting a liquid surface are well-known: when the droplet hits the surface, it causes the formation of a cavity, which quickly recoils due to the surface tension of the liquid, resulting in a rising column of liquid. Since the cavity recoils so fast after the droplet’s impact, it causes a small air bubble to get trapped underwater.

Previous studies have posited that the ‘plink’ sound is caused by the impact itself, the resonance of the cavity, or the underwater sound field propagating through the water surface, but have not been able to confirm this experimentally.

In their experiment, the Cambridge researchers found that somewhat counter-intuitively, the initial splash, the formation of the cavity, and the jet of liquid are all effectively silent. The source of the sound is the trapped air bubble.

“Using high-speed cameras and high-sensitivity microphones, we were able to directly observe the oscillation of the air bubble for the first time, showing that the air bubble is the key driver for both the underwater sound, and the distinctive airborne ‘plink’ sound,” said Phillips, who is now a PhD student in the Department of Engineering. “However, the airborne sound is not simply the underwater sound field spreading to the surface, as had been previously thought.”

In order for the ‘plink’ to be significant, the trapped air bubble needs to be close to the bottom of the cavity caused by the drop impact. The bubble then drives oscillations of the water surface at the bottom of the cavity, acting like a piston driving sound waves into the air. This is a more efficient mechanism by which the underwater bubble drives the airborne sound field than had previously been suggested.

According to the researchers, while the study was purely curiosity-driven, the results could be used to develop more efficient ways to measure rainfall or to develop a convincing synthesised sound for water droplets in gaming or movies, which has not yet been achieved.

Reference:
Samuel Phillips, Anurag Agarwal and Peter Jordan. ‘The Sound Produced by a Dripping Tap is Driven by Resonant Oscillations of an Entrapped Air Bubble.’ Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-27913-0

Scientists have solved the riddle behind one of the most recognisable, and annoying, household sounds: the dripping tap. And crucially, they have also identified a simple solution to stop it, which most of us already have in our kitchens. 

We were all surprised that no one had actually answered the question of what causes the sound.Anurag Agarwal Photo by Luis Tosta on UnsplashWater on tap


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New community centre, homes and shops planned for Akeman Street site

Cambridge Council Feed - Thu, 06/21/2018 - 14:51

AN AGEING community centre building and row of shop units are set to be redeveloped to provide much–needed new affordable homes, a new community facility and replacement commercial units.

The Cambridge City Council-owned community centre, shops and flats currently occupying the site on at Akeman Street were built in the 1950s, but have now become difficult to repair and maintain. In addition the current community centre is not fully accessible for all users.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

DNA enzyme shuffles cell membranes a thousand times faster than its natural counterpart

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 06/21/2018 - 12:23

Researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign say their lipid-scrambling DNA enzyme is the first to outperform naturally occurring enzymes – and does so by three orders of magnitude. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Cell membranes are lined with a different set of molecules on the inside and outside, and cells devote a lot of resources to maintaining this,” said study leader Aleksei Aksimentiev, a professor of physics at Illinois. “But at some points in a cell’s life, the asymmetry has to be dismantled. Then the markers that were inside become outside, which sends signals for certain processes, such as cell death. There are enzymes in nature that do that called scramblases. However, in some other diseases where scramblases are deficient, this doesn’t happen correctly. Our synthetic scramblase could be an avenue for therapeutics.”

Aksimentiev’s group came upon DNA’s scramblase activity when looking at DNA structures that form pores and channels in cell membranes. They used the Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at Illinois to model the systems at the atomic level. They saw that when certain DNA structures insert into the membrane – in this case, a bundle of eight strands of DNA with cholesterol at the ends of two of the strands – lipids in the membrane around the DNA begin to shuffle between the inner and outer membrane layers.

To verify the scramblase activity predicted by the computer models, Aksimentiev’s group at Illinois partnered with Professor Ulrich Keyser’s group at Cambridge. The Cambridge group synthesised the DNA enzyme and tested it in model membrane bubbles, called vesicles, and then in human breast cancer cells.

“The results show very conclusively that our DNA nanostructure facilitates rapid lipid scrambling,” said co-first author Alexander Ohmann, a PhD student in Keyser’s group in Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. “Most interestingly, the high flipping rate indicated by the molecular dynamics simulations seems to be of the same order of magnitude in experiments: up to a thousand-fold faster than what has previously been shown for natural scramblases.”

On its own, the DNA scramblase produces cell death indiscriminately, said Aksimentiev. The next step is to couple it with targeting systems that specifically seek out certain cell types, a number of which have already been developed for other DNA agents.

“We are also working to make these scramblase structures activated by light or some other stimulus, so they can be activated only on demand and can be turned off,” said Aksimentiev.

“Although we have still a long way to go, this work highlights the enormous potential of synthetic DNA nanostructures with possible applications for personalised drugs and therapeutics for a variety of health conditions in the future,” said Ohmann, who has also written a blog post on their new paper.

The US National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health supported this work.  

Reference:
Alexander Ohmann et al. ‘A synthetic enzyme built from DNA flips 107 lipids per second in biological membranes.’ Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04821-5

​Adapted from a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release.

A new synthetic enzyme, crafted from DNA rather than protein, ‘flips’ lipid molecules within the cell membrane, triggering a signal pathway that could be harnessed to induce cell death in cancer cells.

This work highlights the enormous potential of synthetic DNA nanostructures for personalised drugs and therapeutics for a variety of health conditions.Alexander OhmannAleksei AksimentievDNA scramblase


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Consultation on plans to tackle air quality in Cambridge starts

Cambridge Council Feed - Thu, 06/21/2018 - 10:35

CAMBRIDGE residents are being asked for their views on proposals to improve air quality in the city.

