Research Round-up – October 2020

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

A multidisciplinary team of researchers to explore potentially habitable exoplanets

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: 

Exploring habitable worlds beyond Earth

A multidisciplinary team of researchers are exploring potentially habitable exoplanets

Exploring habitable worlds beyond Earth

Identifying potentially habitable environments in the Solar System and beyond could help us solve one of mankind's greatest mysteries.

Key to this is learning about the conditions needed for life to flourish.

Astrochemistry expert Dr Catherine Walsh, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, focuses her research on the unique chemistry that occurs in the space between the stars, and during the formation of stars and planetary systems. She studies how chemistry in space creates life-friendly molecules for seeding habitable environments, and she conducts observations with state-of-the-art telescopes to measure the composition and distribution of planet-building material around nearby young stars.

As one of the recipients of a Future Leader Fellowship, Dr Walsh will build and lead a multidisciplinary team with expertise in physical chemistry, climate science and astrochemistry to conduct sophisticated simulations of the chemistry of the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets.

The team, led by Dr Walsh, will use its simulations to make predictions for future observations. These predictions will feed into the development of upcoming telescopes and instruments that will be designed to find habitable worlds beyond the Solar System.

Dr Walsh said: “I am delighted and indeed honoured to have been awarded a Future Leader Fellowship.

“One of the great questions of humanity is ‘are we alone?’ and discovering another planet that is capable of potentially supporting life is the first step to answering that question.

“The next decades of astrophysics research will be very much focused on this search for potentially habitable worlds around other stars. I am very excited to build my team, to develop our state-of-the-art simulations and to contribute to this great quest.”

An aerial photograph of campus taken from above the Parkinson building

Early and mid-career researchers at Leeds can apply for additional support

New fellowship programme launched

Applications are now open for an exciting new fellowship programme designed to drive innovation across the University.

Funded through a £1 million donation from Michael Beverley, a Leeds alumnus and Yorkshire business leader, this pioneering initiative was inspired by the opportunity to develop the next generation of academic entrepreneurs and, in so doing, enhance the future of the University and help strengthen the regional economy.

Targeted at early and mid-career researchers at Leeds, the Michael Beverley Innovation Fellowship Programme will provide a comprehensive introduction to all aspects of commercialisation and business engagement, assisting them in their ability to create economic and societal value from their research.

Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, said: “This unique fellowship programme will drive innovation engagement, supporting fellows to deliver impactful research.”

Each Fellow will receive between £5,000 and £10,000 in funding to develop a concept, such as creating a new venture, service, applied research or external partnership. This will help raise their profile in the academic arena and put them on the trajectory for future research and innovation leadership roles within the University.

Visit the programme’s webpage for further information and details of how to apply. Applications close at midnight on Wednesday 18 November and the programme begins in January 2021.

Read more on For Staff

Biomimetic tongue with the new polymer used by the team.

Replicating tongue surfaces will help streamline research and development for oral care, food products and therapeutic technologies

3D printing the first ever biomimetic tongue surface

Scientists have created synthetic soft surfaces with tongue-like textures for the first time using 3D printing.

This opens new possibilities for testing oral processing properties of food, nutritional technologies, pharmaceutics and dry mouth therapies.

UK scientists led by the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh have replicated the highly sophisticated surface design of a human tongue and demonstrated that their printed synthetic silicone structure mimics the topology, elasticity and wettability of the tongue’s surface.

These factors are instrumental to how food or saliva interacts with the tongue, which in turn can affect mouthfeel, swallowing, speech, nutritional intake and quality of life.

Principal Investigator Anwesha Sarkar, Professor of Colloids and Surfaces at Leeds, said: “Ultimately, our hope is that the surface we have designed can be important in understanding how the biomechanics of the tongue underpin the fundamentals of human feeding and speech.”

Read the full story

Tiny golden bullets could help tackle asbestos-related cancersNew research finds a different way to treat mesothelioma – one of the ‘hard-to-treat’ cancers

Tiny golden bullets could lead to asbestos-related cancer treatments

Gold nanotubes – tiny hollow cylinders one thousandth the width of a human hair – could be used to treat mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.

The work is the result of the collaboration between scientists at Leeds and the University of Cambridge.

More than 2,600 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK each year, a malignant form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. Although the use of asbestos is now outlawed in the UK, the country has the world’s highest levels of mesothelioma because it imported vast amounts of asbestos in the post-war years.

