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Cambridge welcomes Harvard’s Interim President

Fri, 15/03/2024 - 09:29

After a meeting with Cambridge counterparts, the Harvard team went to Emmanuel College, which has strong historical links with Harvard, and took part in a symposium on research in the life sciences.

In the afternoon, Professor Garber and his colleagues visited the Cambridge Biomedical Campus to learn more about its world-leading medical science, research, education and patient care.

"It was a great pleasure to meet with our alumni in London and to travel to the University of Cambridge on my first presidential visit outside of the United States,” said Professor Garber. “Acknowledging our historical roots and celebrating our ongoing connections underscored for me the strength of our worldwide community. It was inspiring to see first-hand the many ways in which that strength is helping us fulfil our commitment to teaching, research, and innovation. I am grateful to the Vice-Chancellor and our colleagues in old Cambridge, and to our alumni community in London, for hosting me for these important conversations.”

Professor Prentice said: “I was delighted to welcome Professor Garber and the Harvard team to Cambridge. It was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with colleagues, discuss some of the great work going on in our institutions, and exchange ideas on a wide range of topics.”

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Debbie Prentice, welcomed Professor Alan Garber, Interim President of Harvard University, and members of his senior team during a visit to Cambridge.

Stillvision.co.ukProfessor Debbie Prentice and Professor Alan Garber


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Three Cambridge researchers awarded Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies

Thu, 14/03/2024 - 11:06

From atomically thin semiconductors for more energy-efficient electronics, to harnessing the power of the sun by upcycling biomass and plastic waste into sustainable chemicals, their research encompasses a variety of technological advances with the potential to deliver wide-ranging benefits.

Funded by the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Academy’s Chair in Emerging Technologies scheme aims to identify global research visionaries and provide them with long-term support. Each £2,500,000 award covers employment and research costs, enabling each researcher to focus on advancing their technology to application in a strategic manner for up to 10 years.

Since 2017, the Chair in Emerging Technologies programme has awarded over £100 million to Chairs in 16 universities located across the UK. Of the four Chairs awarded in this round, three were awarded to Cambridge researchers.

Professor Manish Chhowalla FREng, from the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, is developing ultra-low-power electronics based on wafer-scale manufacture of atomically thin (or 2D) semiconductors. The atomically thin nature of the 2D semiconductors makes them ideal for energy-efficient electronics. To reap their benefits, complementary metal oxide semiconductor processes will be developed for integration into ultra-low power devices.

Professor Nic Lane and his team at the Department of Computer Science and Technology, are working to make the development of AI more democratic by focusing on AI methods that are less centralised and more collaborative, and offer better privacy protection.

Their project, nicknamed DANTE, aims to encourage wider and more active participation across society in the development and adoption of AI techniques.

“Artificial intelligence (AI) is evolving towards a situation where only a handful of the largest companies in the world can participate,” said Lane. “Given the importance of this technology to society this trajectory must be changed. We aim to invent, popularise and commercialise core new scientific breakthroughs that will enable AI technology in the future to be far more collaborative, distributed and open than it is today.”

The project will focus on developing decentralised forms of AI that facilitate the collaborative study, invention, development and deployment of machine learning products and methods, primarily between collections of companies and organisations. An underlying mission of DANTE is to facilitate advanced AI technology remaining available for adoption in the public sphere, for example in hospitals, public policy, and energy and transit infrastructure.

Professor Erwin Reisner, from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, is developing a technology, called solar reforming, that creates sustainable fuels and chemicals from biomass and plastic waste. This solar-powered technology uses only waste, water and air as ingredients, and the sun powers a catalyst to produce green hydrogen fuel and platform chemicals to decarbonise the transport and chemical sectors. A recent review in Nature Reviews Chemistry gives an overview of plans for the technology.

“The generous long-term support provided by the Royal Academy of Engineering will be the critical driver for our ambitions to engineer, scale and ultimately commercialise our solar chemical technology,” said Reisner. “The timing for this support is perfect, as my team has recently demonstrated several prototypes for upcycling biomass and plastic waste using sunlight, and we have excellent momentum to grasp the opportunities arising from developing these new technologies. I also hope to use this Chair to leverage further support to establish a circular chemistry centre in Cambridge to tackle our biggest sustainability challenges.”

“I am excited to announce this latest round of Chairs in Emerging Technology,” said Dr Andrew Clark, Executive Director, Programmes, at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “The mid-term reviews of the previous rounds of Chairs are providing encouraging evidence that long-term funding of this nature helps to bring the groundbreaking and influential ideas of visionary engineers to fruition. I look forward to seeing the impacts of these four exceptionally talented individuals.”

Three Cambridge researchers – Professors Manish Chhowalla, Nic Lane and Erwin Reisner – have each been awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies, to develop emerging technologies with high potential to deliver economic and social benefits to the UK.

University of CambridgeL-R: Manish Chhowalla, Nic Lane, Erwin Reisner


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Crews announced for The Boat Race 2024

Thu, 14/03/2024 - 09:33

The 36 student rowers who have won a place in the Blue Boat were announced at the event which was held in public for the first time in the Boat Races’ history.

