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New Centre to Foster Global Conversations About Ethical Issues Faised By Science

 

 

University of Cambridge announces the launch of the Kavli Centre for Ethics, Science, and the Public, to engage publics and scientists with the ethical implications of scientific discovery and its impact on society.

 

Major scientific breakthroughs deepen our understanding of nature and ourselves. Such discoveries have the potential to transform our everyday lives.

Yet the same science that holds promise for progress often raises concerns and questions for society.

Who bears responsibility for the societal and ethical implications of scientific discoveries? When and how should wider public views be brought into discussion about the direction of scientific research, its benefits and risks? How can members of the public, ethicists and scientists be empowered to take part in meaningful and constructive dialogue? And what can we do to help researchers negotiate a path through these complexities?

The new Kavli Centre for Ethics, Science, and the Public at the University of Cambridge will tackle these critical questions.

Announcing the launch today, Professor Anna Middleton, inaugural Director of the Kavli Centre for Ethics, Science, and the Public at the University of Cambridge, said: “From the discovery of DNA to the development of the first AI, and to the sequencing of 20% of the world’s COVID-19 virus today, Cambridge is at the cutting edge of science, and has been for centuries. This is truly a place where the big questions get explored. Through collaboration with experts in popular culture we will find the evidence base to drive conversations with everyday people around the ethical issues raised by science, so that all of us can share in decision making around the implications of science for society.”

The Kavli Centre will foster global conversations and pursue fundamentally new ways to build and create new spaces and mechanisms for interaction on the ethical issues associated with scientific discovery. It will create a programme of innovative research and public engagement on broad scientific domains, initially focusing on three rapidly changing fields: genome editing, artificial intelligence and big data.

The Centre is a unique collaboration between the University of Cambridge and Wellcome Connecting Science, with funding from The Kavli Foundation. Building on the close relationship between the University and Wellcome Connecting Science, it will work with international partners and have a global view.

Cynthia Friend, President of the Kavli Foundation: “This is an exciting and innovative endeavour. Ensuring the public is meaningfully involved in ethical considerations born from scientific discovery is important. The vision, creativity, and global community of the Cambridge team impressed us.”

Alongside inaugural Director Professor Anna Middleton, the Kavli Centre will be supported by Dr. Richard Milne as Deputy Director and Lead for Research, and Dr. Catherine Galloway as Lead for Innovation and Translation.

The Kavli Centre for Ethics, Science, and the Public will be hosted within the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education as its primary base, with a physical presence at Wellcome Connecting Science premises on the Wellcome Genome Campus near Cambridge.

Today also sees the launch of a sister Kavli Center for Ethics, Science, and the Public at UC Berkeley in the United States. With a similar mission but an independent programme to its Cambridge counterpart, the Berkeley centre will initially address artificial intelligence, genome editing and neuroscience. The two centres may collaborate on key projects or events.


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Drinkers Risk Exceeding Legal Driving Limit By Underestimating How Drunk They Are

Man pouring a pint of beer
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

As many as a half of all drinkers underestimated how drunk they were, judging themselves still safe to drive despite having exceeded the legal driving limit, in new research published today.

 

In countries with legal alcohol limits, it’s usually the driver who makes a judgement about how much they’ve drunk and how fit they are to drive. But as we’ve shown, we are not always good at making this judgement

Kai Hensel

Worldwide, drunk driving is a major problem, despite decades of health promotion activities. Road traffic injuries have become the leading killer of people aged five to 29 years, and recently, the World Health Organization has said that alcohol-related traffic accidents are one of the major causes. In 2019, between 210 and 250 people were killed in accidents in Britain where at least one driver was over the drink-drive limit, the highest level since 2009.

Drinking alcohol causes significant impairment to our motor function, and the more we drink, the worse this becomes. Drunk drivers may struggle to keep their vehicle in lane and have slow reaction times, as well as being more likely to take risks.

In research published today in the Harm Reduction Journal, a team of researchers from Witten/Herdecke University and the University of Cambridge studied how accurately participants were able to estimate their fitness to drive after drinking alcohol.

Ninety students (average age 24 years old) took part in an experiment on two separate days. Participants were split into two groups: a study group and a control group. Both groups consumed either beer or wine or both until they reached a maximum breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) of 0.11%.

The research was carried out in Germany, where the legal driving limit is a BrAC of 0.05% (in England and Wales, the level is 0.08%).

In the study group, participants were told at the start that when they reached a BrAC of 0.05%, they would be switched from beer to wine or vice versa, though it was not explicitly explained that this was the legal driving limit.

The researchers monitored each participant’s breath alcohol concentration using breathalysers. With each measurement, they asked the participants to estimate their own breath alcohol concentration. All participants were asked to come forward when they thought they had reached the legal driving limit.

The team found that on the first study day, more than a third (39%) of participants who believed they had reached the legal driving limit had in fact already exceeded this threshold. On the second day this proportion increased to more than half (53%).

Dr Kai Hensel from Witten/Herdecke University and the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: “In countries with legal alcohol limits, it’s usually the driver who makes a judgement about how much they’ve drunk and how fit they are to drive. But as we’ve shown, we are not always good at making this judgement. As many as one in two people in our study underestimated how drunk they were – and this can have devastating consequences.”

The researchers also noticed that participants became poorer at estimating their BrAC level the drunker they became. “This could have serious consequences in England and Wales, where the legal driving limit is higher, as it suggests that a significant number of people might misjudge how drunk they are and consider themselves fit to drive when in fact they have a potentially dangerously high level of alcohol in their blood,” added Dr Hensel.

 

To see whether people were able to improve their ability to estimate how drunk they are, the researchers compared the volunteers’ self-estimation of having reached the legal driving limit between the two study days. For the study group participants were better able to estimate how drink they were on the second day, but this was not the case for the control group.

Dr Hensel added: “Drinking and driving is a major risk fact for road traffic accidents. Anything that can be done to reduce these numbers is worth trying. With guidance, our participants were able to improve their judgement. It could be that pop-up stalls set up around drinking establishments to help people understand their breath alcohol concentration might help.

“Really, the best advice is that if you’re driving, just don’t drink. But if you really do feel like a drink, then look into your own alcohol tolerance. This differs from one person to the next, depending on your sex, weight and age, and there are some reliable apps out there that can help guide you.”

Carlsberg donated 420 litres of beer to be utilised for research purposes only, but had no role in the design, conduct, or analyses of the study.

Reference
Köchling, J et al. The hazardous (mis)perception of Self-estimated Alcohol intoxication and Fitness to drivE – an avoidable health risk: the SAFE randomised trial. Harm Reduction Journal; 7 Dec 2021; DOI: 10.1186/s12954-021-00567-4


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Miniature Grinding Mill Closes In On The Details Of ‘Green’ Chemical Reactions

Miniature Grinding Mill Closes In On The Details Of ‘Green’ Chemical Reactions

Person in laboratory holding a flask
Person in laboratory holding a flask Credit: Photo by Chokniti Khongchum from Pexels

 

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a new approach for observing mechanochemical reactions — where simple ingredients are ground up to make new chemical compounds and materials that can be used in anything from the pharmaceutical to the metallurgical, cement and mineral industries.

 

It’s exciting because it opens up the study of mechanochemistry to all areas of chemistry and materials science

Giulio Lampronti

The study, published in Nature Communications and led by Cambridge Earth Sciences’ Dr Giulio Lampronti, observed reactions as materials were pulverised inside a miniaturised grinding mill — providing new detail on the structure and formation of crystals.

Knowledge of the structure of these newly-formed materials, which have been subjected to considerable pressures, helps scientists unravel the kinetics involved in mechanochemistry. But they are rarely able to observe it at the level of detail seen in this new work.

The study also involved Dr Ana Belenguer and Professor Jeremy Sanders from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry.

Mechanochemistry is touted as a ‘green’ tool because it can make new materials without using bulk solvents that are harmful to the environment. Despite decades of research, the process behind these reactions remains poorly understood.

To learn more about mechanochemical reactions, scientists usually observe chemical transformations in real time, as ingredients are churned and ground in a mill — like mixing a cake — to create complex chemical components and materials.

Once milling has stopped, however, the material can keep morphing into something completely different, so scientists need to record the reaction with as little disturbance as possible — using an imaging technique called time-resolved in-situ analysis to essentially capture a movie of the reactions. But, until now, this method has only offered a grainy picture of the unfolding reactions.

By shrinking the mills and taking the sample size down from several hundred milligrams to less than ten milligrams, Lampronti and the team were able to more accurately capture the size and microscopic structure of crystals using a technique called X-ray diffraction.

The down-scaled analysis could also allow scientists to study smaller, safer, quantities of toxic or expensive materials. “We realised that this miniaturised setup had several other important advantages, aside from better structural analysis,” said Lampronti. “The smaller sample size also means that more challenging analyses of scarce and toxic materials becomes possible, and it’s also exciting because it opens up the study of mechanochemistry to all areas of chemistry and materials science.”

“The combination of new miniature jars designed by Ana, and the experimental and analytical techniques introduced by Giulio, promise to transform our ability to follow and understand solid-state reactions as they happen,” said Sanders.

The team observed a range of reactions with their new miniaturised setup, covering organic and inorganic materials as well as metal-organic materials — proving their technique could be applied to a wide range of industry problems. One of the materials they studied, ZIF-8, could be used for carbon capture and storage, because of its ability to capture large amounts of CO2. The new view on these materials meant they were able to uncover previously undetected structural details, including distortion of the crystal lattice in the ZIF-8 framework.

Lampronti says their new developments could not only become routine practice for the study of mechanochemistry, but also offer up completely new directions for research in this influential field, “Our method allows for much faster kinetics, and will open up doors for previously inaccessible reactions — this could really change the playing field of mechanochemistry as we know it.”

Reference:
Giulio I. Lampronti et al. ‘Changing the game of time resolved X-ray diffraction on the mechanochemistry playground by downsizing.’ Nature Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-26264-1

source: www.cam.ac.uk


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Collaboration Could Enable Cancer Patients To Get Faster and More Personalised Treatment

Collaboration Could Enable Cancer Patients To Get Faster and More Personalised Treatment

Web network graphic
Web network Credit: geralt

 

GE Healthcare, the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals have agreed to collaborate on developing an application aiming to improve cancer care, with Cambridge providing clinical expertise and data to support GE Healthcare’s development and evaluation of an AI-enhanced application that integrates cancer patient data from multiple sources into a single interface.

 

Ovarian cancer is an important and complex disease with poor outcomes, and we believe this application would help us deal with its complexity

James Brenton

Building on research supported by The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research and Cancer Research UK, the collaboration aims to address the problems of fragmented or siloed data and disconnected patient information, which is challenging for clinicians to manage effectively and can prevent cancer patients receiving optimal treatment.

“Thanks to ever-improving technologies, we now generate increasing amounts of complex data for each patient with cancer,” said Professor Richard Gilbertson, Director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, and Head of the Department of Oncology at the University of Cambridge. “These include multiple imaging scans, digital pathology, genomic data, advanced blood tests and treatment information. Bringing all this data together to make precise and informed decisions for patients can be hard. We often do this inefficiently and miss important connections between the data.”

This new application would be designed using advanced software engineering and machine learning methods to integrate a variety of patient data including clinical, imaging and genomic data – from diagnosis through every stage of treatment – into one single location. The aim is to offer all medical teams involved in a patient’s cancer care – medical oncologists, clinical oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, pathologists, clinical nurse specialists and more – simultaneous access to the necessary data and information to allow the medical team to plan the best, most personalised treatment for each of their patients.

