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Opinion: Coronavirus: Five Ways to Be a Better Manager When Working From Home

Person sitting on sofa with laptop
source: www.cam.ac.uk

Everyone is adjusting to life during the coronavirus pandemic. For many, working from home is the new normal and poses all sorts of new challenges. Anyone in a position of management has, overnight, lost many of the tangible aspects of doing their job – particularly the non-verbal aspects of communication and how we interact in space, in person. Here, Dr Thomas Roulet from Cambridge Judge Business School offers some advice for managers as we all adjust to new ways of working.

It is essential that managers are attuned to the various personal needs of their colleagues at this time. The boundaries between work and personal life erode when we work from home and everyone will experience this situation in a different way, depending on their family situation, their dependants and the various dimensions of their personalities.

This requires managers to put themselves in the shoes of their colleagues and take their perspective. There is a large amount of research into this idea of taking another person’s perspective, as this approach has found to have a range of positive consequences – in particular bringing people closer. Fundamentally it requires us all to be our most compassionate and caring selves. Here are five tips to help at this fraught time.

1. Understand the specifics of personal situations

For those who have no children or dependants to take care of, it might be easy to imagine coronavirus as something that has significantly cleared our agenda. Some may believe they are more focused working from home, without the usual office distractions.

But the reality for many will involve overseeing care for children and even home learning following the closure of their schools. This will be a daunting task. Others may also be stressed about loved ones they are separated from and who might be at high risk of suffering from the current pandemic.

2. Adapt work expectations

The abrupt shift in normal procedures requires managers to adapt their expectations of their workers, who may be less productive or finding it hard to focus. Managers should concentrate on listening more, given the lack of visible office signals, and adopt a softer management style that enables workers to explain their particular constraints and methods for adjusting to them.

It’s also important to remember that people might not be forthcoming on how the current turmoil is affecting their mental health. Managers need to be attuned to this so that organisations can offer support through their human resources departments or other channels.

3. Maintain contact and make it a routine

Constant communication channels need to be maintained and reinforced. Emails simply won’t replace the small talk and mundane workplace interactions that create a positive and friendly culture that enables organisations to move forward on work-related tasks.

One way to maintain contact and conviviality is to schedule regular video conferencing in which five minutes are allocated to each team member to share their feelings and experiences. Virtual coffee breaks planned at the same time every day can also do the trick, as they help recreate as much as possible a shared community experience. This will enable managers to gain a better perspective of how everyone is doing, because impressions and emotions are more likely to be shared in interpersonal and group communications.

4. Realise the loss of invisible social cues

We all communicate and interact through gestures and body language. This applies in the workplace as much as anywhere. When managing others, we do not even realise that our physical expression conveys almost as much as what we have to say.

In the current situation, most of these cues are now invisible. And behind the screen of a video conference many of the bodily signs we traditionally rely on will be lost. Managers must therefore consider how their messages are perceived and taken on board.

5. Make things even clearer

Managers need to be extra careful about what they intend to communicate, and be more explicit about their objectives, expectations and plans. Emails are more likely to be wrongly interpreted than in-person conversation, so managers should proofread their communications even more carefully – for tone as well as content. Even if you’ve worked alongside your colleagues for many years prior to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to realise that they cannot read your mind.

This crisis will definitely change the way we manage and interact at work, whether this is through screens or physically. Embracing the idea of perspective taking is essential for managers to understand the particular situations and constraints of their workers, and provide the necessary support.

Ultimately, this shift in leadership expectations, more open channels of communication, and new routines will enable organisations to function in a human way, despite the forced social isolation.The Conversation

This article by Dr Thomas Roulet is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


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Intensive Care Units In England Could Run Out Of Beds Within Two Weeks, Study Finds

Clinicians in an intensive care unit
source: www.cam.ac.uk

Intensive care unit (ICU) occupancy is likely to increase dramatically over the next few weeks, suggests research published by a team at the University of Cambridge. Their work suggests that if the current exponential growth of COVID-19 infections continues, then within two weeks, five out of seven commissioning regions in England will have more critically ill COVID-19 patients than can be accommodated with ICU beds normally available.

ICU capacity is a crucial concern as additional capacity takes time to create both in terms of staffing and equipment

Ari Ercole

Since emerging in November 2019, there have been over 267,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 coronavirus and over 11,200 deaths (WHO figures 22 March). While COVID-19 generally causes mild symptoms, some patients may develop severe lung inflammation. This may be severe enough to require intensive care for advanced, invasive mechanical ventilation (‘life support’).

Mechanical ventilation is a specialised procedure that can only be provided on an intensive care unit. The number of intensive care beds is limited and the equipment and specialist staffing required makes it difficult to create more ICU beds easily/quickly. In Northern Italy, which has been particularly severely affected, the large volumes of patients has overwhelmed ICU capacity.

“If mechanical ventilation cannot be provided to patients who need it, they will die,” says Dr Ari Ercole from the Division of Anaesthesia at the University of Cambridge. “ICU capacity is a crucial concern as additional capacity takes time to create both in terms of staffing and equipment.”

Dr Ercole and colleagues from Cambridge’s Division of Anaesthesia and Department of Computer Science and Technology have built a real-time computer model to try and make the earliest possible predictions of ICU demand in England. Their aim is to give an early warning of when or whether capacity will become critical and give as much advanced notice as possible to help build capacity.

Because of the urgent implications of the model’s results, the team has made its study available online early. The research has not been peer-reviewed. All source code has been made freely-available online as has an online version of the model which is updated as data comes in.

The team used COVID-19 diagnoses from England as reported by Public Health England and matched to NHS commissioning regions as its source data to obtain information on daily cases. They have assumed that the daily incidence of COVID-19 can be modelled as an exponential growth, in line with what has been observed in Italy.  The most up-to-date information suggests the median length of time spent in an ICU is eight days.

The Cambridge model predicts that ICU demand in England could rise to levels which are impossible to supply with the current beds available very quickly – as early as within two weeks in some regions and with London at particular risk.

“If our assumptions are correct, ICU capacity may be complete overwhelmed very quickly in England,” added Dr Ercole, who is also a Fellow in Clinical Medicine at Magdalene College. “A large increase in ICU capacity is required extremely urgently if we are to be able to treat patients with life-threatening COVID-19 in the near future.”

The model makes a number of assumptions about the outbreak which may limit its accuracy, but is based on the best available data at the earliest time.

The team used data published by Public Health England. While the researchers acknowledge this data does not recognise all cases within the wider population, it is likely to include the vast majority of severe cases, on which the models specifically focus. Changes over time in World Health Organization case definitions and in surveillance strategies may also overestimate ICU admission rates as milder cases were not identified initially and would artificially inflate the forecast numbers.

They have forecast the percentage of COVID-19 bed requirements in isolation. In reality, all ICUs will need to continue to provide ‘business as usual’ care for other types of patients. Since UK bed occupancy is typically greater than 80% and may frequently exceed 100%, the researchers say it is clearly not the case that all open beds can simply be re-allocated for COVID-19 patients.

They have also assumed that all adult critical care beds can be used for level 3 or mechanically ventilated ICU patients, which may not be possible; some specialist ICUs may not be able to reconfigure at all.

Listen to Dr Ercole on the Naked Scientists podcast.

Reference
Deasy, J et al. Forecasting Ultra-early Intensive Care Strain from COVID-19 in England. DOI: 10.1101/2020.03.19.20039057


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Electric Cars Better For Climate In 95% Of The World

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Fears that electric cars could actually increase carbon emissions are unfounded in almost all parts of the world, new research shows.

Understanding the effect of low-carbon innovations on relevant sectors of the economy, such as heating and transport, is crucial for the development of effective policy

Pablo Salas

Reports have questioned whether electric cars really are ‘greener’ once emissions from production and generating their electricity are taken into account.

But a new study by the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen and Cambridge has concluded that electric cars lead to lower carbon emissions overall, even if electricity generation still relies on fossil fuels. The results are reported in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Under current conditions, driving an electric car is better for the climate than conventional petrol cars in 95% of the world, the study finds.

The only exceptions are places like Poland, where electricity generation is still mostly based on coal.

Average lifetime emissions from electric cars are up to 70% lower than petrol cars in countries like Sweden and France (which get most of their electricity from renewables and nuclear), and around 30% lower in the UK.

In a few years, even inefficient electric cars will be less emission-intensive than most new petrol cars in most countries, as electricity generation is expected to be less carbon-intensive than today.

The study projects that by 2050, every other car on the streets could be electric. This would reduce global CO2 emissions by up to 1.5 gigatons per year, which is equivalent to the total current CO2 emissions of Russia.

The study also looked at electric household heat pumps, and found they too produce lower emissions than fossil-fuel alternatives in 95% of the world.

Heat pumps could reduce global CO2 emissions in 2050 by up to 0.8 gigatons per year – roughly equal to Germany’s current annual emissions.

“We started this work a few years ago, and policy-makers in the UK and abroad have shown a lot of interest in the results,” said senior author Dr Jean-Francois Mercure from the University of Exeter. “The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars and household heat pumps over fossil fuel alternatives.”

“The idea that electric vehicles or electric heat pumps could increase emissions is essentially a myth,” said lead author Dr Florian Knobloch, from the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. “We’ve seen a lot of discussion about this recently, with lots of disinformation going around. Here is a definitive study that can dispel those myths. We have run the numbers for all around the world, looking at a whole range of cars and heating systems.

“Even in our worst-case scenario, there would be a reduction in emissions in almost all cases. This insight should be very useful for policy-makers.”

The study examined the current and future emissions of different types of vehicles and home heating options worldwide.

It divided the world into 59 regions to account for differences in power generation and technology.

In 53 of these regions – including the US, China and most of Europe – the findings show electric cars and heat pumps are already less emission-intensive than fossil fuel alternatives.

These 53 regions represent 95% of global transport and heating demand and, with energy production decarbonising worldwide, Mercure said the “last few debatable cases will soon disappear.”

“Understanding the effect of low-carbon innovations on relevant sectors of the economy, such as heating and transport, is crucial for the development of effective policy,” said co-author Dr Pablo Salas, from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. “We hope our work can inform the policy process here in the UK and abroad, particularly around discussions of the new carbon targets under the Paris Agreement framework.”

The researchers carried out a life-cycle assessment in which they not only calculated greenhouse gas emissions generated when using cars and heating systems, but also in the production chain and waste processing.

“Taking into account emissions from manufacturing and ongoing energy use, it’s clear that we should encourage the switch to electric cars and household heat pumps without any regrets,” Knobloch said.

Reference:
Florian Knobloch et al. ‘
Net emission reductions from electric cars and heat pumps in 59 world regions over time.’ Nature Sustainability (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-020-0488-7

Adapted from a University of Exeter press release.


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Uncertainty About Facts Can Be Reported Without Damaging Public Trust In News – Study

Screenshot of the BBC News website via Unsplash
source: www.cam.ac.uk

A series of experiments – including one on the BBC News website – finds the use of numerical ranges in news reports helps us grasp the uncertainty of stats while maintaining trust in data and its sources.