The crews for the Women’s Race were unveiled first of all, and the Cambridge crew will feature two returning faces, Jenna Armstrong and Carina Graf, but for the others it is their first time in the coveted Blue Boat.

The crews for the Men’s Race were then unveiled, and this year there are five returning Blues: Seb Benzecry, Noam Mouelle, Tom Lynch, Luca Ferraro and Matt Edge.

The full line-ups are as follows:

Cambridge Women’s Blue Boat

Cox: Hannah Murphy     (Girton - MPhil Health, Medicine and Society)
Stroke: Megan Lee (Lucy Cavendish - MPhil  Management)
7: Iris Powell (Churchill - BA Natural Sciences)
6: Carys Earl (Gonville and Caius - BA Medicine)
5: Carina Graf    (Emmanuel - PhD Neuro Sci)
4: Jenna Armstrong (Jesus - PhD Physiology)
3: Clare Hole (St Catharine’s - MPhil Population Health Sciences)
2: Jo Matthews (St John’s - BA Medicine (Clinical))
Bow: Gemma King (St John’s - MRes + PhD Stem Cell Biology)

Cambridge Men’s Blue Boat

Cox: Ed Bracey (Wolfson - MPhil Economics)
Stroke: Matt Edge (St Catharine’s - PhD Chem Eng)
7: Luca Ferraro (King’s - BA Classics)
6: Tom Lynch (Hughes Hall - PhD Engineering)
5: Kenny Coplan (Hughes Hall - MPhil History of Art)
4: Gus John (Wolfson - MPhil Medieval History)
3: Thomas Marsh (St John’s - PhD Physics)
2: Noam Mouelle (Hughes Hall - PhD Astrophysics)
Bow: Seb Benzecry (Jesus - PhD Film Studies)

Asked by the host of the event, BBC Sport commentator Andrew Cotter, about whether there was a challenge integrating new faces into the Blue Boat, Cambridge Women’s Coach Patrick Ryan said: “Actually there are no new faces, every single one of them is a returner – just new Blues!”

The Cambridge Men’s and Women’s clubs unified in 2020 and Patrick added: “As we’ve become one club, we’ve learned to share more information and work together, hopefully for the betterment of the athletes here tonight.”

Cambridge Men’s Coach Rob Baker was then asked whether the number of returning Blues in the Men’s Boat would give Cambridge an advantage.

“Every year is different, every year is a challenge,” said Rob. “It’s great to have guys that have won the race and been through the process before, but yes it’s always a big challenge but we are up for it”.

It was the first time that Battersea Power Station, which famously featured on a Pink Floyd album cover, has hosted the crew announcement event. Siobhan Cassidy, Chair of the Boat Race Company Limited, said the venue was appropriate, given that it was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who was also behind iconic buildings at Cambridge and Oxford, including Cambridge University Library.

She added: “[The Boat Race] is the ultimate British tradition, which draws on its heritage yet, with boats full of young students, it is very much an event that looks to the future.

“These young people have a unique opportunity to take to the water on such a high profile day. In order to get there they have made incredible choices. They have combined a full-time rigorous academic schedule with training and racing throughout the year - so let’s not underestimate how impressive these young people really are”.

The Gemini Boat Race 2024 takes place in Putney, London, on Saturday 30 March  – with the Women’s Race starting at 14:46 BST and the Men’s Race at 15:46 BST – renewing an intense rivalry which stretches back nearly 200 years. The event will be broadcast live on BBC One from 14:00 BST.

Last year saw Cambridge University win both the men’s and women’s races, leaving the overall records as 86-81 in the favour of Cambridge Men’s and 47-30 in the favour of Cambridge Women’s.

The Cambridge and Oxford crews for The Boat Race 2024 have been officially unveiled at a crew announcement held at the iconic Battersea Power Station.

BRCL/Row360The Cambridge and Oxford crews for The Boat Race 2024


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Yes

Major investment in doctoral training announced

Tue, 12/03/2024 - 14:23

The 65 Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) will support leading research in areas of national importance, including net zero, AI, defence and security, healthcare and quantum technologies. The £1 billion in funding – from government, universities and industry – represents the UK’s biggest-ever investment in engineering and physical sciences doctoral skills.

The University of Cambridge will lead two of the CDTs and is a partner in a further five CDTs. The funding will support roughly 150 Cambridge PhD students over the next five years.

The CDT in Future Infrastructure and Built Environment: Unlocking Net Zero (FIBE3 CDT), led by Professor Abir Al-Tabbaa from the Department of Engineering, will focus on meeting the needs of the infrastructure and construction sector in its pursuit of net zero by 2050 and is a collaboration between Cambridge, 30+ industry partners and eight international academic partners.

“The infrastructure sector is responsible for significant CO2 emissions, energy use and consumption of natural resources, and it’s key to unlocking net zero,” said Al-Tabbaa. “This CDT will develop the next generation of highly talented doctoral graduates who will be equipped to lead the design and implementation of the net zero infrastructure agenda in the UK.”

The FIBE3 CDT will provide more than 70 fully funded studentships over the next five years. The £8.1M funding from EPSRC is supported by £1.3M funding from the University and over £2.5M from industry as well as over £8.9M of in-kind contributions. Recruitment is underway for the first FIBE3 CDT cohort, to start in October.

