In living colour: Brightly-colored bacteria could be used to 'grow' paints and coatings

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 09:06

The study is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and Dutch company Hoekmine BV and shows how genetics can change the colour, and appearance, of certain types of bacteria. The results open up the possibility of harvesting these bacteria for the large-scale manufacturing of nanostructured materials: biodegradable, non-toxic paints could be 'grown' and not made, for example.

Flavobacterium is a type of bacteria that packs together in colonies that produce striking metallic colours, which come not from pigments, but from their internal structure, which reflects light at certain wavelengths. Scientists are still puzzled as to how these intricate structures are genetically engineered by nature, however.

"It is crucial to map the genes responsible for the structural colouration for further understanding of how nanostructures are engineered in nature," said first author Villads Egede Johansen, from Cambridge's Department of Chemistry. "This is the first systematic study of the genes underpinning structural colours -- not only in bacteria but in any living system."

The researchers compared the genetic information to optical properties and anatomy of wild-type and mutated bacterial colonies to understand how genes regulate the colour of the colony.

By genetically mutating the bacteria, the researchers changed their dimensions or their ability to move, which altered the geometry of the colonies. By changing the geometry, they changed the colour: they changed the original metallic green colour of the colony in the entire visible range from blue to red. They were also able to create duller colouration or make the colour disappear entirely.

"We mapped several genes with previously unknown functions and we correlated them to the colonies' self-organisational capacity and their colouration," said senior author Dr Colin Ingham, CEO of Hoekmine BV.

"From an applied perspective, this bacterial system allows us to achieve tuneable living photonic structures that can be reproduced in abundance, avoiding traditional nanofabrication methods," said co-senior author Dr Silvia Vignolini from the Cambridge's Department of Chemistry. "We see a potential in the use of such bacterial colonies as photonic pigments that can be readily optimised for changing colouration under external stimuli and that can interface with other living tissues, thereby adapting to variable environments. The future is open for biodegradable paints on our cars and walls -- simply by growing exactly the colour and appearance we want!"

Villads Egede Johansen et al. 'Living
colors: Genetic manipulation of structural color in bacterial colonies.' PNAS (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1716214115

Researchers have unlocked the genetic code behind some of the brightest and most vibrant colours in nature. The paper, published in the journal PNAS, is the first study of the genetics of structural colour - as seen in butterfly wings and peacock feathers - and paves the way for genetic research in a variety of structurally coloured organisms.

This is the first systematic study of the genes underpinning structural colours -- not only in bacteria but in any living system.Villads Egede JohansenUniversity of CambridgeColony of the Flavobacterium IR1

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Fake news ‘vaccine’: online game may ‘inoculate’ by simulating propaganda tactics

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 02/20/2018 - 00:06

A new online game puts players in the shoes of an aspiring propagandist to give the public a taste of the techniques and motivations behind the spread of disinformation – potentially “inoculating” them against the influence of so-called fake news in the process.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have already shown that briefly exposing people to tactics used by fake news producers can act as a “psychological vaccine” against bogus anti-science campaigns.

While the previous study focused on disinformation about climate science, the new online game is an experiment in providing “general immunity” against the wide range of fake news that has infected public debate.

The game encourages players to stoke anger, mistrust and fear in the public by manipulating digital news and social media within the simulation. 

Players build audiences for their fake news sites by publishing polarising falsehoods, deploying twitter bots, photo-shopping evidence, and inciting conspiracy theories in the wake of public tragedy – all while maintaining a “credibility score” to remain as persuasive as possible.

A pilot study conducted with teenagers in a Dutch high school used an early paper-and-pen trial of the game, and showed the perceived “reliability” of fake news to be diminished in those that played compared to a control group. 

The research and education project, a collaboration between Cambridge researchers and Dutch media collective DROG, is launching an English version of the game online today at

The psychological theory behind the research is called “inoculation”:

“A biological vaccine administers a small dose of the disease to build immunity. Similarly, inoculation theory suggests that exposure to a weak or demystified version of an argument makes it easier to refute when confronted with more persuasive claims,” says Dr Sander van der Linden, Director of Cambridge University’s Social Decision-Making Lab

“If you know what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone who is actively trying to deceive you, it should increase your ability to spot and resist the techniques of deceit. We want to help grow ‘mental antibodies’ that can provide some immunity against the rapid spread of misinformation.”

Based in part on existing studies of online disinformation, and taking cues from actual conspiracy theories about organisations such as the United Nations, the game is set to be translated for countries such as Ukraine, where disinformation casts a heavy shadow.

There are also plans to adapt the framework of the game for anti-radicalisation purposes, as many of the same manipulation techniques – using false information to provoke intense emotions, for example – are commonly deployed by recruiters for religious extremist groups.

“You don’t have to be a master spin doctor to create effective disinformation. Anyone can start a site and artificially amplify it through twitter bots, for example. But recognising and resisting fake news doesn’t require a PhD in media studies either,” says Jon Roozenbeek, a researcher from Cambridge’s Department of Slavonic Studies and one of the game’s designers.

“We aren’t trying to drastically change behavior, but instead trigger a simple thought process to help foster critical and informed news consumption.”

Roozenbeek points out that some efforts to combat fake news are seen as ideologically charged. “The framework of our game allows players to lean towards the left or right of the political spectrum. It’s the experience of misleading through news that counts,” he says.

The pilot study in the Netherlands using a paper version of the game involved 95 students with an average age of 16, randomly divided into treatment and control.

This version of the game focused on the refugee crisis, and all participants were randomly presented with fabricated news articles on the topic at the end of the experiment.

The treatment group were assigned roles – alarmist, denier, conspiracy theorist or clickbait monger – and tasked with distorting a government fact sheet on asylum seekers using a set of cards outlining common propaganda tactics consistent with their role.    

They found fake news to be significantly less reliable than the control group, who had not produced their own fake article. Researchers describe the results of this small study as limited but promising. The study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Risk Research.

The team are aiming to take their “fake news vaccine” trials to the next level with today’s launch of the online game.

With content written mostly by the Cambridge researchers along with Ruurd Oosterwoud, founder of DROG, the game only takes a few minutes to complete. The hope is that players will then share it to help create a large anonymous dataset of journeys through the game.  

The researchers can then use this data to refine techniques for increasing media literacy and fake news resilience in a ‘post-truth’ world. “We try to let players experience what it is like to create a filter bubble so they are more likely to realise they may be living in one,” adds van der Linden.

A new experiment, launching today online, aims to help ‘inoculate’ against disinformation by providing a small dose of perspective from a “fake news tycoon”. A pilot study has shown some early success in building resistance to fake news among teenagers.   

We try to let players experience what it is like to create a filter bubble so they are more likely to realise they may be living in oneSander van der Linden DROGA screen shot of the Fake News Game on a smart phone.

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Ancient genome study identifies traces of indigenous “Taíno” in present-day Caribbean populations

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 02/19/2018 - 20:00

Researchers were able to use the tooth of a woman found in a cave on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas to sequence the first complete ancient human genome from the Caribbean. The woman lived at some point between the 8th and 10th centuries, at least 500 years before Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas.

The results provide unprecedented insights into the genetic makeup of the Taíno – a label commonly used to describe the indigenous people of that region. This includes the first clear evidence that there has been some degree of continuity between the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and contemporary communities living in the region today.

Such a link had previously been suggested by other studies based on modern DNA. None of these, however, was able to draw on an ancient genome. The new research finally provides concrete proof that indigenous ancestry in the region has survived to the present day.

Comparing the ancient Bahamian genome to those of contemporary Puerto Ricans, the researchers found that they were more closely related to the ancient Taíno than any other indigenous group in the Americas. However, they argue that this characteristic is unlikely to be exclusive to Puerto Ricans alone and are convinced that future studies will reveal similar genetic legacies in other Caribbean communities.

The findings are likely to be especially significant for people in the Caribbean and elsewhere who have long claimed indigenous Taíno heritage, despite some historical narratives that inaccurately brand them “extinct”. Such misrepresentations have been heavily criticised by historians and archaeologists, as well as by descendant communities themselves, but until now they lacked clear genetic evidence to support their case.