Today sees the launch of a proposed Air Quality Action Plan by Cambridge City Council. The draft plan, which has been developed jointly with the Greater Cambridge Partnership and Cambridgeshire County Council, sets out priorities over the next five years, for improving areas of poor air quality and maintaining areas of good air quality across the city.

The proposed actions to be taken under the plan fall into three main categories:

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Mysterious 11,000-year-old skull headdresses go on display in Cambridge

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 06/21/2018 - 09:21

The headdresses are the star exhibits in A Survival Story – Prehistoric Life at Star Carr which gives visitors a fascinating glimpse into life in Mesolithic-era Britain following the end of the last Ice Age.

At the time people were building their homes on the shore of Lake Flixton, five miles inland from what is now the North Yorkshire coast, Britain was still attached to Europe with climates warming rapidly.

As well as the spectacular headdresses, made of red deer skull and antlers, the exhibition features other Mesolithic-era objects such as axes and weapons used to hunt a range of animals such as red deer and elk.

Also going on display is a wooden paddle – used to transport settlers around the lake – as well as objects for making fire. Beads and pendants made of shale and amber also provide evidence of how people adorned themselves, as do objects used for making cloths from animal skins.

Most of the objects on display are from MAA. They were recovered from excavations conducted at the site by Cambridge archaeologist Professor Grahame Clark. More recently, excavations have been conducted by the archaeologists from the Universities of Chester, Manchester and York.

It is also the first time so many of the artefacts belonging to MAA have been on display side-by-side. Many of the objects are very fragile and can’t be moved, meaning it is a unique opportunity to see such a wide selection of material from the Star Carr site.

Exhibition curator Dr Jody Joy said: “Star Carr is unique. Only a scattering of stone tools normally survive from so long ago; but the waterlogged ground there has preserved bone, antler and wooden objects. It’s here that archaeologists have found the remains of the oldest house in Britain, exotic jewellery and mysterious headdresses.

“This was a time before farming, before pottery, before metalworking – but the people who made their homes there returned to the same place for hundreds of years.

“The most mysterious objects found at Star Carr are 33 deer skull headdresses. Only three similar objects have been discovered elsewhere – all in Germany. Someone has removed parts of the antlers and drilled holes in the skulls, but archaeologists don’t know why. They may have been hunting disguises, they may have been used in ceremonies or dances. We can never know for sure, but this is why Star Carr continues to intrigue us.”

As well as the headdresses, archaeologists have also discovered scatters of flint showing where people made stone tools, and antler points used to hunt and fish. 227 points were found at Star Carr, more than 90pc of all those ever discovered in Britain.

Closer to what was the lake edge (Lake Flixton has long since dried up), there is evidence of Mesolithic-era enterprise including wooden platforms used as walkways and jetties (the earliest known examples of carpentry in Europe) – where boats would have given access to the lake and its two islands.

First discovered in 1947 by an amateur archaeologist, work at Star Carr continues to this day. Unfortunately, recent artefacts are showing signs of decay as changing land use around the site causes the peat where many artefacts have been preserved naturally for millennia to dry out. It is now a race against time for archaeologists to discover more about the site before it is lost.

“Star Carr shows that although life was very different 11,500 years ago, people shared remarkably similar concerns to us,” added Joy. “They needed food, warmth and comfort. They made sense of the world through ritual and religion.

“The people of Star Carr were very adaptable and there is much we can learn from them as we too face the challenges of rapid climate change. There are still many discoveries to be made, but these precious archaeological remains are now threatened by the changing environment.

“As they are so old, the objects from Star Carr are very fragile and they must be carefully monitored and stored. As a result, few artefacts are normally on display. This is a rare opportunity to see so many of these objects side-by-side telling the story of this extraordinary site.”

A Survival Story – Prehistoric Life at Star Carr is on display at the Li Ka Shing Gallery at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Downing Street, Cambridge, from June 21 to December 30, 2019. Entry is free.

Three 11,500-year-old deer skull headdresses – excavated from a world-renowned archaeological site in Yorkshire – will go on display, one for the first time, at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) from today.

The most mysterious objects found at Star Carr are 33 deer skull headdresses. Only three similar objects have been discovered elsewhere – all in Germany.Jody JoyMuseum of Archaeology and AnthropologyOne of the three Mesolithic deer skull headdresses from the new exhibition


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University of Cambridge honorary degrees 2018

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 06/20/2018 - 16:10

Among today’s eight new honorary doctors was 99-year-old classicist and epigrapher Joyce Reynolds, believed to be the oldest recipient of the University’s highest honour.

Joining her in being recognised for outstanding contributions in their fields were former Cambridge Vice-Chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, physiologist Dame Frances Ashcroft, genome editing pioneer Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, President of the Royal Society, Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, poet and literary scholar Sir Michael Edwards, historian Professor Robert Evans and historian, social scientist and author of seminal works on US race relations, Professor Ira Katznelson.

Their compelling achievements were today rewarded with the highest accolade the University can bestow.

Born in 1918, Dr Reynolds became one of the world’s leading historians of the ancient world, exploring remote areas of Libya, Syria, Romania and Turkey – often as the only woman on an archaeological dig. She drove an all-woman party of archaeologists across North Africa in the 1950s, and is currently working on a major publication of the graffiti of Pompeii.

In her long career, Reynolds has taught students who have gone on to shape the field of classics in their turn, including Dame Mary Beard, who said: “Joyce’s work at Aphrodisias [Turkey] really changed historian’s views about how the Roman empire worked. I bet it will still be being read in 200 years time.” Reynolds became a Doctor of Letters.

Honorary degrees were conferred at a Congregation in the Senate House today (Wednesday 20 June 2018) presided over by the Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury of Turville.