Ultimately we’d like to see the cultivation of psychological comfort around the fact that knowledge and data always contain uncertainty

Sander van der Linden

The numbers that drive headlines – those on Covid-19 infections, for example – contain significant levels of uncertainty: assumptions, limitations, extrapolations, and so on.

Experts and journalists have long assumed that revealing the ‘noise’ inherent in data confuses audiences and undermines trust, say University of Cambridge researchers, despite this being little studied.

Now, new research has found that uncertainty around key facts and figures can be communicated in a way that maintains public trust in information and its source, even on contentious issues such as immigration and climate change.

Researchers say they hope the work, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, will encourage scientists and media to be bolder in reporting statistical uncertainties.

“Estimated numbers with major uncertainties get reported as absolutes,” said Dr Anne Marthe van der Bles, who led the new study while at Cambridge’s Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication.

“This can affect how the public views risk and human expertise, and it may produce negative sentiment if people end up feeling misled,” she said.

Co-author Sander van der Linden, director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, said: “Increasing accuracy when reporting a number by including an indication of its uncertainty provides the public with better information. In an era of fake news that might help foster trust.”

The team of psychologists and mathematicians set out to see if they could get people much closer to the statistical ‘truth’ in a news-style online report without denting perceived trustworthiness.

They conducted five experiments involving a total of 5,780 participants, including a unique field experiment hosted by BBC News online, which displayed the uncertainty around a headline figure in different ways.

The researchers got the best results when a figure was flagged as an estimate, and accompanied by the numerical range from which it had been derived, for example: ‘…the unemployment rate rose to an estimated 3.9% (between 3.7%–4.1%)’.

This format saw a marked increase in the feeling and understanding that the data held uncertainty, but little to no negative effect on levels of trust in the data itself, those who provided it (e.g. civil servants) or those reporting it (e.g. journalists).

“We hope these results help to reassure all communicators of facts and science that they can be more open and transparent about the limits of human knowledge,” said co-author Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, Chair of the Winton Centre at the University of Cambridge.

Catherine Dennison, Welfare Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “We are committed to building trust in evidence at a time when it is frequently called into question. This study provides helpful guidance on ensuring informative statistics are credibly communicated to the public.”

The findings are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most experiment participants were recruited through the online crowdsourcing platform Prolific. They were given short, news-style texts on one of four topics: UK unemployment, UK immigration, Indian tiger populations, or climate change.

Uncertainty was presented as a single added word (e.g. ‘estimated’), a numerical range, a longer verbal caveat – ‘there is uncertainty around this figure: it could be somewhat higher or lower’ – or combination of these, as well as the ‘control’ of a standalone figure without uncertainty, typical of most news reporting.

They found that the added word did not register with people, and the longer caveat registered but significantly diminished trust – the researchers believe it was too ambiguous. Presenting the numerical range (from minimum to maximum) had the right balance of signaling uncertainty with little evidence for loss of trust.

Prior views on contested topics within news reports, such as migration, were included in the analysis. Although attitudes towards the issue mattered for how facts were viewed, when openness about data uncertainty was added it did not substantially reduce trust in either the numbers or the source.

The team worked with the BBC to conduct a field experiment in October 2019, when figures were released about the UK labour market.

In the BBC’s online story, figures were either presented as usual, a ‘control’, or with some uncertainty – a verbal caveat or a numerical range – and a link to a brief survey. Findings from this ‘real world’ experiment matched those from the study’s other ‘lab conditions’ experiments.

“We recommend that journalists and those producing data give people the fuller picture,” said co-author Dr Alexandra Freeman, Executive Director of the Winton Centre.

“If a number is an estimate, let them know how precise that estimate is by putting a minimum and maximum in brackets afterwards.”

Sander van der Linden added: “Ultimately we’d like to see the cultivation of psychological comfort around the fact that knowledge and data always contain uncertainty.”

“Disinformation often appears definitive, and fake news plays on a sense of certainty,” he said.

“One way to help people navigate today’s post-truth news environment is by being honest about what we don’t know, such as the exact number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK. Our work suggests people can handle the truth.”

Last month, David Spiegelhalter launched a podcast about statistics, ‘Risky Talk’. In the first episode he discusses communicating climate change data with Sander van der Linden and Dr Emily Shuckburgh, leader of the University’s new climate initiative Cambridge Zero.


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Cambridge To Spearhead £20million Alliance To Map Spread of COVID-19 Coronavirus

source: www.cam.ac.uk

The University of Cambridge is to take a leading role in a major national effort to help understand and control the new coronavirus infection (COVID-19) announced today by the Government and the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser.

Through a £20 million investment administered by the University, the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium – comprised of the NHS, Public Health Agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute, and numerous academic institutions – will deliver large-scale, rapid sequencing of the cause of the disease and share intelligence with hospitals, regional NHS centres and the Government.

Samples from patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be sent to a network of sequencing centres which currently includes Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield.

The University, together with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, one of the world’s most advanced centres of genomes and data, will coordinate the collaboration between expert groups across the UK to analyse the genetic code of COVID-19 samples circulating in the UK and in doing so, give public health agencies and clinicians a unique, cutting-edge tool to combat the virus.

By looking at the whole virus genome in people who have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, scientists can monitor changes in the virus at a national scale to understand how the virus is spreading and whether different strains are emerging. This will help clinical care of patients and save lives.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: “At a critical moment in history, this new consortium will bring together the UK’s brightest and best scientists to build our understanding of this pandemic, tackle the disease and ultimately, save lives.

“As a Government we are working tirelessly to do all we can to fight COVID-19 to protect as many lives and save as many jobs as possible.”

Whole genome sequencing involves reading the entire genetic code of the virus. It will help scientists understand COVID-19 and its spread. It can also help guide treatments in the future and help monitor the impact of interventions.

Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance said: “The UK is one of the world’s leading destinations for genomics research and development, and I am confident that our best minds, working as part of this consortium, will make vital breakthroughs to help us tackle this disease.”

The UK Consortium, supported by the Government, including the NHS, Public Health England, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and Wellcome, will enable clinicians and public health teams to rapidly investigate clusters of cases in hospitals, care homes and the community, to understand how the virus is spread and implement appropriate infection control measures.

The Consortium Director will be Professor Sharon Peacock, Chair of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England.

“This virus is one of the biggest threats our nation has faced in recent times and crucial to helping us fight it is understanding how it is spreading,” said Professor Peacock. “Harnessing innovative genome technologies will help us tease apart the complex picture of coronavirus spread in the UK, and rapidly evaluate ways to reduce the impact of this disease on our society.”

Dr Ewan Harrison from the Department of Medicine will serve as the Scientific Project Manager. Professor John Danesh from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care will serve on the consortium’s Steering Committee

“We are delighted to be leading this important national programme,” said  Professor Ken Smith, Director of the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology & Infectious Disease. “It builds on years of work on pathogen genomics by Professor Peacock and her group, and synergises with other major COVID-19 programmes being driven from Cambridge. The size and reach of this study across many centres in the UK will provide unprecedented insight into the biology of COVID-19 and its impact on the population. It will be essential for understand how this virus spreads and why it causes disease, and for monitoring how it evolves, particularly looking at whether it becomes more or less dangerous.”

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, added: “Samples from substantial numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be whole genome sequenced and, employing the Sanger Institute’s expertise in genomics and surveillance of infectious diseases, our researchers will collaborate with other leading groups across the country to analyse the data generated and work out how coronavirus is spreading in the UK. This will inform national and international strategies to control the pandemic and prevent further spread.”

Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, said: “Rapid genome sequencing of COVID-19 will give us unparalleled insights into the spread, distribution and scale of the epidemic in the UK. The power of 21st century science to combat this pandemic is something that those going before us could not have dreamt of, and it is incumbent on us to do everything we can to first understand, and then limit, the impact of COVID-19.”

Professor Fiona Watt, Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation said: “The UK is a leader in cutting-edge genome sequencing science. We are now applying specialist expertise in our fight to slow the spread of Coronavirus and accelerate treatments for those affected.

“The ambitious and coordinated response of our research community to the COVID-19 challenge is remarkable. This investment and the findings from the consortium will help prepare the UK and the world for future pandemics.”


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New Data Tests ‘Theory of Everything’

source: www.cam.ac.uk

One of the biggest ideas in physics is the possibility that all known forces, particles, and interactions can be connected in one framework. String theory is arguably the best-known proposal for a ‘theory of everything’ that would tie together our understanding of the physical universe.

If these particles are eventually detected it would change physics forever

Christopher Reynolds

Despite having many different versions of string theory circulating throughout the physics community for decades, there have been very few experimental tests. Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, however, have now made a significant step forward in this area.

By searching through galaxy clusters, the largest structures in the universe held together by gravity, researchers were able to hunt for a specific particle that string theory predicts should exist. While the resulting non-detection does not rule out string theory altogether, it does deliver a blow to certain models within that family of ideas.

“Until recently I had no idea just how much X-ray astronomers bring to the table when it comes to string theory, but we could play a major role,” said Professor Christopher Reynolds of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who led the study. “If these particles are eventually detected it would change physics forever.”

The particle that Reynolds and his colleagues were searching for is called an axion. These as-yet-undetected particles should have extraordinarily low masses. Scientists do not know the precise mass range, but many theories feature axion masses ranging from about a millionth of the mass of an electron down to zero mass. Some scientists think that axions could explain the mystery of dark matter, which accounts for the vast majority of matter in the universe.

One unusual property of these ultra-low-mass particles would be that they might sometimes convert into photons, or particles of light, as they pass through magnetic fields. The opposite may also hold true: photons may also be converted into axions under certain conditions. How often this switch occurs depends on how easily they make this conversion, in other words on their ‘convertibility.’

Some scientists have proposed the existence of a broader class of ultra-low-mass particles with similar properties to axions. Axions would have a single convertibility value at each mass, but ‘axion-like particles’ would have a range of convertibility at the same mass.

“While it may sound like a long shot to look for tiny particles like axions in gigantic structures like galaxy clusters, they are actually great places to look,” said co-author David Marsh of Stockholm University in Sweden. “Galaxy clusters contain magnetic fields over giant distances, and they also often contain bright X-ray sources. Together these properties enhance the chances that conversion of axion-like particles would be detectable.”

To look for signs of conversion by axion-like particles, the team of astronomers examined over five days of Chandra observations of X-rays from material falling towards the supermassive black hole in the centre of the Perseus galaxy cluster. They studied the Chandra spectrum, or the amount of X-ray emission observed at different energies, of this source. The long observation and the bright X-ray source gave a spectrum with enough sensitivity to have shown distortions that scientists expected if axion-like particles were present.

The lack of detection of such distortions allowed the researchers to rule out the presence of most types of axion-like particles in the mass range their observations were sensitive to, below about a millionth of a billionth of an electron’s mass.

“Our research doesn’t completely rule out the existence of these particles, but it definitely doesn’t help their case,” said co-author Helen Russell of the University of Nottingham. “These constraints dig into the range of properties suggested by string theory, and may help string theorists weed their theories.”