The study was carried out by an international team of researchers led by Dr Hannes Schroeder and Professor Eske Willerslev within the framework of the ERC Synergy project NEXUS1492. The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Schroeder, from the University of Copenhagen who carried out the research as part of the NEXUS1492 project, said: “It’s a fascinating finding. Many history books will tell you that the indigenous population of the Caribbean was all but wiped out, but people who self-identify as Taíno have always argued for continuity. Now we know they were right all along: there has been some form of genetic continuity in the Caribbean.”

Willerslev, who has dual posts at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, said: “It has always been clear that people in the Caribbean have Native American ancestry, but because the region has such a complex history of migration, it was difficult to prove whether this was specifically indigenous to the Caribbean, until now.”

The researchers were also able to trace the genetic origins of the indigenous Caribbean islanders, showing that they were most closely related to Arawakan-speaking groups who live in parts of northern South America today. This suggests that the origins of at least some the people who migrated to the Caribbean can be traced back to the Amazon and Orinoco Basins, where the Arawakan languages developed.

The Caribbean was one of the last parts of the Americas to be populated by humans starting around 8,000 years ago. By the time of European colonization, the islands were a complex patchwork of different societies and cultures. The “Taíno” culture was dominant in the Greater, and parts of the Lesser Antilles, as well as the Bahamas, where the people were known as Lucayans.

To trace the genetic origins of the Lucayans the researchers compared the ancient Bahamian genome with previously published genome-wide datasets for over 40 present-day  indigenous groups from the Americas. In addition, they looked for traces of indigenous Caribbean ancestry in present-day populations by comparing the ancient genome with those of 104 contemporary Puerto Ricans included in the 1000 Genomes Project. The 10-15% of Native American ancestry in this group was shown to be closely related to the ancient Bahamian genome.

Jorge Estevez, a Taíno descendant who works at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and assisted the project team, said that as a boy growing up in the United States, he was told stories about his Taíno ancestors at home, but at school was taught that the same ancestors had died out. “I wish my grandmother were alive today so that I could confirm to her what she already knew,” he added. “It shows that the true story is one of assimilation, certainly, but not total extinction. I am genuinely grateful to the researchers. Although this may have been a matter of scientific inquiry for them, to us, the descendants, it is truly liberating and uplifting.”

Although indigenous Caribbean communities were island-based, the researchers found very little genomic evidence of isolation or inbreeding in the ancient genome. This reinforces earlier genetic research led by Willerslev, which suggests that early human communities developed surprisingly extensive social networks, long before the term had digital connotations. It also echoes ongoing work by researchers at the Faculty of Archaeology in Leiden and others indicating the connectedness of indigenous Caribbean communities. 

Professor Corinne Hofman from Leiden University and PI of the NEXUS1492 project, said: "Archaeological evidence has always suggested that large numbers of people who settled the Caribbean originated in South America, and that they maintained social networks that extended far beyond the local scale. Historically, it has been difficult to back this up with ancient DNA because of poor preservation, but this study demonstrates that it is possible to obtain ancient genomes from the Caribbean and that opens up fascinating new possibilities for research."

A thousand-year-old tooth has provided genetic evidence that the so-called “Taíno”, the first indigenous Americans to feel the full impact of European colonisation after Columbus arrived in the New World, still have living descendants in the Caribbean today.

It has always been clear that people in the Caribbean have Native American ancestry, but it was difficult to prove whether this was specifically indigenous to the Caribbean, until now.Eske WillerslevImage courtesy of the Library of CongressFirst encounter. Columbus landing in the New World

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Calcium may play a role in the development of Parkinson’s disease

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 02/19/2018 - 10:00

The international team, led by the University of Cambridge, found that calcium can mediate the interaction between small membranous structures inside nerve endings, which are important for neuronal signalling in the brain, and alpha-synuclein, the protein associated with Parkinson’s disease. Excess levels of either calcium or alpha-synuclein may be what starts the chain reaction that leads to the death of brain cells.

The findings, reported in the journal Nature Communications, represent another step towards understanding how and why people develop Parkinson’s. According to the charity Parkinson’s UK, one in every 350 adults in the UK – an estimated 145,000 in all – currently has the condition, but as yet it remains incurable.

Parkinson’s disease is one of a number of neurodegenerative diseases caused when naturally occurring proteins fold into the wrong shape and stick together with other proteins, eventually forming thin filament-like structures called amyloid fibrils. These amyloid deposits of aggregated alpha-synuclein, also known as Lewy bodies, are the sign of Parkinson’s disease.

Curiously, it hasn’t been clear until now what alpha-synuclein actually does in the cell: why it’s there and what it’s meant to do. It is implicated in various processes, such as the smooth flow of chemical signals in the brain and the movement of molecules in and out of nerve endings, but exactly how it behaves is unclear.

“Alpha-synuclein is a very small protein with very little structure, and it needs to interact with other proteins or structures in order to become functional, which has made it difficult to study,” said senior author Dr Gabriele Kaminski Schierle from Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology.

Thanks to super-resolution microscopy techniques, it is now possible to look inside cells to observe the behaviour of alpha-synuclein. To do so, Kaminski Schierle and her colleagues isolated synaptic vesicles, part of the nerve cells that store the neurotransmitters which send signals from one nerve cell to another.

In neurons, calcium plays a role in the release of neurotransmitters. The researchers observed that when calcium levels in the nerve cell increase, such as upon neuronal signalling, the alpha-synuclein binds to synaptic vesicles at multiple points causing the vesicles to come together. This may indicate that the normal role of alpha-synuclein is to help the chemical transmission of information across nerve cells.

“This is the first time we’ve seen that calcium influences the way alpha-synuclein interacts with synaptic vesicles,” said Dr Janin Lautenschlӓger, the paper’s first author. “We think that alpha-synuclein is almost like a calcium sensor. In the presence of calcium, it changes its structure and how it interacts with its environment, which is likely very important for its normal function.”

“There is a fine balance of calcium and alpha-synuclein in the cell, and when there is too much of one or the other, the balance is tipped and aggregation begins, leading to Parkinson’s disease,” said co-first author Dr Amberley Stephens.

The imbalance can be caused by a genetic doubling of the amount of alpha-synuclein (gene duplication), by an age-related slowing of the breakdown of excess protein, by an increased level of calcium in neurons that are sensitive to Parkinson’s, or an associated lack of calcium buffering capacity in these neurons.

Understanding the role of alpha-synuclein in physiological or pathological processes may aid in the development of new treatments for Parkinson’s disease. One possibility is that drug candidates developed to block calcium, for use in heart disease for instance, might also have potential against Parkinson’s disease.

The research was funded in part by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Research UK, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Janin Lautenschlӓger, Amberley D. Stephens et al. ‘C-terminal calcium binding of Alpha-synuclein modulates synaptic vesicle interaction.’ Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03111-4

Researchers have found that excess levels of calcium in brain cells may lead to the formation of toxic clusters that are the hallmark of Parkinson’s disease.

This is the first time we’ve seen that calcium influences the way alpha-synuclein behaves.Janin LautenschlӓgerJanin LautenschlӓgerTyrosine hydroxylase positive neuron stained with a synaptic marker

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Scientists discover the secrets behind the cuttlefish’s 3D ‘invisibility cloak’

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 17:00

Cuttlefish and octopuses are remarkable creatures. They have the ability to change their appearance in a matter of seconds, camouflaging themselves from predators and enabling them to surprise their prey. However, unlike a number of reptiles and amphibians which merely change colour to blend into their surroundings, these cephalopods are also able to change the physical texture of their skin to match the coarseness of surrounding rocks, coral or seaweed.

“The sea is full of strange and wondrous creatures, but there are few as bizarre and intelligent as octopuses and cuttlefish,” says Dr Trevor Wardill from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “We’ve seen dozens of examples of these animals suddenly appearing from nowhere, as if they have thrown off an invisibility cloak. How they do this has long remained a mystery.”

The skin of these animals is covered in tiny muscular organs known as ‘chromatophores’ that change colour in response to a signal from the brain. It also has a second set of muscular organs that can be activated to create bumps known as ‘papillae’. When stimulated, each papilla can change the texture of the skin from flat to three dimensional. The papillae can serve several functions, including disguise.

