Research Round-up – January 2020

Welcome to the latest instalment of our monthly feature series throwing the spotlight on our research success stories.

One of Greenland’s melt channels that transported overflow from a large melt lake (picture by Ian Joughin)

Greenland melt stream - For several summers this deeply incised melt channel transported overflow from a large melt lake to a Moulin (a conduit drains the water through many hundreds of feet to the ice sheet’s bed).

The strength of our research is in making a real and telling difference to the world around us, by working across traditional boundaries to find innovative solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing society today.

Here we highlight some of latest projects being pioneered by the expertise and efforts of the highly talented research community at Leeds.

From grant awards to examples of outstanding interdisciplinary work and best practice, we’re keen to showcase your research achievements. See the foot of this article for details of how you can get involved.

Featured in this month’s round-up: 

A snapshot of 2018’s Astbury Conversation event in Parkinson Court.People attending the previous Astbury Conversation event in Parkinson Court

See into cells with the Astbury Conversation

Join in with the Astbury Conversation on Monday 23 and Tuesday 24 March.

Whether you are a researcher wanting to know about the latest developments, or you are simply interested in learning more about the hidden – but fascinating – world of macromolecules, the Astbury Conversation will give you an insight into life in molecular detail.

Abound 300 biochemists, biologists, physicists and chemists converged on Leeds in 2016 and 2018 for this international event, which has now established a very successful format.

A packed symposium includes talks from PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and many internationally renowned speakers. There’s also vibrant poster sessions with beer and pizza that provide a fertile ground for discussion, as well as the chance to catch up with former colleagues and make new contacts and collaborations.

The 2020 Conversation will feature an academic symposium and plenary lecture from Nobel Prize winner Richard Henderson, as well as ‘Seeing into Cells’, an interactive exhibition featuring activities and demonstrations from the Astbury disciplines of chemistry, physics and biological sciences.

Register to attend ‘Seeing into Cells’ (24 March)

We plan to make the event both carbon neutral and accessible, and with accessibility in mind, support with childcare may be available for delegates. If childcare is something that would enable you to attend the symposium, please register your interest by emailing the Astbury team.

Part of the machinery found at the Astbury BioStructures labPart of the Astbury BioStructure Laboratory that provides the Centre with instruments for Electron Microscopy and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance that are among with the very best in the world

Helping unlock the secrets of structural biology

The EU has invested €10m into a programme that aims to translate fundamental structural biology research into real world benefit.

The iNEXT-Discovery consortium gives 23 partners from 14 European countries access to innovative structural biology infrastructure. The Astbury Centre is one of the partners, opening up our state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopes to fellow iNEXT-Discovery partners.

By enabling access to leading facilities, such as the Astbury Biostructure Laboratory, iNEXT-Discovery will allow European scientists to perform high-end structural biology research with state-of-the-art equipment that is often unavailable in their home countries.

The programme aims to facilitate the generation of knowledge for the development of a range of benefits, including:

  • new drugs
  • advanced vaccines
  • novel biomaterials
  • engineered enzymes for food production; and
  • efficient biofuels.

Dr Rebecca Thompson, Senior Cryo-Electron Microscopy Support Scientist and Facility Manager within the Astbury Laboratory, said: “We are delighted to be a part of iNEXT discovery and look forward to welcoming researchers from across the EU to our facility.

“In this scheme, we will welcome researchers to our electron microscopy facility not only to collect data, but also to help develop projects and take them from test-tube to structure. By making the technology and expertise we have here at the University available to the wider community, we hope to facilitate a whole range of exciting science.”

Old books contained in the University Library's Special CollectionsCollections of first edition books are held in Special Collections 

Apply now for Brotherton Fellowships

Early career researchers and those seeking career development are invited to apply for the Brotherton Fellowships scheme.

The scheme is one way that Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute (LAHRI) and Special Collections work together to help open up some of the wonderful artefacts we have within the University. Previous Fellowships have looked at poetry collections, medieval manuscripts, education records and 18th century travel narratives.