The latest result was about three to four times more sensitive than the previous best search for axion-like particles, which came from Chandra observations of the supermassive black hole in M87. This Perseus study is also about a hundred times more powerful than current measurements that can be performed in laboratories here on Earth for the range of masses that they have considered.

Clearly, one possible interpretation of this work is that axion-like particles do not exist. Another explanation is that the particles have even lower convertibility values than this observation’s detection limit, and lower than some particle physicists have expected. They also could have higher masses than probed with the Chandra data.

The results are reported in The Astrophysical Journal.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge and Burlington, Massachusetts.

Adapted from a NASA press release.


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Global Human Genome Study Reveals Our Complex Evolutionary History

Handprints in the Cueva de las Manos, Patagonia, made by hunter-gatherers around 9,000 years ago
source: www.cam.ac.uk

A new study has provided the most comprehensive analysis of human genetic diversity to date, clarifying the genetic relationships between human populations around the world.

It is remarkable that patterns of Neanderthal ancestry are so similar in populations around the world today, and may have derived from a single Neanderthal population.

Aylwyn Scally

Uncovering a large amount of previously undescribed genetic variation, the study provides new insights into our evolutionary past, and highlights the complexity of the process through which our ancestors diversified, migrated and mixed throughout the world.

Published in the journal Science, the work involved the University of Cambridge, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the Francis Crick Institute and other collaborators. It is the first to apply the latest high-quality sequencing technology to such a large and diverse set of humans, covering 929 genomes from 54 geographically, linguistically and culturally diverse populations from across the globe.

The results provide unprecedented detail of our genetic history, and highlights how it is characterised by multiple layers of complexity. Although genetic differences between populations reflect their diversity, many patterns are shared across continents, revealing both ancient and recent connections between populations.

Researchers in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Genetics analysed the sequencing data to investigate evidence of interbreeding between the ancestors of modern humans and extinct human lineages such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, which occurred 40,000 to 60,000 years ago.

They found evidence that the Neanderthal ancestry of modern humans can be explained by just one major ‘mixing event’, most likely involving several Neanderthal individuals coming into contact with modern humans shortly after the latter had expanded out of Africa.

“Studying the patterns of Neanderthal ancestry in present-day humans hints at the structure of human communities more than 50,000 years ago. It is remarkable that patterns of Neanderthal ancestry are so similar in populations around the world today, and may have derived from a single Neanderthal population,” said Dr Aylwyn Scally, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Genetics who was involved in the study.

In contrast, several different sets of DNA segments inherited from Denisovans were identified in people from Oceania and East Asia, suggesting at least two distinct mixing events. “This could suggest that multiple small groups of Denisovans once lived in different regions of Asia. We expect future discoveries of ancient DNA – perhaps from other extinct humans and perhaps even inside Africa – to tell us more about ancient population structure and diversity,” said Dr Ruoyun Hui at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Genetics, who also worked on the study.

Until recently, it was thought that only people outside sub-Saharan Africa had Neanderthal DNA. Now, the discovery of small amounts of Neanderthal DNA in west African people is most likely to reflect genetic backflow into Africa from Eurasia.

The consensus view of human history is that the ancestors of present-day humans diverged from the ancestors of extinct Neanderthal and Denisovan groups around 500,000-700,000 years ago, before the emergence of ‘modern’ humans in Africa in the last few hundred thousand years.

Around 50,000-70,000 years ago, some humans expanded out of Africa and soon after mixed with archaic Eurasian groups. After that, populations grew rapidly, with extensive migration and mixture as many groups transitioned from hunter-gatherers to food producers over the last 10,000 years.

The new data is freely available worldwide to benefit the study of human evolution and genetic diversity, including studies of genetic susceptibility to disease in different parts of the world.

The team found millions of previously unknown DNA variations that are exclusive to one continental or major geographical region. Though most of these were rare, they included common variations in certain African and Oceanian populations that had not been identified by previous studies – variations that may influence the susceptibility of different populations to disease.

Medical genetics studies have so far predominantly been conducted in populations of European ancestry, meaning that any medical implications that these variants might have are not known. Identifying these novel variants represents a first step towards fully expanding the study of genomics to underrepresented populations.

However, no single DNA variation was found to be present in 100 per cent of genomes from any major geographical region while being absent from all other regions. This finding underlines that the majority of common genetic variation is found across the globe.

“The detail provided by this study allows us to look deeper into human history, particularly inside Africa where less is currently known about the timescale of human evolution,” said Dr Anders Bergström, of the Francis Crick Institute and formerly the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “We find that the ancestors of present-day populations diversified through a gradual and complex process mostly during the last 250,000 years, with large amounts of gene flow between these early lineages. But we also see evidence that small parts of human ancestries trace back to groups that diversified much earlier than this.”

This study was funded by Wellcome and the Francis Crick Institute.

Reference
Bergström, A. et al. Insights into human genetic variation and population history from 929 diverse genomes, Science, March 2020; DOI: 10.1126/science.aay5012

Adapted from a press release by The Wellcome Sanger Institute.


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Opinion: Five Ways To Beat Anxiety and Take Back Control of Your Life During The COVID-19 Pandemic – Based on Science

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Anxiety is tough to deal with at the best of time. It’s even tougher when we’re in the midst of a pandemic that is causing chaos around the globe. Dr Olivia Remes shares her top tips on looking after your mental health during this difficult period.

When you look at the news, all you hear about are the latest deaths and numbers of people infected by coronavirus, along with tips on how to avoid infection, how to protect yourself, how to avoid sick people… This is enough to make even the calmest of individuals experience anxiety, and it’s even worse if you’re dealing with a mental health condition.

One in six people has a common mental health problem such as anxiety and depression in England. If you add to that the fears and stress surrounding coronavirus, what do you get? A grim situation which makes it hard to cope and go through daily life.

Fortunately, there are ways – based on science – that allow you to take back control and lower your anxiety levels during this time of uncertainty. We’re all going through a difficult time, so it’s very important that we take care of our mental health. Here are some simple steps that will help you take back control of the situation, take back control of your life, and take back control of your mental wellbeing.

1. Stay away from the news

Constantly reading, watching, or checking the news only makes your anxiety grow stronger. Your curiosity can turn into a habit, and before you know it, your work breaks turn into checking the latest news on coronavirus on your phone.

Because it’s easier to nip a bad habit in the bud, try to limit the amount of time you spend watching the news – starting from now. It will be much easier to do this now that it will in a month’s time.

2. Distract yourself

Our minds can’t hold two thoughts at once. We can’t panic about coronavirus and at the same time be absorbed by a work project. So next time a worrying thought creeps into your mind, try to distract yourself – it can be with work, taking a shower, or even watching a silly YouTube video.

This is really effective, because it gives our minds a chance to focus on and still be consumed by something – but this time we’re choosing what it’s being consumed by rather than letting it go astray. We’re back in the driver’s seat and taking control of our minds.

Distraction is much more effective than trying to “not think” about something, because whenever we try to suppress thoughts, they come back to haunt us with a vengeance – it doesn’t work. Try this experiment: close your eyes and try to not think of a polar bear. Did it work? Of course not! In order not to think about something, you have to conjure up an image of that thing in the first place. It’s the same with coronavirus or anything unpleasant you don’t want to think about. Telling yourself that you shouldn’t be thinking about something and trying to banish unwanted thoughts makes it even worse. Distraction is far more effective.

3. Choose what you focus on

It’s a difficult time, because we’re isolated and many of us feel lonely and helpless. Instead of thinking about social isolation and the difficulties surrounding it, which can make us depressed, change focus. Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but have never had the time – a project at home or a new language you’ve always wanted to learn, for example? Could you sign up for a self-improvement webinar that allows you to gain life skills?

Here are 450 Ivy League courses you can take online right now for free.

Let go of the guilt that you could be doing something more valuable with your time – what could be better than learning how to better yourself? Now is a time to be kind to others, but also a time to be kind to yourself. And when you do this, your self-compassion grows and your mental health will improve.

4. Stay connected

Even though we’re socially distancing ourselves from other people, this doesn’t mean that we should be socially isolating ourselves. Make use of technology and FaceTime or Skype with the people you care about.  One of the ways of combatting loneliness in older people is through technology, by connecting them with others they care about. You could be in separate countries, but knowing that a friendly voice is just a click away gives you something to look forward to in the day.

5. Remember: thoughts are mental events that will pass

Anxiety may get the better of you and you’re finding it hard to fall asleep at night or to concentrate during the day because of the uncertainties of the situation. You might worry that you’re going to contract coronavirus and maybe even that you’re even going to die.

A few years ago, I heard a Buddhist monk speak at the University of Cambridge. He said that our thoughts are mental events – any consuming thoughts you have now will pass just like many others did.

If you have difficulty letting go of thoughts, consider practicing some mindfulness meditation. Focus on your breaths going in and out of your lungs while gently letting go of thoughts. You’re not fighting or banishing the thoughts: you’re just trying not to feed them – instead, you’re always gently bringing your mind back to the breaths.

There are many videos online on how to do mindfulness meditation. Doing this can calm you and it can ground you.

Dr Olivia Remes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge, where she focuses on anxiety and depression.


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Read this next

Cambridge Research Team Working Towards Vaccine Against COVID-19

Coronavirus
source: www.cam.ac.uk

The race is on to find a vaccine against the new COVID-19 coronavirus. Professor Jonathan Heeney explains why a cautious approach is needed and how his team is using new technology developed for influenza and Ebola viruses to target the new infection.

A vaccine strategy needs to be laser specific, targeting those domains of the virus’s structure that are absolutely critical for docking with a cell, while avoiding the parts that could make things worse

Jonathan Heeney

It is hard now to conceive that two months ago, few people had heard of the new coronavirus. Now, the virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has spread to every corner of the globe. The World Health Organization has officially declared the outbreak a pandemic.

With the threat of hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of people being infected and healthcare systems becoming overwhelmed, the race is on to develop a vaccine that will protect individuals and slow the spread of the disease. But Professor Jonathan Heeney, Head of the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge, and one of the people working on a vaccine, says that coronaviruses present a particular challenge to vaccine developers.

Coronaviruses are named after their appearance: they are spherical objects, on the surface of which sit ‘spike’ proteins. The virus uses these spikes to attach to and invade cells in our body. Once inside, the virus uses the cell’s own machinery to help itself replicate and spread throughout the body, causing disease and allowing it to transmit onwards.

Traditionally, scientists would develop vaccines that programme the body to produce antibodies that recognise and block these spikes. But this strategy can misfire with coronaviruses due to a phenomenon known as ‘antibody-induced enhancement’ or ‘vaccine-induced enhancement’, says Heeney.

“If you make antibodies against the spike, they can end up binding to it and helping the virus invade important immune cells known as monocyte-macrophages. Rather than destroying the virus, these cells can then end up being reprogrammed by the viruses, exacerbating the immune response and making the disease much, much worse than it would otherwise be.”

This phenomenon is well known, says Heeney, but it could still slow down development of a vaccine. “Researchers will want to be confident that their vaccine candidates are safe – that they don’t inadvertently make the disease worse – before they are tested in humans.”

