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Professor Lynn Gladden named Executive Chair of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 05/03/2018 - 09:58

Professor Gladden is currently Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. She is internationally recognised for her work on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods which have benefited a wide array of industrial processes and contributed to a range of products and process technologies across multiple sectors.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is the main mechanism that promotes the UK’s strengths in research and innovation both at home and around the world and ensures that the UK continues to make the most of its world-leading R&D sector and provide support for researchers and scientists.

EPSRC is the UK’s main funder for research across the engineering and physical sciences. It supports excellent, long-term research and high-quality postgraduate training, in order to contribute to the economic competitiveness of the UK.

“EPSRC science delivers world-leading, original thinking in mathematics, physical sciences and engineering that transforms the world we live in, and I am honoured to have been selected to be its new Executive Chair,” said Professor Gladden. “This is an exciting time to lead EPSRC. In particular, the formation of UKRI offers opportunities for EPSRC science and thinking to expand into new fields through collaboration with partner Councils, and to explore new ways of working to deliver the UK’s Industrial Strategy.”

Sir Mark Walport, UKRI CEO, said: “Professor Lynn Gladden is a world-leading chemical engineer. Her ground-breaking work in academia coupled with her strong collaborations with industry makes her the ideal candidate to lead EPSRC and ensure the wider success of UK Research and Innovation. 

Lynn will build on the successes of her predecessor, Professor Philip Nelson, who I would like to thank for his exceptional leadership of EPSRC over the last four years and the crucial role he has played in the creation of UK Research and Innovation.”

Professor Gladden is Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering in Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology, and a Fellow of Trinity College. Her research has focused on advancing magnetic resonance imaging techniques, originally developed for use in the medical environment, and using them in engineering research to gain a greater understanding of the physical and chemical phenomena that determine the performance of chemical processes and their resulting products. In addition to her own research, Professor Gladden has held a number of research oversight roles in the UK and abroad, including Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Cambridge from 2010 to 2016. She is currently a Judge for the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

Professor Lynn Gladden CBE, FRS, FREng has been selected to be the next Executive Chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), as announced today by Science Minister Sam Gyimah. She will take up the role in October, succeeding Professor Philip Nelson who will step down at the end of September.

Jason Alden/QEPrizeLynn Gladden


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

University of Cambridge wins Boeing Innovation Award

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 05/03/2018 - 09:50

The University was presented with Boeing’s Innovation Award at a gala held in Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday 11 April. The award was given for the University’s ‘outstanding performance in research and development efforts, instrumental in the introduction of new products to meet Boeing’s current and future business needs’.

Accepting the award on behalf of the University were Philip Guildford, Professor Bill O'Neill and Dr John Durrell from the Department of Engineering. 

“We thought working with Boeing engineers on such exciting research for the last 15 years was already prize enough, but now Boeing has topped this wonderful experience with its most prestigious award – we are thrilled,” said Guildford. 

Professor David Cardwell, Head of the Department of Engineering, coordinated the Boeing partnership for Cambridge for many years, a role which was taken over in 2017 by Professor Duncan McFarlane.

Researchers from the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) have been working with Boeing since 2005, finding intelligent solutions to some challenging industrial problems. DIAL, headed up by McFarlane, has worked with Boeing on seven major projects to date, addressing three key challenges: how to manage supply chains more effectively, how to improve production resilience and how to make airports and airlines more efficient and robust. The lab is currently implementing a production quality tracking system in one of Boeing's US facilities.

Researchers in the Bulk Superconductivity Group, supported by Boeing, set a new Guinness World Record in 2014 for the strongest magnetic field trapped in a superconductor (17.6 tesla - roughly 100 times stronger than the field generated by a typical fridge magnet), beating a record that stood for more than a decade. They have since demonstrated a portable superconducting magnetic system that can act as a high-performance substitute for a conventional permanent magnet and can attain a 3-tesla level for the magnetic field.

The team, led by Dr John Durrell, are planning further testing for more magnetic power and overall efficiency. The group aims to enhance both the fundamental performance of superconducting bulks and to tailor them for specific applications.

And Bill O'Neill, Professor of Laser Engineering, is working with Boeing on a new generation of laser-based manufacturing technologies aimed at improving quality and productivity.

As part of its 2017 Supplier of the Year Awards, Boeing recognised 13 companies for the high-quality products, services and value they create for Boeing as well as its commercial airplanes, services, and defence, space and security customers.

The aerospace company said its award-winning suppliers had helped it achieve a ‘record year’ in its commercial airplane deliveries, growth in its services business and solid defence, space and security performance.

Boeing Chairman, President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg said: “Our continued success in an increasingly challenging business environment is driven in large part by having the aerospace industry’s best team and talent – and that includes the world’s best supply chain.

“The 2017 Supplier of the Year Award recipients all share a passion for innovation, collaboration and sustained exceptional performance – qualities we look for in all of our industry partners.”

Jenette Ramos, Boeing Senior Vice President, Supply Chain and Operations, added: “The winners are among the best aerospace suppliers the world has to offer, and with their help, we will continue to lead the market by delivering value throughout Boeing’s second century.”

The University of Cambridge’s ‘outstanding performance’ in research and development has been recognised by Boeing in its 2017 Supplier of the Year Awards.

The Boeing Company 2018Collecting the Boeing Innovation Award on behalf of the University of Cambridge: Professor Bill O'Neill (holding the Award), Dr John Durrell (centre), and Philip Guildford (centre, right).