The CDT in Sensor Technologies and Applications in an Uncertain World, led by Professor Clemens Kaminski from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, will cover the entire sensor research chain – from development to end of life – and will emphasise systems thinking, responsible research and innovation, co-creation, and cohort learning.

“Our CDT will provide students with comprehensive expertise and skills in sensor technology,” said Kaminski. “This programme will develop experts who are capable of driving impactful sensor solutions for industry and society, and can deal with uncertain data and the consequences of a rapidly changing world.”

The University is also a partner in:

  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in 2D Materials of Tomorrow (2DMoT), led by: Professor Irina Grigorieva from the University of Manchester
  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training Developing National Capability for Materials 4.0 and Henry Royce Institute, led by Professor William Parnell from the University of Manchester
  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Superconductivity: Enabling Transformative Technologies, led by Professor Antony Carrington from the University of Bristol
  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Aerosol Science: Harnessing Aerosol Science for Improved Security, Resilience and Global Health, led by Professor Jonathan Reid from the University of Bristol
  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Photonic and Electronic Systems, led by Professor Alwyn Seeds from University College London

“As innovators across the world break new ground faster than ever, it is vital that government, business and academia invest in ambitious UK talent, giving them the tools to pioneer new discoveries that benefit all our lives while creating new jobs and growing the economy,” said Science and Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan. “By targeting critical technologies including artificial intelligence and future telecoms, we are supporting world-class universities across the UK to build the skills base we need to unleash the potential of future tech and maintain our country’s reputation as a hub of cutting-edge research and development.”

“The Centres for Doctoral Training will help to prepare the next generation of researchers, specialists and industry experts across a wide range of sectors and industries,” said Professor Charlotte Deane, Executive Chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation. “Spanning locations across the UK and a wide range of disciplines, the new centres are a vivid illustration of the UK’s depth of expertise and potential, which will help us to tackle large-scale, complex challenges and benefit society and the economy. The high calibre of both the new centres and applicants is a testament to the abundance of research excellence across the UK, and EPSRC’s role as part of UKRI is to invest in this excellence to advance knowledge and deliver a sustainable, resilient and prosperous nation.”

More than 4,000 doctoral students will be trained over the next nine years, building on EPSRC’s long-standing record of sustained support for doctoral training.

Total investment in the CDTs includes:

  • £479 million by EPSRC, including £16 million of additional UKRI funding to support CDTs in quantum technologies
  • Over £7 million from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, also part of UKRI, to co-fund three CDTs
  • £16 million by the MOD to support two CDTs
  • £169 million by UK universities
  • plus a further £420 million in financial and in-kind support from business partners 

This investment includes an additional £135 million for CDTs which will start in 2025. More than 1,400 companies, higher education institutions, charities and civic organisations are taking part in the centres for doctoral training. CDTs have a significant reputation for training future UK academics, industrialists and innovators who have gone on to develop the latest technologies.

Sixty-five Centres for Doctoral Training – which will train more than 4000 doctoral students across the UK – have been announced by Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan.

Phynart Studio via Getty ImagesTwo people working on circuit boards


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Yes

University signs Armed Forces Covenant

Thu, 07/03/2024 - 12:58

The Armed Forces Covenant is a promise that together we acknowledge and understand that those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces, and their families, should be treated with fairness and respect in the communities, economy, and society they serve with their lives.

The Covenant’s twin underlying principles are that members of the Armed Forces community should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services; and that special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given the most such as the injured or the bereaved. The University has also pledged to appoint an Armed Forces Champion.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deborah Prentice, signed the Armed Forces Covenant on behalf of the University alongside the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton. 


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Yes

Genetic mutation in a quarter of all Labradors hard-wires them for obesity

Wed, 06/03/2024 - 19:06

This obesity-driving combination means that dog owners must be particularly strict with feeding and exercising their Labradors to keep them slim.

The mutation is in a gene called POMC, which plays a critical role in hunger and energy use.

Around 25% of Labradors and 66% of flatcoated retriever dogs have the POMC mutation, which researchers previously showed causes increased interest in food and risk of obesity.

The new study reveals how the mutation profoundly changes the way Labradors and flatcoated retrievers behave around food. It found that although they don’t need to eat more to feel full, they are hungrier in between meals.

In addition, dogs with the POMC mutation were found to use around 25% less energy at rest than dogs without it, meaning they don’t need to consume as many calories to maintain a healthy body weight.

“We found that a mutation in the POMC gene seems to make dogs hungrier. Affected dogs tend to overeat because they get hungry between meals more quickly than dogs without the mutation,” said Dr Eleanor Raffan, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience who led the study.

She added: “All owners of Labradors and flatcoated retrievers need to watch what they’re feeding these highly food-motivated dogs, to keep them a healthy weight. But dogs with this genetic mutation face a double whammy: they not only want to eat more, but also need fewer calories because they’re not burning them off as fast.”

The POMC mutation was found to alter a pathway in the dogs’ brains associated with body weight regulation. The mutation triggers a starvation signal that tells their body to increase food intake and conserve energy, despite this being unnecessary.