As well as his Professorship at the Department of Veterinary Medicine, Heeney is CEO of DIOSynVax, a spin-out company set up in 2017 with the support of Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm. Its strapline is ‘We change the way vaccines are made’. In the past few years, Heeney has won significant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Innovate UK to develop new vaccines for diseases ranging from influenza to Ebola and other haemorrhagic fevers. It is this technology that he is now applying to the coronavirus.

DIOSynVax’s approach involves using computer modelling of the virus’s structure, created using information on the COVID-19 virus itself as well as its relatives – SARS, MERS and other coronaviruses – and identifying chinks in its armour, crucial pieces of the spikes that will form part of the vaccine, to disable the virus but without making the infection worse.

“A vaccine strategy needs to be laser specific, targeting those domains of the virus’s structure that are absolutely critical for docking with a cell, while avoiding the parts that could make things worse,” he says. “Our technology does just that.”

Their approach is to look at the genetics of these viruses to identify the key piece of genetic code that the virus uses to produce the essential part of its coat, the spikes, that are important for docking with a cell and to target these elements with the vaccine.

“What we end up with is a mimic, a mirror image of part of the virus, but minus its bad parts, the non-essential parts that could trigger those bad immune responses. What remains is just the magic bullet, essentially, to trigger the right type of immune response.”

Then, using a combination of artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, the team create a vaccine that includes this piece of genetic code, which can be injected into an individual. The body’s immune cells will then find it, decode it and us the information to program the rest of the immune system to produce antibodies against it.

The next step is to then test the vaccine in pre-clinical trials – in other words, give the vaccine to mice to check that it is safe to use. Mice are an important part of vaccine research: their physiology and immune systems are similar enough to ours to enable researchers to minimise the risk to humans taking part in clinical trials.

DIOSynVax’s approach is much faster than current vaccine development technologies, says Heeney, which means that even allowing for essential pre-clinical mouse studies, his vaccine candidate could be ready for human clinical trials as early as June. He is currently seeking funding to pursue his work further and a pharmaceutical company with whom to partner on clinical trials.

“We need a ‘big pharma’ partner to help us scale up our activities,” he says. “Our vaccine designs are made so that they can be easily integrated into any proprietary vaccine platform that a pharmaceutical company may have ready.”

 

Support the COVID-19 research effort

Donate to support COVID-19 research at Cambridge

 

Updates for staff and students at the University and Colleges on coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the latest advice for staff and students at the University and Colleges

 


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Inflammation in the Brain Linked to Several Forms of Dementia

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Inflammation in the brain may be more widely implicated in dementias than was previously thought, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge. The researchers say it offers hope for potential new treatments for several types of dementia.

We predicted the link between inflammation in the brain and the build-up of damaging proteins, but even we were surprised by how tightly these two problems mapped on to each other

Thomas Cope

Inflammation is usually the body’s response to injury and stress – such as the redness and swelling that accompanies an injury or infection. However, inflammation in the brain – known as neuroinflammation – has been recognised and linked to many disorders including depression, psychosis and multiple sclerosis. It has also recently been linked to the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

In a study published today in the journal Brain, a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge set out to examine whether neuroinflammation also occurs in other forms of dementia, which would imply that it is common to many neurodegenerative diseases.

The team recruited 31 patients with three different types of frontotemporal dementia (FTD). FTD is a family of different conditions resulting from the build-up of several abnormal ‘junk’ proteins in the brain.

Patients underwent brain scans to detect inflammation and the junk proteins. Two Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans each used an injection with a chemical ‘dye’, which lights up special molecules that reveal either the brain’s inflammatory cells or the junk proteins.

In the first scan, the dye lit up the cells causing neuroinflammation. These indicate ongoing damage to the brain cells and their connections. In the second scan, the dye binds to the different types of ‘junk’ proteins found in FTD.

The researchers showed that across the brain, and in all three types of FTD, the more inflammation in each part of the brain, the more harmful build-up of the junk proteins there is. To prove the dyes were picking up the inflammation and harmful proteins, they went on to analyse under the microscope 12 brains donated after death to the Cambridge Brain Bank.

“We predicted the link between inflammation in the brain and the build-up of damaging proteins, but even we were surprised by how tightly these two problems mapped on to each other,” said Dr Thomas Cope from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Cambridge.

Dr Richard Bevan Jones added, “There may be a vicious circle where cell damage triggers inflammation, which in turn leads to further cell damage.”

The team stress that further research is needed to translate this knowledge of inflammation in dementia into testable treatments. But, this new study shows that neuroinflammation is a significant factor in more types of dementia than was previously thought.

“It is an important discovery that all three types of frontotemporal dementia have inflammation, linked to the build-up of harmful abnormal proteins in different parts of the brain. The illnesses are in other ways very different from each other, but we have found a role for inflammation in all of them,” says Professor James Rowe from the Cambridge Centre for Frontotemporal Dementia and a Fellow of Darwin College .

“This, together with the fact that it is known to play a role in Alzheimer’s, suggests that inflammation is part of many other neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. This offers hope that immune-based treatments might help slow or prevent these conditions.”

The research was supported by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, Association of British Neurologists, Patrick Berthoud Charitable Trust, and the Lundbeck Foundation.

Reference
Bevan-Jones, WR & Cope, TE et al. Neuroinflammation and protein aggregation co-localize across the frontotemporal dementia spectrum. Brain; 17 Mar 2020; DOI: 10.1093/brain/awaa033


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Experts Call For More Mental Health Support For Parents of Children With Genetic Learning Disabilities

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Parents of children with genetic conditions that cause learning disabilities are at risk of mental health problems, suggests new research published today in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The teams behind the study have called for greater support for parents whose child receives a genetic diagnosis for their learning disability.

If a parent experiences long-term mental health problems, this could have a knock-on effect on the whole family, affecting partner relationships, the wellbeing of their child with disability, and the experiences of siblings

Claire Hughes

As many as one in 20 families worldwide is thought to include a child with a learning disability, but little is known about how this affects the parents’ mental health and wellbeing. Although some parents experience depression and anxiety, it is not clear why some are at greater risk than others.

Professor Claire Hughes from the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research, said: “It’s important that we understand why some parents are at greater risk of mental health problems than others. If a parent experiences long-term mental health problems, this could have a knock-on effect on the whole family, affecting partner relationships, the wellbeing of their child with disability, and the experiences of siblings. That’s why interventions are often more successful when they are designed to help parents in order to help children.”

To address this question, Professor Hughes assembled an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Birmingham to analyse information from 888 families taking part in the IMAGINE-ID study – a UK-wide project examining the links between genetic diagnoses, learning disabilities and mental health. Parents were asked to rate their everyday feelings and the nature and impact of their child’s difficulties, as well as to provide information about their family’s social circumstances.

One parent who participated in IMAGINE-ID said that professionals tended to focus on the child’s needs and did not consider the wider needs of families: “It’s very much about getting support for your child. At no point were we ever offered any mental health support, even though we have such a massive role to play in bringing up our children. We need support as well.”

The study data shows that rates of negative symptoms such as worry, anxiety and stress were much higher in the IMAGINE-ID group of parents than in the general population of parents. Mothers in the IMAGINE-ID study – who were more likely to be the main caregiver – were particularly affected. Contrary to evidence from previous studies, social factors did not predict a parent’s risk of low mood and stress: more important were the type of genetic disorder that affected their child, their child’s physical and medical needs, and their child’s behaviour.

For the first time, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the cause of a child’s disabilities is one factor that predicts the emotional wellbeing of parents.  A subgroup of genetic disorders is caused by short missing or duplicated sections of DNA (known as ‘copy number variants’). Parents within this subgroup reported that their child’s difficulties had a high level of impact on family life as well as restricting their child’s activities and friendships, and these impacts were the source of their own distress.

The researchers say there could be a number of explanations for these findings, varying from the complex effects of chromosomal differences on children’s development through to the availability of support for these families. They have called for more multi-disciplinary, family-focused research to determine how genetic diagnoses are linked to parents’ mental health, so that support for families can be improved in future.

Dr Kate Baker, lead author of the research paper, based at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, said: “These results suggest that we need to start looking at genetic diagnoses as useful not just for predicting a child’s needs and informing the support that they might receive, but also for predicting the broader impact that the diagnosis will have on their family.”

Francesca Wicks, former research coordinator for IMAGINE-ID and now Family Support and Information Officer for Unique, the rare chromosome and single gene disorder support charity, said: “It’s clear that not enough care and support is being offered to parents before, during and after their child’s diagnosis. The help and support offered by organisations such as Unique is incredibly valuable, but much more needs to be done within health and statutory services. Many of the families I have met have expressed feelings of anxiety and depression over the years, which is why we have produced our Carers Wellbeing guide.”

The IMAGINE-ID study is funded by the UK Medical Research Council and Medical Research Foundation.

Reference
Baker, K et al. Childhood intellectual disability and parents’ mental health: integrating social, psychological and genetic influences. BJPsych; 11 March 2020; DOI: 10.1192/bjp.2020.38


Researcher profile: Dr Kate Baker

Kate Baker (centre) with research assistant Elise Ng-Cordell (left) and post-doctoral research associate Diandra Brkic (right) on Rare Disease Day

Image: Kate Baker (centre) with research assistant Elise Ng-Cordell (left) and post-doctoral research associate Diandra Brkic (right) on Rare Disease Day

Dr Kate Baker, a researcher at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, decided early on that she wanted to be a scientist as well as a doctor. At the time, she was a medical student and helping out in a brain research laboratory.

“There are just too many unanswered questions about genes, brains, and mental health, and patients deserve better answers and better treatments,” she says. “Initially I learned to study slices of post-mortem brain tissue – then I discovered that doing research with whole people is a lot more fun, even if they are more noisy and complicated.”

Kate says she has been extremely lucky to work with “fantastic” colleagues and research participants who share the same curiosities and motivations – “We want to understand brain development and improve care for children with neurodevelopmental disorders and their families. It’s a slow process but it is also very exciting and rewarding.”

Her research looks at the genetic differences that can affect children’s development by changing the way that their brain grows and functions. “The most surprising aspect is how an extremely tiny change in one gene can have a devastating impact, whilst sometimes much larger genetic changes have only subtle effects which vary a lot from one person to another.”

Kate leads a small research team of psychologists and neuroscientists, but particularly enjoys joining forces with scientists from different research fields who use very different approaches to understand the same core problem, “working together to join the dots and build up a more complete answer”.

One such collaboration is with Professor Claire Hughes from the Centre for Family Research. Cambridge collaborations can begin in unlikely places. “Claire and I started discussing the research questions we have addressed in our new paper after a Sunday morning yoga class, not knowing we would be able to work together to actually find some answers!”

Kate hopes her research will make a difference for children and families affected by severe neurodevelopmental disorders, by changing the way we understand these conditions, and also by improving the treatments and support they can receive.

“Until now, treatments have been mainly ‘symptom-focused’, which don’t always work because the same problems, such as limited communication skills or impulsive behaviours, can come about because of many different underlying reasons. If we had a better understanding of each child’s disorder ‘under the surface’, I hope we can improve their quality of life, even for a small number of patients and families.”