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Taming the multiverse: Stephen Hawking’s final theory about the big bang

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 05/02/2018 - 11:47

The theory, which was submitted for publication before Hawking’s death earlier this year, is based on string theory and predicts the universe is finite and far simpler than many current theories about the big bang say.

Professor Hertog, whose work has been supported by the European Research Council, first announced the new theory at a conference at the University of Cambridge in July of last year, organised on the occasion of Professor Hawking’s 75th birthday.

Modern theories of the big bang predict that our local universe came into existence with a brief burst of inflation – in other words, a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang itself, the universe expanded at an exponential rate. It is widely believed, however, that once inflation starts, there are regions where it never stops. It is thought that quantum effects can keep inflation going forever in some regions of the universe so that globally, inflation is eternal. The observable part of our universe would then be just a hospitable pocket universe, a region in which inflation has ended and stars and galaxies formed.

“The usual theory of eternal inflation predicts that globally our universe is like an infinite fractal, with a mosaic of different pocket universes, separated by an inflating ocean,” said Hawking in an interview last autumn. “The local laws of physics and chemistry can differ from one pocket universe to another, which together would form a multiverse. But I have never been a fan of the multiverse. If the scale of different universes in the multiverse is large or infinite the theory can’t be tested. ”

In their new paper, Hawking and Hertog say this account of eternal inflation as a theory of the big bang is wrong. “The problem with the usual account of eternal inflation is that it assumes an existing background universe that evolves according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity and treats the quantum effects as small fluctuations around this,” said Hertog. “However, the dynamics of eternal inflation wipes out the separation between classical and quantum physics. As a consequence, Einstein’s theory breaks down in eternal inflation.”

“We predict that our universe, on the largest scales, is reasonably smooth and globally finite. So it is not a fractal structure,” said Hawking.

The theory of eternal inflation that Hawking and Hertog put forward is based on string theory: a branch of theoretical physics that attempts to reconcile gravity and general relativity with quantum physics, in part by describing the fundamental constituents of the universe as tiny vibrating strings. Their approach uses the string theory concept of holography, which postulates that the universe is a large and complex hologram: physical reality in certain 3D spaces can be mathematically reduced to 2D projections on a surface.

Hawking and Hertog developed a variation of this concept of holography to project out the time dimension in eternal inflation. This enabled them to describe eternal inflation without having to rely on Einstein’ theory. In the new theory, eternal inflation is reduced to a timeless state defined on a spatial surface at the beginning of time.

“When we trace the evolution of our universe backwards in time, at some point we arrive at the threshold of eternal inflation, where our familiar notion of time ceases to have any meaning,” said Hertog.

Hawking’s earlier ‘no boundary theory’ predicted that if you go back in time to the beginning of the universe, the universe shrinks and closes off like a sphere, but this new theory represents a step away from the earlier work. “Now we’re saying that there is a boundary in our past,” said Hertog.

Hertog and Hawking used their new theory to derive more reliable predictions about the global structure of the universe. They predicted the universe that emerges from eternal inflation on the past boundary is finite and far simpler than the infinite fractal structure predicted by the old theory of eternal inflation.

Their results, if confirmed by further work, would have far-reaching implications for the multiverse paradigm. “We are not down to a single, unique universe, but our findings imply a significant reduction of the multiverse, to a much smaller range of possible universes,” said Hawking.

This makes the theory more predictive and testable.

Hertog now plans to study the implications of the new theory on smaller scales that are within reach of our space telescopes. He believes that primordial gravitational waves – ripples in spacetime – generated at the exit from eternal inflation constitute the most promising “smoking gun” to test the model. The expansion of our universe since the beginning means such gravitational waves would have very long wavelengths, outside the range of the current LIGO detectors. But they might be heard by the planned European space-based gravitational wave observatory, LISA, or seen in future experiments measuring the cosmic microwave background.

Reference:
S.W. Hawking and Thomas Hertog. ‘A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation?’’ Journal of High-Energy Physics (2018). DOI: 10.1007/JHEP04(2018)147

Professor Stephen Hawking’s final theory on the origin of the universe, which he worked on in collaboration with Professor Thomas Hertog from KU Leuven, has been published today in the Journal of High Energy Physics

We are not down to a single, unique universe, but our findings imply a significant reduction of the multiverse, to a much smaller range of possible universes.Stephen HawkingAndre PattendenStephen Hawking


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Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower opens to the public

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 05/02/2018 - 11:45

Now, the treasures of Cambridge University Library’s fabled 17-storey Tower Collection, chosen from nearly a million volumes, will go on public display together for the first time in a free exhibition, Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower

Click here to go behind the scenes of one of Cambridge's most famous landmarks.

It is an icon of the Cambridge skyline that has inspired authors from CS Lewis to Stephen Fry – and been an enduring source of undergraduate legend for its mythical collection of Victorian pornography.

Sir Cam


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Bank holiday bin collection changes

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 05/01/2018 - 17:07

Residents of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire are being reminded that all bin collections will be one day later than usual next week, following the bank holiday weekend.

The Greater Cambridge Shared Waste Service, a partnership between Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council, will pick up bins scheduled for Friday 11 May on Saturday 12 May.

The schedule returns to normal on Monday 14 May.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Innovative and internationally competitive African research celebrated as part of the 10th anniversary of the Cambridge-Africa Programme

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 05/01/2018 - 13:41

The University of Cambridge celebrated the tenth anniversary of its flagship Cambridge-Africa Programme at an event held at the Fisher Building in St John’s College.