Understanding the nervous system of these creatures and how they manipulate their skin has proved challenging, but now a team of scientists from the Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Cambridge has begun to understand how this happens. Their results are published today in the journal iScience.

The researchers found that the instruction signal from the cuttlefish’s brain is routed through the stellate ganglion, a peripheral nerve centre. The stellate ganglion houses the giant axon system, so called because it is large enough to see with the naked eye. It also houses particular motor neurons that control the papillae on the mantle (the cuttlefish’s outer surface). This nerve circuitry is similar to that by which squids control skin iridescence.

The giant axon system, due to its large size of up to 1mm, helped Nobel prize-winning Cambridge scientists Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, along with Australian scientist John Eccles, figure out how nerve impulses (action potentials) work.

Dr Paloma Gonzalez-Bellido, also from the University of Cambridge, adds: “This discovery is really interesting from an evolutionary point of view. It opens up the question of which came first: was the common ancestor to cuttlefish and squid able to camouflage themselves using papillae or express iridescence, or possibly both?”

The researcher team – including Lexi Scaros of Dalhousie University and Roger Hanlon of the Marine Biological Laboratory – also looked in greater detail at the papillae to find out how they manage to hold their shape over a long period of time without a signal. They found that the papillae use a mechanism which they describe as being ‘catch-like’. It resembles the ‘catch’ mechanism found in bivalves, such as oysters, mussels, and scallops, which enables the bivalve shell to remain closed without expending much energy.

“There is still a big mystery, however, which is how these animals interpret the world around them and translate this into signals that change their appearance,” says Dr Wardill.

The researchers say that understanding how cephalopods’ skin changes from a smooth, flat surface to a textured, 3D structure could help in the design of biologically-inspired materials that can themselves be assembled from flat materials.

“This research on neural control of flexible skin, combined with anatomical studies of the novel muscle groups that enable such shape-shifting skin, has applications for the development of new classes of soft materials that can be engineered for a wide array of uses in industry, society, and medicine,” adds Professor Roger Hanlon of the Marine Biological Laboratory.

The research was largely funded by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Neural control of dynamic 3-dimensional skin papillae for cuttlefish camouflage. iScience; 15 Feb 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.isci.2018.01.001

An international team of scientists has identified the neural circuits that enable cuttlefish to change their appearance in just the blink to eye – and discovered that this is similar to the neural circuit that controls iridescence in squids.

The sea is full of strange and wondrous creatures, but there are few as bizarre and intelligent as octopuses and cuttlefish. We’ve seen dozens of examples of these animals suddenly appearing from nowhere, as if they have thrown off an invisibility cloakTrevor WardillLakshmi Sawitri via Wikimedia CommonsLembeh81 5-12-11 - 43 cuttlefish 1 looking like sand

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Families move in to their new council homes on Uphall Road

Cambridge Council Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 14:49

TWO Cambridge families are now settling in at their new council homes, constructed by Cambridge City Council employees on Uphall Road, after moving in recently.

The two families had both been on the waiting list for council housing, and will now be renting their homes directly from the council.

The semi-detached three bedroom homes are located on a site that was formerly council-owned garages, and are the first homes that the council’s own carpenters, bricklayers, electricians and apprentices have built for many years.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

The uncertain unicycle that taught itself and how it’s helping AI make good decisions

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 13:51

In the centre of the screen is a tiny unicycle. The animation starts, the unicycle lurches forward and falls. This is trial #1. It’s now trial #11 and there’s a change – an almost imperceptible delay in the fall, perhaps an attempt to right itself before the inevitable crash. “It’s learning from experience,” nods Professor Carl Edward Rasmussen.

After a minute, the unicycle is gently rocking back and forth as it circles on the spot. It’s figured out how this extremely unstable system works and has mastered its goal. “The unicycle starts with knowing nothing about what’s going on – it’s only been told that its goal is to stay in the centre in an upright fashion. As it starts falling forwards and backwards, it starts to learn,” explains Rasmussen, who leads the Computational and Biological Learning Lab in the Department of Engineering. “We had a real unicycle robot but it was actually quite dangerous – it was strong – and so now we use data from the real one to run simulations, and we have a mini version.”

Rasmussen uses the self-taught unicycle to demonstrate how a machine can start with very little data and learn dynamically, improving its knowledge every time it receives new information from its environment. The consequences of adjusting its motorised momentum and balance help the unicycle to learn which moves were important in helping it to stay upright in the centre.

“This is just like a human would learn,” explains Professor Zoubin Ghahramani, who leads the Machine Learning Group in the Department of Engineering. “We don’t start knowing everything. We learn things incrementally, from only a few examples, and we know when we are not yet confident in our understanding.”

Ghahramani’s team is pioneering a branch of AI called continual machine learning. He explains that many of the current forms of machine learning are based on neural networks and deep learning models that use complex algorithms to find patterns in vast datasets. Common applications include translating phrases into different languages, recognising people and objects in images, and detecting unusual spending on credit cards.

“These systems need to be trained on millions of labelled examples, which takes time and a lot of computer memory,” he explains. “And they have flaws. When you test them outside of the data they were trained on they tend to perform poorly. Driverless cars, for instance, may be trained on a huge dataset of images but they might not be able to generalise to foggy conditions.

“Worse than that, the current deep learning systems can sometimes give us confidently wrong answers, and provide limited insight into why they have come to particular decisions. This is what bothers me. It’s okay to be wrong but it’s not okay to be confidently wrong.”

The key is how you deal with uncertainty – the uncertainty of messy and missing data, and the uncertainty of predicting what might happen next. “Uncertainty is not a good thing – it’s something you fight, but you can’t fight it by ignoring it,” says Rasmussen. “We are interested in representing the uncertainty.”

It turns out that there’s a mathematical theory that tells you what to do. It was first described by 18th-century English statistician Thomas Bayes. Ghahramani’s group was one of the earliest adopters in AI of Bayesian probability theory, which describes how the probability of an event occurring (such as staying upright in the centre) is updated as more evidence (such as the decision the unicycle last took before falling over) becomes available.

Dr Richard Turner explains how Bayes’ rule handles continual learning: “the system takes its prior knowledge, weights it by how accurate it thinks that knowledge is, then combines it with new evidence that is also weighted by its accuracy.

“This is much more data-efficient than the way a standard neural network works,” he adds. “New information can cause a neural network to forget everything it learned previously – called catastrophic forgetting – meaning it needs to look at all of its labelled examples all over again, like relearning the rules and glossary of a language every time you learn a new word.

“Our system doesn’t need to revisit all the data it’s seen before – just like humans don’t remember all past experiences; instead we learn a summary and we update it as things go on.” Ghahramani adds: “The great thing about Bayesian machine learning is the system makes decisions based on evidence – it’s sometimes thought of as ‘automating the scientific method’ – and because it’s based on probability, it can tell us when it’s outside its comfort zone.”

Ghahramani is also Chief Scientist at Uber. He sees a future where machines are continually learning not just individually but as part of a group. “Whether it’s companies like Uber optimising supply and demand, or autonomous vehicles alerting each other to what’s ahead on the road, or robots working together to lift a heavy load – cooperation, and sometimes competition, in AI will help solve problems across a huge range of industries.”

One of the really exciting frontiers is being able to model probable outcomes in the future, as Turner describes. “The role of uncertainty becomes very clear when we start to talk about forecasting future problems such as climate change.”

Turner is working with climate scientists Dr Emily Shuckburgh and Dr Scott Hosking at the British Antarctic Survey to ask whether machine learning techniques can improve understanding of climate change risks in the future.

“We need to quantify the future risk and impacts of extreme weather at a local scale to inform policy responses to climate change,” explains Shuckburgh. “The traditional computer simulations of the climate give us a good understanding of the average climate conditions. What we are aiming to do with this work is to combine that knowledge with observational data from satellites and other sources to get a better handle on, for example, the risk of low-probability but high-impact weather events.”

“It’s actually a fascinating machine learning challenge,” says Turner, who is helping to identify which area of climate modelling is most amenable to using Bayesian probability. “The data are extremely complex, and sometimes missing and unlabelled. The uncertainties are rife.” One significant element of uncertainty is the fact that the predictions are based on our future reduction of emissions, the extent of which is as yet unknown.

