Cambridge

Postgraduate Pioneers 2017 #4

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 10/31/2017 - 11:07

Fourth in the series is Yesim Yaprak Yildiz, a sociologist exploring the relationship between political violence, truth and reconciliation with a focus on Turkey.

My research sets out to 

My passion is to understand the relationship between truth and justice, more specifically whether revelation of truth about an atrocity would lead to justice. I set out to answer this question by examining the social and political effects of public confessions of state officials on past atrocities against civilians. I focus on Turkey and state violence against the Kurds in the 1990s. 

My motivation

I have been working on human rights violations in Turkey, particularly on torture and impunity, for over ten years. Turkey’s failure to account for the collective political violence in its history has been one of the main reasons which motivated me to pursue a PhD on this topic. Questioning approaches that establish a linear link between confession, truth and justice, I have sought to understand the workings of power in the confessional form of truth telling.

Day-to-day

I am currently in the final year of my PhD so I spend most of my time either at the library or at home writing my thesis. When I visit the department to meet my supervisor and fellow PhD students, I usually study at the ‘Attic’, the study space provided for PhD students in the department. It provides quite an appealing atmosphere thanks to student initiatives including writing groups and coffee breaks. Due to my part-time job at the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study at University of London, I also commute between London and Cambridge.
 
My best days 

Cambridge is a unique place not only to indulge in solitary intellectual work but also to socialize with fellow academics in a wide range of events. As one of the conveners of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network, a research group at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, I also organise seminars on performance and performativity related themes. One of the seminars I recently organised featured Professor Leigh Payne from the University of Oxford. It was a particularly special occasion for me as I decided to study confessions after I heard her talk at a workshop in Denmark.
 
I hope my work will lead to 

I want to contribute to the academic literature on political violence, truth and reconciliation, and thereby inform decision makers, scholars and broader public on some specific aspects of achieving and keeping peace by addressing the need for justice. More importantly, I hope my research will make people reflect on the roots of denial not only caused by forms of silencing but also by certain forms of speech. 

While I am planning to pursue an academic career, I would like to continue working in grassroots movements and NGOs on human rights violations. My future projects will involve both elements of research and art. Through interactive and creative projects, I aim to reflect upon alternative ways of working through the past.  


It had to be Cambridge because

The best part of studying at Cambridge has been its fulfilling and vibrant intellectual environment. In addition to the wide-ranging academic events featuring renowned scholars and research methods courses, I also had the chance to attend a short film making course which enhanced my digital story-telling skills. I have been very lucky to have an inspiring environment in the department thanks to the encouragement and support of my supervisor, Professor Patrick Baert.

With our Postgraduate Open Day fast-approaching (3 November), we introduce five PhD students who are already making waves at Cambridge.

I'm planning to pursue an academic career while continuing to work in grassroots movements and NGOs on human rights violations.Yesim Yaprak YildizYesim Yaprak YildizPostgraduate Open Day

For more information about the University's Postgraduate Open Day on 3rd November 2017 and to book to attend, please click here.


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Changes to car park charges proposed to tackle congestion and air quality

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 10/31/2017 - 09:59

THE COST of parking at some of Cambridge City Council’s car parks could change from next April as part of the council’s strategy to reduce congestion, improve air quality and produce lower carbon emissions.

A charging change to incentivise drivers not to enter central Cambridge car parks between 8am and 10am would be introduced at the same time as Cambridgeshire County Council plans to end charging for cars at Park and Ride sites.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Pre-Inka elites and the social life of fragments

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 10/31/2017 - 08:45

The town of Borgatta was built in the Argentinean Andes sometime in the tenth century. It grew to a community of several hundred residential compounds before being abandoned around 1450 when the Inka Empire claimed the region. In the ruins, archaeologist Dr Elizabeth DeMarrais has been hunting for signs of pre-Inka elites.

Her interests lie in the dynamics of social groups in the past – how did society work? Were there ‘pecking orders’ or hierarchies? When did the ‘politics’ of daily existence begin to characterise human societies, from the ancient to our own? The excavation of Borgatta, which she led, was to yield some surprising results.

“It’s a big site, with a population that would have numbered in the low thousands,” she explains. “We therefore expected to find evidence of leaders, of rich and poor – as in our own society. But we were surprised to see only limited social differentiation in the materials we uncovered.”

She studies the fragments – the archaeology of daily life – that societies left behind. “We thought we’d see socio-economic differences reflected in diet through remains of animal bones, or in dwelling locations, or in material accumulation,” she explains.

The team found evidence of craft production occurring across the entire settlement. But no specialists could be identified: no equivalent of a blacksmith’s workshop, or a dedicated weaver or a kiln technician. And no wealthy elites with stockpiles of luxury goods. Yet things were being made in most houses in town – things that defied easy classification.     

“Think of the feather cloaks of Hawaiian chiefs, or the swords of Bronze Age warriors,” adds DeMarrais. “These were objects of wealth and power, commissioned from specialist technicians for elites who controlled production and often also trade. This commodification is typical in hierarchical societies.

“In Borgatta, however, we found evidence of nonspecialist ‘multicrafting’ right across the community: with each household using expedient bone and stone toolkits to create a range of objects – from baskets to cooking pots, spindle whorls to wooden bowls – in their own idiosyncratic styles.” 

Each residence produced its own items. Household members shared skills and mixed media – creating distinctive artistry in the process.

“Archaeologists like to classify, and the diversity of the Borgatta materials was initially frustrating. However, ideas from social theory helped us think about the significance of this variation, including contexts of production and social roles,” says DeMarrais.

The approach to making things in Borgatta has led her to believe that its people depended upon “a different kind of social glue” – one based on individual relationships, rather than ordered by social rank.

“Objects were gifted on a personal basis to build connections, rather than being funnelled up to a leader who represented the group.” She describes this as a ‘heterarchy’: a society ordered along the lines of decentralised networks and shared power.

“Heterarchy was described in the 1940s as a means of understanding the structure of the human brain: ordered but not hierarchically organised. In a human society, it highlights a structure where different individuals may take precedence in key activities – religion, trade, politics – but there is a fluidity to power relations that resists top-down rule.

“One can think of it as a form of confederacy – similar in some respects to the governance of Cambridge colleges, for example,” says DeMarrais.

Artefacts tell the story of this laterally ordered society. Distinctive clay urns with painted motifs showing serpents, frogs and birds, as well as human facial features, were found to contain the skeletal remains of young infants.

The urns were buried under the floors of houses. DeMarrais suggests that the funeral rites of babies involved displaying urns in the community as part of an extended process of mourning, before they were returned to the residences.

Some urns had the rim extending above the floor, to allow ongoing access to the contents. “In the Andes, mortuary practices involved extended interaction with remains that sustained a sense of connection between the living and the dead.”

The decorated urns were the most striking pieces of material culture excavated at Borgatta. Adults were simply buried in groups of three or four outside the home, while other children were interred in old cooking pots called ‘ollas’.

Why were the burial vessels of certain infants so distinctive? “The emotions around such premature loss may have been intense. But emotion is also culturally constructed. Would our grief be the same as their grief?” asks DeMarrais. 

“These urns may have been intended to evoke emotions. In the absence of centralised authority, we would expect that rituals involving display of objects and the inculcation of shared emotions were an important means of social cohesion.” 

There is little standardisation of the urns. Borgatta artisans exercised considerable freedom, says DeMarrais, combining design elements in novel ways. “Each urn, with its individual qualities, may have referenced the unique infant interred inside. But the diversity of motifs also reflects the localised character of social ties within a heterarchical society.” 

The shape of some painted urn motifs hinted at design constraints faced by weavers, supporting the ‘multi-crafters’ idea. “We think this similarity suggests that patterns first appeared on textile, and were then transferred to the urns by individuals with experience in both crafts.”

As an archaeologist you have to accept you will never have the definitive answers. We work with fragments.

Elizabeth DeMarrais

The things observed in Borgatta suggest the lives of artisans in this heterarchy were more varied and creative, given the diversity of social roles objects had to play. The things of the Inka Empire, however, were made by specialist artisans whose skill level was high, but who were tightly constrained by the state in their artistic expression.

Neither society had a writing system, so material culture was vital for communication. And for the Inkas, a central aim was expressing power through an identifiable ‘brand’.

“The Inkas had rules about who could wear and own what, according to status. Inka objects and architecture were immediately recognisable – like a Coca-Cola bottle in our world. This is, in part, how the Inkas managed to integrate roughly 12 million people across 80 ethnic groups without a writing system.”

Whereas Inkans had specialists who worked to formulae, each object made in Borgatta may well have had numerous ‘authors’ through multicrafting in household workshops. DeMarrais envisions a workshop environment similar to a tech start-up’s open-plan office: “people with different skill-sets pitch ideas and collaborate to create new products to adapt to a changing world”.

The Department of Archaeology’s Material Culture Laboratory, which DeMarrais runs with her colleague Professor John Robb, takes a ‘Borgattan approach’. Researchers working on artefacts from Ancient Egypt to Anglo-Saxon England come together to conduct comparative analyses, and debate how ‘things’ mediated social relations in the past.   

“We ask why humans put their energy into particular objects,” explains DeMarrais. “We look for commonalities – from religion to bureaucracies – as well as differences. We ask what happens when you look at an object through a different theoretical lens, whether economic, political, ideological or ontological.”

“What you find – as Elizabeth’s work shows beautifully – is that social life works materially,” says Robb. “Whether it is a government trying to exert its authority, villagers organising their lives to meet their own needs, or individuals remembering and feeling emotions about their own history, things are the medium of the whole process.”

“In the end,” adds DeMarrais, “it’s about squeezing as much information as we can from things people have left behind to build a picture of human lives across time. As an archaeologist you have to accept you will never have the definitive answers. We work with fragments.” 

Objects unearthed in the Andes tell new stories of societies lacking hierarchical leadership in the time before the Inka Empire.