A Doctorate of Law was conferred on Sir Leszek for a lifetime contribution to academic leadership, both nationally and to collegiate Cambridge as Vice-Chancellor. Sir Leszek has also had an outstanding career as a physician and clinical researcher, including undertaking Europe's first trial of a vaccine against human papillomavirus to prevent cervical cancer.

Dame Frances received a Doctorate in Medical Science for her achievements, including discoveries about the function and structure of ion channels and the role which certain channels play with insulin secretion and type 2 diabetes. She was also only the third British woman to be named European Laureate in the L’Oreal – UNESCO For Women in Science Awards (in 2011).

The degree of Doctor of Science was conferred on Professor Charpentier for her contributions to medical science, including her advances in genome editing that allow researchers “to cut and paste the very language of life written in the nucleus of the cells as easily as they edit their papers,” according to the oration about her, during the ceremony.

Dr Ramakrishnan, a Nobel Prizewinner, received the degree of Doctor of Science for his contributions to medical research, including his work into ribosomal structure and function.

A Doctorate of Letters was conferred on Sir Michael, who as well as writing poetry in both languages, is a specialist both English and French poetry and drama and the first Briton to be elected a member of the Académie française.

Author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, Professor Katznelson also received the degree of Doctor of Letters.

The same degree was conferred on Professor Evans, renowned for his work on Central and Eastern Europe and especially the Habsburg Empire, 

The day of the Honorary Degree Congregation is a 'scarlet day', so called because doctors wear scarlet instead of black gowns.   Flags were flown to mark the occasion and the bells of the University Church rang out as processions walked around Senate-House Yard.

The University has been conferring honorary degrees for some 500 years. One of the earliest recorded was in 1493, when the poet John Skelton was honoured.

Ninety-nine-year-old 'oldest honorary degree recipient in Cambridge history'

Joyce's work at Aphrodisias [Turkey] really changed historians' views about how the Roman empire worked. I bet it will still be being read in 200 years' timeProfessor Mary BeardAnne PenduffHonorary degree recipients


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Cambridge and Nokia Bell Labs establish new research centre to advance AI-supported multi-sensory personal devices

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 06/20/2018 - 15:00

Nokia Bell Labs is a founding partner of the new Centre for Mobile, Wearable Systems and Augmented Intelligence, to be based in Cambridge’s world-leading Department of Computer Science and Technology. The Centre will advance state-of-the-art mobile systems, security, new materials, and artificial intelligence (AI) to address one of the main human needs – the ability to communicate better with each other.

The collaboration pairs two innovation powerhouses. Nokia Bell Labs in Cambridge conducts research on novel sensors based on emerging materials, embedded and network intelligence, and computational social science. The University’s Department of Computer Science and Technology is expert in analysing mobile data and systems research in real world applications with quantifiable impact.

Research into mobile, wearable and augmented intelligence systems

The research jointly conducted in the new Centre will redefine the way people interact with the digital and physical world. Areas of focus include precise, predictive and personalised medicine, digital, physical, mental, and social well-being, and sensory human communication experiences beyond visual and audio. The Centre will be directed by Cecilia Mascolo, Professor of Mobile Systems, and Alastair Beresford, Reader in Computer Security.

“The new Centre provides support for high-quality, long-term research into mobile, wearable and augmented intelligence systems in Cambridge,” said Professor Mascolo. “In addition, the Centre will also engage with other researchers across the UK and abroad. We will formally launch the new Centre with a research symposium later in the year, with researchers drawn from across the UK and beyond.”

“Mobile systems have transformed our lives and evolved dramatically over the last 20 years,” said Dr Beresford. “However, there are many big changes to come, and our research will ensure we have the right technical solutions as well as appropriate safeguards available.”

Establishing a dynamic research community

The Centre will be used to establish a vibrant research community, and support Nokia Bell Labs PhD Studentships as well as postdoctoral researchers over the next five years. It will also support the wider research community with a range of events, workshops and seminars. The official opening and first academic research symposium will take place in September.

Markus Hofmann, Head of Applications, Platforms and Software Systems Research at Nokia Bell Labs said: “We are very excited to participate in the creation of this new Centre at Cambridge. We look forward to solving the key technical challenges as we move towards our shared goal – to provide people with enhanced awareness of their world, to help them better sense and interpret their digital and physical environment, to enable the long-distance exchange of people’s emotions and perceptions, to augment and improve the human experience in a digitally connected world.”

Julie Byrne, Head of External Collaboration Programs at Nokia Bell Labs, said: “We established our Distinguished Academic Partner Program to bring together the best and brightest minds to solve human need challenges by delivering disruptive innovations. We are delighted to be a founding partner of this new Centre and to bring the world-leading Department of Computer Science and Technology at Cambridge to our collaboration program.”

 

More about the impact of philanthropic giving

Read other examples of the positive impact of philanthropy at Cambridge

 

The long-sought dream of wearable and mobile devices that will interpret, replicate and influence people’s emotions and perceptions will soon be a reality thanks to a collaboration between the University and Nokia Bell Labs.

Markus SpiskeComputer code


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The boss of me: myths and truths of self-employment

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 06/20/2018 - 11:05

There is a recurring political reverie familiar to many nations: that the right policies can conjure an entrepreneurial class of the self-employed who will pull the economy up by the bootstraps of their start-ups.

When he was UK Prime Minister, David Cameron described admiring the “bravery of those who turn their back on the security of a regular wage” more than almost anything else. This was swiftly followed by the obligatory reference to creating the “next Google or Facebook”.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of self-employed people do not “wind up a billionaire” as Cameron put it. They are the window cleaners and web designers. The hairdressers and home-school tutors. And in the UK their number has grown in recent years to almost five million people – over 15% of the workforce.