“An interesting part of this for policy makers, aside from the forecasting value, is that you can imagine having a machine that continually learns from the consequences of mitigation strategies such as reducing emissions – or the lack of them – and adjusts its predictions accordingly,” adds Turner.

What he is describing is a machine that – like the unicycle – feeds on uncertainty, learns continuously from the real world, and assesses and then reassesses all possible outcomes. When it comes to climate, however, it’s also a machine of all possible futures.

Cambridge researchers are pioneering a form of machine learning that starts with only a little prior knowledge and continually learns from the world around it.

This is just like a human would learn. We don’t start knowing everything. We learn things incrementally, from only a few examples, and we know when we are not yet confident in our understandingZoubin GhahramaniThe District

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

CIP restates commitment to cycleways at Mill Road Depot housing development

Cambridge Council Feed - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 10:55

News from Cambridge Investment Partnership

A COMMITMENT to providing a safe cycle route through a major new housing development at Cambridge City Council’s Mill Road depot has been restated by the team responsible for the development.

Regeneration plans put forward by Cambridge Investment Partnership (CIP), a joint venture between Cambridge City Council and Hill Investment Partnerships, would see more than 180 homes built on the site, of which 50% would be affordable housing, rather than the usual 40%.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Cambridge and AI: what makes this city a good place to start a business?

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 02/13/2018 - 08:00

On any given day, some of the world’s brightest minds in the areas of AI and machine learning can be found riding the train between Cambridge and London King’s Cross.  

Five of the biggest tech companies in the world – Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft – all have offices at one or both ends of the train line. Apart from the tech giants, however, both cities (and Oxford, the third corner of the UK’s so-called golden triangle) also support thriving ecosystems of start-ups. Over the past decade, start-ups based on AI and machine learning, in Cambridge and elsewhere, have seen explosive growth.

Of course, it’s not unexpected that a cluster of high-tech companies would sprout up next to one of the world’s leading universities. But what is it that makes Cambridge, a small city on the edge of the Fens, such a good place to start a business?

“In my experience, Silicon Valley is 10% tech and 90% hype, but Cambridge is just the opposite,” says Vishal Chatrath, CEO of, a Cambridge-based AI company. “As an entrepreneur, I want to bring world-changing technology to market. The way you do that is to make something that’s never existed before and create the science behind it. Cambridge, with its rich history of mathematicians, has the kind of scientific ambition to do that.”

“The ecosystem in Cambridge is really healthy,” says Professor Carl Edward Rasmussen from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, and Chair of “The company has been expanding at an incredible rate, and I think this is something that can only happen in Cambridge.” is developing what it calls the world’s first ‘principled’ AI decision-making platform, which could be used in a variety of sectors, including autonomous driving, logistics, gaming and finance. Most AI decision-making platforms tend to view the world like an old-fashioned flowchart, in which the world is static. But in the real world, every time a decision is made, there are certain parameters to take into account.

“If you could take every decision-making point and treat it as an autonomous AI agent, you could understand the incentives under which the decision is made,” says Chatrath. “Every time these agents make a decision, it changes the environment, and the agents have an awareness of all the other agents. All these things work together to make the best decision.”

For example, autonomous cars running’s platform would communicate with one another to alleviate traffic jams by re-routing automatically. “Principled AI is almost an old-fashioned way of thinking about the world,” says Chatrath. “Humans are capable of making good decisions quickly, and probabilistic models like ours are able to replicate that, but with millions of data points. Data isn’t king: the model is king. And that’s what principled AI means.”

Could be the next big success story from the so-called ‘Cambridge cluster’ of knowledge-intensive firms? In just under two years, the company has grown to more than 60 employees, has filed multiple patents and published papers. Many of the people working at the company have deep links with the University and its research base, and many have worked for other Cambridge start-ups. Like any new company, what needs to grow is talent, whether it’s coming from Cambridge or from farther afield.

“There’s so much talent here already, but it’s also relatively easy to convince people to move to Cambridge,” says Rasmussen. “Even with the uncertainty that comes along with working for a start-up, there’s so much going on here that even if a start-up isn’t ultimately successful, there are always new opportunities for talented people because the ecosystem is so rich.” “Entrepreneurs in Cambridge really support one another – people often call each other up and bounce ideas around,” says Carol Cheung, an Investment Associate at Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC). “You don’t often see that degree of collaboration in other places.”

CIC is a builder of high-growth technology companies in the Cambridge Cluster and has been an important addition to the Cambridge ecosystem. It provides long-term support to companies that helps to bridge the critical middle stage of commercial development – the ‘valley of death’ between when a company first receives funding and when it begins to generate steady revenue – and is a preferred investor for the University of Cambridge. One of CIC’s recent investments was to lead a £10 million funding round for, and it will work with the company to understand where the best commercial applications are for their platform.

AI and machine learning companies like are clearly tapping into what could be a massive growth area for the UK economy: PwC estimates that AI could add £232 billion to the economy by 2030, and the government’s Industrial Strategy describes investments aimed at making the UK a global centre for AI and data-driven innovation. But given the big salaries that can come with a career in big tech, how can universities prevent a ‘brain drain’ in their computer science, engineering and mathematics departments?

The University has a long tradition of entrepreneurial researchers who have built and sold multiple companies while maintaining their academic careers, running labs and teaching students. “People from academia are joining us and feeding back into academia – in Cambridge, there’s this culture of ideas going back and forth,” says Chatrath.

“Of course some people will choose to pursue a career in industry, but Cambridge has this great tradition of academics choosing to pursue both paths – perhaps one will take precedence over the other for a time, but it is possible here to be both an academic and an entrepreneur.”

“I don’t know of any other university in the world that lets you do this in terms of IP. It’s a pretty unique set-up that I can start a business, raise venture capital, and still retain a research position and do open-ended research. I feel very lucky,” says Dr Alex Kendall, who recently completed his PhD in Professor Roberto Cipolla’s group in the Department of Engineering, and founded Wayve, a Cambridge-based machine learning company. “A lot of other universities wouldn’t allow this, but here you can – and it’s resulted in some pretty amazing companies.”

“I didn’t get into this field because I thought it would be useful or that I’d start lots of companies – I got into it because I thought it was really interesting,” says Professor Zoubin Ghahramani, one of Cambridge’s high-profile entrepreneurial academics, who splits his time between the Department of Engineering and his Chief Scientist role at Uber. “There were so many false starts in AI when people thought this is going to be very useful and it wasn’t. Five years ago, AI was like any other academic field, but now it’s changing so fast – and we’ve got such a tremendous concentration of the right kind of talent here in Cambridge to take advantage of it.”

What makes a city as small as Cambridge a hotbed for AI and machine learning start-ups? A critical mass of clever people obviously helps. But there’s more to Cambridge’s success than that. 

In my experience, Silicon Valley is 10% tech and 90% hype, but Cambridge is just the opposite.Vishal ChatrathThe DistrictCambridge Cluster

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Cambridge first UK centre to be given ‘Comprehensive Cancer Center of Excellence’

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 02/13/2018 - 00:17

The combination of world-leading science and cutting-edge technology in Cambridge means that patients are benefiting from new ways to spot and treat the earliest signs of cancer, more effective and kinder therapies, and treatments that are tailored to individual patients.

Cambridge receives the prestigious recognition as one of the top two cancer centres in Europe for outstanding academic research that is improving outcomes for cancer patients, alongside the Netherlands Cancer Institute.

Professor Carlos Caldas, Director of the Breast Cancer Programme and lead for European collaborations at the CRUK Cambridge Centre said: “This new and prestigious designation by the EACS is for us an enormous privilege and also a responsibility. This designation only makes us even more focused in delivering outstanding clinical care for our patients underpinned by the world-class research programmes at the University and CRUK Cambridge Institute.”

The European Academy of Cancer Sciences was created in 2009 as an independent advisory body of eminent oncologists and cancer researchers, placing science at the core of policies to sustainably reduce the death and suffering caused by cancer in Europe.

The EACS designation is highly regarded because the Academy has spent several years developing a rigorous methodology for assessing how well cancer centres are doing in conducting translational research. This is the process of translating the latest scientific discoveries into clinical applications which will improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients – often coined ‘from bench to bedside and back’.