Distinctive clay urns with painted motifs showing serpents, frogs and birds, as well as human facial features, were found to contain the skeletal remains of young infants.Museo Arqueológico de CachiUrns from the Museo Arqueológico de Cachi in Argentina


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

The social enterprise greenhouse that helps businesses bloom

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 10/30/2017 - 09:40

Oliver Armitage wants to make bionic limbs effective and affordable for amputees everywhere. Kate Nation wants to help young women gain confidence and self-esteem through work. Riaz Moola wants to tackle the educational inequalities he saw growing up in Africa by offering programming tuition online.

Oliver, Kate and Riaz are part of a movement of entrepreneurs that’s been growing rapidly in the UK since the mid-1990s. United by a passion for addressing deep-rooted societal problems, they aren’t looking to solve them with cash, instead they want to have a positive impact through business and enterprise. 

Social enterprises like the organisations that each of them runs (respectively Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems, Turtledove and Hyperion Development) are designed to improve people’s lives. According to the UK’s Department for International Trade, social enterprises also contribute £55 billion to the economy through jobs, goods, services and investing in local communities; no wonder it’s been said that “when a social enterprise profits, society profits.”

But, say Professor Paul Tracey and Dr Neil Stott, ensuring a social enterprise thrives is not always straightforward. “Doing good has increasingly been seen by government and others as the new game in town and investment and policies – including those launched by the UK government’s ‘Big Society’ in 2010 – have swiftly followed,” says Tracey, Professor of Innovation and Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School. 

“Social investment in the UK is growing by 30%, and a report last year suggested the UK is leading the way globally in effective policy around social enterprise and social investment.”

“This is of course excellent,” says Stott, who with Tracey co-directs the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation. “But we felt that there were a few problems – that the rhetoric of success and the reality were a long way apart. Social enterprises are often started with great intentions but a lack of understanding about what’s needed to make them sustainable. Too many great ideas wither and die. Everyone – policy makers, academics, practitioners – think it’s a good thing per se. We wanted to lift up the stones and see what’s underneath.

 “Even though we’d like to see a thousand flowers bloom – lots of people being social entrepreneurs – if you want to make change in the world, having this passion is not enough,” adds Stott. “The challenges can be both immense and unique to any particular social venture.”

Stott cites Keystone Development Trust, a social enterprise he ran in a part of the UK that has experienced a significant influx of migrants. Keystone was one of the organisations in the area that offered a dedicated programme of support. What the organisers didn’t expect was that some members of the established local population, many of whom also benefited from Keystone’s activities, would ultimately stigmatise them.

In fact there was a positive outcome, he says, in that this withdrawal of support was compensated for by increased support from others who saw the organisation as representing a set of values they wanted to uphold.

Tracey and Stott realised that businesses could learn much from understanding both the failures and the successes of others, and so an integral part of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation’s work now revolves around an incubator – Cambridge Social Ventures – which supports social entrepreneurs to start and grow a social venture.

We’re not looking for entrepreneurs who happen to create benefit, as good as that is. We’re looking for people who are passionate about social change and are designing their venture for that purpose.

Paul Tracey

Initially funded with £1m from the government, Cambridge Social Ventures began life as Social Incubator East, a partnership between Cambridge Judge Business School, Allia, Foundation East and Keystone Development Trust, and has since become embedded in Cambridge Judge Business School. Nearly 100 early-stage and well-established social entrepreneurs – including Oliver, Kate and Riaz – have now come through a 12-month mentoring and support system, and a further 500 have been helped through weekend programmes. 

“We’re not looking for entrepreneurs who happen to create benefit, as good as that is,” says Tracey. “We’re looking for people who are passionate about social change and are designing their venture for that purpose. 

“We’re helping them with business advice, and we’re also studying them. We want to get a sense of motivation, ideas and practices, how – or if – social objectives are traded off with business objectives – and how all of this affects the way a social venture develops.”

They describe it as a greenhouse – where the ‘doing’ of social enterprise feeds both research in the Centre and teaching on a new Master’s course, which in turn is training future social innovators. “Our unofficial strapline is Think Teach Do,” says Stott.

“Once people have identified as a social entrepreneur and are suddenly in a room with others, they learn and they forge partnerships,” says Belinda Bell, Programme Director of Cambridge Social Ventures.

One example is Oliver Armitage and his team at Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems (see panel below) working with John Willis and his charity, Power2Inspire, which encourages people of all ages and abilities to take up sport together. 

Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems aims to make the most advanced bionic technology affordable and effective for anyone who needs it. After meeting Willis, who was born without fully formed arms or legs, Armitage and colleagues designed four different devices to attach to a prosthetic socket that would help him kayak, row and play archery and tennis as part of his successful challenge to take part in 34 Olympic and Paralympic sports. The designs for the devices are now freely available to download and print in 3D. 

Tracey and Stott say this is ‘extrapreneurship’ in action – the creation of novel solutions by partnerships that come about through support mechanisms like Cambridge Social Ventures. They realised that a new framework was needed to describe how social ventures work in practice. While ‘extrapreneurship’ is the building of support networks like the incubator, ‘entrepreneurship’ is the creating and growing of a venture, and ‘intrapreneurship’ is the embedding of social objectives in the activities of established companies.

“There are many different approaches that individuals and organisations can take when addressing social problems, and these may have relatively little in common with each other,” says Tracey. “The result is researchers sometimes talk past each other and end up comparing apples with pears, which is a barrier to knowledge creation.”

Their research has also suggested that social entrepreneurship in isolation is not enough: “If you want to make real change you have to involve the corporate sector and the public sector in business,” explains Tracey. “The businesses that fail quickly are frequently operating at a small scale, in some of the most challenging areas of the country – places where regular businesses don’t flourish because people don’t have that much disposable income. Working with corporate and business sectors can provide security and sustainability.”

“We’re excited because there’s a real zeitgeist – right place, right time,” adds Stott. “Young people are as concerned today about making a difference as they are with making money. Social enterprises are taking off and we want to help them flourish.”

Neil and Belinda were recent winners of a Vice Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement for their work in establishing Cambridge Social Ventures.

When it comes to starting social enterprises, Paul Tracey and Neil Stott would love "to see a thousand flowers bloom". But doing good for society isn’t as straightforward as it sounds and even the best ideas can fail. Their research aims to understand the elements that are needed to help social ventures thrive.

We’re excited because there’s a real zeitgeist. Young people are as concerned today about making a difference as they are with making money. Social enterprises are taking off and we want to help them flourish.Neil StottThe DistrictBionic bodies: redefining the limits of the human body.

“When the team showed me their plans, it dawned on me that this could change my life,” says James Young. “If I was offered a human arm and leg now I wouldn’t want it.”

Young is a double amputee and is describing when he first started working with the team of entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and doctors behind Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems (CBAS).

CBAS is led by Cambridge alumni Oliver Armitage and Emil Hewage, who were undergraduates and postgraduates at the University. When they were engineering students, they discovered a mutual interest in how technology could be used to push the boundaries of what’s possible in healthcare.

“My first idea was to make the best prosthetic arm or leg. But what is the best?” says Armitage. “It’s a limb that’s attached so well that there is complete control, where the hand moves without deliberate thought, where the machinery listens to muscles tensing, where the sensory feedback is complete. That’s when I started thinking about the connector.”

The connector is an interface. It’s the boundary between man and machine that can enable an amputated limb to become fully functioning, or ‘bionic’. The vision at CBAS is to make the technology affordable and available to as many as possible, and the best way to do this for amputees, they believe, is to develop standardised interfaces on which to build prosthetic devices.

“Integrated bionics unlocks a cheaper and far more effective model for treating chronic conditions,” says Hewage. Amputees can suffer discomfort and limited functionality with conventional prostheses. Instead, CBAS is developing a permanent connection, a prosthetic interface device (PID), between bionic devices and neural and soft-tissue systems within the body of any amputee. “It’s like a USB port,” he adds. “The user would ‘plug and play’ whatever limb or device they need. They could even print the add-ons using a 3D printer at home.”

The PID should not only lower the cost of artificial limbs by around 60% but also reduce the time-consuming adjusting and refitting of custom-made prostheses because any prosthetic limb can be designed to attach to the standardised interface. The implant also shifts the weight of the limb to the patient’s skeletal system, reducing uncomfortable friction.

“There are growing numbers of amputees globally,” adds Hewage. “Diabetes and cardiovascular disease cause a lot of planned amputations, and for patients with these conditions using this standardised approach reduces the cost.”

CBAS hopes for a first in-human use of a fully neurally connected implant for an amputee in 2018. Armitage explains that their aim is for two-way brain communication: “Full control of the arm or leg with the brain, with pinpoint accuracy, and full sensory feedback to the brain. We want it to be possible to do something as complex as writing.”

He and Hewage set up CBAS two years ago, at the same time that Hewage was working on his PhD in computational neuroscience in the Department of Engineering.

Ensuring that what they make is not only effective but also accessible and affordable was a goal from the start. “We’re not interested in building a single product for a single condition,” Armitage says. “We’ve seen the amazing things that can be done with amputees but it’s always a research study costing millions that benefits just one person. We want to have a larger impact.”

He describes this social enterprise aspect of CBAS as an ‘impact venture’. “Wanting to run a company and have an impact – they aren’t separate, they can’t be,” he explains. “If you have a piece of technology that you believe could have a huge positive impact on a large number of people, the only way to do this at scale is as a commercial venture.”

“Many chronic conditions depend on long-term use of pharmaceuticals or devices,” he adds. “We believe that innovative engineering could offer significant patient benefits in terms of avoiding side effects, increasing comfort and functionality, and reducing healthcare costs, whether it’s in the form of a smart pacemaker, insulin dispenser or prosthetic limb.”

What drives Armitage, as it did during his PhD research in Cambridge on the engineering of biological systems, is the desire to understand how nature might work better with the aid of technology. “Evolution is a progression and we’re at a point in it,” he says. “Let’s see where we go.”