As if this wasn’t enough, Kate and her family have embarked on a challenging project. “My husband, children and I have recently built our own home, on the outskirts of Cambridge. So you’re likely to find me nailing plasterboard, wheelbarrowing mud, making curtains, or (more likely) feeding all the friends and family who have come to help us with the project.”


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Women in STEM: Dr Maria Russo

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Dr Maria Russo is a Research Associate in the Department of Chemistry, where she studies the physical and chemical processes at work in the atmosphere. Here, she tells us about the links between climate and air pollution, the excitement of ‘blue-skies’ research, and achieving work/life balance while raising a family.

Cambridge University is an amazing cauldron of very talented people. I have been working in the Department of Chemistry for over ten years as a Research Scientist, funded by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS).  The Earth’s atmosphere and climate are highly complex systems to study and require a multidisciplinary approach. The Cambridge Centre for Climate Science pulls together the skills and knowledge of people from different University departments and the British Antarctic Survey to enable such a multidisciplinary approach. During my undergraduate degree at the University of Palermo in Italy, I spent six months studying in the UK as an Erasmus exchange student. This was an inspiring experience and after completing an MPhil in Chemistry I decided to go back to the UK and pursue a PhD at UCL.

I joined the Met Office after completing my postgraduate degree and worked there as a climate scientist for a few years. However, my job was of a very technical nature and I missed the excitement of interest-led research. A key moment in my career came when I decided to leave my permanent position there to pursue my research interests. I found a very relevant job in Cambridge and decided to accept it, despite the fixed-term nature of University employment. I’m glad I took that risk and followed my interests as this has paid off in the long-term.

My interests include atmospheric pollution in the urban environment, tropical storms and their impact on the ozone layer, and climate change. I use computer simulations to study the interplay of the physical and chemical processes that affect the Earth’s atmosphere and all of its living creatures. Most of my days are spent on a computer looking at large multidimensional datasets and trying to find patterns and trends. We use computer models to simulate the atmosphere and its chemical components, so one of my jobs is to test the model results are accurate, by comparing the model output to observations from satellites.

I hope my research will lead to better understanding of the atmosphere and potentially new ways to understand the links between climate and air pollution, along with increased awareness of the damage that certain technologies could be inflicting on our planet, and in turn on our health.

If pursuing further education in science or a STEM career is what you want to do, then don’t be put off by statistics or what anyone might say. There is a role and a need for more women in STEM and things are getting rapidly and noticeably better for those who follow this path. More flexible working arrangements and the definition of core hours allow women who decide to have a family (such as myself) to continue their career and achieve a reasonable work/life balance. Issues of pay gap and progression still exist but they have started to be addressed thanks to initiatives such as the Athena Swan charter.

 


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World’s First Artificial Pancreas App Licensed For People With Type 1 Diabetes in UK

source: www.cam.ac.uk

The world’s first licensed, downloadable artificial pancreas app for people with type 1 diabetes launches today, based on over a decade of research by Professor Roman Hovorka at the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

This is a major stepping stone towards providing widely available, clinically proven, and user friendly artificial pancreas technology to people with type 1 diabetes

Roman Hovorka

The CamAPS FX app works with an insulin pump and a glucose monitor to automatically deliver insulin to people living with the condition via a complex algorithm.

Around 400,000 people in the UK are affected by type 1 diabetes, 29,000 of them children. It is a chronic, life-threatening condition that has a life-long impact on those diagnosed with it and their families. Currently, people with type 1 diabetes rely on a routine of finger-prick blood tests and insulin injections or infusions just to stay alive, because their pancreas no longer produces insulin itself.

The app – which Professor Hovorka hopes will become available on the NHS in the future – will take over much of the management of the condition. This is particularly important at night, when many people with type 1 diabetes experience potentially dangerous low blood glucose levels.

The app can also upload the user’s blood glucose measurements seamlessly to Diasend, an online platform, allowing their diabetes team to provide more personalised care.

The CamAPS FX app is backed by 13 years of clinical research carried out by Professor Hovorka and his research group at the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science. It is licensed for use by both adults and children with the condition and is the first artificial pancreas system to be licensed for use in pregnancy, or by young children aged one and above.

Professor Hovorka said: “This is a major stepping stone towards providing widely available, clinically proven, and user-friendly artificial pancreas technology to people with type 1 diabetes.

“Our aim is to alleviate the ever-present burden of type 1 diabetes and improve health outcomes. This is the outcome of hard work, with more to come. We are indebted to all who are helping us on this journey.”

At launch, the app will be supported by a small number of UK diabetes clinics. People who wish to use the app will need to confirm which clinic they attend, and must be using a Dana RS pump and a Dexcom G6 continuous glucose monitor.

Professor Hovorka and his research team will work to continue to bring this technology to all who need it, via the NHS. Key to this will be the generation of data to support the case for NHS provision.

The commercial launch is a milestone in the journey towards a fully automated artificial pancreas for everyone with type 1 diabetes. Such technology will fundamentally change life with the condition by working with a range of insulin pumps and glucose monitors to lift the burden of managing a condition that is relentlessly unpredictable day and night.

Professor Hovorka will continue refining the artificial pancreas through research into mealtime glucose control and improving ease of use.

The research behind the app has been funded by the type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, Diabetes UK, the National Institute for Health Research, the National Institutes of Health, Horizon 2020, and The Leona M and Harry B Helmsley Charitable Trust

Karen Addington, UK Chief Executive of JDRF, said: “JDRF is proud to have supported Professor Hovorka’s artificial pancreas research from the beginning, nearly 15 years ago. This app is a major innovation and a significant milestone on the road to a fully automated and interoperable artificial pancreas. There’s still more work to do, but this is an exciting step.”

Fiona O’Reilly, who has been using the app as part of a clinical trial, said: “Overall, it makes me feel free. It is the closest I have been to living without the burden of type 1 diabetes since I was diagnosed, which is a fabulous feeling – I feel less fearful of hypoglycaemia, and less ashamed of the fact that I find achieving good glycaemic control so tricky.

“And it makes me feel more positive of my future with diabetes, that I have a chance of avoiding all the associated complications. It also makes me feel lucky to live in a time where this technology is possible and really grateful to be given the chance to try it out.”

The app is now available for UK users to download onto Android phones via the Amazon Appstore. The app is available on a subscription basis starting at £70 per month.

Adapted from a press release by the JDRF.


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Women in STEM: Oluwaseun Ogundele

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Oluwaseun Ogundele is a research assistant in the Hendrich Lab at the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. Here, she tells us about her work studying the body’s master cells and their role in disease, meeting Nobel Prize winners, and how she’s using social media to increase the visibility of women of colour working in STEM fields.

Embryonic stem cells can either make more copies of themselves, or differentiate to form any cell type in the body. This means that they have the potential to form any tissue, that is, they are pluripotent. How pluripotent cells make the decision to differentiate, and which cell type to differentiate into, is defined by which genes the cell turns on, and which it turns off. Genes are encoded in the cell’s DNA, which gets packaged up in the cell with proteins into a structure called chromatin.

Our lab studies the function of a group of proteins which can change the structure of chromatin, turning genes up, down, or off, in pluripotent cells. Our key questions are: How do pluripotent cells control their gene expression in order to make developmental decisions? How does the function of chromatin-modifying proteins precisely control gene expression patterns?

We are addressing these questions by studying both embryonic stem cells, but also pluripotent cells that exist very early in mammalian development. We aim to better understand how cells make decisions during normal development, but also to understand how these processes occasionally go wrong and result in human diseases such as cancer.

A typical day for me is mostly lab-based, growing generated cell lines in culture and maintaining them in their optimal conditions. I then harvest these cells, running experiments on them to see for example their gene expression dynamics (qPCR analysis), or running western blots. I also do some admin/lab management work, liaising with company representatives, as well as some science communication on social media: follow me on YouTubeInstagramTwitter or Facebook.

The most inspiring day I have had so far was listening to a talk by Nobel Prize winner Sir John Gurdon, which says something the Cambridge science community. The researchers here are leading experts in their fields, but there are lots of opportunities for free-flowing science discussions with them, as well as access to see and learn about the range of good research being done here in Cambridge.

As a person of colour, it can be intimidating or disappointing to see a lack of representation in my field, and that has led to underlying feelings of imposter syndrome, but my advice is to remind yourself that you deserve to be here. I also believe that being open about your journey and experience as a woman in STEM is key, because representation matters!

 


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Learning Difficulties Due To Poor Connectivity, Not Specific Brain Regions, Study Shows

 

source:  www.cam.ac.uk

Different learning difficulties do not correspond to specific regions of the brain, as previously thought, say researchers at the University of Cambridge. Instead poor connectivity between ‘hubs’ within the brain is much more strongly related to children’s difficulties.

Between 14-30% of children and adolescents worldwide have learning difficulties severe enough to require additional support. These difficulties are often associated with cognitive and/or behavioural problems. In some cases, children who are struggling at school receive a formal diagnosis of a specific learning difficulty or disability, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or developmental language disorder, or of a developmental disorder such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia, or autism spectrum disorder.

Scientists have struggled to identify specific areas of the brain that might give rise to these difficulties, with studies implicating myriad brain regions. ADHD, for example, has been linked to the anterior cingulate cortex, caudate nucleus, pallidum, striatum, cerebellum, prefrontal cortex, the premotor cortex and most parts of the parietal lobe.

One potential explanation is that each diagnosis differs so much between one individual and the next, that each involves different combinations of brain regions. However, a more provocative explanation has been proposed by a team of scientists at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge: there are, in fact, no specific brain areas that cause these difficulties.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers used machine learning to map the brain differences across a group of almost 479 children, 337 of whom had been referred with learning-related cognitive problems and 142 from a comparison sample. The algorithm interpreted data taken from a large battery of cognitive, learning, and behavioural measures, as well as from brain scans taken using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The results are published today in Current Biology.

The researchers found that the brain differences did not map onto any labels the children had been given – in other words, there were no brain regions that predicted having ASD or ADHD, for example. More surprisingly, they found that the different brain regions did not even predict specific cognitive difficulties – there was no specific brain deficit for language problems or memory difficulties, for example.

Instead, the team found that the children’s brains were organised around hubs, like an efficient traffic system or social network. Children who had well-connected brain hubs had either very specific cognitive difficulties, such as poor listening skills, or had no cognitive difficulties at all. By contrast, children with poorly connected hubs – like a train station with few or poor connections – had widespread and severe cognitive problems.

“Scientists have argued for decades that there are specific brain regions that predict having a particular learning disorder or difficulty, but we’ve shown that this isn’t the case,” said Dr Duncan Astle, senior author on the study. “In fact, it’s much more important to consider how these brain areas are connected – specifically, whether they are connected via hubs. The severity of learning difficulties was strongly associated with the connectedness of these hubs, we think because these hubs play a key role in sharing information between brain areas.”

Dr Astle said that one implication of their work is that it suggests that interventions should be less reliant on diagnostic labels.