Recognising the need to support world-class research in Africa to identify African solutions to the continent’s challenges, the Programme provides fellowships to PhD or postdoctoral researchers, and matches them with Cambridge research leaders for mentorship and collaborative support.

In one of the day’s first presentations, Professor Gordon Awandare spoke of how the Programme played a crucial role in the establishment of the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), which has evolved into a centre of excellence and major hub for biomedical research and training in West Africa.

He told the audience that the importance of a centre which could attract African talent back to Africa could not be overstated: “We are engaging African scientists in the diaspora – we want to address the brain-drain and make this about brain-circulation.”

He spoke of how investment from collaborators and from the World Bank meant the centre, based at the University of Ghana, was an attractive place to work. African scientists could be confident that their facilities were as good as those in other institutions around the world, and that they could conduct the kind of globally excellent research they wanted to.

Further presentations throughout the day addressed a wide variety of research, including a study on gender-based violence in Uganda and research into the solar energy applications of graphene.

Professor Eilís Ferran, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International and Institutional Affairs, said: “We know we cannot simply parachute in with fixed solutions to what we see as uniquely African problems. Nor can we be complicit in a model of education and learning that takes some of the brightest minds away from their home countries.

“This is why the Cambridge-Africa Programme is so valuable – and why it has thrived over the past ten years: Because it relies on real partnership; because it addresses, and helps to reverse, the continent’s brain drain. Indeed it is about brain mobility.”

Professor David Dunne, Professor of Parasitology at the Department of Pathology at Cambridge and the Director of the Cambridge-Africa Programme, welcomed all those present:

“Today we will hear from young academics who will share with us their research and their vision for the future,” he told the audience.

He added that the Cambridge-Africa programme was initiated 10 years ago to help bridge the mentorship gap in Africa, which meant that new research leaders struggled to find the mentors they needed to develop in their home countries.

“Building these relationships with Africa over the last 10 years has very significantly enriched Cambridge’s own academic environment, benefiting both our students and academic researchers. It is our hope that mutually beneficial engagement between African and Cambridge researchers will further deepen and flourish over the next 10 years, with African universities taking their place among the leading academic research institutions in the world.”

The University of Cambridge programme supports research in Africa with 50 partner institutions across 18 countries.

It is our hope that mutually beneficial engagement between African and Cambridge researchers will further deepen and flourish over the next 10 years, with African universities taking their place among the leading academic research institutions in the world.Professor David Dunne, Director of Cambridge AfricaBy OER AfricaBalme Library, University of Ghana, LegonCurrent Cambridge-Africa Initiatives & Partnerships
  • Cambridge-Africa Scholarship Scheme: 25 Cambridge Africa PhD Scholarships, funded by the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Trust; 2015-20 (five students a year, for five years).
  • Makerere-UVRI Infection & Immunity Training Programme (MUII); Wellcome Trust and DELTAS Africa funding to Uganda; 2008-20. Building a Centre of Excellence for infection and immunity research and training in Uganda. Five PhD and four postdoctoral fellows are being mentored.
  • Training Health Researchers into Vocational Excellence (THRiVE); Wellcome Trust and DELTAS Africa funding to East Africa; 2009-21. THRiVE is establishing a Network of Excellence for supporting health research in a broad sense, in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Fourteen PhD and eight postdoctoral fellows have/are being mentored by Cambridge academics.
  • Cambridge-Africa Partnership for Research Excellence (CAPREx), funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Isaac Newton Trust; 2012-18. Focuses on strengthening capacity for sustainable excellence in research in the humanities, social and physical sciences, as well as technology subject areas. CAPREx is also supporting knowledge exchange partnerships and training in research management and administration in specific universities in Ghana and Uganda. Sixty-two postdoctoral researchers have been matched to Cambridge colleagues for on-going collaborations.
  • Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research Fund, sponsored by The ALBORADA Trust; 2012-26. The Fund enables researchers from Cambridge and sub-Saharan Africa, across all disciplines, to apply jointly for grants to initiate collaborations. Funds are awarded for research reagents, fieldwork, travel between Cambridge and Africa, and the purchase of equipment. As at 2017, >150 awards have been made to joint applicants from Cambridge and their colleagues, in 18 African countries.
  • Wellcome Trust-Cambridge Centre for Global Health Research (WT-CCGHR), funded by Wellcome Trust; 2013-18. WT-CCGHR is helping to combat African and global health challenges. It capitalises on the extensive biomedical and health-related research capacity across many departments and research institutes at the University of Cambridge, as well as the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

Other Key Activities/Achievements of the Cambridge-Africa Programme Include:

  • Enabling the development of Africa-related initiatives and cross-School funding applications.
  • Supporting Cambridge researchers to teach and organise relevant courses and workshops in Africa.
  • Providing video-linked, live, interactive lectures by Cambridge academics to students in Africa.
  • Creating a platform for networking and debate between African and non-African students and staff in Cambridge, and mentoring African applicants who aim to study at the University of Cambridge.


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Don't forget to vote in the city council elections on Thursday 3 May

Cambridge Council Feed - Tue, 05/01/2018 - 11:15

ELECTIONS take place in Cambridge this Thursday 3 May, for 15 of the 42 seats on Cambridge City Council.

There will be 45 polling stations open across the city at 39 different locations from 7am-10pm on polling day (see list below).

Residents’ poll cards indicate which polling station in their ward they should use. Details can also be found on the Where Do I Vote website:  https://wheredoivote.co.uk/

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Syria airstrikes add another ‘exception’ to beleaguered parliamentary convention, say experts

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 04/30/2018 - 09:46

The recent intervention in Syria may add airstrikes to the expanding list of exceptions to the convention established to provide democratic oversight of UK military action through a parliamentary vote, say experts in international and constitutional law.