Dr Brendan Burchell, an expert on work and wellbeing from the University’s Department of Sociology, and a Fellow of Magdalene College, talks of a disjunction between the perceived desirability of self-employment and the lived reality for millions.

“There’s long been this idea that policy mechanisms promoting self-employment have the potential to significantly reduce youth unemployment,” says Burchell, who has conducted research on everything from gender pay gaps to zero-hours contracts.

“However, while we’ve got quite good at turning unemployed people into employees, schemes to encourage self-employment – often couched in glamorous language of entrepreneurship and fronted by self-made millionaires – rarely seem to actually work.”

Burchell points out that self-employment is often politically convenient: it shifts the onus from governments to individuals, and can help with the ‘statistical impression’ of unemployment. Plus, there are always a tiny number of stellar success stories.

“Media and politicians cherry-pick aspirational accounts of self-employed people building businesses and making fortunes. Yet the available evidence from a number of economic contexts suggests that, particularly for young people, self-employment is often a highly vulnerable labour market status in terms of the levels of pay and job security it offers.” 

In 2015, Burchell was commissioned by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to conduct research into patterns of self-employment in young people. Together with his Cambridge colleague Dr Adam Coutts, Burchell dug into huge datasets on the labour market experiences of 15–24-year-olds the world over – from Asia to developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

They found that rates of self-employment ebb and flow over the decades. In the EU, rates have been hovering around 10–15% of the workforce in most countries in the past couple of decades. But, in some of the least developed nations, up to 70% of the labour market consists of self-employed people. In many rural areas, “pretty much everyone” is self-employed says Burchell.

“Self-employment in the developing world isn’t the bold decision it’s framed as in Western economies – for many people there simply isn’t any other choice. Formal sector jobs are scarce and almost all are located in cities, so everyone else sells tasks or finite stock as individuals, with limited success.

“These are not scalable businesses that will, for example, help get Africa on the digital economy bandwagon. But many governments continue to take cues from the West, and push the idea of self-employment as a route to economic success.”

Big data approaches to analysing self-employment can be problematic, says Burchell. Wages are irregular and not always declared, and many individuals flit between the reported and ‘shadow’ economies in both high- and low-income countries.

He describes the project as having “the advantages but also frustrations of someone else’s datasets”, and a lot of time spent staring at spreadsheets. “I began itching to get out there and do my own, more ethnographic, data collection – to get people’s stories about their own businesses. So I began travelling around asking questions.”

As well as interviewing and observing in the UK, Burchell has spent time in South Africa, the US state of Nevada, and has just come back from Ghana, where his former PhD student is now researching informal employment and work–life balance.

One of the more intriguing patterns he has begun to notice in both the observational research and the big data analyses is that self-employment often tends to be a family affair.

While the traditional approach of passing a small business between generations (“Smith and son butchers, etc.”) may be in decline, Burchell is finding that self-employment still has a significant yet underreported dynastic dimension. 

“The majority of self-employed people have parents or siblings who are also self-employed – they are rooted in families where self-employment is the default, and getting a qualification to become a professional worker is quite a
foreign notion.

“People from such families are perhaps more likely to grow up around discussion of profit margins and self-reliance, and feel more confident with these ideas as a result,” suggests Burchell.

“For those with a family background in it, self-employment does appear to be less risky. In fact, many self-employed people describe receiving regular help, both on and off the books, from family members.”

Burchell found many examples of this during recent research trips to South Africa – particularly for self-employed women. The sisters who operate a hair-braiding business with help from their mother. Or Joy, who runs a childcare centre developed by her aunt in premises built by her father, a self-employed construction worker.

Sometimes family members support each other’s businesses, such as Patience (pictured right) and her mother, who work separately as self-employed seamstresses but have pitches three metres apart and swap offcuts. “The more I look, the more I think family is fundamental to understanding why some people are successfully self-employed,” says Burchell.

For many of those lucky enough to have the choice, the insecurities of self-employment are the stuff of nightmares. People tend to crave stability when making big life decisions such as having children, says Burchell.

Other benefits to being an employee include access to training and apprenticeships, meaning that – for all the entrepreneurial talk – the risks of stagnating are perhaps even greater for the self-employed.

Nevertheless, the ILO data and Burchell’s own interviews show that self-employed people are either as satisfied or, in many parts of the world (including the UK), even more satisfied with working life than their formally employed counterparts.         

“The perception of autonomy, perhaps of freedom from the tyranny of a micromanaging boss, comes up when talking to self-employed people. Also, while often working longer hours than employees, many self-employed people value the flexibility they feel their work affords them.”

Burchell argues that, up until relatively recently in the broad sweep of history, people were rewarded per task, instead of an allotted amount of hours now familiar through nine-to-five work. “There is a pride that comes with the interaction, task completion and immediate feedback that is inherent in many classic forms of self-employed work.

“Taxi drivers like chatting to passengers and dropping them off safely. Hairdressers like making customers feel better than they did when they walked in. Maintaining a sense of achievement is vital for people’s wellbeing.”

Burchell is now embarking on a large research project to explore how labour markets might change if machine learning and robots take over many of the jobs being done by people.

“As automation starts taking effect, we need to make sure that human labour is valued for the benefits it provides each of us in terms of structure and goals. What is the minimum amount of work people need to feel valued? We may see a wider return to the more task-oriented work currently familiar to many self-employed people.”

While self-employment may not be the labour market remedy some want to believe, new research is revealing its global prevalence and intergenerational roots.