The application is expected to be evaluated for ovarian cancer initially in Cambridge and the goal is to evaluate it across the UK, and beyond. Ovarian cancer is often difficult to treat as most patients present with advanced disease. Although initially 70-80% of patients will respond well to chemotherapy, ultimately most develop chemotherapy resistance leading to treatment failure.  The application may help clinicians have better visibility on how the patient respond to treatment, thus helping them more effectively identify when treatment may require adjustment. If the application is successfully developed, our vision is for it to be expanded for use in breast and kidney cancer patients.

“Healthcare professionals can struggle to easily find and interpret the many different types of patient data information they need to make the best clinical decisions,” said Dr Ben Newton, GM Oncology at GE Healthcare. “Bringing these multiple data streams into a single interface could enable clinicians to make fast, informed and highly personalised treatment decisions throughout a patient’s cancer care pathway.”

Two Addenbrooke’s cancer clinicians aiming to evaluate the application to help patients are consultant oncologist Professor James Brenton, professor of Ovarian Cancer Medicine and a senior group leader at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute; and consultant radiologist Professor Evis Sala, professor of Oncological Imaging, University of Cambridge.

“Aggregating and analysing the substantial amounts of data available would help address an unmet need. Ovarian cancer is an important and complex disease with poor outcomes, and we believe this application would help us deal with its complexity. Eventually, we hope to be able to better understand the disease and therefore improve treatment and outcomes for patients,” says Professor Brenton, who co-leads the Mark Foundation Institute for Integrated Cancer Medicine (MFICM) at the University of Cambridge.

“If we can aggregate and integrate relevant data along the care pathway, and visualize the output, it may ultimately lead to clinicians making better-informed decisions and better care.” adds Professor Sala who also co-leads the MFICM at the University of Cambridge.

“The team aims to transform the delivery of cancer patient care by integrating multiple data streams together into a single platform that can be accessed simultaneously by clinicians, patients and multi-disciplinary teams from tertiary and regional hospitals.”

The development work will be underpinned by GE Healthcare’s Edison platform to integrate data from diverse sources, such as electronic health records and radiology information systems, imaging and other medical device data.

source: www.cam.ac.uk


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Colour-Changing Magnifying Glass Gives Clear View of Infrared Light

Colour-Changing Magnifying Glass Gives Clear View of Infrared Light

Nano-antennas convert invisible infrared into visible light
Nano-antennas convert invisible infrared into visible light Credit: NanoPhotonics Cambridge/Ermanno Miele, Jeremy Baumberg

 

By trapping light into tiny crevices of gold, researchers have coaxed molecules to convert invisible infrared into visible light, creating new low-cost detectors for sensing.

 

It’s like listening to slow-rippling earthquake waves by colliding them with a violin string to get a high whistle that’s easy to hear, and without breaking the violin

Jeremy Baumberg

Detecting light beyond the visible red range of our eyes is hard to do, because infrared light carries so little energy compared to ambient heat at room temperature. This obscures infrared light unless specialised detectors are chilled to very low temperatures, which is both expensive and energy-intensive.

Now researchers led by the University of Cambridge have demonstrated a new concept in detecting infrared light, showing how to convert it into visible light, which is easily detected.

In collaboration with colleagues from the UK, Spain and Belgium, the team used a single layer of molecules to absorb the mid-infrared light inside their vibrating chemical bonds. These shaking molecules can donate their energy to visible light that they encounter, ‘upconverting’ it to emissions closer to the blue end of the spectrum, which can then be detected by modern visible-light cameras.

The results, reported in the journal Science, open up new low-cost ways to sense contaminants, track cancers, check gas mixtures, and remotely sense the outer universe.

The challenge faced by the researchers was to make sure the quaking molecules met the visible light quickly enough. “This meant we had to trap light really tightly around the molecules, by squeezing it into crevices surrounded by gold,” said first author Angelos Xomalis from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

The researchers devised a way to sandwich single molecular layers between a mirror and tiny chunks of gold, only possible with ‘meta-materials’ that can twist and squeeze light into volumes a billion times smaller than a human hair.

“Trapping these different colours of light at the same time was hard, but we wanted to find a way that wouldn’t be expensive and could easily produce practical devices,” said co-author Dr Rohit Chikkaraddy from the Cavendish Laboratory, who devised the experiments based on his simulations of light in these building blocks.

“It’s like listening to slow-rippling earthquake waves by colliding them with a violin string to get a high whistle that’s easy to hear, and without breaking the violin,” said Professor Jeremy Baumberg of the NanoPhotonics Centre at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research.

The researchers emphasise that while it is early days, there are many ways to optimise the performance of these inexpensive molecular detectors, which then can access rich information in this window of the spectrum.

From astronomical observations of galactic structures to sensing human hormones or early signs of invasive cancers, many technologies can benefit from this new detector advance.

The research was conducted by a team from the University of Cambridge, KU Leuven, University College London (UCL), the Faraday Institution, and Universitat Politècnica de València.

The research is funded as part of a UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) investment in the Cambridge NanoPhotonics Centre, as well as the European Research Council (ERC), Trinity College Cambridge and KU Leuven.

Jeremy Baumberg is a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge.

Reference:
Angelos Xomalis et al. ‘Detecting mid-infrared light by molecular frequency upconversion with dual-wavelength hybrid nanoantennas’, Science (2021). DOI: 10.1126/science.abk2593

source: www.cam.ac.uk


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Campaign Donors Help Students at Cambridge

Campaign Donors Help Students at Cambridge

Students who took part in the Get In social media campaign of 2020

 

Thirty students at the University of Cambridge are benefitting from bursaries distributed from the Get in Cambridge campaign. The campaign, originally designed for social media, aims to increase the number of students from historically under-represented backgrounds applying to Cambridge.

 

It’s particularly pleasing to see awards being made to those embarking on their Master’s courses

Professor Graham Virgo

The first phase was aimed at UK Black undergraduate students, and the second at British Pakistani and Bangladeshi students.

Grants ranging from £12,000 to £20,000 have been given to nine postgraduates studying for their Master’s to cover outstanding fees and living costs. And additional awards of £1,750 have been given to 21 undergraduates to help with maintenance costs. More than £180,000 has been awarded in total.

Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor Graham Virgo, said:

“The Get In campaign has been successful in breaking down misguided perceptions of Cambridge among under-represented groups of students who may have been put off applying. The videos that were produced for social media reached new audiences of young people and enabled us to say directly to them that Cambridge is a place where you can come to and thrive. Thanks to the generosity of the donors backing the campaign we’re now able to help some of those students with their living costs and ease the financial concerns they may have. We know there’s a challenge in encouraging more students from these backgrounds into postgraduate education, so it’s particularly pleasing to see awards being made to those embarking on their Master’s courses.”

Launched in 2019, with the support of a leading group of alumni, the Get In Cambridge campaign has recently won two Digital Impact Awards as well as the Drum Award for Best Social Media and Inclusivity Programme.

One of the students benefitting from an award is Saif Mohammed, who is studying for a Master’s in Theology, Religion and the Philosophy of Religion. Originally from Bradford, he studied for his first degree at the University of Essex and had doubts as to whether Cambridge was the right place for him:

“I am filled with gratitude for this opportunity. I hope that it raises the confidence of other prospective students like me that postgraduate studies and enrolment at Cambridge is really possible, despite any seemingly daunting extrinsic barriers to entry. Watching other students from similar backgrounds to mine in the Get In videos assured me that I am not alone on this journey, and that I wouldn’t be totally out of place.”

Zaynab Ahmed was one of the students featured in last year’s videos produced for the campaign. She is now the Access, Education and Participation Officer at the Cambridge Students’ Union:

“Having been involved with Get In Cambridge, it’s incredible to see it evolve from a social media campaign to life-changing funding for students from minority ethnic communities that are under-represented in Higher Education. It’s especially exciting to see dedicated funding for Master’s students as a lack of postgraduate funding means many students are unable to take up offers to study at Cambridge. Going forward, I would love to see Get In commit to more targeted access and outreach work for students.”

The donors who have given money to the Get In campaign know first-hand about the importance of ensuring higher education remains accessible to all. Most are Cambridge graduates. Iain Drayton, now co-head of Goldman Sachs’ Investment Banking Division in Asia (except Japan) said:

“At university I learned a lot from talking with people who majoring in other subjects, and from listening to their differing approaches to problems, challenges and issues. So in my view, encouraging people from different backgrounds to come together is fundamental to bringing diverse perspectives to bear, and to driving new, original and innovative thought.”

The University of Cambridge has made significant improvements in recent years in diversifying its undergraduate population. It recognises there is work to do in ensuring its postgraduate community is also representative of wider UK society and has announced it’ll be embarking on a four year project, in partnership with the University of Oxford, with the aim of removing any systemic barriers that may exist within the postgraduate applications process.

The image shows undergraduate students who took part in the second phase of the social media campaign in 2020

source: www.cam.ac.uk


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‘Transformational’ Approach to Machine Learning Could Accelerate Search For New Disease Treatments

Woman in grey shirt
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Researchers have developed a new approach to machine learning that ‘learns how to learn’ and out-performs current machine learning methods for drug design, which in turn could accelerate the search for new disease treatments.

 

I was surprised how well it works – better than anything else we know for drug design

Ross King

The method, called transformational machine learning (TML), was developed by a team from the UK, Sweden, India and Netherlands. It learns from multiple problems and improves performance while it learns.

TML could accelerate the identification and production of new drugs by improving the machine learning systems which are used to identify them. The results are reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most types of machine learning (ML) use labelled examples, and these examples are almost always represented in the computer using intrinsic features, such as the colour or shape of an object. The computer then forms general rules that relate the features to the labels.

“It’s sort of like teaching a child to identify different animals: this is a rabbit, this is a donkey and so on,” said Professor Ross King from Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, who led the research. “If you teach a machine learning algorithm what a rabbit looks like, it will be able to tell whether an animal is or isn’t a rabbit. This is the way that most machine learning works – it deals with problems one at a time.”

However, this is not the way that human learning works: instead of dealing with a single issue at a time, we get better at learning because we have learned things in the past.

“To develop TML, we applied this approach to machine learning, and developed a system that learns information from previous problems it has encountered in order to better learn new problems,” said King, who is also a Fellow at The Alan Turing Institute. “Where a typical ML system has to start from scratch when learning to identify a new type of animal – say a kitten – TML can use the similarity to existing animals: kittens are cute like rabbits, but don’t have long ears like rabbits and donkeys. This makes TML a much more powerful approach to machine learning.”

The researchers demonstrated the effectiveness of their idea on thousands of problems from across science and engineering. They say it shows particular promise in the area of drug discovery, where this approach speeds up the process by checking what other ML models say about a particular molecule. A typical ML approach will search for drug molecules of a particular shape, for example. TML instead uses the connection of the drugs to other drug discovery problems.

“I was surprised how well it works – better than anything else we know for drug design,” said King. “It’s better at choosing drugs than humans are – and without the best science, we won’t get the best results.”

Reference:
Ivan Olier et al. ‘Transformational Machine Learning: Learning How to Learn from Many Related Scientific Problems.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2108013118


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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.

Get In Cambridge Widening Participation Campaign Wins Digital excellence Awards

 

The University’s Get In Cambridge social media campaign has won prizes in two international digital excellence awards.

 

Developed in partnership with students and digital agency Battenhall, the campaign’s second phase – launched in 2020 – features a series of videos specifically created to encourage more applications from UK Bangladeshi and Pakistani students – two of the most underrepresented groups at the University of Cambridge.

The campaign won the award for ‘Best Social Media Diversity and Inclusivity Program or Initiative’ in The Drum Awards for Social Media in 2021, and separately won ‘Best use of digital from the education sector’, as well as the Grand Prix, in the Digital Impact Awards 2021.

Get In Cambridge was also a finalist in the Asian Media Awards 2021.