During research for a new book, launched today, the legal academics found that, in addition to broadly-defined ‘emergency’ or ‘secrecy’ exceptions, two specific types of military activity – the deployment of embedded Special Forces and unmanned drone strikes – had already been exempted from the convention.  

Now, by unilaterally authorising the recent intervention in Syria, and justifying the action using language that further narrows the convention’s purview, the current government may have created a further exception for airstrikes – a cornerstone of modern warfare.

Drs Veronika Fikfak and Hayley J. Hooper, who conducted the research for their book at Cambridge’s Faculty of Law, say that “if the War Powers Convention continues to exist, we question whether it exists in any meaningful sense”.

They argue that increasing exemptions from the convention, combined with a flourishing “information asymmetry” between government and parliament, creates a real risk of another ‘Iraq moment’ in the near future.

The book Parliament’s Secret War traces the last century of Westminster decision-making during the build up to hostilities, with a focus on the legal debates following the establishment of the War Power Convention in the wake of the Iraq war.

Published by Bloomsbury, the book will be launched at Homerton College, Cambridge, this evening (30 April) with a Q and A session with both authors as part of the College’s 250 anniversary series of events.

“The idea that the War Powers Convention gives parliament political control over whether the UK goes to war has now been hollowed out to the point where any claim that elected MPs have a say on military action is essentially a deception of British civil society,” says Fikfak, a Fellow of Homerton College.

“The War Powers Convention initially looked like it might level the playing field between parliament and government. However, our analysis reveals repeated exceptions created by successive governments even prior to the recent unilateral strikes in Syria.”

The convention has its origins in the House of Commons vote sanctioning the Iraq invasion in 2003, although some argue this was a fait accompli given the thousands of troops already in the region.

Nevertheless, a convention requiring parliamentary support for armed conflict was solidified through a series of votes in the years following Iraq – most significantly with 2013’s decisive vote on Syria, when the government was defeated.    

Heralded by the media as a milestone in British democracy, the convention sees a “yes or no vote” put to MPs, rather than the government of the day invoking Royal Prerogative: the traditional legal right to declare war in the name of the Crown.

Plans to enshrine the convention in law were shelved in 2016, although Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has renewed discussions of a possible War Power Act since the recent Syria airstrikes.

The convention has, however, been a fixture of the Cabinet Manual – an official guide to the UK’s uncodified constitution – since 2011, with successive Defence Ministers recommitting to it both in principle and, to some extent, in practice.   

Yet the recent circumvention of this potential check on power is arguably only the latest, as the convention has already been subject to “a myriad of exceptions” controlled by government – explored in depth by the new book.

For example, in 2015 a British member of Da’esh was killed by drones in Syria, despite parliament making it clear on two previous occasions that it did not support use of force in Syrian territory.

Justified by the then government as a ‘new departure’, and couched in language of ‘immediacy’ and ‘direct threat’, this was interpreted “generously” by the Joint Committee on Human Rights as an ‘emergency’ that didn’t breach convention – a precedent for the exception of drone warfare.    

Also in 2015, British military took part in ground raids on Syrian territory with US forces. The government response was to state that the convention apparently “does not apply [to those] embedded in the armed forces of other nations”, despite the non-emergency situation.

The researchers argue that undermining of the convention is compounded by “selective disclosure” of vital information to parliament, often under the guise of state secrecy. This was the current government’s primary justification for disregarding the convention with the recent Syrian strikes.

“In the wake of Iraq, the position that ‘Whitehall knows best’ is constitutionally untenable,” says Hooper, now a Fellow at Christ Church College, Oxford. “Sources of intelligence should never be revealed, but reports of the Joint Intelligence Committee could be considered by parliamentarians in secure premises.”

The researchers argue that the nature of war has changed, now limited for the most part to drone and air strikes. “To exclude the majority of military interventions from parliamentary scrutiny risks undermining the accountability of government,” says Hooper. 

Adds Fikfak: “In addition to the non-application of the convention to Special Forces deployments, the embedding of British forces in foreign countries’ armies, and the use of drones, there is now room for significant doubt as to whether the War Powers Convention applies to air strikes.”  

A new book launching in Cambridge today explores the parliamentary convention intended to allow MPs a vote on military action. The authors say that the intervention in Syria provides just the latest of several ‘exceptions’ – chipping away further at a convention that may no longer meaningfully exist.

Our analysis reveals repeated exceptions created by successive governments even prior to the recent unilateral strikes in SyriaVeronika FikfakJustine Rho/RAF MildenhallRoyal Air Force Tornado GR4 receives fuel


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UK and US join forces to understand how quickly a massive Antarctic glacier could collapse

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 04/30/2018 - 09:45

The collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could significantly affect global sea levels. It already drains an area roughly the size of Britain or the US state of Florida, accounting for around four percent of global sea-level rise —an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s.

As part of a new £20 million research collaboration, the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the US National Science Foundation will deploy scientists to gather the data needed to understand whether the glacier’s collapse could begin in the next few decades or centuries.

NERC and NSF have jointly funded eight large-scale projects that will bring together leading polar scientists in one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet. The programme, called the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), is the largest joint project undertaken by the two nations in Antarctica for more than 70 years - since the conclusion of a mapping project on the Antarctic Peninsula in the late 1940s.