The majority of self-employed people have parents or siblings who are also self-employed – they are rooted in families where self-employment is the defaultBrendan BurchellRyoji IwataUnsplash


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Cambridge astrophysicist calls on UN to help girls reach for the stars

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 06/19/2018 - 15:15

Dr Ghina Halabi, a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Astronomy, has proposed a “UN sponsored international female alumni ambassador programme, for female role models to go back to their countries and their alma maters to inspire young girls to aspire, to dream and to achieve”.

Halabi received her doctorate from the American University of Beirut, and holds the distinction of being the first person to be awarded a PhD in Astrophysics from a Lebanese institution. She is keen to share her story, to highlight the opportunities available to women. Speaking at a high-level panel meeting at the UN Secretariat she raised the importance of role models, and said; “I feel it is my role, and obligation, to go back and inspire other women.” The UN’s Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women Lakshmi Puri, Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs Simonetta Di Pippo, and NASA Astronauts Scott Kelly and Sandy Magnus were among the panel members who heard her proposal.

“We need more role models,” she says. “But the research shows that for role models to work, girls need to be able to identify with them. You can be it if you can see it.

“The key thing I’m proposing here is to bring the role model back to her alma mater. The Kenyan scientist would go back to her school and university in Kenya, the Indian woman would do the same thing in India, the Iranian in Iran, and this way you have perfect engagement, girls can identify with these role models.

“We would visit our hometowns and our localities often and hold an event or two, just sharing our stories. It doesn’t have to be our science, just our stories. And imagine, if I go and talk to 20 girls every time, and there are 200 of me and we do that every year, and they go and tell their stories, think how big the network would get.”

Halabi was invited to speak at the UN Expert Meeting on Space for Women, at the UN-Women Headquarters in New York City last October. She was the only UK academic at the event, which was organised to discuss the scope and goals of the UN’s Space for Women Project. A key theme was innovative ways to empower women and girls, particularly in developing countries, to get into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and effective approaches for capacity building and development.

Halabi delivered a presentation to the meeting on the Institute of Astronomy’s work towards equality and diversity, and spoke about their success in achieving an Athena SWAN Bronze Award. She said “Athena SWAN is an excellent initiative because it standardises the efforts to improve representations of minorities and women in STEM. It’s currently extending pilot schemes in different countries, including Ireland and Australia, and I think people, in the US for example, thought ‘why don’t we have a nation-wide scheme like this’. It was very well received.”

Halabi has collaborated with a colleague in Washington DC, Dr Sara Langston, to create an outline of how the alumni ambassador programme will run, and is keen to secure endorsement and logistical support from the UN. She said; “If the UN can give an ambassador role to women who are successful in their fields, they will have an incentive, and feel encouraged and driven to take part.

“My involvement in the Space for Women project has introduced me to civil society leaders and experts from governments, international organisations, United Nations entities and research institutions in the public and private sectors in space and non-space fields. The fact that astronomy and space bring us all together was an eye opening experience on the role of astronomy in bettering the human condition.”

UNISPACE+50 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The UN describes it as ‘an opportunity for the international community to gather and consider the future course of global space cooperation for the benefit of humankind.’ Events this week include a two-day conference, an exhibition, and a special high-level session of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

A plan to build a global network of STEM ambassadors to encourage women and girls into science, put forward by a Cambridge academic to the United Nations, will be discussed at the UNSPACE+50 event this week.  

To inspire young girls to aspire, to dream, and to achieveGhina HalabiResearcher profile: Dr Ghina Halabi

I am the first person to obtain a PhD in astrophysics from a Lebanese institution. This is a distinction I am very proud of, and I hope my achievements will serve to inspire other women and girls into STEM education and careers.

Astronomy, one of the oldest sciences, is engrained in the history of every culture. The rich space imagery inspires us to try and discover more about the Universe; and contextualise our very existence. Astronomy is at the forefront of scientific research, and scientists across the field are constantly setting new records by imaging the farthest stars, exploring habitable worlds, witnessing the most violent explosions and charting stellar census.

Stars are the atoms of the Universe. They play a crucial and prominent role on galactic and cosmological levels. Beyond hydrogen and helium, they create all the elements in the universe as by-products of the nuclear fusion that keeps them alive. They are also the hosts and birthplace of planets that form in their circumstellar or protoplanetary discs at or near the end of the stars' own formation process.

I research the evolution of these enigmatic objects, their interactions with their nearby companions, and the nucleosynthesis processes taking place through their lifetimes. To do that, I use stellar evolution codes that model their structure and element formation.  I also investigate the interaction between nearby stars and the implications of this proximity on their evolution and their ultimate fate.

A typical working day includes running stellar evolution simulations and analysing the results. I also chair and organise weekly meetings for the Stars group, design Astrophysics projects for Master’s students; and mentor students, providing support and guidance over the course of their studies. I supervise Mathematics students at Churchill College, peer-review papers, and engage in science communication and outreach activities.

Space is never short of fascinating topics and research projects. A key moment for me was the realisation that my research is not remote from everyday life, but that astronomy has a strong humanitarian dimension. Our theoretical exploration is inspired by observational astronomy, which plays a fundamental role in technological innovations that benefit humankind. This reaches areas like health, humanitarian aid, communication, agriculture, climate change, transportation and disaster response.

Tenacity, networking, resilience and ambition are crucial elements for success. These are some of the key qualities that have helped me along my career.  What has also shaped my journey was jumping into new experiences that were totally outside my comfort zone. To be able to do this, I had to consciously prevent myself from feeling like an imposter and own my work, my accomplishments and my journey. These ventures into unfamiliar territories helped me grow and establish myself and my reputation. I have also learned to shrug off negative messages that are tainted with gender-bias. Sometimes, you just have to fight it off with a smile and carry on.  