The global usage of asbestos remains high, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, which means mesothelioma will become a global problem.

The researchers say mesothelioma is one of the ‘hard-to-treat’ cancers – and there’s a need for new, effective treatments.

They have developed a form of gold nanotubes, the physical properties of which are ‘tunable’. In other words, the team can tailor the wall thickness, microstructure, composition and ability to absorb particular wavelengths of light.

During experiments, researchers added the nanotubes to mesothelioma cells cultured in the lab and found that they were absorbed by the cells. When the team targeted the cells with a laser, the nanotubes absorbed the light and heated up, killing the mesothelioma cell.

The scientists will be developing their work further to ensure the nanotubes are targeted to cancer cells with less effect on normal tissue.

Read the full story

A robotic arm over a manikin with a colon.Researchers develop a system that is easier for doctors or nurses to operate and is less painful for patients

Using robotic assistance to make colonoscopy kinder and easier

Scientists have made a breakthrough in their work to develop semi-autonomous colonoscopy, using a robot to guide a medical device into the body.

The milestone brings closer the prospect of an intelligent robotic system being able to guide instruments to precise locations in the body to take biopsies or allow internal tissues to be examined. A doctor or nurse would still be on hand to make clinical decisions but the demanding task of manipulating the device is offloaded to a robotic system.

The latest findings are the culmination of 12 years of research by an international team of scientists supervised by Pietro Valdastri, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering.

The scientists hope robot-assisted colonoscopy could increase the number of providers who can perform the procedure and allow for greater patient access to colonoscopy, because the system is easier to use.

The techniques developed to conduct colonoscopy examinations could be applied to other endoscopic devices, such as those used to inspect the upper digestive tract or lungs.

Read the full story

Damage caused by a tornado with a tree split up in a half.Meteorologists are now much better prepared to predict events in advance. Photo credit: Matthew Clark

Predicting tornadoes on UK cold fronts for the first time

Researchers at Leeds and the Met Office have for the first time created a prediction for how likely tornadoes are to occur on cold fronts.

This will ensure a more accurate assessment of tornado risk can be made before a cold front crosses the UK.

About 30 tornadoes occur in the UK each year, 40% of which develop on cold fronts. But a lack of forecasting methods for these conditions means they strike without warning.

Matthew Clark, a Met Office scientist currently studying for a PhD at the School of Earth and Environment, worked with Douglas Parker, Professor of Meteorology in the School.

The researchers analysed tornado reports from the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO), radar imagery and surface analysis charts from 114 weather events during a 35-year period. One such event was the largest tornado outbreak in European history when 104 tornadoes touched down across England and Wales on 23 November 1981, leaving a trail of damage in their wake.

They identified patterns across the weather events, establishing which cold fronts were likely to produce a single tornado, which could produce several and which would produce none.

The work of our researchers should help improve the weather forecasts of localised, intense wind damage associated with these kinds of weather system, enabling local responders and organisations, such as airports, to take precautions and minimise risk.

Read the full story

Global food production poses an increasing climate threatScientists agree that further efforts are required to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution

Global food production poses an increasing climate threat

Rising nitrous oxide emissions are jeopardising climate goals and the Paris Accord, according to a new international study.

The growing use of nitrogen fertilizers in the production of food worldwide is increasing concentrations of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide – which remains in the atmosphere longer than a human lifetime.

These findings, published in Nature, are part of the most comprehensive assessment to date of all sources and sinks of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

The study was produced by an international consortium of scientists from 48 research institutions in 14 countries under the umbrella of the Global Carbon Project and the International Nitrogen Initiative. The consortium included Leeds researchers Dr Chris Wilson and Professor Martyn Chipperfield, from the School of Earth and Environment.

The study points to an alarming trend affecting climate change: Nitrous oxide has risen 20% from pre-industrial levels and its growth has accelerated during recent decades due to emissions from various human activities.

The co-authors agreed that the most surprising result of the study was the finding that current trends in nitrous oxide emissions are not compatible with pathways consistent to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Climate Agreement or the Paris Accord.

However, the study also highlights existing opportunities to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

Industrial and agricultural policies to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution and to optimize fertiliser use efficiencies have proven to be effective in European countries. But further efforts are needed, in Europe as well as globally.