In addition to the £20 million-worth ($25 million) of awards to the research teams, the logistics of mounting a scientific campaign in one of the most remote places in Antarctica could cost as much again in logistical support. The nearest permanently occupied research station to the Thwaites Glacier is more than 1600km away, so getting the scientists to where they need to be will take a massive joint effort from both nations. While researchers on the ice will rely on aircraft support from UK and U.S. research stations, oceanographers and geophysicists will approach the glacier from the sea in UK and U.S. research icebreakers.

Dr Poul Christoffersen from the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute is co-leading one of the eight projects with Professor Slawek Tulaczyk from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Their project, Thwaites Interdisciplinary Margin Evolution (TIME) also includes researchers from the University of Leeds, Stanford University, the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma. The team will investigate how the margins of the drainage basin will evolve and influence ice flow over the coming decades.

“These margins have so far never been studied directly, due to the logistical challenges of working in such a remote region of Antarctica,” said Christoffersen. “The margins, which separate the fast-flowing glacier from the surrounding slow-moving ice, are often thought of as being stationary, but they might not be. The hypothesis that drives our science is that they can move and thereby exert powerful control on the future evolution of ice flow in the whole drainage basin.”

“This international collaboration will lead to a step change in our understanding of ice sheet stability,” said Cambridge’s Dr Marion Bougamont, who will use observational data records gathered in the field to improve computer models needed to predict sea level rise. “The glacier’s response will depend on where the margins are and how they evolve.”

Today’s collaboration involves around 100 scientists from world-leading research institutes in both countries alongside researchers from South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, who will contribute to the various projects. These projects aim to deliver answers to some of the big questions for scientists trying to predict global sea-level rise.

Antarctica’s glaciers contribute to sea-level rise when more ice is lost to the ocean than is replaced by snow. To fully understand the causes of changes in ice flow requires research on the ice itself, the nearby ocean, and the Antarctic climate in the region. The programme will deploy the most up-to-date instruments and techniques available, from drills that can make access holes 1,500 meters into the ice with jets of hot water to autonomous submarines like the Autosub Long Range affectionately known around the world as Boaty McBoatface.

“Rising sea levels are a globally important issue which cannot be tackled by one country alone,” said UK Science Minister, Sam Gyimah. “The Thwaites Glacier already contributes to rising sea levels and understanding its likely collapse in the coming century is vitally important. Science, research and innovation are at the heart of our Industrial Strategy and this UK-U.S. research programme will be the biggest field campaign of its type ever mounted by these countries. I’m delighted that our world-leading scientists will help to lead this work.”

The science programme and logistics on the five-year programme begins in October 2018 and continues to 2021. The funding is for eight research projects and a co-ordination grant to maximise success. 

Adapted from a NERC/NSF press release.

A Cambridge researcher will lead one of eight projects in a new joint UK-US research programme that is one of the most detailed and extensive examinations of a massive Antarctic glacier ever undertaken. 

These margins have so far never been studied directly, due to the logistical challenges of working in such a remote region of Antarctica.Poul ChristoffersenUS National Science Foundation/US Antarctic ProgramReconnaissance flight over the Thwaites glacier


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Cambridge receives £10 million in funding for new AI supercomputer

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 04/27/2018 - 14:28

The new AI supercomputer is a £10 million partnership between the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University. Capable of solving the largest scientific and industrial challenges at very high speeds, the supercomputer is supported by Cambridge’s Research Computing Service. The aim is to help companies to create real business value from advanced computing infrastructures.

The supercomputer is part of the UK government’s AI Sector Deal, which involves more than 50 leading technology companies and organisations. The deal is worth almost £1 billion, including almost £300 million of private sector investment into AI.

“AI research requires supercomputing capacity capable of processing huge amounts of data at very high speeds,” said Dr Paul Calleja, Director of the University’s Research Computing Service. “Cambridge’s supercomputer provides researchers with the fast and affordable supercomputing power they need for AI work.”

In addition to computing power, Calleja and his team will provide training, guidance and support Cambridge researchers, and the wider UK IA industry, to make the most of their data.

“AI projects involving Cambridge researchers are already underway,” said Calleja. “In the life sciences we are working on medical imaging analysis and genomics, and in astronomy, AI is being used as part of the Square Kilometre Array project and research to map exoplanets.”

Cambridge is home to the largest technology cluster in Europe. Over the past decade, start-ups based on AI and machine learning, in Cambridge and elsewhere, have seen explosive growth.

“The UK must be at the forefront of emerging technologies, pushing boundaries and harnessing innovation to change people’s lives for the better,” said Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Matt Hancock. “Artificial Intelligence is at the centre of our plans to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business. We have a great track record and are home to some of the world’s biggest names in AI like Deepmind, Swiftkey and Babylon, but there is so much more we can do. By boosting AI skills and data-driven technologies we will make sure that we continue to build a Britain that is shaping the future.”

Building on the commitment made in the government’s modern Industrial Strategy and its AI Grand Challenge, the AI Sector Deal marks the first phase of a major innovation-focused investment drive in AI which aims to help the UK seize the £232 billion opportunity AI offers the UK economy by 2030 (10% of GDP).

The deal will help establish the UK as a research hotspot, with measures to ensure the innovators and tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow are based in the UK, with investment in the high-level post-graduate skills needed to capitalise on technology’s huge potential.

It includes money for training for 8,000 specialist computer science teachers, 1,000 government-funded AI PhDs by 2025 and a commitment to develop a prestigious global Turing Fellowship programme to attract and retain the best research talent in AI to the UK.