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Council highlights ongoing work to provide safe and efficient taxi service in Cambridge

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 06/19/2018 - 13:40

CAMBRIDGE City Council is reminding residents and visitors that all taxi drivers licensed by Cambridge City are subject to a rigorous series of checks before and after being licensed to operate, to ensure passenger safety.

The reminder comes in response to media reports that some licensing authorities in the UK have issued licences to drivers with criminal records, and have been issuing licences incorrectly.

The council undertakes a number of checks before issuing a licence to a driver, and each time before their licence is renewed. These include:

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

How emotions shape our work life

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 06/18/2018 - 11:12

It is important for people to feel happy rather than miserable in their work – research shows that contented employees deliver better results after all.

But some businesses regard happiness initiatives as a ‘salve’ that can be applied across an organisation to increase employee wellbeing, as Dr Jochen Menges from Cambridge Judge Business School explains.

“The very fact that many organisations now ‘invest in happiness’ means they understand that emotions matter. But what they typically do – offering benefits like chill-out zones, free food, yoga classes – is rather blunt and does not account for the complexity of people’s emotional life.”

Working with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Faas Foundation, Menges is diving deeper into our understanding of emotions at work. The ‘Emotion Revolution in the Workplace’ project has asked over 10,000 employees from a mix of occupations, levels, ages, genders and ethnicities in the USA not just how they feel, but also how they wish to feel at work.

The results show that while some report feeling happy, many say they are stressed, tired and frustrated at work. When it comes to how people wish to feel, the study finds that most want to be appreciated, excited and happy. “There is a considerable gap between how people feel at work and how they would like to feel,” Menges explains. “Now the challenge is to find ways to close that gap.”

Although the analyses of this new dataset are still ongoing, Menges’ previous work gives some hints. He suggests that happiness may not primarily be about perks. “The work itself, colleagues and supervisors, and the organisational structure and culture play major roles in whether or not employees are happy.”

In one study, Menges found that people experience more positive emotions in organisations that are in close touch with customers.

“These organisations tend to be more decentralised – decisions can be taken at lower levels – and they pay more attention to employees’ emotional abilities in recruiting and promotion processes. Those two factors in turn are linked to how positive the employees across an organisation feel.”

It’s not all about being positive, however.

Although most research suggests that any pleasant emotion has beneficial effects on performance, creativity and commitment, Menges and his colleagues found in a recent study that some positive emotions – pride, for example – can be a problem.

“If employees do not identify with their organisation, then pride increases their intention to leave. They think ‘I am better than this place,’ and look for new opportunities.” By contrast, if employees identified with their organisation and experienced events that made them feel angry, they were less likely to quit. “They want to stick it out and improve the situation.”

So any emotions can be a good thing, Menges suggests, even if they are unpleasant. “If managers suppress employees’ emotions, they over time create an environment of indifference. Employees just get on with work, but they are not as committed and invested anymore. A bit of emotion, a bit of up and down – that’s what makes work meaningful.”

Menges also challenges the idea that employees should pursue ‘happiness’. “I think people differ in how they wish to feel at work. Although many of us simply say ‘I want to be happy at work’, what we actually mean by ‘happy’ can differ greatly.”

Menges tries to understand how people differ in the feelings they look for at work, and whether those differences affect people’s choice of employer and engagement at work.

For example, someone wanting to feel safe is likely to look for a stable, predictable job, whereas someone looking for excitement might not care much about job security as long as the job provides a stimulating environment.

The problem, according to Menges, is that most of us are not that specific when it comes to how we want to feel. “We lack the emotional vocabulary to pinpoint our desired emotions, so we just use ‘happy’. If we had better search terms, perhaps the search for happiness would not be that fuzzy and difficult.”

He suggests that organisations have a considerable influence on employees’ emotions and that employees within an organisation tend to feel alike. “Emotions are a very intimate and personal experience, and yet how we feel often depends largely on how people around us feel.

“In some places, people are enthusiastic, excited and inspired for a better future; in others, they are satisfied, calm, relaxed, easy-going. Both are positive but have very different energy levels, and that is linked to different outcomes.”

“In other places, there is aggression, stress and anxiety – or frustration, resignation and apathy. Again, both negative, but with different energy levels and outcomes.”

Places with high positive energy are at risk of losing it. Menges saw this at first hand when he studied the impact of the economic crisis of 2008–2009. “Companies were working at a frenetic pace – they increased the number and speed of activities, raised performance goals, shortened innovation cycles. They were trying to get more done with fewer people at a faster pace.”

But when performance went up, too often companies tried to make this pace the new normal. The result was that employees’ energy began to drain.

These companies were in the ‘Acceleration Trap’ – a term he and a colleague coined in an article published in The Harvard Business Review. A sobering 60% of surveyed employees in companies that were in this trap said that they lacked sufficient resources to get their work done, compared with 2% in companies that were not trapped.

“Managers in accelerated companies realised that something was amiss, but they took the wrong cure. Rather than giving employees some relief, they increased pressure. Ironically, their calls for high performance led to lower performance,” Menges says.

“The Acceleration Trap is still a common problem. Any uncertainty, such as Brexit, can generate the conditions where companies overload and under-resource employees, and where organisational fatigue and burnout can result.”

The good news is that it is possible to escape the trap. Menges looked at how leaders recognised the trap and moved their company in different directions – such as halting less-important work, being clear about strategy and changing the culture.

“When it comes to how people feel in a business, many point to the leader. And it is right that leaders play a key role in setting the mood of a place,” Menges explains. In particular, leaders with emotional intelligence – the ability to recognise emotions in oneself and others, and to regulate emotions in ways that help reach rather than hinder goals – are in a good position to steer their team’s and organisation’s collective emotions in the right direction.