In the films, 10 Cambridge students, who went to state schools in London, Manchester and Bradford before arriving at Cambridge to study subjects including English, History and Classics, compare the perceptions they had of the University as sixth formers with the reality of their lived experience. The films follow them in lectures, prayer spaces and at University cultural and religious society events, as they make it clear that concerns over cultural barriers can be overcome at Cambridge, religious practices can be observed, and people don’t have to change who they are to fit in.

The series – funded philanthropically – also includes six ‘Myth vs Reality’ videos that, among others, challenge the myth that Cambridge is more expensive to study at than other universities, and highlight the opportunity of being able to apply to a women-only college.

Get In Cambridge
Cambridge launched social media campaign Get In Cambridge in 2019 to help increase diversity in the undergraduate body. Cambridge alumna and YouTube vlogger Courtney Daniella fronted the first phase of the campaign, and in five films described her journey to Cambridge from her single-parent family on a North London council estate.

More information on how to support the campaign here.


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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.

‘Super Jelly’ Can Survive Being Run Over By a Car

 

Researchers have developed a jelly-like material that can withstand the equivalent of an elephant standing on it, and completely recover to its original shape, even though it’s 80% water.

 

At 80% water content, you’d think it would burst apart like a water balloon, but it doesn’t: it stays intact and withstands huge compressive forces

Oren Scherman

The soft-yet-strong material, developed by a team at the University of Cambridge, looks and feels like a squishy jelly, but acts like an ultra-hard, shatterproof glass when compressed, despite its high water content.

The non-water portion of the material is a network of polymers held together by reversible on/off interactions that control the material’s mechanical properties. This is the first time that such significant resistance to compression has been incorporated into a soft material.

The ‘super jelly’ could be used for a wide range of potential applications, including soft robotics, bioelectronics or even as a cartilage replacement for biomedical use. The results are reported in the journal Nature Materials.

The way materials behave – whether they’re soft or firm, brittle or strong – is dependent upon their molecular structure. Stretchy, rubber-like hydrogels have lots of interesting properties that make them a popular subject of research – such as their toughness and self-healing capabilities – but making hydrogels that can withstand being compressed without getting crushed is a challenge.

“In order to make materials with the mechanical properties we want, we use crosslinkers, where two molecules are joined through a chemical bond,” said Dr Zehuan Huang from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, the study’s first author. “We use reversible crosslinkers to make soft and stretchy hydrogels, but making a hard and compressible hydrogel is difficult and designing a material with these properties is completely counterintuitive.”

Working in the lab of Professor Oren A Scherman, who led the research, the team used barrel-shaped molecules called cucurbiturils to make a hydrogel that can withstand compression. The cucurbituril is the crosslinking molecule that holds two guest molecules in its cavity – like a molecular handcuff. The researchers designed guest molecules that prefer to stay inside the cavity for longer than normal, which keeps the polymer network tightly linked, allowing for it to withstand compression.

“At 80% water content, you’d think it would burst apart like a water balloon, but it doesn’t: it stays intact and withstands huge compressive forces,” said Scherman, Director of the University’s Melville Laboratory for Polymer Synthesis. “The properties of the hydrogel are seemingly at odds with each other.”

“The way the hydrogel can withstand compression was surprising, it wasn’t like anything we’ve seen in hydrogels,” said co-author Dr Jade McCune, also from the Department of Chemistry. “We also found that the compressive strength could be easily controlled through simply changing the chemical structure of the guest molecule inside the handcuff.”

To make their glass-like hydrogels, the team chose specific guest molecules for the handcuff. Altering the molecular structure of guest molecules within the handcuff allowed the dynamics of the material to ‘slow down’ considerably, with the mechanical performance of the final hydrogel ranging from rubber-like to glass-like states.

“People have spent years making rubber-like hydrogels, but that’s just half of the picture,” said Scherman. “We’ve revisited traditional polymer physics and created a new class of materials that span the whole range of material properties from rubber-like to glass-like, completing the full picture.”

The researchers used the material to make a hydrogel pressure sensor for real-time monitoring of human motions, including standing, walking and jumping.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that glass-like hydrogels have been made. We’re not just writing something new into the textbooks, which is really exciting, but we’re opening a new chapter in the area of high-performance soft materials,” said Huang.

Researchers from the Scherman lab are currently working to further develop these glass-like materials towards biomedical and bioelectronic applications in collaboration with experts from engineering and materials science. The research was funded in part by the Leverhulme Trust and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. Oren Scherman is a Fellow of Jesus College.

Reference:
Zehuan Huang et al. ‘Highly compressible glass-like supramolecular polymer networks.’ Nature Materials (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41563-021-01124-x


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For the Brain, Context is Key to New Theory of Movement and Memory

Tennis match
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Mathematical model could help in physical therapy and shed light on learning more generally.

 

The COIN model may also generalise to many other forms of learning and memory, not just memories underlying our movement

Máté Lengyel

How is it that a chef can control their knife to fillet a fish or peel a grape and can wield a cleaver just as efficiently as a paring knife? Even those of us less proficient in the kitchen learn to skilfully handle an astonishing number of different objects throughout our lives, from shoelaces to tennis rackets.

This ability to continuously acquire new skills, without forgetting or degrading old ones, comes naturally to humans but is a major challenge even for today’s most advanced artificial intelligence systems.

Now, scientists from the University of Cambridge and Columbia University (USA) have developed and experimentally verified a new mathematical theory that explains how the human brain achieves this feat. Called the COntextual INference (COIN) model, it suggests that identifying the current context is key to learning how to move our bodies.

The model describes a mechanism in the brain that is constantly trying to figure out the current context. The theory suggests that these continuously changing beliefs about context determine how to use existing memories — and whether to form new ones. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

“Imagine playing tennis with a different racket than usual or switching from tennis to squash,” said co-senior author Dr Daniel Wolpert from Columbia University. “Our theory explores how your brain adjusts to these situations and whether to treat them as distinct contexts.”

According to the COIN model, the brain maintains a repertoire of motor memories, each associated with the context in which it was created, such as playing squash versus tennis. Even for a single swing of the racket, the brain can draw upon many memories, each in proportion to how much the brain believes it is currently in the context in which that memory was created.

This goes against the traditional view that only one memory is used at a time. To improve performance on the next swing, the brain also updates all memories, once again depending on its belief about the current context. When the context of the movement is judged to be new (the first time we play squash after years of tennis, for example), the brain automatically creates a new memory for that context. This ensures that we do not overwrite previously established memories, such as the memory for playing tennis.

This research may lead to better physical therapy strategies to help people with injuries use their bodies again. Often the improvements seen in the setting of a physical therapist’s office do not transfer to improvements in the real world.

“With a better understanding of how context affects motor learning, you can think about how to nudge the brain to generalise what it learns to contexts outside of the physical therapy session,” said first author Dr James Heald. “A better understanding of the basic mechanisms that underlie the context dependence of memory and learning could have therapeutic consequences in this area.”

“What I find exciting is that the principles of the COIN model may also generalise to many other forms of learning and memory, not just memories underlying our movement,” said co-senior author Professor Máté Lengyel from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. “For example, the spontaneous recurrence of seemingly forgotten memories, often triggered by a change in our surroundings, has been observed both in motor learning and in post-traumatic stress disorder.”

COINing a new model

Practice with a tennis racket, and the brain forms motor memories of how you moved your arm and the rest of your body that improve your serve over time. But learning isn’t as simple as just making better memories to make movements more precise, the researchers said. Otherwise, a tennis player’s serves might improve to the point at which they never hit a ball out of bounds. The real world and our nervous systems are complex, and the brain has to deal with a lot of variability.

How does the brain distinguish this noise — these random fluctuations — from new situations? And how does it understand that a slightly lighter tennis racket can still be operated using previous tennis racket memories? But that a table tennis paddle is an entirely different kind of object that requires starting from scratch?

The answer, according to the COIN model, may be Bayesian inference, a mathematical technique used to deal with uncertainty. This method statistically weighs new evidence in light of prior experience in order to update one’s beliefs in a changeable world. In the COIN model, a context is a simplifying assumption that, in a given set of circumstances, certain actions are more likely to lead to some consequences than others. The new theory’s acceptance of the role that uncertainty plays in motor learning is similar to how quantum physics views the universe in terms of probabilities instead of certainties, the scientists noted.

Getting a handle on the theory

The researchers put the COIN model to the test on data from previous experiments, as well as new experiments, in which volunteers interacted with a robotic handle. Participants learned to manipulate the handle to reach a target while the handle pushed back in different ways.

Volunteers who spent time learning to operate the handle as it pushed to the left, for instance, had more trouble operating the handle when it changed behaviour and pushed to the right, as compared to volunteers who started with a handle pushing to the right. The COIN model explained this effect, called anterograde interference.

“The longer you learn one task, the less likely you are to move into a new context with the second task,” said Wolpert. “You’re still forming a motor memory of the second task, but you’re not using it yet because your brain is still stuck back in the first context.”

The model also predicted that a learned skill can re-emerge even after subsequent training seems to have erased it. Called spontaneous recovery, this re-emergence is seen in many other forms of learning besides motor learning. For example, spontaneous recovery has been linked with challenges in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, where contexts can trigger traumatic memories to spontaneously recur.

Scientists usually explain spontaneous recovery by invoking two different learning mechanisms. In one, memories learned quickly are forgotten quickly, and in the other, memories learned slowly are forgotten slowly, and can thus reappear. In contrast, the COIN model suggests there is just one mechanism for learning instead of two separate ones, and that memories that apparently vanished may be ready to pop back with the right trigger: the belief that the context has re-emerged. The researchers confirmed this in their lab with new experiments.

 

Máté Lengyel is a Fellow of Churchill College. The research was supported by the European Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society, the National Institutes of Health, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

 

Reference:
James B Heald, Máté Lengyel and Daniel M Wolpert. ‘Contextual inference underlies the learning of sensorimotor repertoires.’ Nature (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04129-3

Adapted from a Columbia University press release.


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Cambridge to Tackle Barriers to Postgraduate Education

Postgraduate student looking at experiment results on screen
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

The University of Cambridge, which has a long-established widening participation programme for undergraduate students, is now turning its attention to addressing inequalities that exist across the postgraduate higher education sector.

 

We want to find ways to make admissions systems flex better

Dr Katherine Powlesland

The University is delighted to have been awarded two significant grants by the Office for Students (OfS) and Research England (RE) to deliver innovative and ambitious programmes designed to improve the admission of students from under-represented minority ethnic backgrounds into the highest level of postgraduate education (notably postgraduate research or doctoral study undertaken as PhDs or DPhils).

Across the Higher Education sector the proportion of students from minority ethnic cohorts who continue into initial postgraduate study is lower than for White students, and the gap is even greater in doctoral study. The difference is particularly marked for Black British, British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi students. These gaps ultimately mean fewer people from minority ethnic backgrounds progress into academia as a career, resulting in fewer professors with these heritages.

A grant of £800,000 will be shared between the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford enabling the two institutions to work together in a groundbreaking collaboration to develop and test a range of new admissions practices and systems designed to transform selection processes for postgraduate research. A set of new selection model prototypes that build on world-leading inclusive recruitment practices will be tested in a total of 16 volunteer departments, eight in each University, and will range from simple and efficient solutions like contextual flags to models that could revolutionise pathways into academic research. Among areas to be considered will be the extent to which systems need to adapt better to take account of different student pathways and trajectories, how, and when to apply, and the availability of support through the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study.

Professor Graham Virgo, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cambridge, said:

“We are really pleased to be partnering with the University of Oxford, and delighted that this OfS/RE funding competition has brought about the opportunity to share data and current practice so openly. We feel this is indicative of a wider desire across the sector to collaborate to bring about transformational change in representation in postgraduate study.”