Inset image: James Young; Credit: CBAS.


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Oldest recorded solar eclipse helps date the Egyptian pharaohs

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 10/30/2017 - 00:02

Using a combination of the biblical text and an ancient Egyptian text, the researchers were then able to refine the dates of the Egyptian pharaohs, in particular the dates of the reign of Ramesses the Great. The results are published in the Royal Astronomical Society journal Astronomy & Geophysics.

The biblical text in question comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua and has puzzled biblical scholars for centuries. It records that after Joshua led the people of Israel into Canaan – a region of the ancient Near East that covered modern-day Israel and Palestine – he prayed: “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.”

“If these words are describing a real observation, then a major astronomical event was taking place - the question for us to figure out is what the text actually means,” said paper co-author Professor Sir Colin Humphreys from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy, who is also interested in relating scientific knowledge to the Bible.

“Modern English translations, which follow the King James translation of 1611, usually interpret this text to mean that the sun and moon stopped moving,” said Humphreys, who is also a Fellow of Selwyn College. “But going back to the original Hebrew text, we determined that an alternative meaning could be that the sun and moon just stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining. In this context, the Hebrew words could be referring to a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the sun appears to stop shining. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word translated ‘stand still’ has the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses.”

Humphreys and his co-author, Graeme Waddington, are not the first to suggest that the biblical text may refer to an eclipse, however, earlier historians claimed that it was not possible to investigate this possibility further due to the laborious calculations that would have been required.

Independent evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC can be found in the Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian text dating from the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah, son of the well-known Ramesses the Great. The large granite block, held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, says that it was carved in the fifth year of Merneptah’s reign and mentions a campaign in Canaan in which he defeated the people of Israel.

Earlier historians have used these two texts to try to date the possible eclipse, but were not successful as they were only looking at total eclipses, in which the disc of the sun appears to be completely covered by the moon as the moon passes directly between the earth and the sun. What the earlier historians failed to consider was that it was instead an annular eclipse, in which the moon passes directly in front of the sun, but is too far away to cover the disc completely, leading to the characteristic ‘ring of fire’ appearance. In the ancient world, the same word was used for both total and annular eclipses.

The researchers developed a new eclipse code, which takes into account variations in the Earth’s rotation over time. From their calculations, they determined that the only annular eclipse visible from Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC was on 30 October 1207 BC, in the afternoon. If their arguments are accepted, it would not only be the oldest solar eclipse yet recorded, it would also enable researchers to date the reigns of Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah to within a year.

“Solar eclipses are often used as a fixed point to date events in the ancient world,” said Humphreys. Using these new calculations, the reign of Merneptah began in 1210 or 1209 BC. As it is known from Egyptian texts how long he and his father reigned for, it would mean that Ramesses the Great reigned from 1276-1210 BC, with a precision of plus or minus one year, the most accurate dates available. The precise dates of the pharaohs have been subject to some uncertainty among Egyptologists, but this new calculation, if accepted, could lead to an adjustment in the dates of several of their reigns and enable us to date them precisely.

Reference
Colin Humphreys and Graeme Waddington. ‘Solar eclipse of 1207 BC helps to date pharaohs.’ Astronomy & Geophysics (2017). DOI: 10.1093/astrogeo/atx178.

Researchers have pinpointed the date of what could be the oldest solar eclipse yet recorded. The event, which occurred on 30 October 1207 BC, is mentioned in the Bible and could have consequences for the chronology of the ancient world. 

If these words are describing a real observation, then a major astronomical event was taking place - the question for us to figure out is what the text actually means.Colin HumphreysKevin BairdAnnular eclipse photographed at sunset in eastern New Mexico.


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Stephen Hawking endorses new £50 million centre

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 10/27/2017 - 14:57

The Centre for Misfolding Diseases has been established to tackle some of the world’s most devastating diseases. Many of the neurodegenerative diseases are currently incurable and represent a huge burden for an ageing society, potentially crippling healthcare systems with costs that already exceed those associated with cancer and heart conditions combined.

The Centre brings together leading researchers from across the full spectrum of scientific disciplines – spanning applied mathematics, engineering, physics, chemistry, biology and medicine – to study the molecular origins of neurodegenerative diseases. A central theme of its activities is the use of principles from the physical and chemical sciences to address these complex biological and medical problems. The understanding created through this distinctive approach enables novel therapeutic strategies to be established that go beyond the traditional approaches that have so far led to systematic failures in clinical trials.

Jointly led by Professors Christopher Dobson, Tuomas Knowles and Michele Vendruscolo, the Centre’s significance has been underlined by the philanthropic support it has received. The programme began when a gift of £20 million was made by Elan Corporation plc, led by Kelly Martin and Robert Ingram, to catalyse its creation; earlier this year Cambridge alumnus R. Derek Finlay donated £5 million to fund the completion of the Chemistry of Health Laboratory, within the Department of Chemistry, and establish state-of-the-art laboratories for the Centre within the new building.

The resulting research environment will provide an ideal setting not just for scientists based in Cambridge but also for hosting internationally leading researchers at all stages of their careers, ensuring that cutting-edge research will continue to be carried out in this vital area in the long term.

The overall vision underpinning the Chemistry of Health Laboratory, and the Centre for Misfolding Diseases within it, is that the investigations into the fundamental basis of disease will be carried out in an environment that fosters cross-fertilisation between academic and industrial research efforts, accelerating the road from basic discoveries to effective therapies.

In addition to fundamental science, the new building will house a Chemistry of Health Incubator that will respond to the need for closer integration between the University and industry and aim to increase the rate at which scientific breakthroughs are translated into new therapies. The incubator will provide the resources and complementary know-how required to ensure that fundamental research is ultimately used to develop new treatments for patients in this area where there is a tremendous unmet need.

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor Emeritus; Kelly Martin; and Professor Chris Dobson, Master of St John’s College, at a recent event held at St John’s to mark the support received for the Centre for Misfolding Diseases.

Professor Dobson said: “The tremendous level of support that we have received has given us the freedom and resources to attract to our Centre the best and brightest students and research fellows from around the world, experts in disciplines ranging from mathematics to medicine. It has enabled us to set up and develop a comprehensive and highly innovative programme of research, that I believe is unique, in an area of scientific endeavour where progress has the potential to change to lives of millions of people around the world who are affected directly or indirectly by the tragedy of neurodegenerative disease.”

Speaking about the work of the Centre, Professor Stephen Hawking, who has had motor neurone disease for over 50 years, said: 'I am very pleased to give my strongest support to the activities of this new Centre in its quest to define the molecular origins of these debilitating diseases. I hope the work that is carried out in the Centre will lead to the discovery of novel and effective therapeutic strategies.”

Professor Vendruscolo commented: “The failure so far of traditional drug discovery programmes for these diseases provides us with a strong indication that new strategies are needed. By building on our understanding of the fundamental processes underlying neurodegeneration and on the methods that we are developing for characterising them in a highly quantitative manner, we are creating novel routes and opportunities to introduce effective therapies.” Professor Knowles added: “We are increasingly accessing a picture of how molecular malfunction can lead to disease, with the aim of working towards intervening where it matters the most.”

Stephen Hill, Chairman of Alzheimer’s Society, added: "I am delighted to welcome such an important and exciting development in the fight against some of the most damaging and debilitating diseases that we face as a society today. Across the world there are 40 million people who suffer from Alzheimer’s – a number projected to rise to 135 million by 2050. It is only through the research efforts of centres of excellence such as this that we can have any hope that these diseases will not blight the lives of so many in the future.”

Click  here for more information about the Centre.

 

Gifts totalling more than £32 million, together with government funds of over £17 million, have enabled the launch of a highly innovative Centre in Cambridge that is pioneering new approaches to understand and treat neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, motor neurone disease and frontotemporal dementia.

The failure so far of traditional drug discovery programmes for these diseases provides us with a strong indication that new strategies are neededProf. Michele VendruscoloScan showing human brain


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Postgraduate Pioneers 2017 #3

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 10/27/2017 - 11:59
Third in the series is Draško Kašćelan, a linguistics researcher hoping to help children with language development.   My research sets out to   I’m investigating figurative language understanding in bilingual children. Nowadays, speaking more than one language is becoming a norm worldwide. Similarly, using metaphors in everyday speech is more frequent than one might assume. This frequency of use helps the development of figurative language comprehension but since bilinguals don’t have equal exposure to both of their languages as corresponding monolinguals, there is a question of whether this lack of input affects how they understand metaphors.    I am also looking into the level of autistic traits in children, since these traits are often related to the difficulties in figurative language comprehension. Hopefully, this research will give insight into how language understanding develops in bilinguals, but also offer directions for future investigation of language development in clinical populations.    Day-to-Day   My work is split between office work and data collection. At the moment, I spend most of the time in my department but I sometimes prepare experimental tasks in a cafe. But when I’m collecting data that involves visiting primary schools outside of Cambridge which gives me a really interesting change of scene. This would typically include a session with a student in which he or she does a series of computer-based cognitive or language tasks designed to look like games. Some of the sessions also include act-out tasks with toys, which makes the whole data collection quite fun.   My best days   The most interesting day I’ve had so far was during the pilot of my study when I got to talk to several children about the work that I do. Explaining to primary school kids what linguistics actually is ended up being quite a challenge, especially when I was asked how long it takes to learn a language and why I don’t speak Elvish.   I hope my work will lead to   The improvement of support that bilingual children get when it comes to maintaining the use of their languages. Together with other experimental work in the field, I expect to make an impact on educational policies regarding foreign language learning, which is currently far from optimal in the UK. I also hope that the findings of my investigation will offer directions for future research of language development in both typically and atypically developing individuals.   It had to be Cambridge because   Apart from academic and financial support that Cambridge offers, one of the most valuable parts of this experience is the student community. Specifically, the college system offers opportunities to socialise with people from other academic fields and from various backgrounds. This is quite different from my undergraduate experience outside of Cambridge where I would mostly only interact mostly with people from my field, which sometimes makes engaging with other areas of interest harder.

