Research Round-up – September 2020
Welcome to the latest instalment of our monthly feature series throwing the spotlight on our research success stories.
A new study investigates whether watching images or videos of cute animals can cure stress
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:
- The Bard on tape: Delving into Anthony Burgess’ Shakespeare lectures
- Can cute animals cure stress?
- European Research Council funding success
- Decent living for all does not have to cost the Earth
- Harnessing plant power for renewable energy
- Will remote working survive the pandemic?
- Astronomers explain dying stars’ beautiful dust clouds
- Home of ‘Asian Unicorn’ becomes nature reserve
- Halving the risk of infection following surgery
- Be Curious 2020
- International Open Access Week
- How to feature in future research round-ups
The Bard on tape: Delving into Anthony Burgess’ Shakespeare lectures
A new research project is looking into Anthony Burgess’ 1973 lectures on the world’s most famous playwright.
Originally delivered to a diverse class at City College, New York, the Clockwork Orange author brought Shakespeare’s world and works to life.
Burgess’ interest with Shakespeare was no secret; he continually engaged with his world, writing and life, as seen in his creation of: a major novel, a speculative biography, short stories, an unproduced TV series, a Hollywood musical, a full ballet suite for orchestra and a variety of journalism.
These lectures add to Burgess’ creative obsession with Shakespeare, which have never been listened to or examined, despite being recorded on reel-to-reel tapes. That is, until now.
Postgraduate Researcher, Samuel Jermy, from the School of English has started a project with the International Anthony Burgess Foundation to catalogue the collection, in order to make it fully accessible to researchers for the first time.
The lectures are not widely known as far as the public is concerned, so the project will create new webpages, podcasts and other materials to bring these lectures to life for new audiences.
This project has managed to continue remotely despite ongoing restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, by adapting to use the digitised materials held within the Burgess archive.
Samuel said: “Adapting the project to utilise the digitised material under lockdown has been a challenge, but seeing how the material the research has produced so supports the work of the Foundation and its online exhibitions has been extremely rewarding. We are looking forward to drawing further connections between the recordings and other material held in the Burgess Archive to properly situate the lectures within the context of Burgess’s wider life and work.”
The lectures reveal in-depth the ways that Burgess identified and modelled himself on Shakespeare, as well as Burgess’s own extensive knowledge and love for the literature of the period.
Burgess, too, saw himself as a literary playwright while adapting Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac as a Broadway musical while delivering these lectures.
The initial findings of the project can be found by listening to Researching Shakespeare by the International Anthony Burgess Podcast or by visiting the page on The 1973 Shakespeare Lectures on the Foundation’s website.
This research has been supported by a White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities Research Employability Project training grant.
Can cute animals cure stress?
Researchers have identified that watching videos and images of cute animals can help reduce stress levels by up to 50%.
A group of 19 participants were invited to watch a 30-minute montage of images and videos of cute animals. They had their heart rate and blood pressure measured before and after the study, with the majority wearing a heart rate monitor throughout.
Most participants were students due to take an exam 90 minutes after this session, with the remainder being academic support staff.
The study discovered both physiological and psychological findings; heart rates dropped, and the group average blood pressure moved to the ideal range.
Dr Andrea Utley, who led the research, said: “It was clear that students were anxious ahead of their exams, with heart rates and blood pressure for most participants mildly elevated before our session took place. Indeed, in some individuals, heart rate and blood pressure was even higher indicating a higher level of stress for those participants.
“Throughout the course of the session, heart rates and blood pressure fell across all individuals to a level that would be considered healthy and indicative of limited stress or anxiety.”
The findings show a significant drop in anxiety levels, by almost 50% in some cases, proving that watching cute animals can be a powerful stress reliever and a mood enhancer.
Dr Elena Simone is celebrating the award of a major new grant
European Research Council funding success
Funding of €1.96m has been awarded to Dr Elena Simone from the European Research Council (ERC).
The funding comes from the ERC’s Starting Grant, which supports early career researchers as they establish their grounds for research and work towards becoming leaders in their fields.