“I was very impressed by [Cambridge’s] capacity to bring together so many highly motivated talented scientists and clinicians in one ambitious synergistic endeavour,” said Dr Anton Berns, who chairs the EACS committee overseeing the Designation of Excellence process. “This is the type of setting that will make a difference for cancer patients and that is precisely why they are so deserving of this prestigious title. Clearly, an example for other institutions to follow.”

The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre is one of only two Cancer Research UK Centres that was elevated to Major Centre status in 2017, and is now the largest CRUK Cancer Centre by funding. The Centre unites more than 600 laboratory and healthcare professionals around a common mission to end death and disease caused by cancer, and holds a cancer-related grant portfolio totalling approximately £100 million a year.

The Centre was first cancer centre in Europe based at a University Hospital to be accredited by the Organisation European Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center in 2013.

Centre members are based in two major teaching hospitals, 28 University Departments, nine allied institutions and four major pharmaceutical companies across the wider Cambridge area. The Centre is now organised into 12 Programmes that focus on the most common and difficult to treat cancers, as well as basic research disciplines in which the University of Cambridge has particular expertise. Major inter-disciplinary research themes ongoing in the Centre are uniting teams of biomedical, physical and mathematical scientists who are developing approaches to detect and treat cancer as early and precisely as possible.

On receiving the formal certificate in January 2018, Professor Richard Gilbertson, the Li Ka Shing Chair of Oncology at Cambridge University and Director of the CRUK Cambridge Centre said: “Cancer is a global scourge that will require deep integration of treatment and research if we are to defeat it for good. Centres like Cambridge University and the Netherlands Cancer Institute are key components in this effort, where teams of the brightest clinicians and scientists work with together with patients to discover and develop new cures. This award recognises the impactful partnership between our patients and staff and their efforts to work internationally to cure cancer.”

The EACS carried out the assessment of the CRUK Cambridge Centre and NKI with financial support from the ARC Foundation for Cancer Research.

The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre has become the first UK institute to be designated a Comprehensive Cancer Center of Excellence by the European Academy of Cancer Sciences (EACS).

This new and prestigious designation by the EACS is for us an enormous privilege and also a responsibilityCarlos CaldasLi Ka Shing Centre

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Kettle's Yard is back

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 02/12/2018 - 12:03

We thought you might like a look inside the 'new' Kettle's Yard, which reopened to the public on Saturday, February 10, to learn more about its past – and future.

As Kettle's Yard opens its doors following a two-year, multi-million pound redevelopment and transformation of its gallery spaces, the work of 38 leading contemporary and historic internationally-renowned artists has gone on display in a spectacular opening show.

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Illuminating the hidden kingdom of the truffle

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 02/12/2018 - 11:00

“A unique aroma, a combination of newly plowed soil, fall rain, burrowing earthworms and the pungent memory of lost youth and old love affairs,” wrote the late American food writer Josh Ozersky about truffles.

His sensual words echo the almost hedonistic regard with which truffles are held, and go some way to explaining a price tag of around £1,700 per kilo for rarer species like the Périgord black truffle, and predictions that global sales of truffles will reach several billion GBP annually in the next decades.

Yet very little is known about the biology and ecology of these unassuming-looking fungi that grow naturally in connection with the fine root systems of trees.

Now, with the help of a well-experienced ‘truffle dog’ called Lucy and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, researchers from Cambridge’s Department of Geography have begun a ‘natural’ experiment to study the seasonal changes and productivity of the Burgundy truffle.

More common than the Périgord black truffle and the rarer-still white Alba truffle, Burgundy truffles are found across Europe and the eastern part of England, including in the 40-acre Botanic Garden planted by Charles Darwin’s mentor Professor John Stevens Henslow in 1846.

“We really don’t know much about the life of a truffle,” explains Professor Ulf Büntgen who, with PhD student Elisabeth Johnson, hopes to discover how, when and where truffles grow and mature, how their spores are dispersed and by which animals, and how their lifecycle is affected by changing environmental conditions, including climate.

“Truffles are remarkable organisms and interesting ambassadors for our fascinating but fragile soil ecosystems, which are considered one of the last big frontiers in science,” says Johnson. “Being able to delve into the mysteries of one of their enigmatic inhabitants is thrilling, especially since they are directly linked to above-ground biodiversity through their partnership with trees – it’s a meeting of two worlds.”

“The beauty of using the Garden for this kind of research is that we have over 8,000 plant species and we’ve been here for 170 years. The trees have had lots of time to establish connections with truffles,” adds Professor Beverley Glover, Director of the Garden.

Truffles live in symbiotic partnership with a host tree – the plant delivers sugars and the fungi provide nutrients. However, as soon as the truffle is unearthed, the truffle’s ecosystem, including its mutualistic partnership, is destroyed.

“No-one has succeeded in creating the necessary complexity of real-world conditions in a normal lab to understand the below-ground lifecycle of the truffle,” explains Büntgen. “The Cambridge University Botanic Garden is an almost perfect living laboratory, potentially allowing us a glimpse into the life cycle and community structures of truffles across time and space. It is an immense privilege to be able to carry out this kind of research at this historic site.”

The Garden was founded to support the University’s teaching and research, which it still does today. “What’s exciting about this project for the Garden team are the many ‘firsts’,” says Glover. “It’s the first time we’ve looked at the truffles below our trees, the first time we’ve had a dog involved in research, and as far as we know it’s the first time in the world that anyone has looked at which species of tree these truffles can grow on.”

One area of interest to the researchers is the possibility of climate-induced range shifts in the habitats of truffles. Büntgen’s previous research looked at why yields of the Périgord truffle in Spain, France and Italy have been in decline since the mid-1970s. His work using tree rings as a read-out for the effect of climate on growth showed that falling Mediterranean truffle harvests coincided both with drier summers and reduced growth of Spanish oaks.

In another recent study, Büntgen described the first cultivation of Périgord black truffles in the UK, suggesting that black truffles are able to grow far outside their native habitat.

“Ecological range shifts can have implications for rural tourism, regional agriculture and global prices,” he adds. “We hope that new understanding of the hidden life of the Burgundy truffle will help us to understand the environmental drivers of the growth and maturation of other members of this remarkable family.”

The results from the long-term Botanic Garden experiment will be combined with a larger study of around 30 sites in Switzerland, Germany and Spain.

Lucy will be vital to the success of the project. Büntgen trained his family pet in just four days. Given the chance, she would happily search the undergrowth for many hours simply for the pleasure of finding, digging up and wolfing down one of these nutty-smelling delicacies.

“You never train a dog to smell a truffle – they smell everything. You just train the connection. Lucy is a hunting dog that likes food – she’d harvest for six hours in a row if we let her. Without a dog like Lucy you simply don’t know where to dig.”

Once Lucy has found a truffle, the researchers move in quickly, before she has the chance to snaffle the luxury. As she happily eats her own reward, Büntgen and Johnson take measurements, recording aspects of the truffle and its environment, including its host tree, before removing it for further analysis.

Meanwhile Johnson has decided not to eat truffles for the duration of her PhD: “I find them far too fascinating to eat. Discovering truffles as living beings in our complex ecosystems as a whole gives me immense delight. When not removing them in the name of science, we try to leave their habitat relatively undisturbed to understand how they interact with wildlife and how they unfold new living networks within the deeply fascinating and little-understood world below our feet.”

All truffles unearthed at the Botanic Garden are for research purposes.

Truffles are one of the world’s most expensive ingredients, and also one of the most mysterious. Now, with the help of a 170-year-old ‘living laboratory’, and a dog called Lucy, researchers hope to unearth new understanding of the secret life of these underground delicacies.

Truffles are remarkable organisms and interesting ambassadors for our fascinating but fragile soil ecosystemsElizabeth Johnson

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

‘Women scientists have built our world. It’s time to invest in them’ – The Cambridge women campaigning for gender equality in science

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Sun, 02/11/2018 - 08:00

It’s unlikely, as she wrote these words, that Dr Marie Sklodowska-Curie ever imagined the ongoing pathways of progress she had catalysed. Today, the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the pioneer who paved the way for generations of women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) is one of the many successful women whose work is being celebrated around the world. 