With our Postgraduate Open Day fast-approaching (3 Nov), we introduce five PhD students who are already making waves at Cambridge.

I was asked how long it takes to learn a language and why I don’t speak Elvish.Draško KašćelanDraško KašćelanPostgraduate Open Day

For more information about the University's Postgraduate Open Day on 3rd November 2017 and to book to attend, please click here.


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

The Reformation is remembered

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 10/27/2017 - 10:53

On 31 October 1517, almost 500 years ago, an event occurred that sparked a religious schism across Europe, one that was to see Catholicism challenged not by outsiders but by insiders unhappy with what they perceived as the abuses and corruption of the medieval church.

The nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to a church door in the small German town of Wittenberg is embedded in legend. Scholars now question whether this episode actually occurred. But there is no doubt that a movement took hold that changed the face of Christian belief and has left lasting legacies in our culture.

To mark the anniversary of the Reformation, a team of historians from Cambridge and York Universities has been looking afresh at the ways in which the fragmentation of Christendom has been framed over the centuries –and the way belief intertwined with gender, politics and much more.

The cross-curricular project brought together historians Professor Alex Walsham and Dr Ceri Law from the University of Cambridge and literary scholars Professor Brian Cummings and Dr Bronwyn Wallace from the University of York. The researchers were able to draw on the remarkable archives and libraries of the two institutions plus Lambeth Palace Library.

Both York and Cambridge are cities deeply affected by the Reformation. In Cambridge, events staged at Great St Mary's church this weekend will tell the shocking story of two foreign Protestant theologians who held academic posts in Cambridge during the reign of Edward VI. The disinterred bodies of Martin Bucer and Peter Phagius were publically burnt in Cambridge market square in 1557.

The creation of an outstanding online exhibition, hosted by Cambridge University Library, makes the pioneering work by the team’s scholars accessible to all. The exhibition breaks what is often regarded as a hard-to-grasp topic into accessible themes and, with the aid of stunning images, creates a vivid portrait of life, love and death in the 16th century and beyond.

Walsham says: “Our exhibition explores how the Reformation transformed traditional modes of remembering and involved concerted attempts at forgetting, as well as the ways in which it created a rich and vibrant memory culture of its own.”

The Reformation was complex and far-reaching, taking the form of many Reformations. In simplest terms, it was an upheaval that shattered Catholic Europe and paved the way for separate movements and responses to orthodoxy.

Luther was a university professor and preacher. His theses challenged a system called the sale of indulgences whereby people could reduce punishment after death for their sins and spend a shorter period in purgatory – a sort of ‘clearing house’ for heaven.

Luther’s followers – Protestants – hit out at many of the rituals of medieval Christianity. Religion before the Reformation has been described as ‘a religion of the body’. At the mass, all five senses came into play. The priest conveyed the mystery of the rite through a combination of different manual and bodily actions, including kissing the book and raising the host.

For the laity, this visual experience was compounded by the sound of bells, the smell of incense, the sight of candles, the touching of hands, the taste of offerings, in a synaesthesia of devotion. Prayer was centred on bodily actions, whether of prostration or of counting prayers on a rosary.

The Reformation called many of these actions into question by labelling them forms of ‘superstition’ and ‘idolatry’. The Reformed liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 abolished many aspects of bodily ritual such as the elevation of the host. And yet, the Protestant liturgy provided for scriptural ritual such as washing with water in baptism and laying on of hands in ordination.

Protestantism also accepted kneeling as a sign of devotion or of penitence as well as signing with the cross as a sign of God’s covenant with his people. These actions continued to cause controversy and dissent throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer still included an exorcism in baptism; but in 1552 it was removed.

Religious change impacted profoundly not only on collective and national ways of viewing the past, but on the ways that individual men and women saw their own narratives and the ways in which they recorded the lives of their families and friends. Numerous real voices find a platform in the Remembering the Reformation exhibition.

Family life was changing as Protestant clergy were allowed to marry. Among the voices that come through are those of Tobie Matthew and his wife Frances. An 18th century copy of a diary kept by Tobie Matthew records his preaching from 1583, when he became dean of Durham, to 1622. In this time he gave 1,992 sermons.

The diary offers a rare and valuable insight into patterns and selections of sermon topics from the court to parishes. It contains glimpses of the personal as Matthew notes his movements, career and the illnesses and misfortunes that befell him. On 24 March 1603 he heads his entry with ‘Eheu! Eheu!’ – an expression of despair at the death of Elizabeth 1.

A document in the hand of Tobie’s wife Frances (1550/1-1629) reflects a deeply personal aspect of their lives. She lists for posterity ‘The birthe of all my children’, including the place, date and time of birth, and details of godparents. She decided later to add the details of the deaths of the four out of six children who died before adulthood.

In doing so, Frances created a poignant record of loss. Of her son, Samuell Matthew, she notes: “This Samuell Matthew, my most Deerly-Beloved sonne, departed this life of Christianity the 15 of June 1601, and is buryed in Peeter-house in cambridge.”  The phrase ‘this life of Christianity’ is telling: belief was not just an adjunct to life but its central purpose.

The document also bears testament to a phenomenon created by the Reformation: the clerical family. Frances was the daughter of a bishop and married into two episcopal families. Her first husband was son of Matthew Parker, the first Elizabethan archbishop of Canterbury. After he died, she married Tobie Matthew.

Reformers celebrated the ideal of such ‘godly’ families. But even such a strong Protestant pedigree as Frances’s brought no guarantees. Her son Toby (1577-1655) converted to Catholicism, much to the distress of both his parents. Religious differences were destined to continue to divide as well as unite.

Walsham says: “People were deeply divided by faith as a result of the Reformation and memory was at the heart of the ways in which it fragmented society and challenged the ties of affection that bound families together. But remembering the medieval and Protestant past was also a mechanism for cementing powerful identities.”

Remembering the Reformation’, an interdisciplinary and collaborative research project, is generously funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (http://rememberingthereformation.org.uk/).

The Reformation is famously traced to an event that took place in Germany 500 years ago and reverberated across Europe. An online exhibition paints a vivid portrait of a society undergoing profound change – and free events this weekend commemorate an episode of corpse burning in Cambridge.

Our exhibition explores how the Reformation transformed traditional modes of remembering and involved concerted attempts at forgetting, as well as the ways in which it created a rich and vibrant memory culture of its own.Alex WalshamWikimedia CommonsThe bodies of two Protestants, Martin Bucer and Peter Phagius, are burnt in Cambridge's market place, 1557


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Innovative stadium will be the home of cricket in East Africa

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 10/27/2017 - 10:18

Some 1,500 people –including Rwandan president Paul Kagame— are expected to attend the opening of the country’s first international standard stadium on Saturday 28 October. The event will feature a match between teams led by former England captain Michael Vaughan and South African record-breaking cricketer Herschelle Gibbs.

Although cricket is one of the fastest growing sports in Rwanda, the country has not had, until now, a pitch that was appropriate for hosting international matches. Rwandan teams could only compete internationally by travelling to other countries, while Rwandan fans were unable to watch their own teams in action on home ground.

The new cricket grounds in Gahanga, a southern suburb of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, are the result of a partnership between the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation –a British charity—, the Rwanda Cricket Association, the Government of Rwanda, and architectural firm Light Earth Designs (LED), co-founded by Cambridge lecturer Dr. Michael Ramage.

One of the new grounds' most recognisable features is a pavilion consisting of three vaults constructed with 66,000 handmade tiles made by local workers using locally-sourced materials. The vaults’ shape mimics the parabolic geometry of a bouncing ball, and echoes Rwanda’s hilly topography.

These instantly recognisable vaults are the final product of research carried out by Dr. Ramage, from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation, with Ms Ana Gatóo and Mr Wesam Al Asali. They build on Dr. Ramage’s earlier work alongside Dr. Matt DeJong (Cambridge) and Prof. John Ochsendorf (MIT).

Dr. Ramage and Prof. Ochsendorf had pioneered the pavilion’s characteristic soil tiled vaulting with architect Peter Rich of LED, at the Mapungubwe Interpretative Centre in South Africa. Adapted for the Rwandan context with Mr Tim Hall, LED co-founder and project lead, the vaults rise out of the cut soil banking formed as the pitch was levelled, integrating seamlessly with the landscape. The banking creates a natural amphitheatre with views over the pitch and the wetland valley beyond.

The project is part of a 5-year initiative led by Light Earth Designs to assist Rwandan development. It aims to encourage the use of home-grown, labour-intensive construction techniques, thereby lowering the carbon footprint of local building projects, enhancing local skills and helping to build the local economy.

Speaking ahead of the opening ceremony, Dr. Ramage said: “the Rwanda Cricket Stadium embodies not only the spirit of cricket in Rwanda, but also that of the men and women who crafted and constructed the building over the past few months.”

 

 

Cambridge architectural engineer is part of the team that has built Rwanda’s first international stadium

Light Earth DesignsView of Rwanda Cricket Stadium


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The man who tried to read all the books in the world

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 10/26/2017 - 13:49

129,864,880. That’s the number of books in the world, according to an estimate by Google Books, which since its launch in 2005 has been trying to scan them all, convert them to searchable text using optical character recognition and then make them publicly available online. Although Google Books’ hopes have been slowed by wrangles over copyright and fair use, if it succeeds it could become the largest online body of human knowledge ever available.

Half a millennium earlier in Seville, Spain, Hernando Colón (1488–1539) had the same ambitious aim: to create a library that would be universal in a way never before imagined because it would contain everything. And Colón really did try to collect everything: from precious manuscripts to books by unknown authors, from flimsy pamphlets to tavern posters, from weighty tomes to throwaway ephemera.