Applicants may work with any of the Special Collections held within the Brotherton Library, and scholars working in any discipline are eligible to apply. They spend a short amount of time – usually a month – working on a postdoctoral research project linked to one of the collections. They also get support from an academic mentor within their discipline, and from the LAHRI team, to help with applications to externally-funded post-doctoral positions that must then be held at the University.

On completion of their research, Fellows write a short report on their experience, which is submitted to the funding body, the Brotherton Committee. They also write a blog post to promote the collection and their research, which will be used on the Special Collections and LAHRI websites.

LAHRI Director, Professor Alison Fell, says: “Early career researchers can help to breathe new life into some of the documents, images and objects we hold in our Special Collections. I always enjoy hearing about what they have discovered in their time at Leeds, and how it might feed into their future research projects.”

The deadline for applications to the 2019-20 scheme is 5pm on Tuesday 11 February 2020. Contact Professor Fell for further information.

Packed lunch in a children's canteenNew research reveals that children's packed lunches aren't as healthy as previously thought

Children’s packed lunches lack nutritional quality

Fewer than two in every 100 packed lunches eaten by children in English primary schools meet nutritional standards, according to a major new survey.

Although the amount of sugary food in lunchboxes declined during the ten-year research period, it is still higher than recommended, and there has been a drop in essential vitamins and minerals. University researchers say the lack of fresh food is to blame.

With just one in five children having any vegetables or salad in their packed lunch, the researchers argue that the Government should consider making fresh vegetables freely available in schools.

They are also calling on the food industry to look at ways of making it easier for parents and carers to select healthier food options for their children.

Listen to Dr Charlotte Evans, an expert in diet and health, describe how children can be encouraged to eat fresh vegetables.

The research compared the nutritional quality of packed lunches brought into a sample of primary schools in 2006 and then in 2016. Their results, showing how the nutritional quality of lunchboxes has changed during those ten years, has been published in BMJ Open.

It has been estimated that more than half of primary school children take a packed lunch to school.

Read the full story

Professor of Plant-Soil Interactions, Katie Field, and Professor of Geodesy and Geophysics, Andrew Hooper have been successful in receiving funding from the European Research CouncilProfessor of Plant-Soil Interactions, Katie Field, and Professor of Geodesy and Geophysics, Andrew Hooper have been successful in receiving funding from the European Research Council

European Research Council funding success

Two Leeds academics have been awarded funding from the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) as part of a €600 million grants announcement.

Professor of Plant-Soil Interactions, Katie Field, secured consolidator funding for her project ‘MYCOREV’, a new initiative that aims to revolutionise our understanding of interactions between plants and fungi in modern terrestrial ecosystems.

The majority of plants form partnerships with certain groups of soil fungi, these interactions are known as mycorrhizas. It has always been thought that mycorrhizas are formed by only a few specific types of fungi, but Professor Field’s team has recently discovered that another group of soil fungi are also involved. MYCOREV will deliver new insights into the structure, function and distribution of this newly-discovered type of mycorrhiza across key European landscapes.

Professor Field said: “This exciting project represents a step change in the scope and scale of the research we are able to do in this area. It really has potential to change everything we thought we knew about one of the most important symbioses on Earth in the past, present and future.

“Filling the outstanding gaps in our knowledge about the relationships between plants and soil fungi may enable us in the future to develop ways we can exploit them for use in conservation, restoration and sustainable agricultural practices.”

Professor of Geodesy and Geophysics, Andrew Hooper, has secured funding for the DEEPVOLC project. This project aims to forecast volcanic activity by applying artificial intelligence to new data.

Some 200 million people live within 30 km of a volcano but accurate forecasting of volcanic activity is problematic. It usually relies on human expertise at individual volcanoes, but volcanoes often behave in unexpected ways.

A key indicator of volcanic activity is the deformation of a volcano's surface due to magma moving beneath the surface, and recent advances in satellite monitoring now allow us to record this deformation worldwide.