The results are published today in the journal Science Advances.

Raffan said: “People are often rude about the owners of fat dogs, blaming them for not properly managing their dogs’ diet and exercise. But we’ve shown that Labradors with this genetic mutation are looking for food all the time, trying to increase their energy intake. It’s very difficult to keep these dogs slim, but it can be done.”

The researchers say owners can keep their retrievers distracted from this constant hunger by spreading out each daily food ration, for example by using puzzle feeders or scattering the food around the garden so it takes longer to eat.

In the study, 87 adult pet Labrador dogs - all a healthy weight or moderately overweight - took part in several tests including the ‘sausage in a box’ test.

First, the dogs were given a can of dogfood every 20 minutes until they chose not to eat any more. All ate huge amounts of food, but the dogs with the POMC mutation didn’t eat more than those without it. This showed that they all feel full with a similar amount of food.

Next, on a different day, the dogs were fed a standard amount of breakfast. Exactly three hours later they were offered a sausage in a box and their behaviour was recorded. The box was made of clear plastic with a perforated lid, so the dogs could see and smell the sausage, but couldn’t eat it.

The researchers found that dogs with the POMC mutation tried significantly harder to get the sausage from the box than dogs without it, indicating greater hunger.

The dogs were then allowed to sleep in a special chamber that measured the gases they breathed out. This revealed that dogs with the POMC mutation burn around 25% fewer calories than dogs without it.

The POMC gene and the brain pathway it affects are similar in dogs and humans. The new findings are consistent with reports of extreme hunger in humans with POMC mutations, who tend to become obese at an early age and develop a host of clinical problems as a result.

Drugs currently in development for human obesity, underactive sexual desire and certain skin conditions target this brain pathway, so understanding it fully is important.

A mutation in the POMC gene in dogs prevents production of two chemical messengers in the dog brain, beta-melanocyte stimulating hormone (β-MSH) and beta-endorphin, but does not affect production of a third, alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone (α-MSH).

Further laboratory studies by the team suggest that β-MSH and beta-endorphin are important in determining hunger and moderating energy use, and their role is independent of the presence of α-MSH. This challenges the previous belief, based on research in rats, that early onset human obesity due to POMC mutations is caused only by a lack of α-MSH. Rats don’t produce beta-melanocyte stimulating hormone, but humans and dogs produce both α- and β-MSH.

The research was funded by The Dogs Trust and Wellcome.

Reference: Dittmann, M.T. et al: ‘Low resting metabolic rate and increased hunger due to β-MSH and β-endorphin deletion in a canine model.’ Science Advances, March 2024. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adj3823

New research finds around a quarter of Labrador retriever dogs face a double-whammy of feeling hungry all the time and burning fewer calories due to a genetic mutation.

Labradors with this genetic mutation are looking for food all the time, trying to increase their energy intake. It’s very difficult to keep these dogs slim, but it can be done.Eleanor RaffanJane GoodallLabrador retriever dog


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YesLicence type: Attribution-Noncommerical

University statement on Budget 2024

Wed, 06/03/2024 - 16:57

The additional funding towards transport and health infrastructure around the Cambridge Biomedical Campus will help pave the way for sustainable growth. We will continue to work with local partners and central government on the development of a long-term funding settlement for Cambridge to be announced at the next spending review.

We also welcome the Department of Levelling up, Housing and Communities' ambitions for the future growth of Cambridge as set out in their Case for Cambridge paper. It recognises the unparalleled research and scientific capabilities that the city holds and its potential to be the world's leading scientific hub. It also rightly points to the issues that threaten this vision, from housing prices to water shortages and transport gridlock. We welcome the Government’s commitment to work with all local partners to seek solutions to these challenges.

We have been calling for solutions to address the water scarcity in the region. Today’s announcement by DEFRA and the Environment Agency enables current projects under the 2018 local plan to go ahead. It is good news that the announcement recognises the importance for water resources to meet the needs of Cambridge residents and business, but also the needs of the natural environment. Greater certainty around both long-term water supply and plans set out to offset demand in the short term can help support the growth of Cambridge in a way that is both sustainable and supports the economic potential of the area.

AstraZeneca

We are delighted with today’s announcement that friends at AstraZeneca intend to expand their footprint on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus and invest in the building of a vaccine manufacturing hub in Liverpool. This will further strengthen the central role that AstraZeneca plays at the heart of the UK life sciences sector and the Cambridge cluster.

Scientists at AstraZeneca have been working with the University of Cambridge for more than two decades. Today there are more than 130 active collaborations between the two organisations - developing new treatments that will make a real difference to patients’ lives.

We welcome today's announcements on steps to unlock Cambridge's potential as the world's leading scientific powerhouse.


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Yes

Astronomers spot oldest ‘dead’ galaxy yet observed

Wed, 06/03/2024 - 16:00

Using the James Webb Space Telescope, an international team of astronomers led by the University of Cambridge have spotted a ‘dead’ galaxy when the universe was just 700 million years old, the oldest such galaxy ever observed.