Colón’s bibliomania took him back and forth across Europe for three decades. According to Dr Edward Wilson-Lee, from the Faculty of English and the Centre for Material Texts, he bought 700 books in Nuremburg over Christmas in 1521, before passing on to Mainz where he bought a thousand more in the course of a month. In a single year in 1530, he visited Rome, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Turin, Milan, Venice, Padua, Innsbruck, Augsburg, Constance, Basle, Fribourg, Cologne, Maastricht, Antwerp, Paris, Poitiers and Burgos, voraciously buying all he could lay his hands on.

Wilson-Lee has been working with Dr José María Pérez Fernández from the Universidad de Granada to research the life of Colón, the natural son of the great Italian navigator Christopher Columbus. In addition to creating his library, Colón accompanied his father on explorations of the new world and wrote the first biography of Columbus; he was also a ground-breaking mapmaker and gathered unparalleled collections of music, images and plants.

“Colón had an extraordinary memory and an obsession with lists,” says Wilson-Lee, whose research on Colón was funded by the British Academy. “Each time he bought a book, he would meticulously record where and when he bought it, how much it cost and the rate of currency exchange that day. Sometimes he noted where he was when he read it, what he thought of the book and if he’d met the author. As pieces of material culture, each is a fascinating account of how one man related to, used and was changed by books.”

This almost obsessive activity makes what now remains of his library – the Biblioteca Colombina, housed in a wing of Seville Cathedral – an incredibly important material resource to explore book history, travel and intellectual networks. “When pieced together,” he adds, “they give an account of one of the most extraordinary lives in a period filled with entrancing characters.”

Wilson-Lee describes Colón as having lived at the time of an “event horizon” of exponential change, in the same way that the advent of the internet has been for us today; only in Colón’s case it was the move from written manuscript to printed book.

“It simply became impossible for one man to read everything,” says Wilson-Lee. “Maybe in his youth, it would have been possible – there would have been few enough printed books. But as his library grew, he realised he needed to employ readers to work through each book and provide him with a summary – in effect the forerunner of the Reader’s Digest.”

As Colón’s vision of amassing all knowledge grew, so did something else: the need to add structure to the information he gathered. “It was one of the first ‘big data’ challenges,” says Wilson-Lee. “You might have the information but how do you make sense of it all?

“One of the fascinating aspects about the library is that it shows that sometimes the way in which knowledge becomes divided up is not in response to some kind of grand abstract reasoning, some kind of Eureka moment, it’s sometimes in response to a practical problem. In this case, ‘I’ve got 15,000 books, where do I put them?’” On a shelf seems reasonable, but even in this respect Colón was pioneering, says Wilson-Lee.

“In essence, he invents the modern bookshelf: row upon row of books standing upright on their spines, stacked in specially designed wooden cases.”

And a material problem of how to store things very quickly turns into an intellectual problem of which things belong together. It forces certain decisions. “As anyone who has walked through a library will know, order is everything,” explains Wilson-Lee. “The ways in which books can be ordered multiplies rapidly as the collection grows, and each of these orders shows the universe in a slightly different light – do you order alphabetically, by size or by subject?

“Hernando was acutely aware of this. He referred to unordered, or ‘unmapped’, collections as ‘dead’.”

He wanted his library not only to have everything but also to “provide a set of propositions about how the universe fits together,” he adds. “He viewed the Universal Library as the intellectual counterpart – the brain – to the world empire that Spain was aiming for in the 16th century. It was a fitting extension to his father’s grand ambitions to explore the globe.”

One of Colón’s innovations to make sense of his library was a vast compendium of book summaries, called the Libro de Epitomes. To create this, he set a team of sumistas – digesters of the thousands of books in the library – to work distilling each volume, leading towards his ultimate vision that all the knowledge in the world could be boiled down into just a few volumes: one for medicine, one for grammar, and so on.

Another was a blueprint for the Library using ten thousand scraps of paper bearing hieroglyphic symbols. “Each of the myriad ways they could be put together suggested a different path through the library, just as a different set of search terms on the internet will bring up different information. In some respects, the Biblioteca Hernandina, as it was then called, was the world’s first search engine.”

How these systems worked will be uncovered in books that Wilson-Lee and Pérez Fernández are writing about the man and his library, and also about how his accomplishments resonate with our own fast-changing networked world.

“For all that he died nearly five centuries ago, Hernando’s discovery of the world around him bears striking, sometimes uncanny, resemblance to the world that we are discovering today,” says Wilson-Lee. “The digital revolution has increased the amount of information available but how do you discern what’s useful from what’s useless? We are wholly reliant on search algorithms to order the internet for us. Hernando was just as aware that how you choose to categorise and rank information has immense consequences. It’s easy for us to forget this sometimes – to sleepwalk our way into knowledge collection and distribution.”

Today, just over 3,000 books of Colón’s library remain. Until now, the life of this extraordinary man has largely escaped notice; it’s taken another revolution to grasp how visionary he was in recognising the power of tools to order the world of information.

Edward Wilson-Lee’s biography of Hernando Colón, ‘The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books’ will be published by HarperCollins in 2018, and the study of the library, co-authored with José María Pérez Fernández, will be published later by Yale University Press. 

Inset image: Hernando Colón. Credit: Wikipedia.

One man’s quest to create a library of everything, 500 years before Google Books was conceived, foreshadowed the challenges of ‘big data’ and our reliance on search algorithms to make sense of it all.

In some respects, the Biblioteca Hernandina, as it was then called, was the world’s first search engine.Edward Wilson-LeeMontilal BooksOld book wall


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Council votes 'yes' to second term for Cambridge BID

Cambridge Council Feed - Thu, 10/26/2017 - 10:18

CAMBRIDGE City Council is supporting Cambridge BID (Business Improvement District) as it seeks to be voted in for a second five year term.

Cambridge BID’s business plan for 2018-2023 commits it to investing £4.5million into the city centre over the next five years through a range of projects and additional services.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Skin found to play a role in controlling blood pressure

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 10/25/2017 - 23:30

In a study published in the open access journal eLife, the researchers show that skin – our largest organ, typically covering two square metres in humans – helps regulate blood pressure and heart rate in response to changes in the amount of oxygen available in the environment.

High blood pressure is associated with cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke. For the vast majority of cases of high blood pressure, there is no known cause. The condition is often associated with reduced flow of blood through small blood vessels in the skin and other parts of the body, a symptom which can get progressively worse if the hypertension is not treated.

Previous research has shown that when a tissue is starved of oxygen – as can happen in areas of high altitude, or in response to pollution, smoking or obesity, for example – blood flow to that tissue will increase. In such situations, this increase in blood flow is controlled in part by the ‘HIF’ family of proteins.

To investigate what role the skin plays in the flow of blood through small vessels, a team of researchers from Cambridge and Sweden exposed mice to low-oxygen conditions. These mice had been genetically modified so that they are unable to produce certain HIF proteins in the skin.

“Nine of ten cases of high blood pressure appear to occur spontaneously, with no known cause,” says Professor Randall Johnson from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “Most research in this areas tends to look at the role played by organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys, and so we know very little about what role other tissue and organs play.

“Our study was set up to understand the feedback loop between skin and the cardiovascular system. By working with mice, we were able to manipulate key genes involved in this loop.”

The researchers found that in mice lacking one of two proteins in the skin (HIF-1α or HIF-2α), the response to low levels of oxygen changed compared to normal mice and that this affected their heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and general levels of activity. Mice lacking specific proteins controlled by the HIFs also responded in a similar way.

In addition, the researchers showed that even the response of normal, healthy mice to oxygen starvation was more complex than previously thought. In the first ten minutes, blood pressure and heart rate rise, and this is followed by a period of up to 36 hours where blood pressure and heart rate decrease below normal levels. By around 48 hours after exposure to low levels of oxygen, blood pressure and heart rate levels had returned to normal.

Loss of the HIF proteins or other proteins involved in the response to oxygen starvation in the skin, was found to dramatically change when this process starts and how long it takes.

“These findings suggest that our skin’s response to low levels of oxygen may have substantial effects on the how the heart pumps blood around the body,” adds first author Dr Andrew Cowburn, also from Cambridge. “Low oxygen levels – whether temporary or sustained – are common and can be related to our natural environment or to factors such as smoking and obesity. We hope that our study will help us better understand how the body’s response to such conditions may increase our risk of – or even cause – hypertension.”

Professor Johnson adds: “Given that skin is the largest organ in our body, it perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising that it plays a role in regulation such a fundamental mechanism as blood pressure. But this suggests to us that we may need to take a look at other organs and tissues in the body and see how they, too, are implicated.”

The study was funded by Wellcome.

Reference
Cowburn, AS et al. Cardiovascular adaptation to hypoxia and the role of peripheral resistance. eLife; 19 Oct 2017; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.28755

Skin plays a surprising role in helping regulate blood pressure and heart rate, according to scientists at the University of Cambridge and the Karolinska Institute, Sweden. While this discovery was made in mice, the researchers believe it is likely to be true also in humans.

Nine of ten cases of high blood pressure appear to occur spontaneously, with no known causeRandall JohnsonMatt ReinboldSkin texture


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‘Scars’ left by icebergs record West Antarctic ice retreat

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 10/25/2017 - 18:00

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, the British Antarctic Survey and Stockholm University imaged the seafloor of Pine Island Bay, in West Antarctica. They found that, as seas warmed at the end of the last ice age, Pine Island Glacier retreated to a point where its grounding line – the point where it enters the ocean and starts to float – was perched precariously at the end of a slope.

Breakup of the floating ‘ice shelf’ in front of the glacier left tall ice ‘cliffs’ at its edge. The height of these cliffs made them unstable, triggering the release of thousands of icebergs into Pine Island Bay, and causing the glacier to retreat rapidly until its grounding line reached a restabilising point in shallower water.