The aim is to halve the current ‘offer gap’ in pilot sites by the end of 2025, with an aspiration to eliminate the gap altogether within one school generation (by 2035). To drive the initial four year project, the two Universities will create four new posts. A range of stakeholders will be consulted at every stage. Included in the programme is a combined Cambridge-Oxford Student Panel. It is intended that the programme will develop a range of new, fair postgraduate admissions processes and tools for use throughout the Higher Education sector.

Dr Katherine Powlesland, Postgraduate Widening Participation Manager at the University of Cambridge, said:

“By the time many students from under-represented ethnic groups come to apply for postgraduate research study, they have often chosen pathways that inadvertently may have made it harder for them to access postgraduate research and funding, because of certain established selection practices. We want to find ways to make admissions systems flex better – thinking imaginatively about pre-requisites, really interrogating the inclusivity of our systems, asking the right questions so we can spot and support the best talent – and also to think radically about innovative inclusive recruitment. From the postgraduate communities of Britain’s leading research universities come the experts of tomorrow: the decision-makers and advisors on climate change, on educational policy, on social justice. We need these researchers to represent the widest range of lived experience possible, so that, ultimately, all voices can be heard and no perspective goes unseen.”

Martin Williams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Oxford, said:

“We’re delighted that our joint bid with the University of Cambridge to the OfS/Research England competition to improve access to postgraduate research study for under-represented students has been successful. The University [of Oxford] has taken significant steps in recognising the issue of graduate access in recent years, and this has become a strategic priority building on the work that been done at undergraduate level for years.”

Cambridge’s second successful bid to the same funding competition is a collaboration with University College London and City University and will offer paid summer research internships for students from under-represented ethnic groups.

Dr Powlesland added: “We also know there is a lot we could do further upstream to support ethnic minority students to make successful applications for postgraduate research study. We are delighted that, with the support of the Office for Students and Research England, we are also able to partner with UCL and City on a really exciting project to deliver undergraduate summer research internships. Cambridge will be offering at least 72 paid internships over three years to Black British, British Bangladeshi, and British Pakistani undergraduates as part of the collaboration. We are excited to be pushing for real change in minority ethnic representation in academic research.’

The University of Cambridge has made significant improvements over the last five years in diversifying its undergraduate population so that it is more reflective of UK society as a whole. The work in this area has not just been focused on numbers but on improving student experience too. That’s why the Black Advisory Hub was established. As part of this project, new ways of assessing applicants for postgraduate study will be examined, and the University will seek to overturn any systemic barriers that may exist. Today’s postgraduates are, after all, tomorrow’s experts in their respective fields.


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Air Filter Significantly Reduces Presence of Airborne SARS-CoV-2 in COVID-19 Wards

Coronavirus
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

When a team of doctors, scientists and engineers at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the University of Cambridge placed an air filtration machine in COVID-19 wards, they found that it removed almost all traces of airborne SARS-CoV-2.

 

Reducing airborne transmission of the coronavirus is extremely important for the safety of both patients and staff

Vilas Navapurkar

While the discovery could have implications for improving the safety of repurposed ‘surge wards’, the researchers say it also opens up the possibility of being able to set standards for cleaner air to reduce the risk of airborne transmission of infections.

Over the duration of the pandemic there has been a steady rise in the evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be transmitted through the air in small droplets (aerosols). But as hospitals have seen their capacity overwhelmed, they have been forced to manage many of their COVID-19 patients in repurposed ‘surge’ wards, which often lack the ability to change the air with a high frequency. While the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) protects staff and patients significantly reduces the risk of transmission, there are still reports of patient-to-healthcare worker transmission of the virus, potentially through the inhalation of viral particles.

A team at the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH) NHS Foundation Trust investigated whether portable air filtration/UV sterilisation devices could reduce airborne SARS- CoV-2 in general wards that had been repurposed as a COVID ward and a COVID Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The results are published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Dr Vilas Navapurkar, a Consultant in Intensive Care Medicine at CUH, who led the study, said: “Reducing airborne transmission of the coronavirus is extremely important for the safety of both patients and staff. Effective PPE has made a huge difference, but anything we can do to reduce the risk further is important.”

“Because of the numbers of patients being admitted with COVID-19, hospitals have had to use wards not designed for managing respiratory infections. During an intensely busy time, we were able to pull together a team from across the hospital and University to test whether portable air filtration devices, which are relatively inexpensive, might remove airborne SARS-CoV-2 and make these wards safer.”

The team performed their study in two repurposed COVID-19 units in Addenbrooke’s Hospital. One area was a surge ward managing patients who required simple oxygen treatment or no respiratory support; the second was a surge ICU managing patients who required ventilation either through non-invasive mask ventilation or invasive respiratory support, such as involving the use of an invasive tube and tracheostomy.

The team installed a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) air filter/UV steriliser. HEPA filters are made up of thousands of fibres knitted together to form a material that filters out particles above a certain size. The machines were placed in fixed positions and operated continuously for seven days, filtering the full volume of air in each room between five and ten times per hour.

In the surge ward, during the first week prior to the air filter being activated, the researchers were able to detect SARS-CoV-2 on all sampling days. Once the air filter was switched on and run continuously, the team were unable to detect SARS-CoV-2 on any of the five testing days. They then switched off the machine and repeated the sampling – once again, they were able to detect SARS-CoV-2 on three of the five sampling days.

On the ICU, the team found limited evidence of airborne SARS-CoV-2 in the weeks when the machine was switched off and traces of the virus on one sampling day when the machine was active.

Additionally, the air filters significantly reduced levels of bacterial, fungal and other viral bioaerosols on the both the surge ward and the ICU, highlighting an added benefit of the system.

First author Dr Andrew Conway Morris, from the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge, said: “We were really surprised by quite how effect air filters were at removing airborne SARS-CoV-2 on the wards. Although it was only a small study, it highlights their potential to improve the safety of wards, particularly in areas not designed for managing highly infectious diseases such as COVID-19.”

Crucially, the research team developed a robust technique for assessing the quality of air, involving placing air samplers at various points in the room and then testing the samples using PCR assays similar those used in the ‘gold standard’ COVID-19 tests.

Professor Stephen Baker, from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease at the University of Cambridge, said: “Cleaner air will reduce the risk of airborne disease transmission, but it’s unlikely to be the case that just installing an air filter will be enough to guarantee the air is clean enough. Every room and every situation will be different. A key part of our work has been developing a robust way of measuring air quality.”

Dr Navapurkar added: “We’re all familiar with the idea of having standards for clean water and of hygiene standards for food. We need now to agree standards for what is acceptable air quality and how we meet and monitor those standards.”

The research was supported by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

Reference
Conway Morris, A, et al. The removal of airborne SARS-CoV-2 and other microbial bioaerosols by air filtration on COVID-19 surge units. Clin Inf Dis; 30 Oct 2021; DOI: 10.1093/cid/ciab933

Image: Dr Vilas Navapurkar in ICU beside an air filter


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Cambridge Dictionary Names ‘Perseverance’ Word of the Year 2021

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Perseverance, a word which captures the undaunted will of people across the world to never give up, despite the many challenges of the last 12 months, is Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2021.

 

Just as it takes perseverance to land a rover on Mars, it takes perseverance to face challenges and disruption to our lives

Wendalyn Nichols

Perseverance has been looked up more than 243,000 times on the website in 2021, the first time it has made a noticeable appearance.

Defined by the dictionary as ‘continued effort to do or achieve something, even when this is difficult or takes a long time’, the word’s stellar performance this year may have as much to do with NASA as the pandemic. A spike of 30,487 searches for perseverance occurred between 19–25 February 2021, after NASA’s Perseverance Rover made its final descent to Mars on 18 February.

Wendalyn Nichols, Cambridge Dictionary Publishing Manager, said: “It made sense that lookups of ‘perseverance’ spiked at this time. Cambridge Dictionary is the top website in the world for learners of English, and perseverance is not a common word for students of English to have in their vocabulary. We often see spikes in lookups of words associated with current events when those words are less familiar.”

In the following months, however, perseverance continued to be looked up more frequently on the site than ever before. Nichols said: “Just as it takes perseverance to land a rover on Mars, it takes perseverance to face the challenges and disruption to our lives from COVID-19, climate disasters, political instability and conflict. We appreciated that connection, and we think Cambridge Dictionary users do, too.”

Further evidence that words looked up on Cambridge Dictionary often reflect world events is that in January searches for insurrection, impeachment, inauguration and acquit all spiked as the world closely followed the US presidential election.

In 2020, ‘quarantine’ defeated ‘lockdown’ and ‘pandemic’ to be crowned Word of the Year, attracting more than 183,000 views.

People use Cambridge Dictionary to develop their English language skills, and those who look up perseverance will find more than just the definition of the word. A new Cambridge Thesaurus article on perseverance goes beyond listing synonyms to explain the nuanced differences in meaning between perseverance, determination, persistence, doggedness, single-mindedness, tenacity, resolve, will, and the US term stick-to-it-iveness.

The Cambridge team have also created a new list of words about being determined for English learners on Cambridge Dictionary +Plus. Research shows that many people learn new vocabulary more effectively when they have a record of it, so they can go back to study and test themselves. This word list includes vocabulary related to perseverance, so English language learners can easily find out more about the word of the year while simultaneously expanding their vocabulary.

Cambridge University Press has been publishing dictionaries for learners of English since 1995. Cambridge Dictionary began offering these dictionaries completely free of charge online in 1999 and is now the top learner dictionary website in the world, serving 2.6 billion page views a year.

Find out more about Cambridge Dictionary Word of the Year 2021


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Mystery of High-Performing Solar Cell Materials Revealed In Stunning Clarity

Artistic representation of electrons funneling into high quality areas of perovskite material
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Researchers have visualised, for the first time, why perovskites – materials which could replace silicon in next-generation solar cells – are seemingly so tolerant of defects in their structure. The findings, led by researchers from the University of Cambridge, are published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

 

We now much better understand the nanoscale landscape in these fascinating semiconductors – the good, the bad and the ugly

Sam Stranks

The most commonly used material for producing solar panels is crystalline silicon, but achieving efficient energy conversion requires an energy-intensive and time-consuming production process to create a highly ordered wafer structure.

In the last decade, perovskite materials have emerged as promising alternatives to silicon.

The lead salts used to make perovskites are much more abundant and cheaper to produce than crystalline silicon, and they can be prepared in liquid ink that is simply printed to produce a film of the material. They also show great potential for other applications, such as energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and X-ray detectors.

The performance of perovskites is surprising. The typical model for an excellent semiconductor is a highly ordered structure, but the array of different chemical elements in perovskites creates a much ‘messier’ landscape.

This messiness causes defects in the material that lead to tiny ‘traps’, which typically reduce performance. But despite the presence of these defects, perovskite materials still show efficiency levels comparable to their silicon alternatives.

In fact, earlier research by the same team behind the current work showed the disordered structure can actually increase the performance of perovskite optoelectronics, and their latest work seeks to explain why.

Combining a series of new microscopy techniques, the group present a complete picture of the nanoscale chemical, structural and optoelectronic landscape of these materials, that reveals the complex interactions between these competing factors and ultimately, shows which comes out on top.

“What we see is that we have two forms of disorder happening in parallel,” said first author Kyle Frohna from Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology (CEB). “The electronic disorder associated with the defects that reduce performance, and then the spatial chemical disorder that seems to improve it.

“And what we’ve found is that the chemical disorder – the ‘good’ disorder in this case – mitigates the ‘bad’ disorder from the defects by funnelling the charge carriers away from these traps that they might otherwise get caught in.”