“Receiving a diagnosis is important for families. It can give professional recognition for a child’s difficulties and open the door to specialist support. But in terms of specific interventions, for example from the child’s teachers, they can be a distraction.

“It’s better to look at their areas of cognitive difficulties and how these can be supported, for example using specific interventions to improve listening skills or language competencies, or at interventions that would be good for the whole class, like how to how to reduce working memory demands during learning.”

The findings may explain why drugs treatments have not proven effective for developmental disorders. Methylphenidate (Ritalin), for example, which is used to treat ADHD, appears to reduce hyperactivity, but does not remediate cognitive difficulties or improve educational progress. Drugs tend to target specific types of nerve cells, but would have little impact on a ‘hub-based’ organisation that has emerged over many years.

While this is the first time that hubs and their connections have been shown to play a key role in learning difficulties and developmental disorders, their importance in brain disorders is becoming increasingly clear in recent years. Cambridge researchers have previously shown that they also play an important role in mental health disorders that begin to emerge during adolescence, such as schizophrenia.

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council.

Reference
Siugzdaite, R et al. Transdiagnostic brain mapping in developmental disorders. Current Biology; 27 Feb 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.01.078


Researcher profile: Dr Roma Siugzdaite

Matematika – tai proto gimnastika

Dr Roma Siugzdaite describes her mother, Marijona Siugzdiene, as the best maths teacher in her school in Kaisiadorys, Lithuania. This phrase was written on the wall in her classroom: it means ‘Mathematics is a gymnastics to your mind’.

“Looking back, it seems like it was my destiny written on that wall,” says Roma. “My background studies in mathematics brought me to study the brains and minds of children and people with certain diseases and disorders.”

Nowadays, Roma is based at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge, which means she can impress people at parties by describing herself as a brain scientist. “I am fascinated by the complexity of the brain,” she says.

Her research is aimed at helping children to overcome learning difficulties, but to achieve this she must first understand what happens in the brains of these children.

“Every time I have a hypothesis I need to get some data to test it, whether that’s by old-fashioned, pen and paper tests, using iPads or – as it mostly is – using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). That’s when the fun part begins – data analysis. I love it: it feels like searching for an order in a chaos.”

Fortunately, Cambridge is the ideal place to be doing research on children with learning difficulties, Roma says, in part because of the huge dataset held by the Centre for Attention, Learning and Memory (CALM) at her Unit, but also because of the Unit’s expertise working with MRI data.

Outside of the Unit, Roma – together with her family – will most likely be seen playing basketball. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life. My husband is a basketball coach and now my daughter is playing basketball, too. We love the game!”


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Wine Glass Size May Influence How Much You Drink in Restaurants

source: www.cam.ac.uk

The size of glass used for serving wine can influence the amount of wine drunk, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge, funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR). The study found that when restaurants served wine in 370ml rather than 300ml glasses they sold more wine, and tended to sell less when they used 250ml glasses. These effects were not seen in bars.

If we are serious about tackling the negative effects of drinking alcohol, then we will need to understand the factors that influence how much we consume… Regulating wine glass size is one option that might be considered for inclusion in local licensing regulations for reducing drinking outside the home

Alcohol is the fifth largest contributor to early death in high income countries and the seventh world-wide. One proposed way of reducing the amount of alcohol consumed is to reduce the size of wine glasses, though until now the evidence supporting such a move has been inconclusive and often contradictory.

Wine glasses have increased in size almost seven-fold over the last 300 years with the most marked increase being a doubling in size since 1990. Over the past three centuries, the amount of wine consumed in England has more than quadrupled, although the number of wine consumers stayed constant. Wine sales in bars and restaurants are either of fixed serving sizes when sold by the glass, or – particularly in restaurants – sold by the bottle or carafe for free-pouring by customers or staff.

preliminary study carried out by researchers at the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, University of Cambridge, suggested that serving wine in larger wine glasses – while keeping the measure the same – led to a significant increase in the amount of wine sold.

To provide a robust estimate of the effect size of wine glass size on sales – a proxy for consumption – the Cambridge team did a ‘mega-analysis’ that brought together all of their previously published datasets from studies carried out between 2015 and 2018 at bars and restaurants in Cambridge. The team used 300ml glasses as the reference level against which to compare differences in consumption.

In restaurants, when glass size was increased to 370ml, wine sales increased by 7.3%. Reducing the glass size to 250ml led to a drop of 9.6%, although confidence intervals (the range of values within which the researchers can be fairly certain their true value lies) make this figure uncertain. Curiously, increasing the glass size further to 450ml made no difference compared to using 300ml glasses.

“Pouring wine from a bottle or a carafe, as happens for most wine sold in restaurants, allows people to pour more than a standard serving size, and this effect may increase with the size of the glass and the bottle,” explained first author Dr Mark Pilling. “If these larger portions are still perceived to be ‘a glass’, then we would expect people to buy and consume more wine with larger glasses.

“As glass sizes of 300ml and 370ml are commonly used in restaurants and bars, drinkers may not have noticed the difference and still assumed they were pouring a standard serving. When smaller glass sizes of 250ml are available, they may also appear similar to 300ml glasses but result in a smaller amount of wine being poured. In contrast, very large glasses, such as the 450ml glasses, are more obviously larger, so drinkers may have taken conscious measures to reduce how much they drink, such as drinking more slowly or pouring with greater caution.”

The researchers also found similar internal patterns to those reported in previous studies, namely lower sales of wine on warmer days and much higher sales on Fridays and Saturdays than on Mondays.

The researchers found no significant differences in wine sales by glass size in bars – in contrast to the team’s earlier study. This shows the importance of replicating research to increase our ability to detect the effects of wine glass size. When combined with data from other experiments, the apparent effect in bars disappeared.

“If we are serious about tackling the negative effects of drinking alcohol, then we will need to understand the factors that influence how much we consume,” added senior author Professor Dame Theresa Marteau. “Given our findings, regulating wine glass size is one option that might be considered for inclusion in local licensing regulations for reducing drinking outside the home.”

Professor Ashley Adamson, Director of the NIHR School of Public Health Research, said: “We all like to think we’re immune to subtle influences on our behaviour – like the size of a wine glass – but research like this clearly shows we’re not.

“This important work helps us understand how the small, everyday details of our lives affect our behaviours and so our health. Evidence like this can shape policies that would make it easier for everyone to be a bit healthier without even having to think about it.”

Clive Henn, Senior Alcohol Advisor at Public Health England, welcomed the report: “This interesting study suggests a new alcohol policy approach by looking at how the size of wine glasses may influence how much we drink. It shows how our drinking environment can impact on the way we drink and help us to understand how to develop a drinking environment which helps us to drink less.”

The study received additional funding from Wellcome.

Reference
Pilling, M, Clarke N, Pechey R, Hollands GJ, Marteau TM. The effect of wine glass size on volume of wine sold: A mega-analysis of studies in bars and restaurants. Addiction; 28 Feb 2020; DOI: 10.1111/add.14998


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New Tools Show a Way Forward For Large-Scale Storage of Renewable Energy

source: www.cam.ac.uk

A technique based on the principles of MRI and NMR has allowed researchers to observe not only how next-generation batteries for large-scale energy storage work, but also how they fail, which will assist in the development of strategies to extend battery lifetimes in support of the transition to a zero-carbon future.

We need to understand both how these systems function and also how they fail if we are going to make progress in this field

Clare Grey

The new tools, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, will help scientists design more efficient and safer battery systems for grid-scale energy storage. In addition, the technique may be applied to other types of batteries and electrochemical cells to untangle the complex reaction mechanisms that occur in these systems, and to detect and diagnose faults.

The researchers tested their techniques on organic redox flow batteries, promising candidates to store enough renewable energy to power towns and cities, but which degrade too quickly for commercial applications. The researchers found that by charging the batteries at a lower voltage, they were able to significantly slow the rate of degradation, extending the batteries’ lifespan. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

Batteries are a vital piece of the transition away from fossil fuel-based sources of energy. Without batteries capable of grid-scale storage, it will be impossible to power the economy using solely renewable energy. And lithium-ion batteries, while suitable for consumer electronics, don’t easily scale up to a sufficient size to store enough energy to power an entire city, for instance. Flammable materials in lithium-ion batteries also pose potential safety hazards. The bigger the battery, the more potential damage it could cause if it catches fire.

Redox flow batteries are one possible solution to this technological puzzle. They consist of two tanks of electrolyte liquid, one positive and one negative, and can be scaled up just by increasing the size of the tanks, making them highly suitable for renewable energy storage. These room-sized, or even building-sized, non-flammable batteries may play a key role in future green energy grids.

Several companies are currently developing redox flow batteries for commercial applications, most of which use vanadium as the electrolyte. However, vanadium is expensive and toxic, so battery researchers are working to develop a redox flow battery based on organic materials which are cheaper and more sustainable. However, these molecules tend to degrade quickly.

“Since the organic molecules tend to break down quickly, it means that most batteries using them as electrolytes won’t last very long, making them unsuitable for commercial applications,” said Dr Evan Wenbo Zhao from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, and the paper’s first author. “While we’ve known this for a while, what we haven’t always understood is why this is happening.”

Now, Zhao and his colleagues in Professor Clare Grey’s research group in Cambridge, along with collaborators from the UK, Sweden and Spain, have developed two new techniques to peer inside organic redox flow batteries in order to understand why the electrolyte breaks down and improve their performance.

Using ‘real time’ nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) studies, a sort of functional ‘MRI for batteries’, and methods developed by Professor Grey’s group, the researchers were able to read resonance signals from the organic molecules, both in their original states and as they degraded into other molecules. These ‘operando’ NMR studies of the degradation and self-discharge in redox flow batteries provide insights into the internal underlying mechanisms of the reactions, such as radical formation and electron transfers between the different redox-active species in the solutions.

“There are few in situ mechanistic studies of organic redox flow batteries, systems that are currently limited by degradation issues,” said Grey. “We need to understand both how these systems function and also how they fail if we are going to make progress in this field.”

The researchers found that under certain conditions, the organic molecules tended to degrade more quickly. “If we change the charge conditions by charging at a lower voltage, the electrolyte lasts longer,” said Zhao. “We can also change the structure of the organic molecules so that they degrade more slowly. We now understand better why the charge conditions and molecular structures matter.”

The researchers now want to apply their NMR setup on other types of organic redox flow batteries, as well as on other types of next-generation batteries, such as lithium-air batteries.

“We are excited by the wide range of potential applications of this method to monitor a variety of electrochemical systems while they are being operated,” said Grey.

For example, the NMR technique will be used to develop a portable battery ‘health check’ device to diagnose its condition.

“Using such a device, it could be possible to check the condition of the electrolyte in a functioning organic redox flow battery and replace it if necessary,” said Zhao. “Since the electrolyte for these batteries is inexpensive and non-toxic, this would be a relatively straightforward process, prolonging the life of these batteries.”