Today, as warming waters caused by climate change flow underneath the floating ice shelves in Pine Island Bay, the Antarctic Ice Sheet is once again at risk of losing mass from rapidly retreating glaciers. Significantly, if ice retreat is triggered, there are no relatively shallow points in the ice sheet bed along the course of Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers to prevent possible runaway ice retreat into the interior of West Antarctica. The results are published in the journal Nature.

“Today, the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers are grounded in a very precarious position, and major retreat may already be happening, caused primarily by warm waters melting from below the ice shelves that jut out from each glacier into the sea,” said Matthew Wise of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, and the study’s first author. “If we remove these buttressing ice shelves, unstable ice thicknesses would cause the grounded West Antarctic Ice Sheet to retreat rapidly again in the future. Since there are no potential restabilising points further upstream to stop any retreat from extending deep into the West Antarctic hinterland, this could cause sea-levels to rise faster than previously projected.”

Pine Island Glacier and the neighbouring Thwaites Glacier are responsible for nearly a third of total ice loss from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and this contribution has increased greatly over the past 25 years. In addition to basal melt, the two glaciers also lose ice by breaking off, or calving, icebergs into Pine Island Bay.

Today, the icebergs that break off from Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers are mostly large table-like blocks, which cause characteristic ‘comb-like’ ploughmarks as these large multi-keeled icebergs grind along the sea floor. By contrast, during the last ice age, hundreds of comparatively smaller icebergs broke free of the Antarctic Ice Sheet and drifted into Pine Island Bay. These smaller icebergs had a v-shaped structure like the keel of a ship and left long and deep single scars in the sea floor.

High-resolution imaging techniques, used to investigate the shape and distribution of ploughmarks on the sea floor in Pine Island Bay, allowed the researchers to determine the relative size and drift direction of icebergs in the past. Their analysis showed that these smaller icebergs were released due to a process called marine ice-cliff instability (MICI). More than 12,000 years ago, Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers were grounded on top of a large wedge of sediment and were buttressed by a floating ice shelf, making them relatively stable even though they rested below sea level.

Eventually, the floating ice shelf in front of the glaciers ‘broke up’, which caused them to retreat onto land sloping downward from the grounding lines to the interior of the ice sheet. This exposed tall ice ‘cliffs’ at their margin with an unstable height, and resulted in the rapid retreat of the glaciers from marine ice cliff instability between 12,000 and 11,000 years ago. This occurred under climate conditions that were relatively similar to those of today.

“Ice-cliff collapse has been debated as a theoretical process that might cause West Antarctic Ice Sheet retreat to accelerate in the future,” said co-author Dr Robert Larter, from the British Antarctic Survey. “Our observations confirm that this process is real and that it occurred about 12,000 years ago, resulting in rapid retreat of the ice sheet into Pine Island Bay.”

Today, the two glaciers are getting ever closer to the point where they may become unstable, resulting once again in rapid ice retreat.

The research has been funded in part by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

Reference:
Matthew G. Wise et al. ‘Evidence of marine ice-cliff instability in Pine Island Bay from iceberg-keel plough marks.’ Nature (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nature24458

Thousands of marks on the Antarctic seafloor, caused by icebergs which broke free from glaciers more than ten thousand years ago, show how part of the Antarctic Ice Sheet retreated rapidly at the end of the last ice age as it balanced precariously on sloping ground and became unstable. Today, as the global climate continues to warm, rapid and sustained retreat may be close to happening again and could trigger runaway ice retreat into the interior of the continent, which in turn would cause sea levels to rise even faster than currently projected. 

Today, the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers are grounded in a very precarious position, and major retreat may already be happening.Matthew WiseMartin JakobssonIce cliffs in Pine Island Bay


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Changing the face of Indian farming

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 10/25/2017 - 16:11

The rains are less reliable. Sudden heat waves create challenging conditions for crops. Poor harvests result not only in debt, but also in malnutrition for smallholder farmers. Farming in India is not an attractive career option.

Many Indian farmers are turning their backs on the life altogether. The pull of the city, with the promise of better work and a better income, is drawing huge numbers of rural Indians away from the land.

Women in India have always been involved in farming, typically doing work between the traditionally ‘male jobs’ of sowing and harvesting, such as weeding and applying fertiliser. But they usually work land that belongs to their husbands’ families, and when households become more impoverished they have to work harder yet still earn less than the men.

“It’s becoming difficult to get a reliable income from agriculture in many parts of the Indian subcontinent,” says Dr Shailaja Fennell, from the Centre of Development Studies. “It’s quite common for the majority of younger family members to go to a town to look for work. In the last decade in regions like the Punjab – which benefited from the Green Revolution – even many of the young women are leaving the land, to study at school and college.

“So now the farming is left to the older women – the mothers and sometimes the grandmothers. They’re in the difficult situation of having to make do in households where incomes are falling. In poorer states such as Odisha, this can lead to malnourishment, which has long-term effects on the children.”

The record grain outputs of India’s ‘Green Revolution’ in the 1970s and 1980s established the country as one of the world’s largest agricultural producers, sustaining its booming population and boosting its economy. But the level of success varied from region to region, and the continued overuse of water, fertilisers and pesticides, together with post-harvest crop losses, has put increasing pressure on natural resources. India’s rapid population growth continues, and the UN estimates it will surpass China by 2022 to become the most populous country in the world. And more people means more mouths to feed.

Fennell is a co-investigator of TIGR2ESS: a new, large-scale, multi-partner project that has just been awarded £6.9m funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) by Research Councils UK to address this complex web of issues. Drawing together a formidable network of partners from research, industry, government and NGOs in the UK and India, the project aims to define the requirements for a second, more sustainable Green Revolution, and to deliver this through a suite of research programmes, training workshops and educational activities.

The funding forms part of the UK government’s Official Development Assistance commitment, and partners from both countries will work together, with over 22 new researchers funded in both the UK and India.

“India is developing fast. A new approach is urgently needed to ensure a more resilient outcome for the future of the country’s food production,” says plant scientist Professor Howard Griffiths, who leads TIGR2ESS. “To be successful, we need to address the challenges in India today, from equality and sustainability in agriculture, to the problems associated with climate change.”

The empowerment of women will be a key theme of this multifaceted project. Providing India’s women with the skills and knowledge to contribute to improved food security for their country, and better nutrition for their families, will take various approaches. The UK–Indian partnership will set up ‘nutrition kitchens’ in Indian villages alongside existing health centres to run monthly cooking classes and provide nutrition-relevant education. And in the field, workshops will educate female farmers to help them improve their farming practices.

“Some crops, like certain varieties of millet for example, are currently used only for animal feed,” says Griffiths. “But they have a better nutrient balance and are more climate resilient than the preferred staples like wheat, so switching may partly be a question of education.”

“In parallel, our research will be looking for ways to increase the value of these crops, to raise family incomes,” adds Fennell. “These are very specific interventions that have huge potential impact. TIGR2ESS will bring together science and social science to drive interventions that actually work for Indian farmers and their communities.”

TIGR2ESS will include fundamental research addressing crop productivity and water use in India, and will identify appropriate crops and farming practices for different climatic regions. It also includes a capacity-building programme of researcher exchanges between the UK and India to ensure skills development and build expertise for the longterm. And it will draw on expertise at Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy with the aim of bringing about policy change in India, to ensure that it is not just the men who receive farming support.

“Recognising that an increasing number of India’s smallholder farmers are women, we need to ensure that state resources and services, and knowledge, are equally accessible to them,” says Dr V. Selvam, Executive Director of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, one of the India-based project partners.

“The ultimate impact of TIGR2ESS will be to deliver sustainable practices and improved food security, whilst promoting equal opportunities and enhancing nutrition and health for rural communities across different regions and climatic zones in India,” says Griffiths. “For Cambridge, this is an opportunity to build on our commitment to international scientific excellence and to translate this into real benefits for society through our partnership with India’s Department of Biotechnology and institutions across India.” 

Inset image: A farmer at work weeding in a maize field in the Indian state of Bihar. Credit: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT.

Indian agriculture is expected to feed a growing and increasingly urbanised population. But if everyone wants to move to towns and cities, who is left to farm the land?

The farming is left to the older women – the mothers and sometimes the grandmothers. They’re in the difficult situation of having to make do in households where incomes are falling.Shailaja FennellM. DeFreese/CIMMYTFarmer from the Indian state of BiharChanging the way we eat, grow and distribute food

While TIGR2ESS focuses on improving India’s food production, a £340m EU Innovation programme involving Cambridge aims to put Europe at the centre of a global revolution in food innovation and production.

Around 795 million people worldwide don’t have access to enough food to meet their minimum daily energy requirements, while at least two billion consume too many calories but don’t get the nutrients they need. Both the hungry and the overweight suffer the health consequences of poor diet.

And while our increasing population is creating a growing demand for food, 25% of what we already produce is going to waste. Add to this the changing climate affecting crop growing conditions, rapid urbanisation and the increasing demand for resource-intensive foods like meat – the net result is a food system that’s increasingly under pressure.

Cambridge is one of several European universities and companies that last year won access to a £340m EU Innovation programme to change the way we eat, grow and distribute food.

The project, funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) and called EIT Food, has ambitious aims to halve the amount of food waste in Europe within a decade, and to reduce ill health caused by diet by 2030.

“Sustainability is a top-level agenda which is engaging both global multinational food producers and academics,” says Professor Howard Griffiths, who helped to lead Cambridge’s involvement in EIT Food, a consortium of 55 partners from leading European businesses, research centres and universities across 13 countries.

“Our joint goal is in making the entire food system more resilient in the context of a changing climate, and improving health and nutrition for people across the world.”