This galaxy appears to have lived fast and died young: star formation happened quickly and stopped almost as quickly, which is unexpected for so early in the universe’s evolution. However, it is unclear whether this galaxy’s ‘quenched’ state is temporary or permanent, and what caused it to stop forming new stars.

The results, reported in the journal Nature, could be important to help astronomers understand how and why galaxies stop forming new stars, and whether the factors affecting star formation have changed over billions of years.

“The first few hundred million years of the universe was a very active phase, with lots of gas clouds collapsing to form new stars,” said Tobias Looser from the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, the paper’s first author. “Galaxies need a rich supply of gas to form new stars, and the early universe was like an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

“It’s only later in the universe that we start to see galaxies stop forming stars, whether that’s due to a black hole or something else,” said co-author Dr Francesco D’Eugenio, also from the Kavli Institute for Cosmology.

Astronomers believe that star formation can be slowed or stopped by different factors, all of which will starve a galaxy of the gas it needs to form new stars. Internal factors, such as a supermassive black hole or feedback from star formation, can push gas out of the galaxy, causing star formation to stop rapidly. Alternatively, gas can be consumed very quickly by star formation, without being promptly replenished by fresh gas from the surroundings of the galaxy, resulting in galaxy starvation.

“We’re not sure if any of those scenarios can explain what we’ve now seen with Webb,” said co-author Professor Roberto Maiolino. “Until now, to understand the early universe, we’ve used models based on the modern universe. But now that we can see so much further back in time, and observe that the star formation was quenched so rapidly in this galaxy, models based on the modern universe may need to be revisited.”

Using data from JADES (JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey), the astronomers determined that this galaxy experienced a short and intense period of star formation over a period between 30 and 90 million years. But between 10 and 20 million years before the point in time where it was observed with Webb, star formation suddenly stopped.

“Everything seems to happen faster and more dramatically in the early universe, and that might include galaxies moving from a star-forming phase to dormant or quenched,” said Looser.

Astronomers have previously observed dead galaxies in the early universe, but this galaxy is the oldest yet – just 700 million years after the big bang, more than 13 billion years ago. This observation is one of the deepest yet made with Webb.

In addition to the oldest, this galaxy is also relatively low mass – about the same as the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a dwarf galaxy near the Milky Way, although the SMC is still forming new stars. Other quenched galaxies in the early universe have been far more massive, but Webb’s improved sensitivity allows smaller and fainter galaxies to be observed and analysed.

The astronomers say that although it appears dead at the time of observation, it’s possible that in the roughly 13 billion years since, this galaxy may have come back to life and started forming new stars again.

“We’re looking for other galaxies like this one in the early universe, which will help us place some constraints on how and why galaxies stop forming new stars,” said D’Eugenio. “It could be the case that galaxies in the early universe ‘die’ and then burst back to life – we’ll need more observations to help us figure that out.”

The research was supported in part by the European Research Council, the Royal Society, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

 

Reference:
Tobias J. Looser et al. ‘A recently quenched galaxy 700 million years after the Big Bang.’ Nature (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07227-0

A galaxy that suddenly stopped forming new stars more than 13 billion years ago has been observed by astronomers.

JADES CollaborationFalse-colour JWST image of a small fraction of the GOODS South field, with JADES-GS-z7-01-QU highlighted


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Neon sign identified by JWST gives clue to planet formation

Tue, 05/03/2024 - 15:06

Planetary systems like our Solar System seem to contain more rocky objects than gas-rich ones. Around our sun, these include the inner planets, the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt. But scientists have known for a long time that planet-forming discs start with 100 times more mass in gas than in solids, which leads to a pressing question; when and how does most of the gas leave the disc/system?

JWST is helping scientists uncover how planets form, by advancing understanding of their birthplaces, the circumstellar discs surrounding young stars. In a new study published in the Astronomical Journal, a team of scientists including those from the University of Leicester, the University of Cambridge and led by the University of Arizona, image for the first time an old planet-forming disc (still very young relative to the Sun) which is actively dispersing its gas content.

Knowing when the gas disperses is important as it constrains the time that is left for nascent planets to consume the gas from their surroundings.

During the very early stages of planetary system formation, planets coalesce in a spinning disc of gas and tiny dust around the young star. These particles clump together, building up into bigger and bigger chunks called planetesimals. Over time, these planetesimals collide and stick together, eventually forming planets. The type, size, and location of planets that form depend on the amount of material available and how long it remains in the disc. So, the outcome of planet formation depends on the evolution and dispersal of the disc.

At the heart of this discovery is the observation of T Cha, a young star (relative to the Sun) enveloped by an eroding disc notable for its vast dust gap, approximately 30 astronomical units in radius. For the first time, astronomers have imaged the dispersing gas (aka winds) using the four lines of the noble gases neon (Ne) and argon (Ar), one of which is the first detection in a planet-forming disc. The images of [Ne II] show that the wind is coming from an extended region of the disc. The team is also interested in knowing how this process takes place, so they can better understand the history and impact on our solar system.

Scientists have been trying to understand the mechanisms behind the winds in protoplanetary discs for over a decade. The observations by JWST represent a huge step-change in the data they have to work with, compared to previous data from ground-based telescopes.