DEEPVOLC will apply deep learning algorithms to satellite data to combine knowledge from all volcanoes that have been active in the satellite-monitoring era. This will enable us to use knowledge of how volcanoes behave globally to identify deformation at volcanoes locally, and forecast how it will evolve. The aim is to create tools that can aid in forecasting of volcanic activity.

Professor Hooper said: “Through satellite monitoring, we are now generating an amazing global data set of deformation at volcanoes and I’m really excited to take advantage of it, using tools from artificial intelligence, to enhance forecasts of volcanic activity.”

A look at the millions of microfibres that come out in every single washTaking a closer look at the millions of microfibres that come out in every single wash 

Quicker and cooler is best for clothes

Ground-breaking research into the impact washing machines have on clothes and the environment shows that shorter, cooler washes help clothes look better for longer and release fewer microfibres.

Academics from the School of Design and specialists from Procter & Gamble have wrung out new insight into how laundering clothing affects fading, colour runs and microfibre release.

Every load of washing releases hundreds of thousands of microfibres – tiny strands that are flushed down the drain. Many reach beaches and oceans where they can remain for many years and be swallowed by sea creatures.

In what is the first research into wash cycle duration that used both laboratory and real consumer testing, they found that reducing both washing cycle length and water temperature can significantly extend the life of garments and reduce the quantity of dye and microfibres shed into the environment.

Report lead author, Lucy Cotton, from School of Design, said: “We are increasingly familiar with the environmental threat posed by throwaway fast fashion, but we also know that consumers claim their clothes can lose their fit, softness and colour after fewer than five washes – this means it’s more likely they will ditch them long before they are worn out.

“Using shorter, cooler washes is a simple way everyone can make their clothes last longer and keep them out of landfill.”

Read the full story

How to get funding for summer studentships

Postdoctoral research staff are invited to a workshop on Thursday 6 February to support those wishing to access funding for summer studentships.

As a postdoctoral researcher, applying for funding for summer studentships will give you the opportunity to obtain external funding under your own name as the primary applicant. It also gives you the valuable experience of managing small projects, generating pilot data to use in future funding applications, supervising your own students and developing your leadership skills to set you on the path towards independence.

This workshop, which runs from 10am to 12 noon, will cover:

  • how to write a successful application
  • what makes a good project for a studentship
  • what makes you a good supervisor for a studentship project
  • what makes the student(s) look good to your funder; and
  • funding opportunities and their upcoming deadline.

Professor Vas Ponnambalam (Secretary of the British Society for Cell Biology) and Dr Paul Meakin (member of the Physiological Society) will provide you with many examples of successful applications. Hope Adamson, a postdoctoral researcher who has recently been awarded studentship funding, will also be giving advice at this session.

The workshop has been designed by the postdoctoral research staff representative at the School of Biomedical Sciences, in collaboration with Organisational Development and Professional Learning (OD&PL), to be useful to all postdoctoral researchers from any discipline.

Register your interest.  

Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, Michelle Mitchell, was presented with new University research helping the fight against cancerChief Executive of Cancer Research UK, Michelle Mitchell, was presented with new University research helping the fight against the disease

Cancer Research UK delegation visits Leeds

Senior leaders from Cancer Research UK have visited the University to find out how Leeds researchers are working together in the battle against the disease.

Academics from across a range of disciplines met the charity’s Chief Executive, Michelle Mitchell, as part of a senior delegation to showcase their research, ranging from discovery science to large-scale clinical trials.

The delegation visited engineers, biologists, data scientists, clinicians and health researchers, who are together trying to improve cancer treatments and quality of life for patients. Many of those researchers receive funding from Cancer Research UK to support their work.

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Leeds has a long history of excellent research in cancer.

“It’s incredibly impressive to see the breadth of science here at Leeds with a number of key specialisms, particularly looking at data science and AI [artificial intelligence], discovery science and, of course, working with the NHS to put that into practice for people today.

“I’m particularly pleased to see recent funding awarded to Leeds in three areas – radiotherapy, early detection and the Grand Challenge programme looking at the microbiome. These are three fantastic projects, which demonstrate the extent to which Leeds’ research is world-class.”