In collaboration with researchers from the Cavendish Laboratory, the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Didcot, and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, the researchers used several different microscopic techniques to look at the same regions in the perovskite film. They could then compare the results from all these methods to present the full picture of what’s happening at a nanoscale level in these materials.

The findings will allow researchers to further refine how perovskite solar cells are made in order to maximise efficiency.

“We have visualised and given reasons why we can call these materials defect tolerant,” said co-author Miguel Anaya, also from CEB. “This methodology enables new routes to optimise them at the nanoscale to perform better for a targeted application. Now, we can look at other types of perovskites that are not only good for solar cells but also for LEDs or detectors and understand their working principles.”

“Through these visualisations, we now much better understand the nanoscale landscape in these fascinating semiconductors – the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Dr Sam Stranks from CEB, who led the research. “These results explain how the empirical optimisation of these materials by the field has driven these mixed composition perovskites to such high performances. But it has also revealed blueprints for design of new semiconductors that may have similar attributes – where disorder can be exploited to tailor performance.”

Reference:
Kyle Frohna et.al ‘Nanoscale chemical heterogeneity dominates the optoelectronic response of alloyed perovskite solar cells.’ Nature Nanotechnology (2021) DOI: 10.1038/s41565-021-01019-7


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International Partnerships and Funding From China and Hong Kong | Blog

Senate House architectural detail
source:www.cam.ac.uk

 

A blog post by Professors Andy Neely and Anne Ferguson-Smith

 

The University of Cambridge has engaged in countless collaborations with international partners throughout our history. We have always believed that the best way to tackle seemingly intractable global issues is to work in shared research endeavours across international borders. Today, as we recover from the ravages of a pandemic and continue to focus on global challenges such as combating climate change, and ensuring food security, that approach seems more important than ever.

Global research organisations like Cambridge must always be aware that there are risks in dealing with countries that might not share some of our values. These include risks to staff or student safety, or more pernicious risks such as the theft or misuse of research for, say, military purposes. In today’s rapidly changing geo-political world there must be unprecedented focus on managing these risks.

Cambridge has long-established and robust systems for approving, rejecting and scrutinising proposed international partnerships. All projects go through a strict due diligence process, which is now enhanced by our new Principles for managing risks in international engagements. These principles, and the practical guidance that sits under them, focus on fostering a risk-aware culture and empowering our academic community to promote academic freedom and uphold our institutional values in everything we do.  We also work closely with the Government’s Export Control Joint Unit and the Investment Security Unit to ensure that any national security issues are appropriately addressed.

As a global university we do not shy away from rigorous discussions about the merits of engagement with other countries that might not share our values. One current and high profile example is China. We view collaboration with Chinese academics and funders as an important part of our mission. We also believe it is essential to be open and honest about the nature and scale of this collaboration.

Over the last five years income from China has represented less than 1 percent of research grant income, less than 9 percent of fundraising income and Chinese nationals make up around 8 percent of our student body. While not insignificant these figures do not suggest a dependency.

Breaking down these figures, our research grant income (based on expenditure) from mainland China and Hong Kong averaged £3.8m, of which an average of £2.2m per year came from Huawei (including its subsidiaries). This is against a total average research income over the same period of £539m per year. Research income from China therefore amounts to 0.7 percent of our annual research grant income over the last five years. Within that, income from Huawei represents 0.5 percent. If we were to look at the data for 20/21 only, income from China was £6.1m out of a total research grant income of £586m, this represents 1 percent of our research grant income in the last financial year.

By way of comparison, Cambridge’s research grant income from the United States of America averaged £27.9m over the past five years.

We also receive philanthropic funding from China. Since 2016/17 the University has raised £626m in philanthropic income which supports scholarships, teaching and research. Of that £54m came from donors in mainland China and Hong Kong, which represents under 9 percent. Of the £54m in philanthropic income from China since 2016/17 £7.5m was committed by Huawei.

Academic freedom is maintained at all times in every research project the University conducts. No funder has the right to direct or steer research at Cambridge. In relation to Huawei, we will not engage in any research in relation to 5G and we do not use their technology platforms.

Importantly, funding from China, as with funding from around the world, allows Cambridge to undertake exceptional research. For example, Cambridge engineers have developed a new augmented reality (AR) head-mounted display (HMD) that can deliver high quality clear images directly on the retina, even if the user is wearing glasses.

The funding also helps the University to fulfil its role in society by delivering outreach programmes such as the Faculty of Mathematics Millennium Outreach project. In the 2019/20 academic year, the project’s web-based maths resources attracted over 12 million visits from users worldwide and more than 40 million page views, while over 13,000 school students and more than 2,250 teachers were involved in our face-to-face activities and online webinars and events.

We believe that values are upheld – and improvements happen – through engagement. This is, incidentally, also the UK’s approach to foreign policy and we would encourage proactive engagement from government to navigate the evolving geopolitical landscape that seeks to balance trade relations with national security considerations. We need to maintain vigilance and be alert to the potential complications of working with international partners. The new international engagement principles we have developed at Cambridge will allow us to continue to interact on vital research with partners across the world, and to do so with a full understanding of the risks as well as the benefits.

Justinianic Plague Was Nothing Like Flu and May Have Hit England Before Constantinople

Detail of the mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

 

‘Plague sceptics’ are wrong to underestimate the devastating impact that bubonic plague had in the 6th– 8th centuries CE, argues a new study based on ancient texts and recent genetic discoveries. The same study suggests that bubonic plague may have reached England before its first recorded case in the Mediterranean via a currently unknown route, possibly involving the Baltic and Scandinavia.

 

We have a lot to learn from how our forebears responded to epidemic disease

Peter Sarris

The Justinianic Plague is the first known outbreak of bubonic plague in west Eurasian history and struck the Mediterranean world at a pivotal moment in its historical development, when the Emperor Justinian was trying to restore Roman imperial power.

For decades, historians have argued about the lethality of the disease; its social and economic impact; and the routes by which it spread. In 2019-20, several studies, widely publicised in the media, argued that historians had massively exaggerated the impact of the Justinianic Plague and described it as an ‘inconsequential pandemic’. In a subsequent piece of journalism, written just before COVID-19 took hold in the West, two researchers suggested that the Justinianic Plague was ‘not unlike our flu outbreaks’.

In a new study, published in Past & Present, Cambridge historian Professor Peter Sarris argues that these studies ignored or downplayed new genetic findings, offered misleading statistical analysis and misrepresented the evidence provided by ancient texts.

Sarris says: “Some historians remain deeply hostile to regarding external factors such as disease as having a major impact on the development of human society, and ‘plague scepticism’ has had a lot of attention in recent years.”

Sarris, a Fellow of Trinity College, is critical of the way that some studies have used search engines to calculate that only a small percentage of ancient literature discusses the plague and then crudely argue that this proves the disease was considered insignificant at the time.

Sarris says: “Witnessing the plague first-hand obliged the contemporary historian Procopius to break away from his vast military narrative to write a harrowing account of the arrival of the plague in Constantinople that would leave a deep impression on subsequent generations of Byzantine readers. That is far more telling than the number of plague-related words he wrote. Different authors, writing different types of text, concentrated on different themes, and their works must be read accordingly.”

Sarris also refutes the suggestion that laws, coins and papyri provide little evidence that the plague had a significant impact on the early Byzantine state or society. He points to a major reduction in imperial law-making between the year 546, by which point the plague had taken hold, and the end of Justinian’s reign in 565. But he also argues that the flurry of significant legislation that was made between 542 and 545 reveals a series of crisis-driven measures issued in the face of plague-induced depopulation, and to limit the damage inflicted by the plague on landowning institutions.

In March 542, in a law that Justinian described as having been written amid the ‘encircling presence of death’, which had ‘spread to every region’, the emperor attempted to prop up the banking sector of the imperial economy.

In another law of 544, the emperor attempted to impose price and wage controls, as workers tried to take advantage of labour shortages. Alluding to the plague, Justinian declared that the ‘chastening which has been sent by God’s goodness’ should have made workers ‘better people’ but instead ‘they have turned to avarice’.

That bubonic plague exacerbated the East Roman Empire’s existing fiscal and administrative difficulties is also reflected in changes to coinage in this period, Sarris argues. A series of light-weight gold coins were issued, the first such reduction in the gold currency since its introduction in the 4th century and the weight of the heavy copper coinage of Constantinople was also reduced significantly around the same time as the emperor’s emergency banking legislation.

Sarris says: “The significance of a historical pandemic should never be judged primarily on the basis of whether it leads to the ‘collapse’ of the societies concerned. Equally, the resilience of the East Roman state in the face of the plague does not signify that the challenge posed by the plague was not real.”

“What is most striking about the governmental response to the Justinianic Plague in the Byzantine or Roman world is how rational and carefully targeted it was, despite the bewilderingly unfamiliar circumstances in which the authorities found themselves.

“We have a lot to learn from how our forebears responded to epidemic disease, and how pandemics impacted on social structures, the distribution of wealth, and modes of thought.”

Bubonic plague in England

Until the early 2000s, the identification of the Justinianic Plague as ‘bubonic’ rested entirely upon ancient texts which described the appearance of buboes or swellings in the groins or armpits of victims. But then rapid advances in genomics enabled archaeologists and genetic scientists to discover traces of the ancient DNA of Yersinia pestis in Early Medieval skeletal remains. Such finds have been made in Germany, Spain, France and England.

In 2018, a study of DNA preserved in remains found in an early Anglo-Saxon burial site known as Edix Hill in Cambridgeshire revealed that many of the interred had died carrying the disease. Further analysis revealed that the strain of Y. pestis found was the earliest identified lineage of the bacterium involved in the 6th-century pandemic.

Sarris says: “We have tended to start with the literary sources, which describe the plague arriving at Pelusium in Egypt before spreading out from there, and then fitted the archaeological and genetic evidence into a framework and narrative based on those sources. That approach will no longer do. The arrival of bubonic plague in the Mediterranean around 541 and its initial arrival in England possibly somewhat earlier may have been the result of two separate but related routes, occurring some time apart.”

The study suggests that the plague may have reached the Mediterranean via the Red Sea, and reached England perhaps via the Baltic and Scandanavia, and from there onto parts of the continent.

The study emphasises that despite being called the ‘Justinianic Plague’, it was “never a purely or even primarily Roman phenomenon” and as recent genetic discoveries have proven, it reached remote and rural sites such as Edix Hill, as well as heavily populated cities.

It is widely accepted that the lethal and virulent strain of bubonic plague from which the Justinianic Plague and later the Black Death would descend had emerged in Central Asia by the Bronze Age before evolving further there in antiquity.

Sarris suggests that it may be significant that the advent of both the Justinianic Plague and the Black Death were preceded by the expansion of nomadic empires across Eurasia: the Huns in the 4th and 5th centuries, and the Mongols in the 13th.

Sarris says: “Increasing genetic evidence will lead in directions we can scarcely yet anticipate, and historians need to be able to respond positively and imaginatively, rather than with a defensive shrug.”

 

Reference
P. Sarris, ‘New Approaches to the ‘Plague of Justinian’, Past & Present (2021); DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtab024.


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Students Who Self-Identify As Multilingual Perform Better At GCSE

Language dictionaries
source: www.cam.ac.uk

Young people who consider themselves ‘multilingual’ tend to perform better across a wide range of subjects at school, regardless of whether they are actually fluent in another language, new research shows.

 

If pupils were encouraged to see themselves as active and capable language learners, it could have a really positive impact on their wider progress at school.