The first person in history to receive two Nobel Prizes (her first was in physics; followed by the award for chemistry) remains an inspiration to scientists of all disciplines. Among them is Dr Karen Stroobants, a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Protein Misfolding Diseases, based in Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. Her research focuses on the proteins associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

She said: “The day I learned about Marie Curie, I came home and told my mother I was going to become a chemist … I have been intrigued by her life path and accomplishments from the first time I heard about her, and she remains my most important role model.”

Yet more than a century after Sklodowska-Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, her words hold particular significance when viewed through a different lens. The UN’s global event was established in response to the gender divide in the scientific community, in a bid to help address the continuing disparity that exists across the board.

In the United Kingdom women currently account for 24% of those working in the core STEM industries such as construction, information and communication technology and manufacturing. Women make up just 11% of the total number of professional engineers, and 42% of science professionals such as geologists, physicists and biochemists.

In his message about the event, the UN’s Secretary General António Guterres, himself a trained engineer and former maths teacher, said: “Both girls and boys have the potential to pursue their ambitions in science and mathematics, in school and at work. But systemic discrimination means women occupy less than 30 per cent of research and development jobs worldwide. We need concerted, concrete efforts to overcome stereotypes and biases. One starting point is banishing the predominantly male images of scientists and innovators on social media, in textbooks and in advertising.”

“We need to encourage and support girls and women to achieve their full potential as scientific researchers and innovators. Women and girls need this, and the world needs this, if we are to achieve our ambitions for sustainable development on a healthy planet. Throughout history, from Hildegard of Bingen to Wangari Maathai, women scientists have built our world. It’s time to support and invest in them.”

Stroobants agrees that more needs to be done before gender equality is achieved.

She said: “There is a need for initiatives not only to stimulate young girls to take up STEMM directions, but as importantly, also to stimulate young female professionals to take up leadership roles. Putting these issues in the spotlight is very important as it increases awareness, which is the first requisite for positive action.”

“Although programmes have been set up within institutions and universities to address the gender imbalance in academia specifically, I believe more general societal changes will have a larger impact.”

“Changes that contribute to a more gender balanced society will result in an increased number of female scientists. The girl-boy mentality gets fed to our children from a very early age, with gender-specific toys, activities and behaviour. I believe there are huge opportunities for behavioural scientists to address many of these issues.”

Stroobants also believes that teachers play a key role in helping to motivate and inspire younger students to study STEMM subjects.

“Good teachers, that share their interest in the world around them and are accessible for all children, are of vital importance to motivate youngsters to take up studies in the sciences. Female teachers, as role models, can further stimulate girls in particular to see the feasibility of pursuing a STEMM career.”

The drive to motivate girls to study science is shared by many at the University. Dr Anna-Maria Pappa, from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, was recently awarded a L'Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Fellowship, and has spoken of her commitment to encouraging young girls to study STEMM subjects.

She said: “I think it’s absolutely vital, at every opportunity, for all of us to honour and promote girls and women in science. Each one of us should in every way that we can inspire girls to pursue an education in science, as well as support women’s right to equal opportunities in every sector of professional life.”

Cambridge has been home to a wealth of noteworthy female scientists. Among them is the chemist Rosalind Franklin, who played a vital early role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. The notebook she used to record her original findings is now held at the Churchill Archives Centre. Other female scientists whose papers are now held at the archives include Dame Enid Russell Smith, who played an instrumental role in setting up the National Health Service, the physicist Lise Meitner, and Mavis Beaty, a codebreaker who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. The documents include notebooks, working papers, lecture notes and personal correspondence.

Natalie Adams in a Senior Archivist at the College. She said: “The wonderful thing about archives is that they give the sense of the person as a whole, they don’t just focus on one element.”

“The growing collection of documents created by women in science is a great asset to the archives. It’s interesting that often the papers by female scientists are more popular than those written by their male counterparts.”

“I think it’s often the case that people recognise that many of these women didn’t receive the recognition they deserved during their lifetime, and people today are interested in the reasons behind this and learning more about the culture in which these women worked.”

Beyond the University, other projects and initiatives are in place to help women build successful careers in science. The Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering (CamAWiSE) is a regional network that provides opportunities for women in STEMM to meet and provide peer support and guidance. They also help women who want to return to work following a career break.

“We have a deficit of engineers and scientists in the UK, and at the same time we are losing women scientists every year,” said Aldara Dios, the orgnaisation’s coordinator. “Not only do fewer women follow STEMM careers than men but they also abandon their professions more. We are not only losing numbers, but also diversity.”  

“Glass ceilings, unconscious bias, gender wage gap, work-life balance, lack of role models, and not inclusive workplaces are some of the challenges women in STEMM face.”

“The UN's International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a powerful initiative. It helps visualise these problems and forces conversation on the topic at least one day a year.”

Cathy Sorbara is the current co-chair of the association. She holds a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology, and is the Chief Operating Officer of Cheeky Scientist, a global organisation that works to help PhD graduates transition into industry.

The work that CamAWiSE does to provide a network of support is something that Cathy feels is an important element in helping women to succeed. She said: “I think there is a desperate need for mentorship and support for women to stop them falling through the leaky pipeline, both in academia and in industry.”

Sorbara is committed to making changes to the scientific community, and on Tuesday will embark on the 2018 Homeward Bound expedition to Antarctica. This is the culmination of a year-long course to provide female scientists with the skills they need to be leaders in their field. The initiative aims to build a network of women over the next ten years who will go on to occupy leadership roles in STEMM disciplines.

Referring to the UN event, Sorbara says anything that raises awareness of female scientists is a positive thing.

She said: ‘I think we’ve come quite far, but we have quite a way to go. When I talk about this topic I’m always reminded of the quote ‘If you want to go fast go alone; if you want to go far go together’. This event is a positive thing because it will bring attention to the topic, but it’s also up to schools and companies to do all they can to leverage this and do more to help address the gender divide.”

Her words have echoes of Dr Sklodowska-Curie’s observation on the way of progress. The road to gender equality in the scientific community is proving to be neither swift nor easy, and today’s global event is not only an acknowledgement of the accomplishments and successes of so many female scientists, but also a reminder of the changes needed for progress towards gender equality be continue.

“I was taught that the way of progress is neither swift nor easy”. 

I think it’s absolutely vital, at every opportunity, for all of us to honour and promote girls and women in science.Anna-Maria PappaWomen in ChemistryKaren Stroobants

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Limit on number of licensed taxis in Cambridge to remain in place following survey

Cambridge Council Feed - Fri, 02/09/2018 - 16:01

THE number of licensed hackney carriages that can operate in Cambridge is to remain at the existing level of 321.

Cambridge City Council’s Licensing Committee decided to retain the existing number of licences after a recent independent survey indicated there was no significant unmet demand for hackney carriages.

The survey was carried out by LSVA (Licensed Vehicle Surveys and Assessment) between June and November 2017 and included consultations with the public, the taxi trade and other organisations including hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and the police.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Opinion: Universities - listen to students if you want to end sexual violence on campus

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 02/09/2018 - 11:40

I chose Cambridge because I was drawn to its English course, because there was something magic about the city itself, and, frankly, because I was offered a place. I did not choose my university on the basis of whether or not it would uphold the basic duty of care that it owes to all students. University is a total institution – we live, sleep, study and socialise here. We should not have to think twice about the treatment we will get when something goes wrong.

The university’s policies and procedures surrounding harassment and sexual assault have undergone significant reform, but this momentum must be constant. Above all, the university’s agenda on harassment and sexual assault needs to follow its students lead.

It is easy to feel small here. Centuries of spires loom overhead, and you may find yourself rushing to a 9am supervision regardless of what happened the night before. It is easy for voices to get lost. But, as we are beginning to see, it is also easy to find them again.

A university’s agenda on harassment and sexual assault needs to follow its students' lead. This is why Cambridge University’s anonymous reporting tool has proven itself to be a strong step forward. A mechanism was put in place, and students are using it. It is a void into which students can send accounts of their experiences as they come to terms with them. It is a soundboard for bystanders to consider the implications of instances of assault and harassment on the wider community. It is an instrument for the university to gauge what is still to be done.