“We first used neon to study planet-forming discs more than a decade ago, testing our computational simulations against data from Spitzer, and new observations we obtained with the ESO VLT,” said co-author Professor Richard Alexander from the University of Leicester. “We learned a lot, but those observations didn’t allow us to measure how much mass the discs were losing.

“The new JWST data are spectacular, and being able to resolve disc winds in images is something I never thought would be possible.  With more observations like this still to come, JWST will enable us to understand young planetary systems as never before.”

“These winds could be driven either by high-energy stellar photons (the star's light) or by the magnetic field that weaves the planet-forming disc,” said Naman Bajaj from the University of Arizona, the study’s lead author.

To differentiate between the two, the same group, this time led by Dr Andrew Sellek of Leiden Observatory and previously of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, performed simulations of the dispersal driven by stellar photons. They compare these simulations to the actual observations and find dispersal by high-energy stellar photons can explain the observations, and hence cannot be excluded as a possibility.

“The simultaneous measurement of all four lines by JWST proved crucial to pinning down the properties of the wind and helped us to demonstrate that significant amounts of gas are being dispersed,” said Sellek.

To put it into context, the researchers calculate that the mass dispersing every year is equivalent to that of the moon! These results will be published in a companion paper, currently under review at the Astronomical Journal.

The [Ne II] line was discovered towards several planet-forming discs in 2007 with the Spitzer Space Telescope and soon identified as a tracer of winds by team member Professor Ilaria Pascucci at the University of Arizona; this transformed research efforts focused on understanding disc gas dispersal. Now the discovery of spatially resolved [Ne II] - as well as the first detection of [Ar III] - using the James Webb Space Telescope, could become the next step towards transforming our understanding of this process. 

The implications of these findings offer new insights into the complex interactions that lead to the dispersal of the gas and dust critical for planet formation. By understanding the mechanisms behind disc dispersal, scientists can better predict the timelines and environments conducive to the birth of planets. The team's work demonstrates the power of JWST and sets a new path for exploring planet formation dynamics and the evolution of circumstellar discs.

Reference:
Naman S. Bajaj et al. ‘JWST MIRI MRS Observations of T Cha: Discovery of a Spatially Resolved Disk Wind.’ The Astronomical Journal (2024). DOI: 10.3849/1538-3881/ad22e1

Adapted from a University of Leicester press release.

The winds that help to form planets in the gaseous discs of early solar systems have been imaged for the first time by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) using the noble gases neon and argon.

ESO/M. KornmesserArtist's impression of the surroundings of the supermassive black hole in NGC 3783


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Low iron levels resulting from infection could be key trigger of long COVID

Mon, 04/03/2024 - 10:00

The discovery not only points to possible ways to prevent or treat the condition, but could help explain why symptoms similar to those of long COVID are also commonly seen in a number of post-viral conditions and chronic inflammation.

Although estimates are highly variable, as many as three in 10 people infected with SARS-CoV-2 could go on to develop long COVID, with symptoms including fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle aches and problems with memory and concentration (‘brain fog’). An estimated 1.9 million people in the UK alone were experiencing self-reported long COVID as of March 2023, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the University of Cambridge began recruiting people who had tested positive for the virus to the COVID-19 cohort of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) BioResource. These included asymptomatic healthcare staff identified via routine screening through to patients admitted to Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, some to its intensive care unit.

Over the course of a year, participants provided blood samples, allowing researchers to monitor changes in the blood post-infection. As it became clear that a significant number of patients would go on to have symptoms that persisted – long COVID – researchers were able to track back through these samples to see whether any changes in the blood correlated with their later condition.

In findings published in Nature Immunology, researchers at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID), University of Cambridge, together with colleagues at Oxford, analysed blood samples from 214 individuals. Approximately 45% of those questioned about their recovery reported symptoms of long COVID between three and ten months later.

Professor Ken Smith, who was Director of CITIID at the time of the study and will take up a position as Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) in Melbourne, Australia, in April, said: “Having recruited a group of people with SARS-CoV-2 early in the pandemic, analysis of several blood samples and clinical information collected over a 12 month period after infection has proved invaluable in giving us important and unexpected insights into why, for some unlucky individuals, initial SARS-CoV-2 infection is followed by months of persistent symptoms.”

The team discovered that ongoing inflammation – a natural part of the immune response to infection – and low iron levels in blood, contributing to anaemia and disrupting healthy red blood cell production, could be seen as early as two weeks post COVID-19 in those individuals reporting long COVID many months later.

Early iron dysregulation was detectable in the long COVID group independent of age, sex, or initial COVID-19 severity, suggesting a possible impact on recovery even in those who were at low risk for severe COVID-19, or who did not require hospitalisation or oxygen therapy when sick.

Dr Aimee Hanson, who worked on the study while at the University of Cambridge, and is now at the University of Bristol, said: “Iron levels, and the way the body regulates iron, were disrupted early on during SARS-CoV-2 infection, and took a very long time to recover, particularly in those people who went on to report long COVID months later.

“Although we saw evidence that the body was trying to rectify low iron availability and the resulting anaemia by producing more red blood cells, it was not doing a particularly good job of it in the face of ongoing inflammation.”