“Artificial intelligence provides limitless opportunities to develop new, efficient and accessible products and services which transform the way we live and work,” said Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark. “Today’s new deal with industry will ensure we have the right investment, infrastructure and highly-skilled workforce to establish the UK as a driving force in the development and commercial use of artificial intelligence technologies.”

The UK’s fastest academic supercomputer, based at the University of Cambridge, will be made available to artificial intelligence (AI) technology companies from across the UK, in support of the government’s industrial strategy. 

Cambridge’s supercomputer provides researchers with the fast and affordable supercomputing power they need for AI work.Paul CallejaPhoto by Pietro Jeng on UnsplashMix 2 colours


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How landscapes and landforms ‘remember’ or ‘forget’ their initial formations

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Fri, 04/27/2018 - 13:52

Crescent dunes and meandering rivers can ‘forget’ their initial shapes as they are carved and reshaped by wind and water while other landforms keep a memory of their past shape, suggests new research.

“Asking how these natural sculptures come to be is more than mere curiosity because locked in their shapes are clues to the history of an environment,” said Leif Ristroph from New York University and the senior author of the paper, which is published in the journal Physical Review Fluids. “We found that some shapes keep a ‘memory’ of their starting conditions as they develop while others ‘forget’ the past entirely and take on new forms.” This understanding is important in geological dating and in understanding how landscapes form.

Shape ‘memory’ and its ‘loss’—or the retention of or departure from earlier formations—are key issues in geomorphology, the field of study that tries to explain landforms and the developing face of the Earth and other celestial surfaces. The morphology, or shape of a landscape, is the first and most direct clue into its history and serves as a scientific window for a range of questions—such as inferring flowing water on Mars in the past as well as present-day erosion channels and river islands.

“The answer to the question ‘What’s in a shape?’ hinges on this memory property,” said first author Dr Megan Davies Wykes, a postdoctoral researcher in Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, who completed the work while she was based at NYU.

To shed light on these phenomena, the researchers replicated nature’s dissolvable minerals—such as limestone—with a ready-made stand-in: pieces of hard candy. Specifically, they sought to understand how the candy dissolved to take different forms when placed in water.

To mimic different environmental conditions, they cast the candy into different initial shapes, which led to different flow conditions as the surface dissolved. Their results showed that when the candy dissolved most strongly from its lower surface, it tended to retain its overall shape—reflecting a near-perfect memory. By contrast, when dissolved from its upper surface, the candy tended to erase or ‘forget’ any given initial shape and form an upward spike structure.

The key difference, the team found, is the type of water flow that ‘licks’ and reshapes the candy. Turbulent flows on the underside tend to dissolve the candy at a uniform rate and thus preserve the shape. The smooth flow on an upper surface, however, carries the dissolved material from one location to the next, which changes the dissolving rate and leads to changes in shape.

“Candy in water may seem like a far cry from geology, but there are in fact whole landscapes carved from minerals dissolving in water, their shapes revealed later when the water table recedes,” said Ristroph. “Caves, sinkholes, stone pillars and other types of craggy terrain are born this way.”

Reference:
Megan S. Davies Wykes et al. ‘Self-sculpting of a dissolvable body due to gravitational convection.’ Physical Review Fluids (2018). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevFluids.3.043801

Adapted from an NYU press release

Video: Side-view photograph of candy body (initially a sphere). The upper surface remains smooth while the undersurface becomes pitted and dissolves several times faster.

Laboratory findings point to what affects the development of nature’s shapes. 

The answer to the question ‘What’s in a shape?’ hinges on this memory property.Megan Davies Wykes Chiara Ferroni on UnsplashSea of dunes


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Meet the robot avatars helping Cambridge students combine education and motherhood

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 04/26/2018 - 09:55

Neeta Lakhani and another fellow student are NHS professionals, full-time mothers and part-time students who fell pregnant and gave birth to their children while studying for the Genomic Medicine Masters Programme. Cambridge is believed to be the first university to have used the avatars for classroom teaching.

Using the avatars, which were originally designed to help schoolchildren with long-term illnesses continue their studies, both Neeta and her classmate were able to carry on (virtually) attending their classes in a more profound and engaging way than simply viewing a livestream of the lectures they were missing, or using platforms such as Skype.

The avatars have microphones, speakers and can move their heads to view both teachers, classmates and presentations – enabling the students to listen, ask questions, talk and interact with classmates and supervisors both during lectures and at breaks.

If the babies are crying, then both mothers can mute the microphones at home so as not to disturb the classroom environment. If they wish to ask a question in class, they can activate a flashing light on the avatar to signal their wish to speak.

Neeta, who alongside her daughter Aniya was filmed for Channel Four News, said: “The way we do it is that that we all get up as we normally do and I get Aniya set up and I get the avatar set up on this end and she just goes through the module with me every day. Whenever she needs attention, I’m able to give it to her without disrupting the class by putting the avatar on silent from my end, but still being able to hear. As soon as she’s settled, I’m able to go back to the avatar.

“I’ve actually found that I’ve concentrated more being at home because it gives me the opportunity to be able to do the two things that I needed to do in the environment that I can most easily do it in. Obviously, the alternative would have been to be in Cambridge and her not be there and I think that would have been very distracting.”

 

Sarah Morgan, Scientific Training Coordinator at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), said: “This was a bit of an experiment for us, but I would say it’s a successful one. The robot avatars allowed the two students to participate without physically being in the room. Using the avatars allowed the students to continue their training while caring for their new-borns. It’s certainly inspired us to think outside the box in terms of the needs of our students.”