Read the full story

New materials will help UK achieve net-zero, say researchersScientists respond to the net-zero challenge

New materials will help UK achieve net-zero

Scientists have pledged to develop a new generation of ultra-efficient electronics to help the UK achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The growth in digital technologies, smartphones, smart grids, electric vehicles and renewable energy will result in a dramatic increase in electronic devices. It has been estimated that there will be almost 30 billion networked devices in operation within three years.

These digital devices come with a carbon cost – not only from the materials used to manufacture them but also the energy needed to power them. The solution is to develop electronic devices that are ultra-efficient and use very low levels of power.

Professor Edmund Linfield, Director of the Bragg Centre for Materials Research, said: “The net-zero target will drive change across the electronics sector. It will see the UK become a centre of manufacturing and innovation excellence.

“We are already working with industrial partners to develop collaborative research, which will see new ideas, technologies and approaches adopted more quickly.”

The role that Leeds is playing in developing greener electronics is part of a broader strategy adopted by the UK’s leading materials research organisations to reduce the reliance on carbon.

Read the full story

Meltwater lakes are accelerating glacier ice loss

New research shows the effect of proglacial lakes on glacier ice

Meltwater lakes are accelerating glacier ice loss

Meltwater lakes that form at glacier margins cause ice to recede much further and faster compared to glaciers that terminate on land, according to a new study.

But the effects of these glacial lakes are not represented in current ice loss models, warn the study authors.

Therefore, estimates of recession rates and ice mass loss from lake-terminating glaciers in the coming decades are likely to be underestimated.

Many mountain glaciers now terminate in such lakes, formed as meltwater becomes trapped behind ridges of glacier debris. They are known as proglacial lakes.

Climate change has increased glacier melt worldwide and this, in turn, has led to a dramatic increase in the size and number of proglacial lakes. But the effects of proglacial lakes on the rates of deglaciation and on glacier behaviour have been poorly understood.

Now, an international team of researchers, led by Leeds, has quantified for the first time the influence of proglacial lakes on mountain glaciers using computer simulations.

The findings of the research show that a land-terminating glacier took 1,000 years to succumb to the same amount of recession as a lake-terminating glacier experienced in 100 years.

Study lead author, Dr Jenna Sutherland, undertook this research while a PhD candidate in the School of Geography. She said: “An ice cube in a bowl of water is going to melt much more quickly than an ice cube sitting on a table, and the effect proglacial lakes have on glacier ice is roughly the same.”

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Faster footballs result in harder headersResearchers assess the effect of football speed, mass and stiffness during heading

Faster footballs result in harder headers

Scientists have discovered the severity of the impact on a player’s head while heading a football is influenced much more by the speed of the ball than its mass and stiffness.

The research, led by Leeds, provides initial guidance for player protection strategies, such as replacing goal kicks with throws, roll-outs or head-height rules for younger players.

Typically, most headers occur at speeds of less than 65km/h, but they may reach speeds of up to 85km/h when players head back goal kicks.

Using mathematical models and football header computer simulations, the research team conducted analysis to assess the effect of football speed, mass and stiffness during heading.

Dr Gregory Tierney, from the Faculty of Biological Sciences, said: “The repetitive forces experienced through heading in football has led to growing concerns about the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

“A proactive approach to football heading would be to identify player protection strategies that reduce the severity of a header impact without considerable changes to the dynamics of the game.”

The research follows Football Association guidance updated earlier this year, which recommended no heading for primary school children and a graduated approach to heading for children aged 12 to 16, with age-appropriate ball sizes in training and matches.

The FA guidance was introduced after a 2019 study showed professional football players were three-and-a-half-times more likely to die from neurogenerative disease, five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s disease and more than four times more likely to die from motor neurone disease.

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The Future Leaders Fellowships Development Network

Leeds is one of seven institutions selected by UKRI to join the Future Leaders Fellowships Development Network.

Led by the University of Edinburgh, the network will deliver training and development to 210 new Fellows and 40 early career researchers and innovators. 

The £2.8 million contract provides funding for three years and includes the University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, University College London, the School of Advanced Study and Queens University Belfast. 

Partner universities will be organised into four regional hubs and will connect Fellows with local, national and global leaders in research and innovation. 

The Network will focus on five areas: enterprise and self-leadership; leading teams and collaborations; transforming research cultures; contributing to UK society; and global citizenship. 