Research led by Professor Andrew Shepherd, and a team of polar scientists from more than 50 locations, has produced the most complete picture of Greenland’s ice loss to date (picture by Ian Joughin). January 2020Research led by Professor Andrew Shepherd, and a team of polar scientists from more than 50 locations, has produced the most complete picture of Greenland’s ice loss to date (picture by Ian Joughin)

Greenland ice losses rising faster than expected

Greenland is losing ice seven times faster than in the 1990s and is tracking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s high-end climate warming scenario, which would see 40 million more people exposed to coastal flooding by 2100.

A team of 89 polar scientists from 50 international organisations have produced the most complete picture of Greenland’s ice loss to date. The Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) Team combined 26 separate surveys to compute changes in the mass of Greenland’s ice sheet between 1992 and 2018.

Altogether, data from 11 different satellite missions were used, including measurements of the ice sheet’s changing volume, flow and gravity. The findings, published in Nature, show that Greenland has lost 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992 – enough to push global sea levels up by 10.6 millimetres.

The rate of ice loss has risen from 33 billion tonnes per year in the 1990s to 254 billion tonnes per year in the past decade – a seven-fold increase within three decades.

The assessment, led by Professor Andrew Shepherd from the School of Earth and Environment, and Dr Erik Ivins at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that global sea levels will rise by 60 centimetres by 2100, putting 360 million people at risk of annual coastal flooding.

But this new study shows that Greenland’s ice losses are rising faster than expected and are instead tracking the IPCC’s high-end climate warming scenario, which predicts seven centimetres more.

Professor Shepherd said: “As a rule of thumb, for every centimetre rise in global sea level another six million people are exposed to coastal flooding around the planet.

“On current trends, Greenland ice melting will cause 100 million people to be flooded each year by the end of the century, so 400 million in total due to all sea level rise.

“These are not unlikely events or small impacts; they are happening and will be devastating for coastal communities.”

Read the full story

Anew centre will enable 50 fully-funded PhD researchers to harness satellite data to tackle global environmental challenges.One of the images of tropical peatland in the Congo, generated by satellite imaging

Making SENSE of global environmental challenges

A new centre will enable 50 fully-funded PhD researchers to harness satellite data to tackle global environmental challenges.

The Centre for Satellite Data in Environmental Science (SENSE) will bring together expertise in satellite remote sensing, climate change and advanced data science to nurture the next generation of Earth observation researchers.

Through a £2.2m investment from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), support from the UK Space Agency and a further £3.4m of matched funding, SENSE will create 50 new PhD studentships during the next three years.

This new centre combines industry engagement and world-leading research facilities to train a new cohort of Earth observation leaders with the expertise and knowledge to address Earth System challenges, such as changes in global temperature and the growing strain on natural resources.

SENSE students will be based in and across sector-leading UK research institutions, including our campus, the University of Edinburgh, the National Oceanography Centre and the British Antarctic Survey.

The training programme will provide all first year PhD students with advanced skills training in Earth observation systems and techniques, as well as advanced data science methods such as artificial intelligence.

Dr Anna Hogg, from the School of Earth and Environment, is co-director of the centre and is a University Academic Fellow at Leeds.

She said: “Earth observation satellites collect hundreds of terabytes of data per day, delivering important information about how fast glaciers flow, the size of forest fires in the Amazon and the quality of the air we breathe.

“Through SENSE, we have a fantastic opportunity to grow the community of researchers with the skills and knowledge to measure how our environment is changing.”

Recruitment is now open for the first cohort for The Centre for Satellite Data in Environmental Science (SENSE).

Read the full story

Image of the team behind Slingshot, a spin-out of the University of LeedsSlingshot simulations have been awarded funding to help transform businesses through building 'synthetic' worlds

‘Synthetic worlds’ to boost business efficiency

Slingshot Simulations – a University spin-out – has secured £750,000 in scale-up funding to help organisations devise more efficient ways of working.

The company’s technology harnesses data analytics and graphical simulation to model complex systems, simplify decisions and mitigate risk.