Interestingly, although iron dysregulation was more profound during and following severe COVID-19, those who went on to develop long COVID after a milder course of acute COVID-19 showed similar patterns in the blood. The most pronounced association with long COVID was how quickly inflammation, iron levels and regulation returned to normal following SARS-CoV-2 infection – though symptoms tended to continue long after iron levels had recovered.

Co-author Professor Hal Drakesmith, from the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford, said iron dysregulation is a common consequence of inflammation and is a natural response to infection.

“When the body has an infection, it responds by removing iron from the bloodstream. This protects us from potentially lethal bacteria that capture the iron in the bloodstream and grow rapidly. It’s an evolutionary response that redistributes iron in the body, and the blood plasma becomes an iron desert.

“However, if this goes on for a long time, there is less iron for red blood cells, so oxygen is transported less efficiently affecting metabolism and energy production, and for white blood cells, which need iron to work properly. The protective mechanism ends up becoming a problem.”

The findings may help explain why symptoms such as fatigue and exercise intolerance are common in long COVID, as well as in several other post-viral syndromes with lasting symptoms.

The researchers say the study points to potential ways of preventing or reducing the impact of long COVID by rectifying iron dysregulation in early COVID-19 to prevent adverse long-term health outcomes.

One approach might be controlling the extreme inflammation as early as possible, before it impacts on iron regulation. Another approach might involve iron supplementation; however as Dr Hanson pointed out, this may not be straightforward.

“It isn't necessarily the case that individuals don't have enough iron in their body, it's just that it’s trapped in the wrong place,” she said. “What we need is a way to remobilise the iron and pull it back into the bloodstream, where it becomes more useful to the red blood cells.”

The research also supports ‘accidental’ findings from other studies, including the IRONMAN study, which was looking at whether iron supplements benefited patients with heart failure – the study was disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but preliminary findings suggest that trial participants were less likely to develop severe adverse effects from COVID-19. Similar effects have been observed among people living with the blood disorder beta-thalassemia, which can cause individuals to produce too much iron in their blood.

The research was funded by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council, NIHR and European Union Horizon 2020 Programme.

Reference
Hanson, AL et al. Iron dysregulation and inflammatory stress erythropoiesis associates with long-term outcome of COVID-19. Nat Imm; 1 March 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41590-024-01754-8

Problems with iron levels in the blood and the body’s ability to regulate this important nutrient as a result of SARS-CoV-2 infection could be a key trigger for long COVID, new research has discovered.

Iron levels, and the way the body regulates iron, were disrupted early on during SARS-CoV-2 infection, and took a very long time to recover, particularly in those people who went on to report long COVID months laterAimee HansonMalachi CowieA man sitting on a couch holding his head in his hands


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Pythagoras was wrong: there are no universal musical harmonies, study finds

Tue, 27/02/2024 - 09:30

According to the Ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, ‘consonance’ – a pleasant-sounding combination of notes – is produced by special relationships between simple numbers such as 3 and 4. More recently, scholars have tried to find psychological explanations, but these ‘integer ratios’ are still credited with making a chord sound beautiful, and deviation from them is thought to make music ‘dissonant’, unpleasant sounding. 

But researchers from the University of Cambridge, Princeton and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, have now discovered two key ways in which Pythagoras was wrong.

Their study, published in Nature Communications, shows that in normal listening contexts, we do not actually prefer chords to be perfectly in these mathematical ratios.

“We prefer slight amounts of deviation. We like a little imperfection because this gives life to the sounds, and that is attractive to us,” said co-author, Dr Peter Harrison, from Cambridge’s Faculty of Music and Director of its Centre for Music and Science.

The researchers also found that the role played by these mathematical relationships disappears when you consider certain musical instruments that are less familiar to Western musicians, audiences and scholars. These instruments tend to be bells, gongs, types of xylophones and other kinds of pitched percussion instruments. In particular, they studied the ‘bonang’, an instrument from the Javanese gamelan built from a collection of small gongs.

“When we use instruments like the bonang, Pythagoras's special numbers go out the window and we encounter entirely new patterns of consonance and dissonance,” Dr Harrison said.

“The shape of some percussion instruments means that when you hit them, and they resonate, their frequency components don’t respect those traditional mathematical relationships. That's when we find interesting things happening.”

“Western research has focused so much on familiar orchestral instruments, but other musical cultures use instruments that, because of their shape and physics, are what we would call ‘inharmonic’. 

The researchers created an online laboratory in which over 4,000 people from the US and South Korea participated in 23 behavioural experiments. Participants were played chords and invited to give each a numeric pleasantness rating or to use a slider to adjust particular notes in a chord to make it sound more pleasant. The experiments produced over 235,000 human judgments.

The experiments explored musical chords from different perspectives. Some zoomed in on particular musical intervals and asked participants to judge whether they preferred them perfectly tuned, slightly sharp or slightly flat. The researchers were surprised to find a significant preference for slight imperfection, or ‘inharmonicity’. Other experiments explored harmony perception with Western and non-Western musical instruments, including the bonang.

Instinctive appreciation of new kinds of harmony

The researchers found that the bonang’s consonances mapped neatly onto the particular musical scale used in the Indonesian culture from which it comes. These consonances cannot be replicated on a Western piano, for instance, because they would fall between the cracks of the scale traditionally used. 