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

Reference:
Evan Wenbo Zhao et al. ‘In situ NMR metrology reveals reaction mechanisms in redox flow batteries.’ Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2081-7


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Women in STEM: Krittika D’Silva

source: www.cam.a.cuk

Krittika D’Silva is a PhD candidate in the Department of Computer Science and Technology, a Gates Cambridge Scholar and a member of Jesus College. Alongside her academic research in AI and machine learning, she has worked for NASA on monitoring astronaut health with AI and wearable devices, and for the UN in using data science to inform public policy. Here, she tells us about her motivation, goals, and how she ended up playing a tennis match against HRH Prince Edward.

My PhD research focuses on using machine learning algorithms and network metrics to model urban cities worldwide. A project I led examined the role of network and transport metrics to predict whether a business will survive or fail.

My work at the NASA Frontier Development Lab focused on space medicine. As we send astronauts on longer missions into deep space, they are exposed for longer periods of time to radiation and microgravity both of which create numerous physiological changes.

We’re only just starting to understand these changes, but harnessing AI and wearable devices to monitor astronaut health in space and build autonomous systems of healthcare in space is imperative. I think it’s really exciting work and isn’t talked about nearly as much as it should be since it’s important for all of our future missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond!

The Pulse Lab is an innovation lab formed within the UN to harness data science insights for policy. I worked on modeling internal migration in Vanuatu to support future national resource allocation. The experience with the Global Pulse lab taught me about the importance of translating research insights into practice. It provided me with exposure to public policy which was work I found interesting and impactful.

On a daily basis my research primarily involves me reading papers or coding at my computer from the Department of Computer Science and Technology, in West Cambridge.

The most interesting day I’ve had so far in academia was when I was invited to travel to the UN office in New Delhi, India to help lead and present at a workshop on the potential for machine learning in the public sector. It was an opportunity to meet with those outside my field and share current machine learning research that I found exciting!

Last year, I was invited to a private estate in Kent, for a day of tennis with HRH Prince Edward, the son of Queen Elizabeth II. I played in a doubles match against HRH and although I lost, it was a unique opportunity and one I’ll never forget!

I hope my work can utilise machine learning to have a positive impact on the world. The private sector has harnessed machine learning to support products, advertisements, and services. However, the public sector has been slower to use the potential of machine learning to support government decision making and inform policy. In the future, I expect technology to play a larger role in development efforts worldwide. After my studies, I hope to support this work using my background in technology.

Cambridge has been a fantastic place to do my PhD research. The professors, peers, and resources are world-class. I’ve been given funding to travel and present my work at top-tier conferences worldwide as well as to work on international collaborations. I have also had the flexibility and exposure to internship opportunities which have enabled me to work in new countries, fields, and projects.

My advice for women considering a career in a STEM field is to find role models in the field who can support and guide you over the course of your career. I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of mentors who have helped to find opportunities, think through career decisions, and network with others in the field. This mentorship has been priceless.


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Large Exoplanet Could Have The Right Conditions For Life

 

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Astronomers have found an exoplanet more than twice the size of Earth to be potentially habitable, opening the search for life to planets significantly larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune.

Water vapour has been detected in the atmospheres of a number of exoplanets but, even if the planet is in the habitable zone, that doesn’t necessarily mean there are habitable conditions on the surface

Nikku Madhusudhan

A team from the University of Cambridge used the mass, radius, and atmospheric data of the exoplanet K2-18b and determined that it’s possible for the planet to host liquid water at habitable conditions beneath its hydrogen-rich atmosphere. The results are reported in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The exoplanet K2-18b, 124 light-years away, is 2.6 times the radius and 8.6 times the mass of Earth, and orbits its star within the habitable zone, where temperatures could allow liquid water to exist. The planet was the subject of significant media coverage in the autumn of 2019, as two different teams reported detection of water vapour in its hydrogen-rich atmosphere. However, the extent of the atmosphere and the conditions of the interior underneath remained unknown.

“Water vapour has been detected in the atmospheres of a number of exoplanets but, even if the planet is in the habitable zone, that doesn’t necessarily mean there are habitable conditions on the surface,” said Dr Nikku Madhusudhan from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who led the new research. “To establish the prospects for habitability, it is important to obtain a unified understanding of the interior and atmospheric conditions on the planet – in particular, whether liquid water can exist beneath the atmosphere.”

Given the large size of K2-18b, it has been suggested that it would be more like a smaller version of Neptune than a larger version of Earth. A ‘mini-Neptune’ is expected to have a significant hydrogen ‘envelope’ surrounding a layer of high-pressure water, with an inner core of rock and iron. If the hydrogen envelope is too thick, the temperature and pressure at the surface of the water layer beneath would be far too great to support life.

Now, Madhusudhan and his team have shown that despite the size of K2-18b, its hydrogen envelope is not necessarily too thick and the water layer could have the right conditions to support life. They used the existing observations of the atmosphere, as well as the mass and radius, to determine the composition and structure of both the atmosphere and interior using detailed numerical models and statistical methods to explain the data.

The researchers confirmed the atmosphere to be hydrogen-rich with a significant amount of water vapour. They also found that levels of other chemicals such as methane and ammonia were lower than expected for such an atmosphere. Whether these levels can be attributed to biological processes remains to be seen.

The team then used the atmospheric properties as boundary conditions for models of the planetary interior. They explored a wide range of models that could explain the atmospheric properties as well as the mass and radius of the planet. This allowed them to obtain the range of possible conditions in the interior, including the extent of the hydrogen envelope and the temperatures and pressures in the water layer.

“We wanted to know the thickness of the hydrogen envelope – how deep the hydrogen goes,” said co-author Matthew Nixon, a PhD student at the Institute of Astronomy. “While this is a question with multiple solutions, we’ve shown that you don’t need much hydrogen to explain all the observations together.”

The researchers found that the maximum extent of the hydrogen envelope allowed by the data is around 6% of the planet’s mass, though most of the solutions require much less. The minimum amount of hydrogen is about one-millionth by mass, similar to the mass fraction of the Earth’s atmosphere. In particular, a number of scenarios allow for an ocean world, with liquid water below the atmosphere at pressures and temperatures similar to those found in Earth’s oceans.

This study opens the search for habitable conditions and bio-signatures outside the solar system to exoplanets that are significantly larger than Earth, beyond Earth-like exoplanets. Additionally, planets such as K2-18b are more accessible to atmospheric observations with current and future observational facilities. The atmospheric constraints obtained in this study can be refined using future observations with large facilities such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

Reference:
Nikku Madhusudhan et al. ‘The interior and atmosphere of the habitable-zone exoplanet K2-18b.’ The Astrophysical Journal Letters (2020). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ab7229 


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New Approaches To Help Businesses Tackle Climate Change

source: www,cam.ac.uk

Climate change could add around 20% to the global cost of extreme weather events by 2040, according to early findings from Cambridge researchers, who are urging businesses to evaluate their own exposures to the growing risk to improve their resilience and sustainability.

The findings come from the Cambridge Climate Change Business Risk Index, a new component of the Cambridge Global Risk Index. The index is developed by the Centre for Risk Studies, with Cambridge Zero and British Antarctic Survey. The initial results will be announced today at an event for business leaders and climate scientists at Cambridge Judge Business School.

The index incorporates climate model outputs to analyse and quantify the increasing risks of extreme weather events, and their potential to disrupt business operations and supply chains globally. Today’s event is designed to provide a platform for climate scientists to consult with the business community and ensure that final outputs meet business needs.

For example, the index shows that, by 2040, businesses in Chicago can expect a 50% chance of having an additional 20 days a year where average temperatures will exceed 25ºC and an additional week of days above 30ºC. It is expected that climate change will add around 20% to the global cost of extreme weather events, such as storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts. It is estimated that extreme weather events will increase from reported losses at present running at an average of around $195 billion a year in direct costs to $234 billion by 2040, an increase of $39 billion a year at today’s values.

If the indirect costs from supply chain disruption and other knock-on economic consequences are factored in, it is possible that climate change could add over $100 billion of loss each year to the global economy.

Accurately quantifying this kind of information on business-relevant timescales will help businesses plan for their increased exposure to heatwaves and other climate-related risks.

Climate change is a growing concern for businesses. Many corporations are trying to understand how it is likely to affect them, the actions that they may need to undertake for sustainability as well as commercial and competitive reasons, and the regulatory requirements or other liabilities they may face.

“Companies are struggling to reconcile the long-range forecasts of the consequences of a warmer planet in several decades’ time, with weather changes that are already impacting their businesses in various ways, and how their business will be affected by the transitions that society is making today towards a low-carbon economy,” said Dr Andrew Coburn, Chief Scientist at the Centre for Risk Studies.

The University of Cambridge has recently launched Cambridge Zero, which brings together its research, policy, and private sector engagement activities on climate change and zero-carbon solutions.

“Cambridge Zero provides an opportunity for the University’s research expertise to contribute information and tools for use by businesses, as well as policymakers and other stakeholders,” said Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero.

Today’s event brings together business executives with climate scientists to help improve the dialogue between the two, with the aim of allowing businesses to articulate what they need from the science to aid their business decisions, and for scientists to help businesses understand the risks that they face and to provide information and data in formats that businesses can readily consume.

The event is hosted by the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies, in collaboration with Cambridge Zero, British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, Hughes Hall Centre for Climate Change Engagement, and Chapter Zero.


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The Climate Crisis: Towards Zero Carbon

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Sir David Attenborough, Dr Jane Goodall DBE and leading Cambridge University researchers talk about the urgency of climate crisis – and some of the solutions that will take us towards zero carbon.

There are huge opportunities to getting things right – the only way to operate is to believe we can do something about it – and I truly think we can.

Sir David Attenborough

If we are to avoid climate disaster we must sharply reduce our carbon dioxide emissions starting today – but how?

In a new film, Cambridge researchers describe their work on generating and storing renewable energy, reducing energy consumption, understanding the impact of climate policies, and probing how we can each reduce our environmental impact. Alumni Sir David Attenborough and Dr Jane Goodall DBE speak about the climate crisis and reasons for hope.

We hear about the ambitious new programme Cambridge Zero bringing together ideas and innovations to tackle the global challenge of climate catastrophe – and inspiring a generation of future leaders – and how the University is looking at its own operations to develop a zero carbon pathway for the future.

 

Explore more:

Visit our spotlight on Sustainable Earth

Read our Horizons magazine: download a pdf; view on Issuu


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Global Coalition Needed To Transform Girls’ Education – Report

source: www.cam.ac.uk

A new report aims to provide a framework so that “governments and those in power can turn goodwill into action”.

We need to look beyond what individuals, or single Governments can do

Pauline Rose

A ‘global coalition of parliamentarians’ needs to be set up to meet the urgent international challenge of delivering a quality education to millions of girls who are currently being denied access to any at all, a new report says.

The study, written by academics in the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, and commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, urges politicians to collaborate ‘across geographical and political divides’, in a concerted drive to ensure that all girls gain access to education by an internationally-agreed target date of 2030.

According to data gathered by UNESCO, an estimated 130 million girls are currently out of school. Over half of all school-age girls do not achieve a minimum standard in reading and mathematics, even if they do receive an education.