Dr Simone, from the School of Food Science and Nutrition, has been awarded the CryForm grant, for researching and progressing fundamental knowledge in organic crystalline materials. This will assist and enable the design of novel food, pharmaceutical and household products that are stabilized by crystals and fully biocompatible and biodegradable.
The funding will allow for the purchase of new equipment, including a Raman confocal microscope, and the hiring of new postdocs and PhD students.
Dr Simone said: “I am really excited about this! At first, I could not even believe it was true! It took me a good 10 minutes to understand that my proposal had been successful.
“I started developing the idea for my ERC proposal after attending the Food Colloids Conference. I submitted a similar proposal in 2018, which was rejected. It was very disappointing, but I then obtained more preliminary data, spoke to people outside academia and had my proposal proof-read (read tore apart!) by few senior academics.
“That really helped me in better defining the idea and strengthening the proposal. My advice to other early career researchers is to keep trying even after rejection and being open to different opportunities or research areas; you never know! Working with industry and talking to people outside academia also really helps to get a different prospective of the real industrial challenges.”
Decent living for all does not have to cost the Earth
Global energy consumption in 2050 could be reduced to the levels of the 1960s and still provide a decent standard of living for a population three times larger, according to a new study.
The study, led by Leeds, has estimated the energy resource needed for everyone to be provided decent living standards in 2050 – meaning all their basic human needs such as shelter, mobility, food and hygiene are met, while also having access to modern, high quality healthcare, education and information technology.
The findings, published in in the journal Global Environmental Change, reveal that decent living standards could be provided to the entire global population of 10 billion (that is expected to be reached by 2050) for less than 40% of today’s global energy. This is roughly 25% of that forecast by the International Energy Agency if current trends continue.
This level of global energy consumption is roughly the same as that during the 1960s, when the population was only three billion.
The authors emphasise that achieving this would require sweeping changes in current consumption, widespread deployment of advanced technologies and the elimination of mass global inequalities.
However, not only do the findings show that the energy required to provide a decent living could likely be met entirely by clean sources, it also offers a firm rebuttal to reactive claims that reducing global consumption to sustainable levels requires an end to modern comforts and a ‘return to the dark ages’.
The authors’ tongue-in-cheek response to the critique that sweeping energy reform would require us all to become ‘cave dwellers’ was: “Yes, perhaps, but these are rather luxurious caves with highly-efficient facilities for cooking, storing food and washing clothes; comfortable temperatures maintained throughout the year, computer networks – among other things – not to mention the larger caves providing universal healthcare and education to all five to19-year-olds.”
Researchers have teamed up with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for a new project
Harnessing plant power for renewable energy
Tapping into the many uses of plants and fungi could save people and the planet, a new report says.
Researchers have joined up with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to conduct research into the plants and fungi that could be used as a source of energy, as well as assessing the species with the potential to be scaled-up with innovative technologies.
This research forms part of a joint report highlighting the enormous potential for plants to produce energy and contribute towards achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report takes a deep dive into the state of the world’s plant and fungal kingdoms globally and shows how we are currently using plants and fungi, what useful properties we are missing and what we risk losing.
It brings together 210 scientists from 42 countries, including Leeds researchers and their collaborators, led by Professor Jon Lovett from the School of Geography, who is Chair in Global Challenges and an Honorary Research Fellow at Kew.
The Leeds group collaborated with researchers in Africa, Indonesia, Nepal, India and Mexico on capacity building; exploring the potential for local plants and fungi to provide energy in small-holder farms; and developing new ways of creating bioenergy from invasive plants.
Their work highlights that plants and fungi can make a huge contribution to reducing both carbon emissions and energy poverty.
Renewable energy is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, which aims to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”, but also has strong impacts on the other SDGs, such as those relating to health and wellbeing.
For example, in many countries traditional wood fuel burning is still a major source of energy. However, not only is this an unstainable energy source and negatively impacts the environment through logging, it is a major cause of death and illness for women and children through indoor air pollution caused by smoke.