To change student behaviour, start by talking

Dialogue with students is perhaps the most vital tool a university can equip itself with. Only through it can institutions achieve consensus among students on what is and is not acceptable. Only then can places of education build structures of support founded on the genuine needs of the young people they represent. 

On Wednesday, the student union Women’s Campaign published an open letter, imploring the university to update the disciplinary procedure for cases of harassment and sexual assault. This is the conversation we need – specific and co-operative, openly engaging both students and the institution that serves us.

The open letter demands disciplinary decisions be based on a balance of probabilities, rather than the criminal burden of proof. This means that a claim will stand if it is more likely to be true than untrue. It’s this constant revision and addition that an issue as raw and multifaceted as sexual misconduct necessitates.

It’s easy to forget that not everyone comes to Cambridge with the same awareness of the implications of harassment and sexual assault. Our collective understanding is messy; some people are neither used to asking for consent, nor aware that it is something they can withhold themselves.

Know where to draw the line

The process of securing the spaces we operate in has to be a concentric one, driven from all angles and on all levels. It’s about acknowledging that every situation that you enter has a line, no matter what the precedent. You do not have to actively hurt someone else to be implicated in their pain.  

We must view harassment and sexual assault on campus as a tremor of wider, deeply embedded problems, not just as a problem of individual misconduct. It might be the corner of the college bar you and your friends dominate every Thursday night, the comment you let your friend get away with over lunch, the girl you saw standing alone on your way home after midnight.

We have to provide checks and balances for one another. Cambridge University was the first to release anonymous reporting statistics to the media. I hope it will not be the last. The ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign is working to instil a culture of collaborative prevention and protection across the university and the city.

It can and must be bolstered further, a discussion I compel you to involve yourself in.


Aoife Hogan is the digital editor of Varsity newspaper. To read the full article, visit the Varsity website. Join this week's Breaking the Silence campaigning to increase bystander interventions to stop sexual harassment as part of National Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week 2018. Download materials here or at

Harassment and sexual misconduct on campus is everyone’s problem, but it's students who have the solution, says St John's College undergraduate Aoife Hogan

Dialogue with students is perhaps the most vital tool a university can equip itself with. Only through it can institutions achieve consensus among students on what is and is not acceptable. Only then can places of education build structures of support founded on the genuine needs of the young people they representHand clicking on a mouse

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Robots can go all the way to Mars, but they can’t pick up the groceries

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 02/09/2018 - 09:23

Stacks of vertical shelves weave around each other in what looks like an intricately choreographed – if admittedly inelegant – ballet. It’s been performed since 2014 in Amazon’s cavernous warehouses as robots carry shelves, each weighing more than 1,000 kg, on their backs. The robots cut down on time and human error, but they still have things to learn.

Once an order is received, a robot goes to the shelf where the ordered item is stored. It picks up the shelf and takes it to an area where the item is removed and placed in a plastic bin, ready for packing and sending to the customer. It may sound counterintuitive, but the most difficult part of this sequence is taking the item off the shelf and putting it in the plastic bin.

For Dr Fumiya Iida, this is a typical example of what he and other roboticists call a ‘last metre’ problem. “An Amazon order could be anything from a pillow, to a book, to a hat, to a bicycle,” he says. “For a human, it’s generally easy to pick up an item without dropping or crushing it – we instinctively know how much force to use. But this is really difficult for a robot.”

In the 1980s, a group of scientists gave this kind of problem another name – Moravec’s paradox – which essentially states that things that are easy for humans are difficult for robots, and vice versa. “Robots can go all the way to Mars, but they can’t pick up the groceries,” says Iida.

One of the goals of Iida’s lab in Cambridge’s Department of Engineering is to find effective solutions to various kinds of last metre problems. One example is the Amazon ‘Picking Challenge’, an annual competition in which university robotics teams from all over the world attempt to design robots that can deal with the problem of putting a book into a plastic bin. Iida’s team is also working with British Airways, who have a last metre problem with baggage handling: a process that is almost entirely automated, except for the point when suitcases of many different shapes, sizes and weights need to be put onto an aircraft.

And for the past two summers, they’ve been working with fruit and vegetable group G’s Growers to design robots that can harvest lettuces without crushing them.

“That last metre is a really interesting problem,” Iida says. “It’s the front line in robotics because so many things we do in our lives are last metre problems, and that last metre is the barrier to robots really being able to help humanity.”

Although the thought of having a robot to cook dinner or perform other basic daily tasks may sound attractive, such domestic applications are still a way off becoming reality. “Robots are becoming part of our society in the areas where they’re needed most – areas like agriculture, medicine, security and logistics – but they can’t go everywhere instantly,” explains Iida.

If, as Iida says, the robot revolution is already happening, how will we as humans interact with them when they become a more visible part of our everyday lives? And how will they interact with us? Dr Hatice Gunes of Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has just completed a three-year project into human-robot interaction, bringing together aspects of computer vision, machine learning, public engagement, performance and psychology.

“Robots are not sensitive to emotions or personality, but personality is the glue in terms of how we behave and interact with each other,” she says. “So how do we improve the way in which robots and humans understand one another in a social setting?” This is another example of Moravec’s paradox: for most individuals, being able to read and respond to the physical cues of other people, and adapt accordingly, is second nature. For robots, however, it’s a challenge.

Gunes’ project focused on artificial emotional intelligence: robots that not only express emotions but also read cues and respond appropriately. Her team developed computer vision techniques to help robots recognise different emotional expressions, micro-expressions and human personalities; and programmed a robot that could come across as either introverted or extroverted.

“We found that human-robot interaction is personality dependent on both sides,” says Gunes. “A robot that can adapt to a human’s personality is more engaging, but the way humans interact with robots is also highly influenced by the situation, the physicality of the robot and the task at hand. When people interact with each other, it’s often in a task-based manner, and different tasks bring out different aspects of our personalities, whether they’re completing that task with another person or with a robot.” It wasn’t just the robots who found some of the interactions difficult: many of Gunes’ human subjects found the novelty of talking with a robot in public affected their ability to listen and follow directions.

“For me, it was more interesting to observe the people rather than to showcase what we’re doing, mostly because people don’t really understand the abilities of these robots,” she says. “But as robots become more available, hopefully, they’ll become demystified.” Gunes now aims to focus on the potential of robots and virtual reality technology for wellbeing applications, such as coaching, cognitive training and elderly care.

As robots become more commonplace, in our lives, ethical considerations become more important. In his lab, Iida has a robot ‘inventor’, but if the robot invents something of value, who owns the intellectual property? “At the moment, the law says that it belongs to the human who programmed the robot, but that’s an answer to a legislative question,” says Iida. “The ethical questions are a little murkier.”

However, philosopher Professor Huw Price, from the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, thinks it will be a long time before we need to think about giving robots rights.

“Think of a dog lover's version of the difference between dogs and cats,” he says. “Dogs feel pleasure and pain, as well as affection, shame and other emotions. Cats are good at faking these things, but inside they’re just mindless killers. On this spectrum, robots are going to be way out on the cat end (except for the killing bit, hopefully) for the foreseeable future. They might be good at faking emotions, but they’ll have the same inner life as a teddy bear or a toaster.

“Eventually we might build robots, teddy bears and even toasters that do have an inner life, and then it will be a different matter. But for the moment, the ethical challenges involve machines that will be good at behaving in ways that we humans interpret as signs of emotions, and good at reading our emotions. These machines raise important ethical issues – like whether we should use them as carers for people who can’t tell that they are just machines, such as infants and dementia patients – but we don’t need to worry about their rights.”

“Another interesting question is whether a robot can learn to be ethical,” says Iida. “That’s very interesting scientifically because it leads to the nature of consciousness. Robots are going to be a bigger and bigger part of our lives, so we all need to be thinking about these questions.”

In the popular imagination, robots have been portrayed alternatively as friendly companions or existential threat. But while robots are becoming commonplace in many industries, they are neither C-3PO nor the Terminator. Cambridge researchers are studying the interaction between robots and humans – and teaching them how to do the very difficult things that we find easy.