The Genomics Medicine Masters Programme is an Institute of Continuing Education (ICE) course for the University of Cambridge, delivered in collaboration with EMBL-EBI, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and the Wellcome Genome Campus.

They are 40cm tall, made of white plastic, and don’t look like your average students, but robot avatars have taken their place in the classroom at Cambridge University – to help two mothers with new-born babies continue their Masters degrees in Genomic Medicine.

I get the avatar set up and my daughter goes through the module with me every day.Neeta Lakhani European Bioinformatics Institute The two student avatars pictured outside the Wellcome Genome Campus


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Labelling alcoholic drinks as lower in strength could encourage people to drink more, study suggests

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 04/26/2018 - 00:58

Alcohol is the fifth leading cause of disease and premature death both in the UK and globally. Reducing consumption of alcohol is a public health priority in many countries. In the UK, as part of a range of steps to reduce overall alcohol consumption, policymakers are currently interested in allowing industry to label a wider range of alcohol products as lower in alcohol.

Proposed legislative changes include extending the variety of terms that could be used to denote lower alcohol content, and extending the strength limit to include products lower than the current average on the market (12.9% ABV for wine and 4.2% ABV for beer*).

“For lower strength alcohol products to reduce consumption, consumers will need to select them in place of equal volumes of higher strength products,” says Dr Milica Vasiljevic from the University of Cambridge. “But what if the lower strength products enable people to feel they can consume more?”

In this study, two-hundred and sixty-four weekly wine and beer drinkers – sampled from a representative panel of the general population of England – were randomised to one of three groups to taste test drinks in a laboratory designed to mimic a bar environment. The drinks varied only in the label displayed. In one group participants taste-tested drinks labelled ‘Super Low’ and ‘4%ABV’ for wine or ‘1%ABV’ for beer. In another group the drinks were labelled ‘Low’ and ‘8%ABV’ for wine or ‘3%ABV’ for beer. In the final group participants taste-tested drinks labelled with no verbal descriptors of strength, but displaying the average strength on the market – wine (‘12.9%ABV’) or beer (‘4.2%ABV’).

The results showed the total amount of drink consumed increased as the label on the drink denoted successively lower alcohol strength. The mean consumption of drinks labelled ‘Super Low’ was 214ml, compared with 177ml for regular (unlabelled) drinks. Individual differences in drinking patterns and socio-demographic indicators did not affect these results.

“Labelling lower strength alcohol may sound like a good idea if it encourages people to switch drinks, but our study suggests it may paradoxically encourage people to drink more,” says Professor Theresa Marteau, senior author and Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit.

While this study shows that people may drink more if drinks are labelled as lower in strength, the researchers do not yet know if this effect is sufficient to result in the consumption of more units of alcohol overall from lower strength alcohol drinks. Furthermore, participants in this study were tested in a bar-laboratory setting. To learn more about the impact of lower strength alcohol labelling, research in real-world settings is needed.

The study was funded by the Department of Health.

*ABV denotes alcohol by volume, the standard measure of how much alcohol is contained in a given volume of an alcoholic drink.

Reference
Vasiljevic M, Couturier DL, Frings D, Moss AC, Albery IP, Marteau TM. Impact of lower strength alcohol labeling on consumption: A randomized controlled trial. Health Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/hea0000622

Wines and beers labelled as lower in alcohol strength may increase the total amount of alcoholic drink consumed, according to a study published in the journal Health Psychology. The study was carried out by the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with the Centre for Addictive Behaviours Research at London South Bank University.

For lower strength alcohol products to reduce consumption, consumers will need to select them in place of equal volumes of higher strength productsMilica VasiljevicPatternPicturesBeer foam bubblesResearcher profile: Dr Milica Vasiljevic

On the face of it, e-cigarettes and low alcohol seem to be a step in the right direction towards reducing the health impacts of smoking and drinking. But are things really so clear cut? This is one of the questions that social psychologist Dr Milica Vasiljevic is asking.

Vasiljevic investigates the impact that environmental cues have on health behaviours, and how this knowledge can be translated into effective interventions to change our behaviour to improve health and reduce inequalities. “The bulk of my work to date has looked at how cues such as labelling and advertising encourage people to eat unhealthily, drink alcohol, and/or smoke tobacco,” she says.

Her work is of particular interest to policymakers and has informed national and international policies. “My recent work on the impact of e-cigarette adverts on perceived harm of tobacco smoking amongst children has been discussed at the US Food & Drug Administration, the German Bundestag, and the UK House of Lords in relation to legislative changes surrounding the marketing of e-cigarettes,” she explains.

Similarly, her work on lower strength alcohol labelling is currently used by the Department of Health to inform legislative changes to national alcohol labelling rules in England, which are due to come into force after 2018.

The Behaviour and Health Research Unit, where she works, is a multidisciplinary policy research unit including psychologists, economists, medics, sociologists, social scientists, and statisticians.

“This diverse mix is very enriching, and on many occasions has spurred creative solutions to research problems that we have been grappling with. But, most importantly, being in such close contact with stellar researchers with diverse training backgrounds is fun and inspirational; and has helped me develop my research skills and communication style.”

Vasiljevic is a keen communicator, as is appropriate for someone whose work has relevance to all of our lives.  “The most interesting days I’ve had so far are the Cambridge Science Festival days and also the days when I have carried out outreach work in schools,” she says. “These events are always lots of fun, and are an excellent opportunity for children and adults from the local communities to get involved in our research, learn more about what we do, and of course help us shape some of our future studies.”


