Inside Track - 21 March 2016 - Sir Alan Langlands

Vice-Chancellor Sir Alan Langlands reflects on the success of the Be Curious festival, new appointments, and on the challenges ahead for higher education.


Curiosity and the Barnsley Fern

On Saturday afternoon in Parkinson Court, I watched a little girl aged five or six, guided by one of our staff, use an iterated function system on a laptop to create a fractal – in this case a beautiful fern-like structure named after British mathematician Michael Barnsley.  She seemed to understand the principle of a mathematically generated pattern that can be reproduced at any magnification or reduction.

Barnsley worked at Georgia Tech in the 1980s and 90s but as I watched our budding academic, my mind turned quickly to the history of science – D’Arcy Thompson (my scientific hero) describing the form of plants including the arrangement of a fern’s fronds in his book On Growth & Form published in 1917, Kepler’s studies of snowflakes – symmetrical repetitions of one simple crystalline form, Cassini’s drawings of ‘snow flowers’ and Plato’s principle of One among the Many.

So here was a little girl in our University on a Saturday afternoon coming to terms with the results of insights and knowledge that ... admittedly at a stretch … has accumulated over almost two and a half thousand years.  Wow. And this was only one of many stalls, mini-lectures, guided trails to faculties, discussion groups and demonstrations covering medieval food and physic, the wonders of the vagus nerve and the 100,000 genome project.

There was also an inflatable planetarium showing a 10-minute film developed by the Wellcome Trust entitled ‘Cell, Cell, Cell’, the story of who we are; and as ever, we thank Wellcome for their unfailing support for public engagement in science. 

The Be Curious Festival 2016 was a great success by any measure and I thank Charlotte Haigh and her team for co-ordinating this great new addition to the University’s calendar and also the many staff and students who committed time and energy to this, either by contributing directly to the programme or simply by bringing their children along to take part. 

At a time when the University is emphasising the importance of research-led education and putting research-based learning at the heart of our undergraduate curriculum, it was also inspiring to see the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR) Preview Event in the School of Chemistry earlier today (Monday 21 March).  There were presentations and posters of the highest quality on show from almost every faculty and we wish our students well at the national conference to be held on 22 and 23 March. This is something we will surely bring to Leeds in the future.

Like many of you, I am looking forward to a break over Easter and, despite the likelihood of the government using the Queen’s Speech in May to insist on legislative change which will lead to the further marketisation of higher education, new financial pressures and greater concentration of research funding, I am confident that they will find a stiff test in Parliament.  The autonomy of universities, the importance of academic freedom, the Haldane principle and the dual support system of research funding are all pre-requisites of success in UK higher education and need to be defended robustly in the months ahead.  Restored by the Easter break, the University will certainly play its part in this.

Of course, none of this will deflect us from a values based approach to implementing the University’s plans for investment, growth and continuous improvement and I am pleased that I will be working with our excellent new Deputy Vice-Chancellors – Professors Lisa Roberts and Tom Ward – from the beginning of the next academic year to build on the many successes and the very strong educational and research policies and practices developed with such skill and commitment under the leadership of Professors John Fisher, Viv Jones and David Hogg over the past 10-15 years.  

Today, I am also delighted by the news that Professor Hai-Sui Yu has been appointed as the University’s first Pro-Vice-Chancellor: International.  Hai-Sui, who joins us from the University of Nottingham, has great experience of building institutional and corporate partnerships overseas which can only enrich the experience of our students and help us to develop research and innovation with real global reach. Hai-Sui is a distinguished geotechnical engineer and will also make an important academic contribution to the work of the University and the Faculty of Engineering.

I always feel that the Easter break is all too short but I hope that all staff and students have a happy time with friends and family and, with a bit of luck, some weather worthy of early Spring ... Above all, I look forward to the future with enthusiasm knowing that the next generation of curious minds is out there, and ready to make the most of the knowledge and opportunities which will drive the University forward.


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