Linda Fisher

The study, of just over 800 pupils in England, found a positive relationship between GCSE scores and ‘multilingual identity’: a reference to whether pupils felt a personal connection with other languages through knowledge and use. Those who self-identified as multilingual typically outperformed their peers not just in subjects such as French and Spanish, but in non-language subjects including maths, geography and science. This applied whether or not they actually spoke a second language fluently.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, not all pupils who were officially described by their schools as having ‘English as a Second Language’ (EAL) thought of themselves as multilingual, even though the term is used by schools and Government as a proxy for multilingualism. Correspondingly, these pupils did not necessarily perform better (or worse) as a group at GCSE than their non-EAL peers.

The results indicate that encouraging pupils to identify with languages and to value different styles of communication could help them to develop a mindset that supports academic progress overall.

Other recent research has argued for broadening the scope of language lessons so that, as well as studying vocabulary and grammar, pupils explore the importance of languages and their significance for their own lives. This new study was the first, however, to examine the relationship between multilingual identity and attainment. It was led by academics at the University of Cambridge and the findings are published in the Journal of Language, Identity and Education.

Dr Dee Rutgers, a Research Associate at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “The evidence suggests that the more multilingual you consider yourself to be, the higher your GCSE scores. While we need to understand more about why that relationship exists, it may be that children who see themselves as multilingual have a sort of ‘growth mindset’ which impacts on wider attainment.”

Dr Linda Fisher, Reader in Languages Education at the University of Cambridge, said: “There could be a strong case for helping children who think that they can’t ‘do’ languages to recognise that we all use a range of communication tools, and that learning a language is simply adding to that range. This may influence attitude and self-belief, which is directly relevant to learning at school. In other words, what you think you are may be more important than what others say you are.”

The study’s authors argue that being multilingual means far more than the official EAL definition of being ‘exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English’. They suggest that even young people who see themselves as monolingual possess a ‘repertoire’ of communication. For example, they may use different dialects, pick up words and phrases on holiday, know sign language, or understand other types of ‘language’ such as computer code.

The study involved 818 Year-11 pupils at five secondary schools in South East England. As well as establishing whether pupils were officially registered as EAL or non-EAL, the researchers asked each pupil if they personally identified as such. Separately, each pupil was asked to plot where they saw themselves on a 0-100 scale, where 0 represented ‘monolingual’ and 100 ‘multilingual’. This data was compared with their GCSE results in nine subjects.

Students who spoke a second language at home did not always personally identify either as EAL or multilingual. Conversely, pupils who saw themselves as multilingual were not always those earmarked by the school as having English as an additional language.

“The fact that these terms didn’t correlate more closely is surprising considering that they are all supposedly measuring the same thing,” Rutgers said. “Just having experience of other languages clearly doesn’t necessarily translate into a multilingual identity because the experience may not be valued by the student.”

School-reported EAL status had no impact on GCSE results, although pupils who self-identified as EAL generally did better than their peers in modern languages. Those who considered themselves ‘multilingual’ on the 0-100 scale, however, performed better academically across the board.

The strength of this relationship varied between subjects and was, again, particularly pronounced in modern languages. In all nine GCSE subjects assessed, however, each point increase on the monolingual-to-multilingual scale was associated with a fractional rise in pupils’ exam scores.

For example: a one-point increase was found to correspond to 0.012 of a grade in Science, and 0.011 of a grade in Geography. Students who consider themselves very multilingual would, by this measure, typically score a full grade higher than those who consider themselves monolingual. Positively identifying as multilingual could often therefore be enough to push students who would otherwise fall slightly short of a certain grade up to the next level.

The findings appear to indicate that the positive mentality and self-belief which typically develops among pupils with a multilingual identity has spill-over benefits for their wider education. The authors add that this could be cultivated in languages classrooms: for example, by exposing young people to learning programmes that explore different types of language and dialect, or encouraging them to think about how languages shape their lives both inside and outside school.

“Too often we think about other languages as something that we don’t need to know, or as difficult to learn,” Fisher said. “These findings suggest that if pupils were encouraged to see themselves as active and capable language learners, it could have a really positive impact on their wider progress at school.”


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Cambridge-Built Carbon Credit Marketplace Will Support Reforestation Efforts Worldwide

View of forest

source: www.cam.ac.uk

A new Cambridge centre will bring together computer scientists and conservation scientists to build a trusted marketplace for carbon credits and support global reforestation efforts, the first initiative of its kind in the UK.

 

What’s needed is a decentralised marketplace where purchasers of carbon credits can confidently and directly fund trusted nature-based projects. And that’s the gap the Centre is aiming to fill

Anil Madhavapeddy

The Cambridge Centre for Carbon Credits (4C) – based in the Department of Computer Science and Technology, and the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute – has two primary goals: to support students and researchers in the relevant areas of computer science, environmental science, and economics; and to create a decentralised marketplace where purchasers of carbon credits can confidently and directly fund trusted nature-based projects.

The Centre will build its decentralised marketplace on the energy-efficient Tezos blockchain because it operates sustainably and allows third parties to verify all transactions, in line with the Centre’s vision to support a sustainable future through technology. The goal of the marketplace is to exponentially increase the number of real nature-based conservation and restoration projects by channelling funding towards them via market-based instruments.

Nature-based solutions, particularly forests, have a vital role to play in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Pressure is mounting from governments and the public to rapidly roll out a global programme of well-executed nature-based solutions (NbS) to sequester several gigatons of carbon each year and protect biodiversity. However, current NbS projects are hampered by chronic underfunding.

“Current accreditation systems that measure and report the value of carbon and related benefits like biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction rendered by NbS are costly, slow and inaccurate,” said Centre Director Dr Anil Madhavapeddy. “These systems have undermined trust in NbS carbon credits. What is needed is a decentralised marketplace where purchasers of carbon credits can confidently and directly fund trusted nature-based projects. And that’s the gap the Centre is aiming to fill.”

The Centre will support 12 PhD students and postdoctoral fellows, and investment to prototype a scalable, trusted NbS marketplace. Researchers funded from the Centre will come from the Departments of Computer Science and Technology, Zoology, and Plant Sciences, as well as from the Centre for Doctoral Training in Artificial Intelligence for the study of Environment Risk.

Professor David Coomes, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, said: “Conservation strategies are increasingly broadening to include large datasets, remote sensing technologies and computational approaches. The Centre for Carbon Credits is a ground-breaking initiative that will bring together computer scientists and conservation scientists in a new way.”

Andrew Balmford, Professor of Zoology, said: “The recent announcement at COP26 of the new commitment to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 demonstrates the crucial role forests play in carbon capture and the health of our planet. The new Centre has a significant role to play in supporting crucial research to develop new, trusted mechanisms to support reforestation projects.”

Speaking on the collaborative nature of the Centre, Professor Ann Copestake, Head of the Department of Computer Science and Technology, said: “In the last few years, we’ve been expanding our emphasis on the use of computer science techniques and technologies to help address the climate emergency and the crisis in biodiversity. We are delighted to be bringing our research strengths together with the expertise in environmental science across the University of Cambridge. We hope the work resulting from this interdisciplinary collaboration will lay the foundation for tangible solutions to some of the environmental challenges facing the world.”


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“It’s Almost As If They Don’t Exist”: Education Policy Fails To Account For PMLD Learners

source: www.cam.ac.uk

The policy framework that supposedly guides education for pupils with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) is setting expectations and goals which are often completely at odds with their capabilities and lives, a study says.

 

We need a completely different kind of social contract for these young people

Andrew Colley

The research, which is published in a book launched on Tuesday 9 November, found that the key piece of statutory guidance underpinning education for PMLD learners – the Special Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Code of Practice (2015) – indicates that teachers should prepare them for a future that involves independent living, possible further education and employment.

Researchers argue that these are highly unlikely to represent realistic goals for most children with PMLD. Broadly, PMLD describes people with a combination of very severe learning difficulties, sensory impairments, physical disabilities, complex medical conditions, and challenging behaviours. Most require very high levels of care and support throughout their lives, including with tasks such as washing and eating.

The study also analysed other key health and social care policy documents on which support for children with PMLD is meant to be based. It found that these often make similarly unrealistic assumptions: “because judgements are based on the experiences and values of the policy-makers, because all types and levels of disability are seen as effectively the same, and because people with PMLD tend to be viewed as non-contributors to society”.

For example, Valuing People Now, a Government policy document published in 2009, states that people with learning difficulties – apparently including those with PMLD – “should be supported to pay taxes, vote [and] do jury duty”.

The book, Enhancing Wellbeing and Independence for Young People with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties, combines this policy analysis with the findings from staff surveys at more than 110 special schools in 20 countries, including 52 of around 300 schools that teach PMLD pupils in the UK.

It was co-authored by Andrew Colley, a former special education teacher and lecturer, who did the research as part of a Masters Degree at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge; and Julie Tilbury, Lead Teacher for children with PMLD at Chailey Heritage School, East Sussex.

Their findings highlight the outstanding practice of professionals working with pupils with PMLD pupils, but also suggest that teachers rarely refer to the existing policy guidance except when completing official documents. Asked if they felt that the SEND Code of Practice took account of learners with PMLD, teachers commented: “it doesn’t”, “not at all” and “it’s almost as if they don’t exist”.

“The way wellbeing and independence are defined in policy doesn’t appear to support these learners and ends up excluding them because of the complexity of their disability,” Colley said.

“Most of the guidance that exists assumes their education can be rooted in neurotypical expectations about employment or making an economic contribution when the reality is they will probably never be able to work. The policy covers children with PMLD, but doesn’t cater for them. We need a completely different kind of social contract for these young people.”

There are around 11,000 learners with PMLD in English schools, and an estimated 75,000 people of all ages with PMLD in the UK. Previous research has attempted to identify what ‘wellbeing’ and ‘independence’ should mean for these individuals. In general, it recommends that schools should focus on helping them to live with dignity, form social and emotional relationships, stay healthy and active, and communicate – which for people with PMLD often involves unconventional styles of communication such as blinking and physical gestures.

Contrastingly, the SEND Code of Practice, which makes just one reference to pupils with PMLD in 287 pages, states: “With high aspirations and the right support the vast majority of children and young people can go on to achieve successful long-term outcomes in adult life,” before referring to “higher education and/or employment” and “independent living” as examples.

Many practitioners working with PMLD learners treat the Code as an irrelevance, the researchers found. As much as possible, teachers create learning programmes which respond to the needs of each individual. In line with the recommendations of specialists, this often means that lessons prioritise the enhancement of wellbeing and health, communication, and the development of basic skills such as washing, eating, and independent movement. “There is fantastic work going on in schools, but it is completely separate from what policy dictates,” Colley said.

Despite the efforts of education professionals, the study also highlights the limited opportunities learners with PMLD have to engage with their wider communities. 80% of UK teachers mostly or completely agreed with the statement: “the social life of someone with PMLD is largely focused on their family or school”. Almost 50% felt that families with a member who has PMLD “live isolated and unfulfilled lives”.

The research calls for a different type of policy framework for learners with PMLD which focuses on helping them to become happy, fulfilled and empowered adults, with a sense of belonging rooted in warm and trusting relationships.

Colley added: “To demand that their education should lead to independence in a conventional sense stigmatises their condition, as well as their families. Just because pupils with PMLD are unlikely to work or own a house doesn’t make them any less worthy of our attention as human beings.”

“Addressing this also gives us an opportunity to think differently about what education for all young people really means, beyond the perspective of employment or academic attainment. A really inclusive education system that takes PMLD learners into account demands that we look for something more for everyone.”

Enhancing Wellbeing and Independence for Young People with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties is published by Routledge.


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Cambridge Scientists To Take Part In Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

Audience at Royal Institution Christmas Lecture
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Three Cambridge researchers are among six leading UK scientists who will share the presenting duties with Professor Jonathan Van-Tam during this year’s Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution.

