Cambridge

Environmental report highlights Cambridge’s progress towards sustainability goals

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

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

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

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

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

Transport

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

Energy and Carbon

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

Waste

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

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

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

Environmental Sustainability Report 2017

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Some superconductors can also carry currents of ‘spin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason RobinsonConceptual image of spin current flow in a superconductor


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Time running out for registering to vote on 3 May

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

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

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

To register, people need to visit www.gov.uk/register-to-vote and have their National Insurance number to hand. The process should only take a few minutes.

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted from a press release by British Heart Foundation.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Verbal cane'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Cultural cloning'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Cambridge and four other universities form agritech partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Prestigious award nominations for Greater Cambridge Shared Waste Service

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

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

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

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Local election candidates announced for Cambridge

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

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

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

* Denotes sitting councillor seeking re-election

Abbey

Surname

First   Names

Party

BENNETT

Naomi Anne

Green

MASSEY

Nicky

Labour

SHEPARD

Nicky

Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Maximilian Stammnitz on Twitter @DevilsAdvoMax


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

What makes a faster typist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The anonymised dataset is available at the project homepage: http://userinterfaces.aalto.fi/136Mkeystrokes/

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

Adapted from an Aalto University press release. 

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

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


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ross Anderson’s blog on the paper can be found at: https://www.lightbluetouchpaper.org/2018/03/16/we-will-make-you-like-our-research/.

 

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

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

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


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Research shows first land plants were parasitised by microbes

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

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

Liverworts

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

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


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

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


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

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

Phytophthora

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

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

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


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Categories: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Researchers develop infrared-based system to read body language

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 04/03/2018 - 11:28

A joint research team from the University of Cambridge and Dartmouth College has developed a system for using infrared light tags to monitor face-to-face interactions. The technique could lead to a more precise understanding of how individuals interact in social settings and can increase the effectiveness of communications coaching.

The system, named Protractor by the Cambridge-Dartmouth team, uses invisible light to record how people employ body language by measuring body angles and distances between individuals. 

Prior studies have revealed that body language can influence many aspects of everyday life including job interviews, doctor-patient conversations and team projects. Each Protractor setting includes a specific set of interaction details such as eye contact and hand gestures for which an accurate monitoring of distance and relative orientation is crucial. 

“The ability to use invisible light to determine someone’s role and attitude in social settings has powerful implications for individuals and organisations that are concerned about how they communicate,” said Professor Cecilia Mascolo from Cambridge's Department of Computer Science and Technology, who led the research. 

Body language is already commonly studied through video sessions, audio recordings and paper questionnaires. Compared to the new, light-based system, these approaches can require invasive cameras, necessitate complex infrastructure support, and impose high burdens on users. 

“Our system is a key departure from existing approaches,” said co-author Xia Zhou from Dartmouth. “The ability to sense both body distance and relative angle with fine accuracy using only infrared light offers huge advantages and can deepen the understanding of how body language plays a role in social interactions.” 

Protractor is a lightweight, wearable tag resembling an access badge worn with a lanyard or clip. The device measures non-verbal behaviour with fine granularity by using near-infrared light from photodiodes. The light technology operates at a wavelength commonly used in television remote controls. 

Before settling on infrared light for the unit, the research team also considered ultrasound and radio frequency. In addition to the overall accuracy, infrared was favourable because light cannot penetrate human bodies, ensuring the accurate sensing of face-to-face interaction. Near-infrared light is also imperceptible to human eyes and keeps the sensing unobtrusive.

Although well-suited for measuring body language, the research team needed to correct for when a user’s hand or clothing could temporarily block the light channel. They did so by designing algorithms that exploit inertial sensors to work around the absence of light tracking results. 

In demonstrating the system, the researchers also had to devise a way for the sensors to accurately identify participants and to limit power consumption. 

“By modulating the light from each Protractor tag to encode the tag ID, each tag can then figure out which individuals are participating. To increase energy efficiency, we also adapt the frequency of emitting light signals based on the specific context,” said co-author Zhao Tian, a PhD candidate at Dartmouth.  

To study the technique’s effectiveness, the team used the Protractor tags to track non-verbal behaviours during a problem-solving group task known as “The Marshmallow Challenge.” In this task, teams of four members were given 18 minutes to build a structure that could support a marshmallow using tape, string and a handful of spaghetti. 

“Beyond simply observing body language with the tags, we identified the task role each group member was performing and delineated each stage in the building process through the recorded body angle and distance measurements,” said Alessandro Montanari, a researcher at the University of Cambridge. 

In the study of 64 participants, Protractor achieved 1- to 2-inch mean error in estimating interaction distance and less than 6 degrees error 95 percent of the time for measuring relative body orientation. The system also allowed researchers to assess an individual’s task role within the challenge with close to 85 percent accuracy while identifying stages in the building process with over 93 percent accuracy. 

According to the research team, the system will not only support social research, but it can also potentially provide real-time feedback during interviews and other interactions. Trainers, supervisors and team facilitators can use these findings to better understand team dynamics and intervene during intense problem-focused discussions to achieve higher creativity.

Protractor can also help study the impact of culture on body language in light of research that shows that cultural backgrounds can impact the way people think, feel, and act while working with others – an important feature in today’s highly-internationalized workplaces. 

Researchers at Maastricht University and the University of Nottingham also contributed to this study.

The research was published in Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies and will be presented during UbiComp’18.

Adapted from a Dartmouth press release

Infrared sensors and a marshmallow offer researchers a new way to monitor and assess social interaction.

The ability to use invisible light to determine someone’s role and attitude in social settings has powerful implications for individuals and organisations that are concerned about how they communicate.Cecilia MascoloPhoto by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash


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