Fellows will be offered a range of opportunities, including structured workshops and events, coaching, networking with industry and researchers and mentoring. They will also receive leadership and peer review training, engagement support and international research encounters. 

In addition, a funding stream has been created to help initiate and grow the groups’ collaborative ideas that will develop as Fellows start working and learning together.

Read about the latest pioneering Leeds researchers accepted into the programme

Policy Leeds – new initiative to connect research and policy

Policy Leeds is our new connecting initiative for research-policy engagement.

The initiative aims to strengthen the influence and impact of Leeds research on policy design, delivery and impact at the local, national and international levels.

You are invited to attend the opening event to learn more about the support available for policy engagement.

Andy Gouldson, Director of Policy Leeds, said: “Many of our staff are recognised as leading experts in policy debates - but engaging with policy can sometimes be challenging. Policy Leeds has been set up to strengthen the influence of research from across the University of Leeds on policy design, delivery and impact at the local, national and international levels. We can do this by helping researchers to develop longer term collaborative relationships with key policy communities, and by improving our communications, raising our profile, strengthening our reputation and building trust.”

The event will also showcase examples of great policy engagement already being undertaken at the University and signpost the other support available in this space, along with time for questions and discussion.

Professor Nick Plant, the newly-appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, will deliver the opening words.

Covid-19 vaccine trial begins in LeedsLeeds is part of a wider phase three study

Covid-19 vaccine trial begins in Leeds

Hundreds of volunteers from the region are taking part in a study to test the effectiveness of a covid-19 vaccine.

The trial, overseen by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), will test the safety and effectiveness of a new vaccine developed by US biotechnology company Novavax.

During the next six weeks, more than 600 people who have signed up to the NHS Vaccine Registry are expected to take part in the study, which is being partly hosted at our sport centre, The Edge.

Chris Twelves is Professor of Clinical Cancer Pharmacology and Oncology at the School of Medicine and Director of the NIHR Leeds Clinical Research Facility at Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust. He said: “This vaccine trial in Leeds was only possible because of the hard work and dedication from the Leeds, Harrogate and York city-wide multidisciplinary covid-19 Vaccine Trial Delivery Team.”

The trial is part of a wider phase three study that will involve thousands of people, giving researchers insights into the effects of a vaccine in a large population, half of whom will receive the vaccine and half a ‘dummy’ injection.

With several more studies for potential vaccines expected to start before the end of the year, UK researchers are calling for additional volunteers to sign up to take part in research.

Read the full story

Can wearable technology help care homes save lives?Leeds researchers help to identify infection trends in care homes

Can wearable technology help care homes save lives?

Wearable digital devices are to be trialled in care homes to establish whether the technology can help reduce covid-19 infections and prevent deaths.

Similar in size to a wrist watch, the devices register when wearers come into contact with each other. Residents, staff and visitors in 32 care homes across the country will wear them.

Data is automatically fed to a team of researchers at Leeds, who can analyse it quickly and feedback results to care home leaders. It will identify infection trends, enabling care homes to adapt their procedures to manage infection. It will be compared to another 32 homes not using the technology to determine whether it’s more effective than other contact tracing methods.

The £1.6 million CONTACT trial has been funded by the National Institute of Health Research and is run by Leeds’s School of Healthcare, Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, and Institute of Clinical Trials Research, in partnership with the University of Nottingham, data strategy company Microshare Inc, care home providers and local authority public health bodies.

Lead researcher, Carl Thompson, Professor of Applied Health Research at the School of Healthcare, said the devices would allow care homes to better manage the risk of infection and consider reopening to outside visits.

Read the full story

Enjoy the 2020 Festival of Social Science from the comfort of your own home

The Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Sciences is an annual, weeklong series of engagement events held across the UK, which celebrate research that helps us understand and shape the society we live in.

Over the years, Social Science Week has grown to a much larger and more inclusive national festival of activities, aimed at policymakers, business and the public. Taking place from 7-15 November, this year’s festival has gone virtual.

Leeds Social Sciences Institute (LSSI) has organised 11 online events as a part of this year’s Festival. Colleagues from Leeds will deliver a range of fascinating sessions exploring a range of intriguing topics, including the climate crisis, activism, radical geography, food insecurity and instability, job satisfaction and maths for citizenship.

Discover LSSI’s full programme

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.

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