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Postgraduate Pioneers 2017 #2

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 10/25/2017 - 13:39
Second in the series is Sarah Harrison, a final year PhD student from from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, whose research highlights the importance of extra-embryonic cells and cell interactions.   My research sets out to   My research tries pick apart what takes you from a single fertilized egg through to a body with head, tail and limbs and internal organs through embryonic development. And we mostly look at the mouse embryo to answer these questions and look at changes in cell shape, cell behavior and cell fate decisions along the way.   Day-to-day   Rather than using whole mouse embryos to answer these questions about development, I derive stem cell populations from the embryos and maintain these in culture. What this means is that most of the time I’m standing in a small tissue culture room with my arms underneath a tissue culture hood to keep the cells happy and sterile. And then we grow the cells up and perform assays on how gene expression is changing when we change their culture conditions and try and plate them in scaffolds of 3D to generate embryo like structures. When I’m not in the culture room, I’m dissecting embryos, I’m down at the animals house looking after our transgenic mouse colonies and some of the time I’m sitting down doing data analysis. I’m in quite a collaborative group, so it’s rare that it’s just one person working on one question. Actually we’ve got lots of questions and we try to use all of our tools and expertise to answer them most effectively.   My best days    My favourite period in the lab was when I was just starting to put together the work that went on to get us a first author publication. That was when I was combining embryonic stem cells with stem cells that I’d derived from extra embryonic tissues, so tissues that would go on to form the placenta. Combining these two cell types in a dish started to generate, through self-organisational processes, structures that looked like embryos. And when I first saw this I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was amazing, and I couldn’t wait to tell my supervisor. And even though it was still quite early days, it showed that our hypothesis about interactions between embryonic and extra-embryonic cells being really important in generating a body, was working, so that was great.    I hope my work will lead to    I hope my PhD research will help the mouse embryology field at least to see the importance of cell interactions, and that it’s not just about the cells that go on to make the body but also the extra-embryonic cells that nourish the embryo. So hopefully it will provide a new slant on early embryology. For me personally, I feel I’ve drilled right down into an incredibly precise area of life science. Now I’d like to broaden out a little bit and perhaps go into science publishing to be able to communicate these really interesting discoveries, many of which are happening right here in Cambridge.      It had to be Cambridge because   In terms of developmental biology, there is nowhere like Cambridge. The building I’m in now is where scientists pioneered IVF, for instance. So that history is a major factor for people, but it’s not just about past breakthroughs, it’s about what’s going on now. I can go across the road to another building and chat to someone who is developing ways to encapsulate cells in tiny beads of gel, and really high tech, high through-put methods are being developed all around. And so it’s a great place to develop your research, not just in the techniques you know and love, but to expand and be more collaborative. On top of that, socially it’s great. We can go to lots of different institutes, and develop not just professional collaborations but also social collaborations, where we share ideas and results to get feedback. Having all these clever people around is a big benefit for developing.

With our Postgraduate Open Day fast-approaching (3 Nov), we introduce five PhD candidates who are already making waves at Cambridge.

I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was amazing, and I couldn’t wait to tell my supervisor.Sarah Harrison, final year PhD studentSarah HarrisonPostgraduate Open DayFor more information about the University's Postgraduate Open Day on 3rd November 2017 and to book to attend, please click here.


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Council helping small businesses save money on energy bills

Cambridge Council Feed - Wed, 10/25/2017 - 10:38

SMALL businesses can learn how to reduce their energy consumption, make savings on their fuel bills, and enhance their green credentials at a free breakfast workshop next month.

Cambridge City Council is hosting the workshop on energy efficiency for Cambridge-based small or new businesses in partnership with the Carbon Trust, on 9 November at the Future Business Centre in Cambridge.

Those attending will receive training from the Carbon Trust and will be able to find out about support, funding and resources that are available to businesses.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Carbon capture: universities and industry work together to tackle emissions

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 10/25/2017 - 08:12

The world is not going carbon-free any time soon: that much is clear. Developed and developing countries alike rely on fossil fuels for transport, industry and power, all of which release CO2 into the atmosphere. But as sea levels rise, ‘unprecedented’ weather events become commonplace and the polar ice caps melt, how can we balance our use of fossil fuels with the imperative to combat the catastrophic effects of climate change?

“Everything suggests that we won’t be able to stop burning carbon-based fuels, particularly in rapidly developing countries like India and China,” says Professor Mike Bickle of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “Along with increasing use of renewable energy and improved energy efficiency, one way to cope with that is to use carbon capture and storage – and there is no technical reason why it can’t be deployed right now.”

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a promising and practical solution to drastically reducing carbon emissions, but it has had a stilted development pathway to date. In 2015, the UK government cancelled a £1 billion competition for CCS technology six months before it was due to be awarded, citing high costs. Just one year later, a high-level advisory group appointed by ministers recommended that establishing a CCS industry in the UK now could save the government and consumers billions per year from the cost of meeting climate change targets.

CCS is the only way of mitigating the 20% of CO2 emissions from industrial processes – such as cement manufacturing and steel making, for which there is no obvious alternative – to help meet the world’s commitments to limit warming to below 2oC. It works by trapping the CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels, which is then cooled, liquefied and pumped deep underground into geological formations, saline aquifers or disused oil and gas fields. Results from lab-based tests, and from working CCS sites such as Sleipner in the North Sea, suggest that carbon can be safely stored underground in this way for 10,000 years or more.

“The big companies understand the science of climate change, and they understand that we’ve got to invest in technologies like CCS now, before it’s too late,” says Dr Jerome Neufeld of Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and Department of Earth Sciences. “But it’s a tricky business running an industry where nobody is charging for carbon.”

“Everyone always wants the cheapest option, so without some form of carbon tax, it’s going to be difficult to get CCS off the ground at the scale that’s needed,” says Bickle. “But if you look at the cost of electricity produced from gas or coal with CCS added, it’s very similar to the cost of electricity from solar or wind. So if governments put a proper carbon charge in place, renewables and CCS would compete with each other on a relatively even playing field, and companies would have the economic incentive to invest in CCS.”

Bickle and Neufeld are following discussions about CCS closely because, along with collaborators from Stanford and Melbourne Universities, they have recently started a new CCS project with the support of BHP, one of the world’s largest mining and materials companies.

The three-year project will develop and improve methods for the long-term storage of CO2, and will test them at Otway in southern Australia, one of the largest CCS test sites in the world. Using a mix of theoretical modelling and small-, medium- and large-scale experiments, the researchers hope to significantly increase the types of sites where CCS is possible, including in China and developing economies.

In most current CCS schemes, CO2 is stored in porous underground rock formations with a thick layer of non-porous rock, such as shale, on top. The top layer provides extra insurance that the relatively light CO2 will not escape.

The new research, which will support future large-scale CO2 storage, will consider whether CO2 could be effectively trapped without the top seal of impermeable rock, meaning that CCS could be deployed in a wider range of environments. Their research findings will be made publicly available to accelerate the broader deployment of CCS.

“We are seeing a growing acknowledgement from industry, governments and society that to meet emissions reductions targets we are going to need to accelerate the use of this technology – we simply can’t do it quickly enough without CCS across both power generation and industry,” says BHP Vice President of Sustainability and Climate Change, Dr Fiona Wild. “We know CCS technology works and is proven. Our focus at BHP is on how we can help make sure the world has access to the information required to make it work at scale in a cost effective and timely way.”

During the project, Stanford researchers will measure the rate at which porous rock can trap CO2 using small-scale experiments on rock samples at reservoir conditions, while the Cambridge researchers will be using larger analogue models, in the order of metres or tens of metres. The Melbourne-based researchers will use large-scale numerical simulations of complex geological settings.

“One of the things this collaboration will really open up is the ability to deploy CCS almost anywhere,” says Neufeld, who is also affiliated with Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the BP Institute. “We know that CO2 can be safely trapped in porous rock with a seal of shale on top, but the early results from Otway have shown that even without the impenetrable seal, CO2 can be trapped just as effectively.”

When CO2 is pumped into underground saline aquifers, it is in a ‘super-critical’ phase: not quite a liquid and not quite a gas. The super-critical CO2 is less dense than the salt water, and so has a tendency to run uphill, but it’s been found that surface tension between the salt water and the rock is quite effective at pinning the CO2 in place so that it can’t escape. This phenomenon, known as capillary trapping, is also observed when water is held in a sponge.

“The results from Otway show that if you inject CO2 into a heterogeneous reservoir, it will mix with the salt water and capillary trapping will pin it there quite effectively, so it opens up a much broader range of potential carbon storage sites,” says Bickle.

“However, we need to start deploying CCS now, and the biggest challenges we face are economics and policy. If these prevent us from doing anything until it’s too late, and we’re at a stage when we’d have to start capturing carbon directly from the atmosphere, it will be far more expensive. By not starting CCS now, we’re building false economies.”

An international collaboration between universities and industry will further develop carbon capture and storage technology – one of the best hopes for drastically reducing carbon emissions – so that it can be deployed in a wider range of sites around the world.

We need to start deploying CCS now, and the biggest challenges we face are economics and policy. If we’re at a stage when we’d have to start capturing carbon directly from the atmosphere, it will be far more expensive.Mike BickleJerome NeufeldModelling CCS


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Fresh push to tackle poverty and disadvantage in Living Wage Week

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 10/24/2017 - 11:28

CAMBRIDGE City Council will mark the progress it has made in encouraging employers to pay the Real Living Wage, by asking more local businesses to join its campaign to tackle poverty and disadvantage, during next week’s national Living Wage Week (5 – 11 November).

The council is inviting local employers interested in finding out more about the Real Living Wage to an event on 6 November from 5-7pm at Allia Future Business Centre, King’s Hedges Road, Cambridge.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

University of Cambridge launches campaign to promote zero tolerance of sexual misconduct

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 10/24/2017 - 08:00

Called ‘Breaking the Silence – Cambridge speaks out against sexual misconduct’, the campaign will highlight a range of new prevention, support and reporting measures coming into effect in 2017.

It launches today (24 October) with a new website and film showing CUSU’s women’s officer Lola Olufemi and senior leaders including Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope advocating zero tolerance of all forms of harassment.