Good quality energy supply can tackle multiple SDGs and the report emphasises the untapped potential of plants to achieve this. It can also help to alleviate poverty by facilitating micro-enterprises, such as food processing or powering lights and machinery.
Professor Lovett said: “It’s no longer enough for us botanists to simply draw attention to the horrific levels of biodiversity loss on the planet, we have to become part of the solution. Demand for energy is a cause for climate change and deforestation, but it doesn’t need to be this way. Plant power can be harnessed to provide renewable energy and create biodiverse energy gardens.
“The Leeds energy researchers and our partners from the global renewable energy community held a joint conference with Kew on Plant Power in June last year. It’s great to be coming together again in this prestigious conference.
“Extinction is avoidable. It’s up to everyone to take action.”
Can we sustain remote working after the pandemic?
Will remote working survive the pandemic?
Professor Mark Stuart from Leeds University Business School (LUBS) has been featured in People Management magazine this past month.
Professor Stuart’s article discussed the uncertainty around future working patterns, now that our ‘normal’ has been disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic, and how this calls for careful planning for our future of work.
Research by Zurich Insurance found that most people want to continue working from home most of the time; a six-fold increase from the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown.
Some 59% of the 4,500 people surveyed by Zurich Insurance reported they would still prefer to spend more than half of their week working from home, despite the Government urging those who can, and need to, to start to return to work.
Professor Stuart commented that it is premature to assume that homeworking will become the norm and that employers would need to consider that not everyone wants to, or can, work remotely in the future.
He said: “Home working is more workable in some sectors than others and for certain types of workers than others. Not all employees want to work from home indefinitely; it can create tensions in terms of work-life reconciliation, for example isolation, and there are the obvious technical issues.”
Professor Stuart also stressed that employers would need to give serious thought to the design of their home-working policy as society recovers.
Read more in People Management magazine
Astronomers explain dying stars’ beautiful dust clouds
Astronomers have discovered why dust clouds around fading stars form unique and beautiful shapes – and their findings have revealed how our sun could look in its dying days.
The clouds, called planetary nebulae, are formed by stellar winds blowing dust away from the surface of dying stars.
Astronomers have been observing them since the discovery of the Dumbbell Nebula in 1764, but a reason for the variety of colourful shapes has never been determined.
Working at the ALMA Observatory in Chile, home to the largest radio telescope in the world, Leeds academics are among researchers who have gathered a large, detailed collection of observations for the first time – and have been able to solve the mystery.
They discovered the ethereal shapes are caused by the gravitational pull of companion stars or large planets – meaning that Jupiter or Saturn’s gravity could distort the stellar winds to create a spiral shape around our sun as it decays and dies.
Professor John Plane, from the School of Chemistry, said: “When stars reach the end of their lives, they tend to swell up to become giant red stars, and start ejecting heavy elements like iron, magnesium and silicon.
“A planetary nebula is the ball of gas ejected from the star, which is produced by the stellar wind blowing material away from the stellar surface. It was known previously that these are not always spherical.
“What this study shows is the outflows tend to form recognisable patterns, like disks and spirals.”
Home of ‘Asian Unicorn’ becomes nature reserve
Leeds research has helped secure the highest government protection for internationally important Vietnamese forests.
During the past five years, conservation organisation Viet Nature, and its partners World Land Trust, IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands (IUCN NL) and Birdlife International have been working to protect the Khe Nuoc Trong forests – the last substantial area of lowland forest in Vietnam.
In August, the Vietnamese government agreed to formally protect Khe Nuoc Trong’s 22,132-hectare tract of Annamite lowland evergreen forests as a Nature Reserve, the country’s highest standard of protection.
The move delivers a safer home for 40 globally threatened species, brought to brink of extinction by loggers and poachers. This includes singing gibbons, the spectacular peacock-like crested argus birds and the critically endangered saola antelope.
Discovered in 1992, the saola is one of the world’s rarest mammals, earning it the nickname of the Asian Unicorn.
Viet Nature President and Co-founder, Pham Tuan Anh, said: “The watershed protection status already protected the trees from logging but didn’t have any mandates for wildlife conservation.