 

Professors Julia Gog, Ravi Gupta and Sharon Peacock, each of whom have played a key role in the UK’s response to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, will lead the on-screen exploration into their area of scientific expertise, with two Guest Lecturers appearing in each episode.

Together, they will offer insights to the Christmas Lectures’ young audience into the world of viruses – how they arise and proliferate, and how we humans respond – from testing and modelling to vaccine development and infection control. They will reveal why discoveries and advances made during the on-going pandemic will have an impact far beyond COVID-19 and are set to change the future of medicine.

The Guest Lecturers will support the 2021 Christmas Lecturer Jonathan Van-Tam to demonstrate that tackling pandemics is a collaborative and interdisciplinary scientific effort.

Professor Julia Gog OBE, is Professor of Mathematical Biology at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge and the David N. Moore Fellow and Director of Studies in Mathematics at Queens’ College, Cambridge. During the pandemic she has contributed to scientific advice to the UK government through SAGE and SPI-M, the group which provides input based on infectious disease modelling and epidemiology.

Professor Ravi Gupta, is Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease. Using his expertise in RNA virus genetics and biology, Ravi’s work during the pandemic has included reporting the first genotypic-phenotypic evidence for immune escape of SARS-CoV-2 within an individual, defining the process by which new variants are likely to arise, and defining the immune escape and transmissibility advantage of the Delta variant as the driver behind its global expansion.

Professor Sharon Peacock CBE, is Professor of Public Health and Microbiology in the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge. During the pandemic Sharon has Chaired the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, delivering large-scale and rapid whole-genome virus sequencing to local NHS centres and the UK government, and helping to inform UK public health interventions and policies.

Also taking part as Guest Lecturers are:

  • Professor Katie Ewer, a cellular immunologist and Associate Professor at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford.
  • Professor Teresa Lambe OBE, an Associate Professor based in the Oxford Vaccine Group at the University of Oxford.
  • Professor Catherine Noakes OBE, Professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings at the University of Leeds.

Lucinda Hunt, Director of the Royal Institution, said: “We are delighted that Jonathan will be joined by such an exciting and expert group of scientists during this year’s series of three Christmas Lectures.

“They will work together to take us on a journey through the world of viruses – how they arise, how they proliferate, and how science and society responds – just as they are doing in tackling the current pandemic. What a strong and positive message that will be for our young audience, about the power of collaborative science.”

Patrick Holland, BBC Director, Factual, Arts and Classical Music Television, said: “Scientists across the world have responded to the Covid crisis with expertise and ingenuity that is humbling for us all. It is no exaggeration to say that the path of history has been changed because of the work of vaccine scientists and epidemiologists.

“Jonathan and his team will give us another exciting and thought-provoking series of Lectures, covering so much more than COVID-19. This will be a celebration of science and of the scientists whose advances are shaping our world.”

In the 2021 Christmas Lectures, ‘Going viral: How Covid changed science forever’, epidemiologist and one of England’s two Deputy Chief Medical Officers, Jonathan Van-Tam, will take a deep dive into many and varied viruses, including COVID-19, and reveal why discoveries and advances made during the on-going pandemic – from early detection techniques to new vaccines – mean biological science will never be the same again.

The 2021 Christmas Lectures will be broadcast on BBC Four and iPlayer between Christmas and New Year.

The 2021 Christmas Lectures are co-produced by the Ri and Windfall Films for BBC Four and iPlayer. They were commissioned by Patrick Holland, Director, Factual, Arts and Classical Music Television and Jack Bootle, Head of Commissioning, Science and Natural History. The Commissioning Editor for the BBC is Tom Coveney. The Series Producer is Henry Fraser and the Executive Producer is David Dugan.

Adapted from a press release by the Royal Institution


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Hungry Caterpillars An Underappreciated Driver of Carbon Emissions

source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

A study led by the University of Cambridge has found that periodic mass outbreaks of leaf-munching caterpillars can improve the water quality of nearby lakes – but may also increase the lakes’ carbon dioxide emissions.

 

From a water quality perspective they’re a good thing, but from a climate perspective they’re pretty bad

Sam Woodman

Outbreaks of caterpillars of invasive gypsy moths, Lymantria dispar dispar, and forest tent caterpillar moths, Malacasoma disstria occur at least every five years in temperate forests. The insects munch through so many leaves that the resulting decrease in leaf-fall and increase in insect excrement has been found to alter the cycling of nutrients, particularly carbon and nitrogen, between land and nearby lakes on a huge scale.

Nitrogen-rich insect excrement, called frass, can wash into lake water and act as fertiliser for microbes, which then release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as they metabolise. The researchers suggest that in outbreak years the large quantities of frass will favour the growth of greenhouse gas-producing bacteria in lakes at the expense of algae that remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

“These insects are basically little machines that convert carbon-rich leaves into nitrogen-rich poo. The poo drops into lakes instead of the leaves, and this significantly changes the water chemistry – we think it will increase the extent to which lakes are sources of greenhouse gases,” said Professor Andrew Tanentzap in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, senior author of the paper.

Northwards range expansion and increased insect population growth is anticipated as the climate changes. This puts northern forests at increased risk of defoliator outbreaks in the future, potentially causing greater quantities of CO2 to be released from nearby lakes.

This northwards shift is also concerning because there are more freshwater lakes further north. And climate change is also expected to favour broadleaved deciduous trees around the lakes, which will amplify the effect of the insects.

The study found that in years with insect outbreaks, the leaf area of forests was reduced by an average of 22%. At the same time, nearby lakes contained 112% more dissolved nitrogen and 27% less dissolved carbon compared to non-outbreak years. The effects were greatest when lake catchments contained higher proportions of deciduous broadleaved trees, such as oaks and maples, which the caterpillars favour over coniferous trees like pines.

To get their results, researchers combined 32 years of government data from insect outbreak surveys and lake water chemistry in 12 lake catchments across Ontario, Canada, and satellite remote sensing data on forest type and monthly leaf area cover. The results are published today in the journal Nature Communications.

This is believed to be the most extensive study ever undertaken into how insect outbreaks impact freshwater carbon and nitrogen dynamics. Previous studies have been so small that it has been difficult to extract wider generalities.

A previous 26-year study of 266 lakes across the northern hemisphere has shown that carbon is naturally accumulating in these lake waters, in a process called browning. The trend is attributed to a variety of factors including climate change, and recovery from historical acid rain and logging activities. Comparing the new results to this data showed that an outbreak of leaf-munching caterpillars can effectively offset an entire year’s worth of carbon accumulation in nearby lakes – significantly improving water quality.

In years without outbreaks of leaf-eating insects, carbon and nitrogen entering lakes usually comes from decaying leaf and needle litter, and peaks in quantity in autumn. In outbreak years, the study found that nearby freshwater lakes contained an average of 27% less dissolved carbon.

“Outbreaks of leaf-eating insects can reduce the carbon dissolved in lake water by almost a third when the trees around the lake are mainly deciduous. It’s just amazing that these insects can have such a pronounced effect on water quality,” said Sam Woodman, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences and first author of the report.

He added: “From a water quality perspective they’re a good thing, but from a climate perspective they’re pretty bad – yet they’ve been completely overlooked in climate models.”

This research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Reference

Woodman, S. G. et al: ‘Forest defoliator outbreaks alter nutrient cycling in northern waters’, Nature Communications, November 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-26666-1


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Cambridge Confers Law Degree On UN Secretary-General António Guterres

 

The University of Cambridge on Wednesday held a special Congregation of its Regent House, for its Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, to confer the honorary degree of Doctor of Law on His Excellency António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations.

 

In an address to the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, academics, students and civic guests, given in the University’s Senate House after being admitted to his degree, the Secretary-General spoke of the urgent need for global research institutions like Cambridge to find scientific solutions, to produce solid facts, to enlighten people through education and learning; to drive change and offer discoveries that can benefit the entire world.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “We are careering toward climate catastrophe, unless we act now to keep temperature rises to the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement.

“Current pledges put us on course for an uninhabitable world, with temperatures at least two degrees higher than they were in pre-industrial times.

“Biodiversity is collapsing, with a million species at risk of extinction.

“And we are polluting and poisoning air, water and land.

“Cambridge University is at the forefront of efforts to tackle these crises, through Cambridge Zero and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

“And the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership is demonstrating that academia and the corporate sector can work together to drive transformative change.”

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J. Toope, OC said: “I am delighted that the University has today honoured the Secretary-General, António Guterres with an honorary degree. In doing so, Cambridge is also recognising the work of his UN colleagues around the globe. The Secretary-General is playing a crucial role in the arduous negotiations taking place at COP26, and has been stark in his warning about the risks we are up against. But he has also given us hope. The UN’s ‘Our Common Agenda’ initiative is a rousing call to strengthen multilateralism.

“In emphasising the importance of long-term thinking, and in proposing a greater focus on facts and science, it aligns with our University’s approach to tackling some of the world’s most complex challenges. I am very grateful to the Secretary-General for acknowledging that, in the face of such challenges, universities “hold many of the solutions we need. Not only climate scientists and pharmacologists, but sociologists, lawyers, economists and experts in every discipline (…) researching ideas that can lead to breakthroughs for the common good.” Cambridge will do its utmost to live up to that expectation.”

The Director of Cambridge Zero, Professor Emily Shuckburgh, OBE said:

“The Secretary-General has said we need institutions dedicated to learning, critical thinking and pushing the boundaries of human understanding. We are responding to that by channeling ideas and innovations from Cambridge to shape climate-resilient net-zero futures for every citizen of the world.”

The University of Cambridge traces its beginnings back to 1209 and its mission is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. Cambridge is one of the top three global research universities addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges, from climate change and the genomics of human viruses, to food security and anti-microbial resistance. The University attracts some of the most able undergraduate and postgraduate students and its graduates are highly sought after for leading roles in industry, academia and government. Cambridge is ranked third in the QS World Rankings and has the maximum Employer Reputation score of 100.

According to an in-depth MIT study on entrepreneurial ecosystems, Cambridge is also one of the world’s top three university innovation hubs, supporting a high-tech local economy in the East of England with a turnover of £48 billion [2020], where the University acts as a catalyst providing ideas for commercialisation, early stage funding, venture capital, incubation for start-up companies and a well-educated workforce to power them as they scale up. Cambridge University Press & Assessment publishes more than 380 academic journals and thousands of books for research and higher education, as well as providing assessment for more than eight million learners in more than 170 countries every year.

Read the UN Secretary-General’s remarks in full

View the ceremony in full

 

 

 


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Scientists Discover How Our Brain Uses Nutritional State To Regulate Growth and Age at Puberty

Young girl
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Cambridge scientists have discovered how a receptor in the brain, called MC3R, detects the nutritional state of the body and regulates the timing of puberty and rate of growth in children and increases in lean muscle mass.

 

This discovery shows how the brain can sense nutrients and interpret this to make subconscious decisions that influence our growth and sexual development

Sir Stephen O’Rahilly

These findings, published today in the journal Nature, may explain how humans have been growing taller and reaching sexual maturity earlier over the past century. Over the 20th century, average height increased by about 10 cm in the UK, and up to 20 cm in other countries.

While scientists have long suggested that this phenomenon could be related to more reliable access to food for pregnant women and children, until now, precisely how the body senses its state of nutrition and turns that information into growth and sexual maturation had not been understood.

It was already known that signals reach the brain to indicate the body’s nutritional state, such as the hormones leptin, produced in adipose (fat) cells, and insulin, produced in response to increases in blood sugar levels. In a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, these hormones act on a small group of neurons that produce signals called melanocortins.

The melanocortins act on a variety of receptors, two of which are present in the brain. One of these, the melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R) has previously been shown to regulate appetite and lack of MC4R results in obesity; however, the MC4R system does not control the effect of nutrition on growth and timing of puberty.