The website gives contact points for help, advice and support as well as setting out expectations around mutual respect and consideration and the zero tolerance approach to sexual misconduct. Staff and students are also given information about the University, College and external reporting options via the website. 

The campaign has been developed by CUSU, the University and Colleges and will be supported on social media using the hashtag #breakingthesilence.

The series of new initiatives to support those who have experienced harassment or sexual misconduct and to raise awareness of consent being brought into effect this term, includes a new online Consent Matterscourse available through Moodle, an expansion of the Good Lad workshops in sports clubs to promote respect and tolerance, College staff training on handling student disclosures of sexual assault, the appointment of a University Sexual Harassment & Assault Advisor at the University Counselling Service and ‘Where do you draw the line?’ and additional Dignity at Work: Preventing and Managing Bullying and Harassment Complaints training for University staff.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope says: “Cambridge prides itself on being a leader, academically in terms of research, educationally.

“It has to be a social leader as well, tackling tough problems such as sexual harassment.

“If we don’t tackle sexual misconduct, we risk losing some of our most talented members; people who won’t feel safe, who won’t feel valued in our community.

“This is a responsibility for each and every one of us – every university leader, staff member or student.

“Together we can make Cambridge a safe, inclusive environment.”

Lola Olufemi, Cambridge University Students’ Union women’s officer, says: “Sexual misconduct is often viewed as something that’s ‘difficult to tackle’ but difficult problems are not unsolvable problems.

“A lot of people think that because sexual misconduct happens on such a large scale individual actions make no difference.

“But one of the best ways to challenge anything is to start small and to challenge in the spaces you’re in.

"That is how you begin to change a culture. That is the message I want students to take away from the campaign."

Cambridge’s expansion of prevention, support and reporting of sexual misconduct follows a successful bid for funding to HEFCE in March that secured an additional £87,000 investment in initiatives. It builds on a series of policies and procedures aimed at advocating zero tolerance to sexual misconduct developed previously.

A policy and guidance on consensual staff-student relationships was published last week. 

Next month the first Intervention Initiative series of workshops will be launches at Pembroke College, with Jesus, Selwyn, Girton, Queens', Wolfson and Sidney Sussex swiftly following.

Jan Brighting, facilitator of the Intervention Initiative at Pembroke College, said: “Through the Intervention Initiative, we will try to give students the confidence, in a safe environment, to practice bystander intervention skills so they can challenge or avert a situation.

“Being a bystander is not about walking up the street and seeing a situation and tackling it, it’s about making an intervention, a small distraction, within a student’s friendship group - it’s not about putting people at risk at all.

“It’s about changing and challenging some of the social norms around behaviours, and giving students the skills and confidence to do that.”

Developed by the University of the West of England, the training follows on from similar university-focused programmes delivered in North America, of which research has shown a campus with a bystander intervention programme had 21% fewer cases of intimate partner violence, victimisation and perpetration compared with campuses that didn’t offer any training. 

The initiative builds on on previous work to enhance the support and reporting around sexual misconduct which includes the formation of the Office for Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals, the introduction of an anonymous reporting online tool for staff and students, the development of a procedure for handling cases of student misconduct and sexual harassment, the development of ‘When To Refer’ guidance for staff and the roll out of training to deal with sexual harassment and misconduct for all University Counselling Service counsellors and mental health advisers.

Visit the new website at www.breakingthesilence.cam.ac.uk

Today the University and Colleges of Cambridge and CUSU are launching a zero tolerance campaign around sexual misconduct


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Animating objects: what material culture can tell us about domestic devotions

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 10/24/2017 - 07:21

It’s an enduring irony of history that the most commonplace objects from the past are those least represented in today’s museum collections. The more precious and expensive an object, the more likely it is to have survived. As a result, our perceptions are skewed towards items that belonged to the rich and powerful – objects that were perhaps rarely handled.

During Madonnas and Miracles, a recent exhibition of religious material culture at the Fitzwilliam Museum, one of the most ‘stopped at’ items of the objects on show was an exquisite rock crystal rosary. It was clearly crafted for an individual of outstanding wealth and status. Each bead features a scene from the New Testament; the drawings are incised into a layer of gold. Not surprisingly, the rosary is today one of the treasures held by the Palazzo Madama Museum in Turin.

But also attracting attention was a much less eye-catching slip of paper printed on both sides with prayers in Latin. This breve would have been sold cheaply on the streets of Italian cities. Its frayed edges suggest that it was folded and worn close to the skin in the belief that the prayers would protect the wearer from a host of disasters – from earthquake to plague. Thousands of brevi were produced, and carried as talismans against misfortune, but few have survived.

In 2013, three Cambridge academics from different fields of scholarship came together to throw fresh light on the ways in which Renaissance Italians worshipped within the privacy of the home. Historian Professor Mary Laven, literary specialist Dr Abigail Brundin and art historian Professor Deborah Howard were determined to explore material culture from modest as well as wealthy households through their ambitious research project, Domestic Devotions: the Place of Piety in the Italian Domestic Home 1400–1600, funded by the European Research Council.

During the research, which informed Madonnas and Miracles and a forthcoming book, the three stepped out of the ‘golden triangle’ of Florence, Rome and Venice, the major hubs of cultural activity in the Renaissance, to look at material culture from further afield – in Naples, the Marche and the Venetian mainland. In doing so, their study makes an important contribution to our understanding of domestic religious practice across the Italian peninsula.

The Renaissance is often seen as a secular, less religious age in which interest in antiquity encouraged a more rational way of seeing the world. But the evidence from material culture paints a different picture. “The wealth of devotional images and artefacts that we have discovered in Renaissance homes encourages us to view the period 1400–1600 as a time of spiritual revitalisation,” says Laven.

Household inventories show how even a relatively modest family could create a special place for prayer and meditation by setting objects such as a crucifix, candlesticks, holy books and rosaries on a table or kneeling stool. As a reminder of divine protection, religious pictures or statues might be found almost anywhere in or around the house.

“Acts of devotion, from routine prayers to extraordinary religious experiences, such as miracles and visions, frequently took place in the home and were shaped to meet the demands of domestic life with all its ups and downs – from birth to death,” adds Laven. “The tight bond between the domestic and the devotional can be seen in the material culture of the period – in paintings, ceramics and more. These objects tell us how closely daily life intersected with religious belief.”

Young women often asked the Virgin Mary for intercession during childbirth. Representations of the Madonna embracing her healthy son were a feature of many bedchambers – and not just those of the wealthy. The Fitzwilliam Museum holds an example of a rustic terracotta figure of a solemn-looking Madonna and Christ child who is portrayed holding his mother’s naked breast. This rare object exemplifies the type of lower-end production available to less well-off consumers.

Household objects acted as reminders to Renaissance parents of their duties, and the Holy Family was a powerful model of how a devout family should live. An early 16th-century maiolica inkstand in the Fitzwilliam collection, for instance, takes the form of a nativity scene: the infant Christ lies before an adoring Mary and Joseph while a cow and ass look over a stable door, their placidity testament to the wonder of the moment.

In Renaissance paintings, the Madonna appears as an ideal mother and educator – a compelling role model. “A painting of Virgin and child with John the Baptist by Pinturicchio, held by the Fitzwilliam, is a wonderful example,” says Howard. “It shows the Madonna teaching the young Jesus to read. Seated on her lap and encircled by her arms, he is perfectly absorbed in a book. Meanwhile, a boyish and pious John the Baptist provides a model for devotion by young children.”

Everyday objects could literally incorporate the sacred. An earthenware bowl in the Fitzwilliam Museum decorated with an image of the Madonna of Loreto bears around its rim the inscription: CON POL. DI S. CASA. This abbreviated Italian text tells us that the clay from which it was made contains dust (polvere) from the ‘holy house’ of the Virgin Mary, supposedly carried from Nazareth to Italy in the 13th century. Behind the Madonna is an outline of the Santa Casa with its tiled roof and bell tower.

At a time when much of the population was illiterate, owning devotional texts was important for surprisingly large swathes of the population. Even when closed, or unread, they exuded beauty and spiritual value within the domestic sphere. Brundin explains: “Sacred words, by their very presence, could provide protection. Some authors even advised writing the words of certain psalms on the walls to keep the family safe and as a reminder to pray regularly.”

Texts can offer clues to their owners. Cambridge University Library holds a stunning hand-illustrated printed copy of the Meditation on the Life of Christ. Hand-written notes in its margins show that in 1528 it was given to a nun, Sister Alexia, by her uncle. Alexia’s annotations indicate that she read the work closely. She even added manicules (pointing fingers) next to passages of particular importance. The book was later owned by another nun, Teofila, whose own reading would have been guided by Alexia’s marks.

Objects accrue deeply personal meanings that are impossible to unravel fully. Careful investigation across disciplines can, however, offer a glimpse of the very human and very fragile hopes and fears embodied by objects, as Brundin explains: “A humble scrap of paper marked with a cross or a brief prayer, of no obvious artistic or literary merit, comes alive when we’re able to marry it with an archival record in which a devotee explains what it means to them.”

‘The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy’ by Abigail Brundin, Deborah Howard and Professor Mary Laven will be published by Oxford University Press in 2018.

Inset image: This breve was probably folded and worn close to the skin around 500 years ago in the belief that the prayers would protect the wearer; Breve di S. Vincenzo Ferrerio contro la fibre, Civica Raccolta Stampe A. Bertarelli. 

 

Rustic figurines of a resigned-looking Virgin clutching her child may have no obvious literary or artistic merit to us today. But understanding what they meant to the spiritual lives of their owners can offer a glimpse of the human hopes and fears that people have, for centuries, invested in inanimate objects.

The tight bond between the domestic and the devotional can be seen in the material culture of the period – in paintings, ceramics and more. These objects tell us how closely daily life intersected with religious belief.Mary LavenFitzwilliam MuseumThis down-to-earth, glazed terracotta figurine of the Virgin could act as the focus of family prayers in a modest home


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