“The new status puts biodiversity protection as a key objective – the level that its outstanding biodiversity deserves. It is an inspiring achievement after more than a decade of hard work. We will now be able to access higher levels of funds for conservation from local as well as national governments.”
Research at Leeds has helped underpin this decision and highlight the importance of the Khe Nuoc Trong forests in the fight against climate change.
Suzanne Stas, a PhD researcher from the School of Earth and Environment, has worked closely with Viet Nature to understand the impacts of logging on the forest.
Her work in collaboration with World Land Trust demonstrated that logged forests only store half as much carbon as unlogged forests. She found that if the forests could be protected and restored, they would remove and store 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.
She said: "It was incredibly exciting to hear that Vietnam's government is protecting these special forests. During the past five years, we have been working closely with Viet Nature and their partners to demonstrate the importance of these forests.
“Our research has shown that protecting and restoring these forests will remove 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, making a vital contribution to Vietnam's efforts to reduce climate change."
Halving the risk of infection following surgery
Surgeons could dramatically reduce the risk of infection after an operation by simply changing the antiseptic they use.
New analysis by Leeds and the University of Bern that looked at more than 14,000 operations has found that using alcoholic chlorhexidine gluconate (CHG) halves the risk of infection in certain types of surgery when compared to the more commonly used povidone-iodine (PVI).
Infection after surgery could result in a range of issues, including readmission to hospital and possibly further surgery.
Switching antiseptics to help tackle infections would be a simple process for healthcare providers, and could be rolled out globally, according to the new research, published in the Annals of Surgery.
Lead author, Ryckie Wade, Clinical Research Fellow in the School of Medicine, said: “Infection is the most common and costly complication of surgery.
“Even though the risk of infection in these types of surgery is low (about 3%), anything we can change to reduce this risk is very important.”
The team reviewed 17 existing studies, comparing infection complications of five different antiseptics used in 14,593 operations.
The initial research was carried out in North America, Europe, Asia, South America and Australasia on patients who had undergone a range of surgical procedures, including orthopaedic, cardiac, plastic and burn reconstruction surgery, cranial neurosurgery, open inguinal hernia repair and neurosurgery.
Using a statistical technique called network meta-analysis, the team showed that CHG was safe and twice as effective in preventing infection after ‘clean’ surgery on adults compared to PVI (alcoholic or aqueous), which has been widely used as an antiseptic since its discovery in 1955.
Clean surgery is defined as a procedure outside the respiratory, urogenital and digestive system, where there is no inflammation or infection and where the wound is not caused by a trauma.
Mr Wade said he hoped the new findings would lead to a change in healthcare practice. He added: “This research should be of benefit to all healthcare professionals around the world who perform any type of invasive procedure on a ‘clean site’.”
Be Curious 2020
The fifth annual instalment of the hugely popular Be Curious – the annual event showcasing our world-leading research to the wider public – runs until Friday 23 October.
With fun activities, challenges and inspiring evening talks, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
Free family-friendly fun were the order of the day for the launch date. Among the highlights was the Deep Ocean Lab – a voyage of discovery with Greg Foot, YouTuber and BBC TV and radio presenter.
And there’s still plenty of time to get involved with this year’s online instalment of Be Curious. Try your hand at sewing, discover the science of soap, squash strawberries and learn about spider webs in your brain. We’re also going green this year with The Climate Press panel event and an exclusive episode of the Climactic podcast.
Read more on For Staff
International Open Access Week
Book your tickets to take part in an online discussion as part of this year’s International Open Access Week. ‘Beyond Open Access: how, why and what's next for open research at Leeds?’ is being held on Friday 23 October.
Featuring an introduction from Vice-Chancellor, Professor Simone Buitendijk, and a keynote address by Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Leeds alumnus and Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, it will also be an opportunity to hear from academic colleagues across the University about their own open research practices and why it’s vital in their discipline.
Colleagues are also invited to complete a short survey to explore attitudes towards this subject.
How to feature in future research round ups
Please contact Internal Communications if you or one of your colleagues would like to appear in this monthly feature.