That last metre is a really interesting problem, because it's the barrier to robots really being able to help humanity.Fumiya IidaPuppy, a running robot developed by Fumiya Iida’s team

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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

All Saints Garden Market in Cambridge wins Great British Market award

Cambridge Council Feed - Thu, 02/08/2018 - 12:43

ALL SAINTS Garden Market has won a Great British Market Award in the category of ‘Best Small Speciality Market’, at an awards ceremony held by the National Association of British Market Authorities (NABMA).

The market, which is run by Cambridge City Council, was commended by judges for being “a fantastic example of a niche artisan and craft market, with an expertly curated authentic handmade offer of a high standard.”

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Opinion: What Ancient Greece can teach us about toxic masculinity today

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 02/08/2018 - 10:10

‘Toxic masculinity’ has its roots in Ancient Greece, and some of today’s most damaging myths around sexual norms can be traced back to early literature from the time, as Professor Mary Beard discusses in her latest book Women & power: a manifesto

Euripides Hippolytus has toxic masculinity on every page, Greek myths are populated by rapists who are monstrous or otherworldly while Medusa is an early example of victim blaming. Of course, in some texts, rapists are condemned and victims believed. But the ending is usually the same – triumph for the aggressor, tragedy for the survivor.

In Hippolytus, the titular male hero challenges sexual norms because he is celibate, by some counts asexual, preferring to spend his time outdoors.  He is also a pious young man devoted to Artemis, the goddess of the wilderness, and virginity. 

Aphrodite, as goddess of sexual love, is none too impressed.  Hippolytus refuses to worship her.  To seek her revenge, Aphrodite causes Hippolytus’ stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him.  Phaedra sexually harasses him, and his resistance leads her to falsely accuse him of rape in her suicide note. Hippolytus flees in disgrace and is killed. A sad tale, and far more complex than this brief summary can show. 

My work training University of Cambridge students to be active bystanders, as part of the University’s Breaking the Silence campaign, has made me think more about Hippolytus and the concepts of masculinity that stretch back to ancient times.

Hippolytus’s father Theseus prefers to accept his son is a rapist rather than the fact he does not fit with the definition of a ‘real man’.  What kind of man doesn’t want sex after all; what young prince left at home with his young and beautiful stepmother wouldn’t be tempted to get in bed with her? When deciding sexual and gender norms, we often make emotionally based value judgments. These create false beliefs that are some of the most resistant to truth, according to one US study.

Challenging myths and stereotypes

I cannot help but wonder whether society’s restricted definition of masculinity is contributing to the staggering statistics we see about the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual violence on college campuses, as has been documented in the NUS report Hidden Marks. ‘Toxic’ norms of male behaviour are interrogated in anti-harassment programmes such as Cambridge’s Good Lad Initiative or the Twitter movement #HowIWillChange.

The images in popular culture, from men’s magazines to Hollywood movies, not to mention pornography so readily accessible on the internet, show a very restricted kind of masculinity.  The kind where aggression is rewarded and celebrated. 

Is it surprising, then, that so many of today’s young men seem to lack the confidence to be OK with taking things slow?  With not going out for the sole purpose of getting laid?  Isn’t that what everyone else is doing after all?

Challenging myths and stereotypes is also central to Cambridge’s bystander intervention programme.

We use social norms theory to show that what is perceived as the dominant view may well not be.  The ‘silent majority’ is strong.  And it only takes one or two people to stop being silent to change what is perceived to be normal and acceptable. 

We are empowering the students in our workshops to challenge the stereotypes, to see that it’s OK for them or their male friends to be a different kind of man.  Helping students to understand the culture, and perceptions, that enable sexual violence to take place is an important foundation for preparing them to be active bystanders.

Making a difference

Sex offender ‘monsters’ are as prevalent in today’s media as they were on the ancient stage. Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women coalition describes these stereotypes as unhelpful, allowing unacceptable behaviour short of sexual assault to be disassociated from perpetration. According to the coalition, most perpetrators “look normal, can be quite charming, and are often part of your group”. When we move away from the idea that perpetrators have to be monsters, we can begin to own and change unacceptable behaviours in our friends, our group and even ourselves.

It’s clear these are complex issues, and we know it’s not easy standing up to your friends, or going against the crowd.  Intervening may be awkward, and it may feel uncomfortable.  But it can make a real difference, not just for potential victims but also for potential perpetrators.

A recent study of London commuters shows that only 11% of women who were sexually harassed or assaulted on the Underground were helped by a bystander.

The report describes the devastation of finding that even when surrounded by people, they were unsafe. And bystanders witnessing their abuse and doing nothing left victims with the lifelong impression that no one cared.

There are also so many different ways to intervene, and it is not just about confronting people or taking a stand in a crowd.  The workshops help students practice intervention skills in realistic scenarios that could come up in their day-to-day university life, and explore the different options that may be available to them. 

It has been encouraging to see how the students participating have already started to gain not only confidence, but also awareness of how prevalent some of these situations are, and how what might seem like a very small action can make such a big difference.

Are we taking at least a small step to changing the culture at the University of Cambridge?  I certainly hope so.

Tori McKee is Tutorial Department Manager at Jesus College. Join this week's Breaking the Silence campaigning to increase bystander interventions to stop sexual harassment as part of National Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week 2018. Download materials here or at

 Tori McKee, a PhD scholar in Classical Studies, looks at ancient and modern ways of being a man

When we move away from the idea that perpetrators have to be monsters, we can begin to own and change unacceptable behaviours in our friends, our group and even ourselves

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

Apply now for community facility and public art grants

Cambridge Council Feed - Thu, 02/08/2018 - 09:19

TWO S106 grant-funding rounds are now open for applications to Cambridge City Council, to improve community facilities and encourage small-scale public art projects in Cambridge.

S106 funding is based on developer contributions secured by the council to mitigate the impact of development in Cambridge.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

University of Cambridge to seek Real Living Wage accreditation

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 02/07/2018 - 17:31

The University of Cambridge will re-inforce and extend its commitment to paying the Real Living Wage (RLW) by seeking formal accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation, if a proposal submitted today is approved.

The University currently pays all directly employed University staff at or above the level of the Real Living Wage and has done so since 2014. Today’s announcement means the University has agreed to begin the formal accreditation process from the Living Wage Foundation in the current academic year, once the proposal is approved.

This shows a public commitment to paying at this level, and in addition, extending this commitment to brings contractors who regularly work on University premises into this process. Although the University is seeking accreditation in this academic year, the process may take up to three years to fully complete.

The move comes after extensive consultation across the University, including with unions and Cambridge University Student Union.

Professor Eilís Ferran, pro-vice-chancellor for institutional and international relations, said: “We know that Cambridge is an expensive city to live and work in. The university is a community and it values all staff.  Accreditation will give our lowest-paid staff, including our on-site contractors, more security because their wage will be set by reference to the Real Living Wage benchmark.

Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU) President Daisy Eyre said: “All of the workers at this University contribute to our education and deserve to be paid fairly. I am so proud of the work done by students campaigning for this and happy that the University will be taking this step. I believe that this will benefit the institution for years to come. By accrediting to the Living Wage Foundation, we are building a legacy in which future generations of Cambridge staff are guaranteed a decent wage.”


Real Living Wage accreditation would formalise the University's approach to paying the Real Living Wage to its lowest-paid staff members and extend it to contract workers.

Accreditation will give our lowest-paid staff, including our on-site contractors, more security because their wage will be set by reference to the Real Living Wage benchmark.Professor Eilís Ferran, pro-vice-chancellor for institutional and international relationsFurther information

The Real Living Wage (RLW), also known as the Voluntary Living Wage, is an hourly rate of pay set independently by the Living Wage Foundation (, which is updated annually in November.

It is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK. The RLW is currently £8.75 per hour for employers outside London and £10.20 per hour for employers within London.

The University is already paying the outside London rate to its employees and temporary workers, but is doing so on an informal basis.

The effects of the Grace would therefore be twofold: (i) a commitment to the payment of the RLW, as set by the Living Wage Foundation, as an accredited employer; and (ii) extending the payment of the RLW to contractors and subcontractors.

The Grace will be approved at 4pm on 23 February 2018 if there is no request for amendment or a ballot.

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