The call for collective, inter-governmental approaches to address this is one of seven recommendations in the report, which together aim to provide a framework for ‘transformative political action’.

Among others, the authors also stress that marginalised girls will only be able to access education if governments adopt a ‘whole-system’ approach to the problem. That means addressing wider societal issues that currently limit women’s life chances beyond education – such as gender-based violence, discrimination, or social norms that force young girls into early marriage and childbearing.

The full report, Transformative political leadership to promote 12 years of quality education for girls, is being published on 25 February, 2020, by the Platform for Girls’ Education. It is being launched in Geneva, as ministers convene for the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council.

Co-author, Pauline Rose, Director of the University’s REAL Centre said: “Everyone – or almost everyone – agrees that improving girls’ access to quality education is important, but progress has been limited. The report aims to provide a framework so that governments and those in power can turn goodwill into action.”

“More than anything, we need to look beyond what individuals, or single Governments can do, because we will only address this challenge successfully through bipartisan coalitions and collective approaches.”

The need to improve girls’ access to education is recognised in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, set in 2015. These include commitments to provide inclusive and quality education to all, and to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, by the year 2030.

With the clock ticking on that deadline, initiatives such as the Platform for Girls’ Education have been launched to lobby for quality education for girls. The Platform is part of the international ‘Leave No Girl Behind’ campaign, which calls for all girls to receive 12 years of quality education – an ambition restated by the present British Government in the December 2019 Queen’s speech.

In a statement accompanying the report’s release, however, the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), which provided feedback on the study, observes that: “Political momentum is not being sufficiently translated into reforms that will put us on track to achieve our Global Goals by 2030. The world is failing to deliver on its promise of quality education, and girls remain the most marginalised.”

Building on earlier studies, the new report identifies seven ways in which governments can take concrete, sustainable and effective action to resolve this.

It was based on a global review of current efforts, with a focus on low and lower-middle income countries. The researchers also carried out interviews with 11 current and former political leaders involved in championing girls’ education.

Its seven main recommendations are:

  • Heads of government, ministers and MPs must use their platform to demonstrate commitment to the development of policies supporting the aim of 12 years of quality education for all girls. Senior civil servants should be equipped to ensure that this continues across election cycles.
  • Women leaders should be represented at every level of government to improve gender-balance in decision-making and to act as role models.
  • A global coalition of parliamentarians should be established to advocate for girls’ education, working across political divides.
  • Senior civil servants should invest in and use data on education that separates out information on gender and other sources of disadvantage, so that this evidence can inform policy-making.
  • Political leaders must collaborate with key stakeholders in gender equality and education issues – such as women’s and youth organisations, civil society organisations, and religious leaders.
  • Government ministers and civil servants should take whole-system approaches to embedding gender equality in national plans and policies, given the multiple barriers to girls’ education.
  • Governments should implement gender-responsive budgeting, that ensure sufficient domestic resources are applied to girls’ education.

“Successful reform rarely depends on individuals acting alone,” the authors add. “It relies on alliances, collective action and advocacy. Networks and coalitions are vital to tackle issues that are beyond the capacity of individuals to resolve, as well as to provide a stronger, collective voice.”

The full report is available at: https://lngb.ungei.org/ 


Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Watching Magnetic Nano ‘Tornadoes’ in 3D

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Scientists have developed a three-dimensional imaging technique to observe complex behaviours in magnets, including fast-moving waves and ‘tornadoes’ thousands of times thinner than a human hair.

We can now investigate the dynamics of new types of systems that could open up new applications we haven’t even thought of

Claire Donnelly

The team, from the Universities of Cambridge and Glasgow in the UK and ETH Zurich and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, used their technique to observe how the magnetisation behaves, the first time this has been done in three dimensions. The technique, called time-resolved magnetic laminography, could be used to understand and control the behaviour of new types of magnets for next-generation data storage and processing. The results are reported in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Magnets are widely used in applications from data storage to energy production and sensors. In order to understand why magnets behave the way they do, it is important to understand the structure of their magnetisation, and how that structure reacts to changing currents or magnetic fields.

“Until now, it hasn’t been possible to actually measure how magnets respond to changing magnetic fields in three dimensions,” said Dr Claire Donnelly from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, and the study’s first author. “We’ve only really been able to observe these behaviours in thin films, which are essentially two dimensional, and which therefore don’t give us a complete picture.”

Moving from two dimensions to three is highly complex, however. Modelling and visualising magnetic behaviour is relatively straightforward in two dimensions, but in three dimensions, the magnetisation can point in any direction and form patterns, which is what makes magnets so powerful.

“Not only is it important to know what patterns and structures this magnetisation forms, but it’s essential to understand how it reacts to external stimuli,” said Donnelly. “These responses are interesting from a fundamental point of view, but they are crucial when it comes to magnetic devices used in technology and applications.”

One of the main challenges in investigating these responses is tied to the very reason magnetic materials are so relevant for so many applications: changes in the magnetisation typically are extremely small, and happen extremely fast. Magnetic configurations – so-called domain structures – exhibit features on the order of tens to hundreds of nanometres, thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair, and typically react to magnetic fields and currents in billionths of a second.

Now, Donnelly and her collaborators from the Paul Scherrer Institute, the University of Glasgow and ETH Zurich have developed a technique to look inside a magnet, visualise its nanostructure, and how it responds to a changing magnetic field in three dimensions, and at the size and timescales required.

The technique they developed, time-resolved magnetic laminography, uses ultra-bright X-rays from a synchrotron source to probe the magnetic state from different directions at the nanoscale, and how it changes in response to a quickly alternating magnetic field. The resulting seven-dimensional dataset (three dimensions for the position, three for the direction and one for the time) is then obtained using a specially developed reconstruction algorithm, providing a map of the magnetisation dynamics with 70 picosecond temporal resolution, and 50 nanometre spatial resolution.

What the researchers saw with their technique was like a nanoscale storm: patterns of waves and tornadoes moving side to side as the magnetic field changed. The movement of these tornadoes, or vortices, had previously only been observed in two dimensions.

The researchers tested their technique using conventional magnets, but they say it could also be useful in the development of new types of magnets which exhibit new types of magnetism. These new magnets, such as 3D-printed nanomagnets, could be useful for new types of high-density, high-efficiency data storage and processing.

“We can now investigate the dynamics of new types of systems that could open up new applications we haven’t even thought of,” said Donnelly. “This new tool will help us to understand, and control, their behaviour.”

The research was funded in part by the Leverhulme Trust, the Isaac Newton Trust and the European Union.

Reference:
Claire Donnelly et al. ‘Time-resolved imaging of three-dimensional nanoscale magnetization dynamics.’ Nature Nanotechnology (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41565-020-0649-x


Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Cambridge Biomedical Campus Designated as a Life Sciences Opportunity Zone

The Cambridge Biomedical Campus (CBC), home to world leading hospitals, research and industry, has been named as one of the Government’s six new Life Sciences Opportunity Zones.

The announcement by the Minister for Business and Industry Nadhim Zahawi MP, confirms the site, which employs over 20,000 people, as one of the leading areas for life sciences in the country, delivering jobs, economic growth and improved health and care for the UK.

Life Sciences Opportunity Zones will form a key part of the Government’s strategy to support the growth of this sector throughout the UK and CBC is joined by: Stevenage Advanced Therapies Campus, Birmingham Life Sciences Park, Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, Porton Science Park and Discovery Park, Sandwich.

Life Sciences Minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “I am delighted to announce new Life Science Opportunity Zones which will boost this important thriving sector. The UK is home to one of the strongest, most vibrant health and life science industries globally, improving people’s lives.”

Laurel Powers-Freeling, Chair of Cambridge University Health Partners, said: “It is fantastic for the Cambridge Biomedical Campus to be selected as one of the UK’s Life Sciences Opportunity Zones. In recent years, the site has grown into one of the richest pools of clinical and scientific knowledge and expertise in the world, with Cancer Research UK and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology next door to industry giants such as GSK and AstraZeneca, underpinned by the extraordinary strengths of the University of Cambridge and three highly respected research-active NHS Trusts. All these organisations and many more are working to translate new discoveries into health benefits, providing the best care and treatment for patients.

“The future for the campus is incredibly exciting as we have space to grow – last year we welcomed Abcam and Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and saw the opening of the Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre. The site is built on collaboration as researchers, clinicians and businesses work together across disciplines to realise new treatments, devices and therapeutics. We are now seeing the potential of co-locating world class companies, research institutes and healthcare providers coming to fruition, resulting in a hugely positive impact for future health and care – both across the UK and internationally.”

Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and leader of the Combined Authority of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough James Palmer said: “I am really pleased that the Cambridge Biomedical Campus has been named as one of the UK’s Life Sciences Opportunity Zones; this is a fantastic recognition of the huge potential for medical research and innovation that the Biomedical Campus represents. The campus encourages collaboration and radical thinking, enabling world-leading hospitals, industry partners and research bodies to work together to develop ground-breaking therapies; as an organisation committed to innovative action, the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority fully supports this approach and celebrates its positive results. The Biomedical Campus is a hugely important employment centre for Cambridge and the region, and we are determined to futureproof the infrastructure to support its continual development.”

The site was founded over 50 years ago through the co-location of Addenbrooke’s (now Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH) with the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) and the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine. In 2009, planning permission covering over 70 acres catalysed the first phase expansion of the CBC, while an additional 18.5 acres was released for development in 2016.

First Electric Buses Unveiled in Cambridge

source: https://www.itv.com/

  • Video report by ITV News Anglia’s Stuart Leithes

The government has announced a £5 billion funding boost for environmentally friendly public transport.

The money will be spent improving bus and cycling routes in every area of the UK, including the Anglia region, and an extra 4000 zero emission buses will be rolled out across England and Wales.

According to the latest figures from the Department for Transport, there are currently 12,000 buses and coaches operating in the East of England, with 22 of those low emission.

We are going to invest in every region outside of London.

It will mean more buses, high frequency buses, simpler and more affordable fares, less congestion for those buses with dedicated lanes.

When it comes to cycling we want to make that more easier and safer.

– SAJID JAVID MP, CHANCELLOR

 The first electric buses to run in Greater Cambridge have been introduced t
The first electric buses to run in Greater Cambridge have been introduced t Credit: ITV Anglia

Today, the first electric buses to run in Greater Cambridge were introduced by the Greater Cambridge Partnership and Stagecoach East

Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer, chair of the GCP, said: “The Greater Cambridge Partnership is aiming to really transform transport in the Cambridge area, make a difference to congestion that is holding us back in so many ways and also improve air quality and reduce our carbon emissions.

“To do that we will be using alternative means of power like these electric buses.”

The new vehicles can travel 160 miles on a single charge and will operate on the number 6 route serving the city centre, Girton and Oaktington.

The GCP has provided around £400,000 to help introduce the vehicles into service.

22
The number of low emission buses based in the East of England

Stagecoach's zero-emission buses will be operating in Cambridgeshire
Stagecoach’s zero-emission buses will be operating in Cambridgeshire Credit: ITV Anglia