“But I think we need to also look at how the organisation as a system is set up,” he says. Menges believes that some places are organised in a more emotionally effective way than others. “If companies figure out how they can institutionalise emotionally intelligent systems, they would be much better off than investing in ‘happiness initiatives’.”

Inset image: read more about our research on the topic of work in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

Jochen Menges, an expert in organisational behaviour, thinks that emotions matter profoundly for employee performance and behaviour. His studies bring nuance to our understanding of how employees wish to feel at work.

A bit of emotion, a bit of up and down – that’s what makes work meaningfulJochen MengesThe District


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New 3D imaging analysis technique could lead to improved arthritis treatment

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 06/18/2018 - 10:00

The technique, which detects tiny changes in arthritic joints, could enable greater understanding of how osteoarthritis develops and allow the effectiveness of new treatments to be assessed more accurately, without the need for invasive tissue sampling. The results are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in the UK. It develops when the articular cartilage that coats the ends of bones, and allows them to glide smoothly over each other at joints, is worn down, resulting in painful, immobile joints. Currently there is no recognised cure and the only definitive treatment is surgery for artificial joint replacement.

Osteoarthritis is normally identified on an x-ray by a narrowing of the space between the bones of the joint due to a loss of cartilage. However, x-rays do not have enough sensitivity to detect subtle changes in the joint over time.

“In addition to their lack of sensitivity, two-dimensional x-rays rely on humans to interpret them,” said lead author Dr Tom Turmezei from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. “Our ability to detect structural changes to identify disease early, monitor progression and predict treatment response is frustratingly limited by this.”

The technique developed by Turmezei and his colleagues uses images from a standard computerised tomography (CT) scan, which isn’t normally used to monitor joints, but produces detailed images in three dimensions.

The semi-automated technique, called joint space mapping (JSM), analyses the CT images to identify changes in the space between the bones of the joint in question, a recognised surrogate marker for osteoarthritis. After developing the algorithm with tests on human hip joints from bodies that had been donated for medical research, they found that it exceeded the current ‘gold standard’ of joint imaging with x-rays in terms of sensitivity, showing that it was at least twice as good at detecting small structural changes. Colour-coded images produced using the JSM algorithm illustrate the parts of the joint where the space between bones is wider or narrower.

“Using this technique, we’ll hopefully be able to identify osteoarthritis earlier, and look at potential treatments before it becomes debilitating,” said Turmezei, who is now a consultant at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital’s Department of Radiology. “It could be used to screen at-risk populations, such as those with known arthritis, previous joint injury, or elite athletes who are at risk of developing arthritis due to the continued strain placed on their joints.”

While CT scanning is regularly used in the clinic to diagnose and monitor a range of health conditions, CT of joints has not yet been approved for use in research trials. According to the researchers, the success of the JSM algorithm demonstrates that 3D imaging techniques have the potential to be more effective than 2D imaging. In addition, CT can now be used with very low doses of radiation, meaning that it can be safely used more frequently for the purposes of ongoing monitoring.

“We’ve shown that this technique could be a valuable tool for the analysis of arthritis, in both clinical and research settings,” said Turmezei. “When combined with 3D statistical analysis, it could be also be used to speed up the development of new treatments.”

Tom Turmezei acknowledges the Wellcome Trust for research funding. Ken Poole acknowledges the support of the Cambridge NIHR Biomedical Research Centre.

Reference
T.D. Turmezei et al. ‘A new quantitative 3D approach to imaging of structural joint disease.’ Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-27486-y 

An algorithm to monitor the joints of patients with arthritis, which could change the way that the severity of the condition is assessed, has been developed by a team of engineers, physicians and radiologists led by the University of Cambridge. 

Using this technique, we’ll hopefully be able to identify osteoarthritis earlier, and look at potential treatments before it becomes debilitating.Tom TurmezeiTom TurmezeiHip, knee and ankle joints analysed by the JSM algorithm


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Making the numbers count: supporting and engaging women at every career stage

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 06/15/2018 - 09:00

Glass ceilings, glass cliffs, glass escalators… much has been written about the metaphorical glass barrier that stands invisibly yet solidly between women and high-level success across the economy.

It’s a description that exasperates Professor Sucheta Nadkarni from Cambridge Judge Business School.

“The challenges faced by women in business are well documented and fiercely debated, and there’s a tendency for most of this talk to be negative. I call this the doom and gloom narrative – it’s about the barriers that women face and why women fail. Let’s change the conversation about gender equality to focus on the factors that help women
to succeed.”

Nadkarni is the lead academic on a major global research project that reported in the European Business Review last year on the factors that help women to succeed in corporate environments. The project gathered data from 1,071 companies in 42 countries, covering 56 industries. The information spanned a ten-year period, during which the average percentage of women on executive teams in sampled firms rose from 7.6% to just 11.7%.

The study highlighted the many benefits that women in senior roles bring to companies. “It’s not just that hiring more women into senior positions is the right thing to do for gender equality, it’s also the smart thing to do from a business perspective,” says Nadkarni.

“We found that bringing more women to top roles can make a business function better, attract new customers and improve the bottom line. Women bring in diverse capabilities, diverse knowledge and new ways of thinking, which organisations need.”

With revelations about the gender pay gap making current headlines – three quarters of the 10,000 firms that have provided information pay men more than women – the inequality problems women continue to face in the labour market are gaining increasing attention.

However, Nadkarni is keen to focus on the future. “The question we need to ask now is: what can we do about this situation of unequal pay and unequal representation, and how can we create a more optimistic, promising picture for our students and for the women who are just starting to rise up?”

Her study considered the economic, political, legislative and cultural forces that determine the number of women in the boardroom in different countries. The findings showed that the strongest drivers are ‘female economic power’ and a requirement for gender diversity in a country’s corporate governance code. Maternity provisions and female politicians providing a championing voice for women are also important factors.