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Gaia creates richest star map of our Galaxy – and beyond

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 04/25/2018 - 10:41

A multitude of discoveries are on the horizon after today’s much-awaited release, which is based on 22 months of charting the sky, as part of Gaia’s mission to produce the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our Galaxy ever created. The new data includes positions, distance indicators and motions of more than one billion stars, along with high-precision measurements of asteroids within our Solar System and stars beyond our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Preliminary analysis of this phenomenal data reveals fine details about the makeup of the Milky Way’s stellar population and about how stars move, essential information for investigating the formation and evolution of our home Galaxy.

“The observations collected by Gaia are redefining the foundations of astronomy,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science. “Gaia is an ambitious mission that relies on a huge human collaboration to make sense of a large volume of highly complex data. It demonstrates the need for long-term projects to guarantee progress in space science and technology and to implement even more daring scientific missions of the coming decades.”

This unique mission is reliant on the work of Cambridge researchers who collect the vast quantities of data transmitted by Gaia to a data processing centre at the University, overseen by a team at the Institute of Astronomy.

“There is hardly a branch of astrophysics which will not be revolutionised by Gaia data,” said Cambridge’s Professor Gerry Gilmore, Principal Investigator for the UK participation in the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium, and one of the original proposers of the mission to ESA. “The global community will advance our understanding of what we see, where it came from, what it is made from, how it is changing. All this is made freely available to everyone, based on the dedicated efforts of hundreds of people.”

Gaia was launched in December 2013 and started science operations the following year. The first data release, based on just over one year of observations, was published in 2016; it contained distances and motions of two million stars. The new data release, which covers the period between 25 July 2014 and 23 May 2016, pins down the positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars, and with a much greater precision. For some of the brightest stars in the survey, the level of precision equates to Earth-bound observers being able to spot a Euro coin lying on the surface of the Moon.

With these accurate measurements it is possible to separate the parallax of stars – an apparent shift on the sky caused by Earth’s yearly orbit around the Sun – from their true movements through the Galaxy. The new catalogue lists the parallax and velocity across the sky, or proper motion, for more than 1.3 billion stars. From the most accurate parallax measurements, about ten percent of the total, astronomers can directly estimate distances to individual stars.

The comprehensive dataset provides a wide range of topics for the astronomy community. As well as positions, the data include brightness information of all surveyed stars and colour measurements of nearly all, plus information on how the brightness and colour of half a million variable stars change over time. It also contains the velocities along the line of sight of a subset of seven million stars, the surface temperatures of about a hundred million and the effect of interstellar dust on 87 million.

Gaia also observes objects in our Solar System: the second data release comprises the positions of more than 14,000 known asteroids, which allows precise determination of their orbits. A much larger asteroid sample will be compiled in Gaia’s future releases.

Further afield, Gaia closed in on the positions of half a million distant quasars, bright galaxies powered by the activity of the supermassive black holes at their cores. These sources are used to define a reference frame for the celestial coordinates of all objects in the Gaia catalogue, something that is routinely done in radio waves but now for the first time is also available at optical wavelengths.

Major discoveries are expected to come once scientists start exploring Gaia’s new release. An initial examination performed by the data consortium to validate the quality of the catalogue has already unveiled some promising surprises – including new insights on the evolution of stars.

The team in Cambridge is led by Dr Floor van Leeuwen, Dr Dafydd Wyn Evans and Dr Francesca De Angeli.

“This data release has proven an exciting challenge to process from spacecraft camera images to science-ready catalogues,” said Dr Angeli, head of the Cambridge processing centre. “More sophisticated strategies and updated models will be applied to the Gaia data to achieve even more precise and accurate photometric and spectrophotometric information, which will enable even more exciting scientific investigations and results.”

“Gaia has so far observed each of its more than 1.7 billion sources on average about 200 times,” said Evans. “This very large data set has to have all the changing satellite and sky responses removed, and everything converted on to a well-defined scale of brightness and colour. While a huge challenge, it is worth it.”

“Groups of dwarf galaxies, including the Magellanic Clouds, can now be observed to be moving around in very similar orbits, hinting at a shared formation history,” said van Leeuwen, Project Manager for the UK and European photometric processing work. “Similarly, a pair of globular clusters has been observed with very similar orbital characteristics and chemical composition, again pointing towards a shared history of formation. The accurate observed motions and positions of the globular clusters and dwarf galaxies provide tracers of the overall mass distribution of our galaxy in a way that has not been possible with this level of accuracy before.”

More data releases will be issued in future years, with the final Gaia catalogue to be published in the 2020s. This will be the definitive stellar catalogue for the foreseeable future, playing a central role in a wide range of fields in astronomy.

“This vast step into a new window on the Universe is a revolution in our knowledge of the contents, motions and properties of our local Universe,” said Gilmore. “We look forward to the international astronomical community building on this European project, with its major UK contributions, to interpret these Gaia data to revolutionise our understanding of our Universe. This is a magnificent harvest, but cornucopia awaits. We are all proud to be part of this magnificent project.”

Adapted from an ESA press release.

The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission has produced the richest star catalogue to date, including high-precision measurements of nearly 1.7 billion stars and revealing previously unseen details of our home Galaxy. 

There is hardly a branch of astrophysics which will not be revolutionised by Gaia data.Gerry Gilmore ESA/Gaia/DPAC Gaia’s sky in colour – equirectangular projection


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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New home for Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology officially opened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Cambridge welcomes royal baby

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

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

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

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted from a press release by Wellcome

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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