Organisations can use Slingshot’s platform to build a ‘synthetic’ world that mirrors their own operations – for example, identifying the optimal design and location of a warehouse so it functions efficiently, minimises fuel costs and meets supply-chain demands.

The investment in Slingshot was made by the University and the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund – Mercia Equity Finance.

Dr David McKee, Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Computing and Slingshot’s Chief Technical Officer, said Slingshot’s simulation technology is significantly faster and more cost-effective than alternative solutions, and is designed for use by non-technical staff.

He added: “Our vision is to define a global standard for an Internet of Simulation so that it could be used by anyone, anywhere.

“It will allow people to use simulations to communicate and collaborate across industries and organisations.”

Read the full story

University researcher, Olja Panic, is looking to the stars to create new ‘signs’ so that the deaf aren’t excluded from new astronomy researchUniversity researcher, Dr Olja Panic, is looking to the stars to create new ‘signs’ so that the deaf aren’t excluded from new astronomy research

Opening up astrophysics to the deaf community

The deaf community risks being excluded from modern science because the number of new advances is outpacing the development of sign language to explain them.

Dr Olja Panic, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, says the result is that deaf people are among the most disadvantaged when it comes to opportunities to engage with science.

She’s leading a project to develop 50 new signs, which will help explain her research into the way planetary systems are formed.

Most deaf people in the UK who use a sign language use British Sign Language (BSL). BSL has about 100 basic signs that describe astronomical concepts. But it takes time for new science to be translated into sign language. For example, black holes have been talked about for decades but it is only in the past few years that a sign has been created to describe them.

Dr Panic said: “When it comes to astrophysics and other areas of science, the deaf community face considerable challenges because the language that would allow them to explore and discuss astrophysics is not there.

“It is important that science is accessible, and the new signs will allow scientists like myself to give talks, lectures and workshops through which, with the help of a sign language interpreter, I could share my research.”

The project is being funded by the Royal Society.

Professor Carlos Frenk FRS, Chair of the Royal Society’s public engagement committee, said: “This innovative and exciting project will not only help members of the deaf community to deepen their own scientific knowledge but will allow them also to share their experiences with researchers.

“This project is a great example of how to put into practice one of our key strategic priorities: to demonstrate the importance of science to everyone.”

Read the full story

Dr Tolib Mirzoev, Professor Tim Ensor, Dr Bassey Ebenso, Dr Ana Manzano and partners from the University of Nigeria have been facilitating National and state-level stakeholder workshops to share their researchThe team led by Dr Tolib Mirzoev, with partners from the University of Nigeria, have been facilitating national and state-level stakeholder workshops to share their research

Informing policy and practice in Nigeria

University researchers are informing discussion around policy and practices on maternal and child health in Nigeria.

Despite halving maternal and infant mortality between 1990 and 2008, Nigeria is still pressed with the need to reduce these figures further.

The Medical Research Council-funded REVAMP study, led by Dr Tolib Mirzoev, has been investigating ways to combat this during the past five years. More specifically, the study evaluated the extent that Nigerian community health work programmes promote access to services that improve maternal and child health.

As the project enters its final six months, Dr Tolib Mirzoev, Professor Tim Ensor and Dr Bassey Ebenso (Nuffield Centre for International Health and Development), Dr Ana Manzano (School of Sociology and Social Policy) and partners from the University of Nigeria have been facilitating national and state-level stakeholder workshops to share their research.

The most recent national-level workshop was held on Saturday 25 January in the Nigerian capital Abuja, and follows a similar workshop held in Anambra State. These workshops are attended by more than 30 key stakeholders from organisations including the:

  • Federal Ministry of Health
  • National Primary Health Care Development Agency
  • Federal Governor’s Forum; and
  • key international organisations – UNFPA and UNICEF.

At these workshops, researchers share, validate and discuss project results in an interactive World Café format, structured around seven policy briefs from the REVAMP research. These events form important contributions to policy and practice, whilst also maintaining the University’s strong global profile.

How to feature in future round-ups

Please contact Internal Communications if you or one of your colleagues would like to appear in this monthly feature.

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