Now, a study, led by researchers from the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit and the MRC Epidemiology Unit (both part of the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science) at the University of Cambridge, with collaborators from Queen Mary University of London, University of Bristol, University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University, has discovered a role for the brain’s other melanocortin receptor, which is known as the melanocortin 3 receptor (MC3R).

They found that in response to nutritional signals the MC3R system controls the release of key hormones regulating growth and sexual maturation.

To show the link in humans, the scientists searched amongst the half a million volunteers in UK Biobank for people with naturally occurring genetic mutations that disrupt the function of the MC3R. They identified a few thousand people who carried various mutations in the gene for MC3R and found these people were on average shorter and went into puberty later than those with no mutation.

For example, they identified 812 women who had the same mutation in one of their two copies of the MC3R gene. This mutation only partly reduced the ability of the receptor to work. Despite this subtle effect, women who carried this were on average 4.7 months older at puberty than those without the mutation.

People with mutations that reduced the function of MC3R were also shorter and had lower amounts of lean tissue, such as muscle, but it had no influence on how much fat they carried.

To confirm these findings in children, they studied almost 6,000 participants from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) and identified six children with mutations in MC3R. The six children were shorter and had lower lean mass and weight throughout childhood, showing that this effect starts very early in life.

All the people identified in these studies had a mutation in only one of the two copies of the gene. Finding mutations in both copies of the gene is vanishingly rare, but in another cohort the researchers were able to identify an individual in the Genes and Health study with a very damaging mutation in both copies of the gene. This person was very short and went into puberty after the age of 20.

This same phenomenon linking adequate nutritional body stores to reproductive maturity is seen right across the animal kingdom, so the researchers conducted studies in mice to confirm that the MC3R pathway operates across species. Work in the laboratory of Dr Roger Cone at the University of Michigan, who had previously demonstrated a role for the MC3R in the control of growth and lean mass in mice, showed that while normal mice shut off their reproductive cycle when they underwent a period of food deprivation, mice engineered to lack the MC3R did not. This confirmed that MC3R is a necessary part of how the nutritional state controls sex hormone production.

Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly, a senior author on the study and Director of the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit at the University of Cambridge, said: “This discovery shows how the brain can sense nutrients and interpret this to make subconscious decisions that influence our growth and sexual development. Identifying the pathway in the brain whereby nutrition turns into growth and puberty explains a global phenomenon of increasing height and decreasing age at puberty that has puzzled scientists for a century.

“Our findings have immediate practical implications for the testing of children with serious delays in growth and pubertal development for mutations in the MC3R.

“This research may have wider implications beyond child development and reproductive health. Many chronic diseases are associated with the loss of lean mass, including muscle, with resultant frailty. This responds poorly to simple nutritional supplements such as protein-rich drinks. The finding that the activity of the MC3R pathway influences the amount of lean mass carried by a person suggests that future research should investigate if drugs that selectively activate the MC3R might help redirect calories into muscle and other lean tissues with the prospect of improving the physical functional of such patients.”

Professor John Perry, a senior author on the study from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, said: “This is such an exciting time for human genetics. By analysing the genetic sequences of large numbers of research participants, we can now understand fundamental biological processes that have remained elusive until now. By combining these studies with experiments in cellular and animal models, we will continue to uncover new insights and understand the mechanisms behind human growth and metabolic disease.”

The research was funded by the UK Medical Research Council, Wellcome and the National Institute for Health Research.

Dr Rob Buckle, Chief Science Officer at the Medical Research Council, which was a funder of the research, said: “These findings have the potential to make a significant step forward in future management of disorders of growth and puberty, and improvements in the health of those suffering from frailty caused by chronic conditions. This study shows the value of long-term investment in both large UK population cohorts and multidisciplinary research to discover the underpinning causes of human health and disease.”

Reference
Lam BYH et al. MC3R links nutritional state to childhood growth and the timing of puberty. Nature; 3 Nov 2021

Adapted from a press release by the Medical Research Council


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Study Reveals ‘Drastic Changes’ To Daily Routines During UK Lockdowns

Child and mother during lockdown
source: www.cam.ac.uk

Some spent an extra hour a day on chores and childcare during lockdowns, while others got an added daily hour of solo leisure time – and most of us reduced time spent on paid work by around half an hour a day.

 

The lockdowns resulted in drastic changes to patterns of time use, disrupting routines and blurring the distinction between work and family life

Ines Lee

This is according to a new study of “time-use diaries” kept by 766 UK citizens from across the social spectrum during three points in time: the last month of normality, the first lockdown, and the last lockdown in March of this year.

Economists from the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London collected data that charted time spent on activities during both typical work and nonwork days to map changes to the rhythm of life for millions.

The study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, found marked differences between genders, particularly parents of young children, and that increases in odd working hours and downtime spent alone were detrimental to wellbeing.

“The lockdowns resulted in drastic changes to patterns of time use, disrupting routines and blurring the distinction between work and family life,” said co-author Dr Ines Lee from Cambridge’s Faculty of Economics.

“We have hopefully seen the end of lockdowns, but our study holds lessons for hybrid working, as splitting time between home and office becomes more common.”

“Employers should promote better work-life balance in the post-pandemic world. This could include limits on emails outside working hours, home-working schedules that suit parents, and options for younger workers left isolated by reduced in-person networking,” said Lee.

The researchers looked at amounts of time each individual spent on activities in four broad categories: employment (excluding commutes); “housework” (from shopping to childcare); leisure (e.g. hobbies or home entertainment); subsistence (meals, sleeping, personal care).

While previous studies have focused on the initial lockdown, this is one of the first to examine the effects of repeated COVID-19 containment measures on our lives and routines.

Before Covid arrived, 86% of the sample was employed, but this fell to 63% in the first lockdown and 74% in the third. Mothers of young children were significantly less likely to be employed than fathers by the third lockdown.

For those employed before and during lockdowns, people with at least one young child spent an average of 43 fewer minutes a day on their paid job in the first lockdown, and 32 fewer minutes in the third, compared to pre-pandemic.

For those without young children it was an average decrease of 28 minutes and 22 minutes a day on paid work respectively.

Women with young children spent around an hour less on paid work a day than men and women without young children. This was mainly a reduction in time spent on actual work tasks rather than, for example, meetings.

During the first lockdown, the average time women spent on housework increased by 28 minutes a day, while for men the average time spent on subsistence activities (e.g. sleeping and eating) increased by 30 minutes. By 2021 these changes had evened out.

Life with small children during this year’s lockdown meant an extra hour of housework a day over pre-pandemic levels. Mothers of young kids did 67 more minutes of housework a day than fathers. Only women saw an increase in cooking and cleaning (time spent on caring duties was spread across genders).

The study suggests that parents often forfeited leisure time. Living with young kids was associated with a drop in leisure activities of almost an hour a day in both lockdowns – and income levels made no difference to this loss of downtime.

For those without young kids, leisure time increased – but much of it was spent alone. By the third lockdown, people with no small children had around an extra hour of solitary leisure time a day over pre-pandemic levels.

However, in terms of quality – the self-reported “enjoyment” of given activities – this solo leisure time felt less pleasurable during the last lockdown than it had prior to the pandemic.

The third lockdown also saw around 20% of individuals spend more time working unusual hours (outside 0830-1730) compared to the pre-pandemic period, which reduced the reported enjoyment of their day overall.

Those earning £5k a month or more, worked almost two extra hours a day than people earning less than £1k a month by the last lockdown. High earners also spent less time on subsistence activities during both lockdowns.

Overall, the third lockdown felt a bit more miserable than the first, according to the research.

While there was little change in the enjoyment of various activities in the early days of Covid, with men even reporting slightly higher “quality” of time during lockdown one, by March of this year enjoyment of activities was around 5% lower than pre-pandemic levels across the board.

Dr Eileen Tipoe, co-author from Queen Mary University of London, said: “It is no surprise that having to do more work outside of typical working hours meant that people were substantially unhappier during the third lockdown.

“And it was concerning to find that women, and especially those with young children, were disproportionately affected by lockdown – for example being less likely to be employed and the fact that only women spent more time cooking and cleaning.”


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Cambridge Students Urged To Take Part in Innovative COVID-19 Screening Programme

Student talking a COVID-19 test
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

An estimated 7,000 students are already taking part each week in the University of Cambridge’s Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme, but the team running the programme are encouraging as many students as possible to join in, and help keep Cambridge safe.

 

The more students that participate, the less transmission and fewer cases we’ll see, and the less likely students will be to have to self-isolate. It’s a win-win situation

Isobel Ramsay

This is particularly important as UK cases continue to rise, and evidence shows that even people who have been fully vaccinated or previously infected are at risk of infection.

At the start of Michaelmas term in October 2020, the University of Cambridge introduced a free weekly asymptomatic screening programme for all students resident in its Colleges, later extended to include students living in private accommodation. It is complemented by a testing programme for staff and students with symptoms of possible COVID-19. Both programmes use PCR tests – still considered the gold standard. For asymptomatic screening, up to ten students pool their swabs in a single sample tube – making the available tests go further.

According to the latest report from the team, in the week 18-24 October 2021, around 5,200 students contributed swabs to pooled sample collection and registered their tests. However, the actual number of students taking part is thought to be higher – about 7,000 students each week – because a significant number of students contribute unregistered swabs. Those swabs are still tested, but it makes the task of contacting students in positive pools take more time.

In that same week, preliminary analysis suggests the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme identified eight positive cases from across the student population. A further four were identified by the University’s symptomatic testing programme. These numbers are down from 16 asymptomatic and 13 symptomatic positive cases the previous week.

Dr Nicholas Matheson, from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID), designed the screening programme. He said: “It’s great that so many students are taking part every week, but we’d like to encourage even more to join in. The number of COVID-19 cases among our students is still, thankfully, relatively low – but across the UK, we’re seeing numbers increase. None of us can afford to be complacent – even if you’re fully vaccinated, it’s still possible to get infected with the Delta variant, and pass it on to others.

“Young people are at risk of ‘long COVID’, with some people experiencing symptoms lasting weeks or months. We are also seeing a small number of young people with COVID-19 admitted to our hospital – even to intensive care. It’s therefore incredibly important that we do everything we can to keep numbers low.”

By identifying infected students early, before they develop symptoms, Dr Matheson and colleagues can help students avoid unwittingly infecting others. This breaks chains of transmission, reduces the risk of outbreaks, and limits disruption to University and College life. By participating in the programme, students can therefore help keep their friends, colleagues, and the wider community safe – this is especially important for those people who remain vulnerable to COVID-19, despite being vaccinated themselves.

Dr Isobel Ramsay, Clinical Lead for the screening programme, is keen to allay concerns about the risk of unnecessary self-isolation. “Because we use PCR tests and a two-step testing strategy, with individual confirmatory tests for positive pools, you’re exceptionally unlikely to test positive unless you’re genuinely infected. And if you do test positive, your friends and contacts won’t be required to self-isolate if they’ve been fully vaccinated by the NHS.

“In short, the more students that participate, the less transmission and fewer cases we’ll see, and the less likely students will be to have to self-isolate. It’s a win-win situation.”

The Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme is supported by Cambridge Students’ Union (SU), whose Undergraduate and Postgraduate Presidents are part of the team running the programme.

“The level of participation from Cambridge students is something that we’re really proud of,” said Anjum Nahar, Postgraduate President of Cambridge SU. “Everyone wants to have the best possible experience during their time at Cambridge, and that means keeping the number of cases as low as possible. We all need to do our bit. We’re taking part not just because it protects us, but because it helps protect everyone around us.”

Students who have not yet signed up to the programme can do so on the University website. Further information about the programme is available on the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme pages.


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