Female economic power was measured by the expected years of schooling for women, and the percentage of women in the labour force. The results suggest that as women become more highly educated, and gain increasing levels of employment, they play a greater role in the marketplace. This then provides a powerful incentive for companies to hire more women onto the board, to reflect the market they cater for. 

Corporate governance codes are a set of best practice recommendations, including gender diversity requirements. In the past decade, codes have been created in 64 countries. Among countries sampled in Nadkarni’s study, Colombia had the highest percentage of women in executive teams, at 28.5%, and Japan ranked bottom with 0.57%.

These codes, says Nadkarni, are one example of a ‘soft’ measure that has been shown to be effective in helping women to gain top roles in executive teams or on management boards. In comparison, ‘hard’ targets – such as the mandatory quotas enforced on companies by several countries to give a percentage of seats on the board to women – do little to support gender diversity, and can also have a negative effect on company cohesion.

“Although quotas can help to improve the representation of women on corporate boards, they do little to help women stay in senior positions long enough to make a real impact, and can have both positive and negative effects on turnover rates,” says Nadkarni. “They can also create a hostile environment, by conveying a sense of ‘preferential treatment’ rather than recognition of hard work, skills and capabilities.”

The research also uncovered some of the loopholes that companies exploit to meet quota requirements. For example, in countries where family businesses are common, quotas are sometimes fulfilled by appointing female relatives to the board. In one case, an 86-year-old, the daughter of the founder of a company in Turkey, had been on the board since 1964.

Dr Jude Browne, the Jessica and Peter Frankopan Director of the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, has constructed a different approach to addressing gender equality that focuses on encouraging diversity at all levels of an organisation rather than simply quota requirements for senior roles.

Browne suggests that “each organisation with significant pay gaps and other segregation patterns needs to begin by building a detailed picture of what it thinks its data ought to look like and, crucially, publish its goals.

“Too many organisations simply collect data, compile aggregate figures that don’t tell us that much and then look to other organisations to see how they compare. Given that a great many are failing to pick up real pace in addressing these patterns, the ‘comparison with competitors approach’ tends to generate a complacent comfort zone around what ought to be, in many cases, unacceptable.”

As Browne set out at the European Commission recently, the ‘Critical Mass Marker’ approach focuses on skilled women who are not advancing to the next level as quickly as one might expect – that is, where critical mass is not having the desired flow effect.

The approach requires an organisation to undertake a detailed analysis of its workforce and mark out goals that proportionately relate each level to the next, taking critical mass failures into particular account. Organisations would then be required to analyse and explain their continued segregation patterns against their published goals. This might include analysing the different career profiles that various intersectional groups tend to have and the impact of dependant-related responsibilities, reassessing the benchmark criteria for promotion, and comparing those who have worked within the organisation for long periods to newcomers with very different workloads.

“The Critical Mass Marker approach is not going to solve all the segregation problems that organisations tend to have,” she adds. “But it puts a greater onus on them to ensure those equipped with the relevant talents are able to move up and across institutional structures in a more effective and proportionate way than blanket quotas aimed solely at the top layers of management where we often only see the same few women.”

Nadkarni is also keen to see more women supported at every level, and would like to see action to increase the number of women in executive teams, not just on corporate boards.

“Corporate boards are important, but they only play an indirect role in influencing company strategies and performance, because they mainly have an advisory capacity,” she says.  “The decisions are made by the executive team. So, if we want companies to benefit, if we want women to really make an impact, then it’s the executive teams that matter.

“In this context, a quote that comes to mind is it’s not about ‘counting the numbers’, it’s about ‘making the numbers count’. In other words, it’s not merely the quantity of women in top positions that matters, but also whether policies are in place at various levels – company, government and corporate governance codes – to ensure that women can make
a true impact in such roles.

“Hopefully in the future we will watch the doom and gloom ebb away as the true benefits of gender equality become crystal clear to everyone.”

Inset image: read more about our research on the topic of work in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

Researchers call for gender equality and career support for women in the workplace, and an end to “the doom and gloom narrative” over their limited numbers.

Hiring more women into senior positions is the right thing to do for gender equality. It’s also the smart thing to do from a business perspectiveSucheta NadkarniWOCinTech Chat


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Celebrating the Black Women of Cambridge

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 06/14/2018 - 16:45

The students, both undergraduate and graduate, posed in front of the Senate House, the administrative centre of the University. The photo was the idea of the University's African Caribbean Society. It came just over a year after a photo of some of the black male students of Cambridge went viral. 

The women were marking the achievements of Gloria Claire Carpenter, a Jamaican, who studied law at Girton College from 1945 to 1948. She later became a prominent social reformer. Timi Sotire, who is studying politics and sociology also at Girton, is vice-president of the Cambridge University African Caribbean Society (Cambridge ACS). She said: 

"71 years ago, none of us would be here getting degrees and now we have a really strong black female cohort which we want to celebrate and to just let girls who want to apply to Cambridge, and black girls especially, know that there is a place for them here. 

She went on: "Cambridge is fun, really fun, and I've met some amazing black women here and I'm so glad we now have photos celebrating that."

Toni Fola-Alade, President of the Society, said: "Despite black women noticeably outnumbering black men at the University of Cambridge, they have historically, by comparison, lacked the visibility and public recognition for the contribution they make to the wider community.

He added: "The idea of the photo-shoot was to highlight just how many black women are here, and thriving. The fact we were also able to honour a trailblazer, in Gloria Claire Carpenter, makes me immensely proud."

 

Black women members of the University of Cambridge have gathered for a photo-shoot to mark 70 years since the first black woman graduated from the University and 70 years since women were admitted as full members.

Lloyd Mann Black women


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