“Our findings challenge the traditional idea that harmony can only be one way, that chords have to reflect these mathematical relationships. We show that there are many more kinds of harmony out there, and that there are good reasons why other cultures developed them,” Dr Harrison said.

Importantly, the study suggests that its participants – not trained musicians and unfamiliar with Javanese music – were able to appreciate the new consonances of the bonang’s tones instinctively.

“Music creation is all about exploring the creative possibilities of a given set of qualities, for example, finding out what kinds of melodies can you play on a flute, or what kinds of sounds can you make with your mouth,” Harrison said.

“Our findings suggest that if you use different instruments, you can unlock a whole new harmonic language that people intuitively appreciate, they don’t need to study it to appreciate it. A lot of experimental music in the last 100 years of Western classical music has been quite hard for listeners because it involves highly abstract structures that are hard to enjoy. In contrast, psychological findings like ours can help stimulate new music that listeners intuitively enjoy.”

Exciting opportunities for musicians and producers

Dr Harrison hopes that the research will encourage musicians to try out unfamiliar instruments and see if they offer new harmonies and open up new creative possibilities. 

“Quite a lot of pop music now tries to marry Western harmony with local melodies from the Middle East, India, and other parts of the world. That can be more or less successful, but one problem is that notes can sound dissonant if you play them with Western instruments. 

“Musicians and producers might be able to make that marriage work better if they took account of our findings and considered changing the ‘timbre’, the tone quality, by using specially chosen real or synthesised instruments. Then they really might get the best of both worlds: harmony and local scale systems.”

Harrison and his collaborators are exploring different kinds of instruments and follow-up studies to test a broader range of cultures. In particular, they would like to gain insights from musicians who use ‘inharmonic’ instruments to understand whether they have internalised different concepts of harmony to the Western participants in this study.

Reference

R. Marjieh, P.M.C. Harrison, H. Lee, F. Deligiannaki, & N. Jacoby, ‘Timbral effects on consonance disentangle psychoacoustic mechanisms and suggest perceptual origins for musical scales’, Nature Communications (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-45812-z

The tone and tuning of musical instruments has the power to manipulate our appreciation of harmony, new research shows. The findings challenge centuries of Western music theory and encourage greater experimentation with instruments from different cultures.

There are many more kinds of harmony out therePeter HarrisonAndrew Otto via Flikr under a CC licenseA man playing a bonang


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Opinion: the future of science is automation

Mon, 26/02/2024 - 13:02

Thanks to the widespread availability of food and medical care, the ability to travel, and many other scientific and technological developments, billions of people today are living better lives than kings of centuries past. It is deeply surprising to me how little appreciated this astonishing fact is.

Of course, despite all the progress we’ve made, the world faces many challenges in the 21st century: climate change, pandemics, poverty and cancer, to name just a few.

If all the countries in the world could join together to share technology and resources, we might be to deal with and overcome these challenges. However, history presents no example of such collaboration, and the current geopolitical situation does not offer much in the way of hope.

Our best hope of dealing with these challenges is to make science and technology more productive. The only feasible way to achieve this is through the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and laboratory automation.

AI systems already possess superhuman scientific powers. They can remember massive volumes of facts and learn from huge datasets. They can execute flawless logical reasoning, and near optimal probabilistic reasoning. They are can read every scientific paper, indeed everything ever written. These powers are complimentary to human scientists.

When the scientific method was developed in the 17th century, one of the core insights was the need to conduct experiments in the physical world, not just to think.

Today, laboratory automation is steadily advancing, and robots can now carry out most of the laboratory tasks that humans can. We are also now seeing the emergence of the ‘Cloud Lab’ concept. The idea is to provide laboratory automation at scale and remotely, with scientists sending their samples to the cloud lab, using a computer interface to design and execute their experiments.

And then there are AI Scientists: AI systems integrated with laboratory automations that are capable of carrying out the closed-loop automation of scientific research (aka 'Robot Scientists', 'Self-driving Labs'). These systems automatically originate hypotheses to explain observations, devise experiments to test these hypotheses, physically run these experiments using laboratory robotics, interpret the results, and then repeat the cycle.

AI Scientists can work cheaper, faster, more accurately, and longer than humans. They can also be easily multiplied. As the experiments are conceived and executed automatically by computer, it’s possible to completely capture and digitally curate all aspects of the scientific process, making the science more reproducible. There are now around 100 AI Scientists around the world, working in areas from quantum mechanics to astronomy, from chemistry to medicine.

Within the last year or so the world has been stunned by the success of Large Language Models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT, which have achieved breakthrough performance on a wide range of conversation-based tasks. LLMs are surprisingly strong absorbers of technical knowledge, such as chemical reactions and logical expressions. LLMs, and more broadly Foundation Models, show great potential for super-charging AI Scientists. They can act both as a source of scientific knowledge, since they have read all the scientific literature, and a source of new scientific hypotheses.

One of the current problems with LLMs is their tendency to hallucinate, that is to output statements that are not true. While this is a serious problem in many applications, it is not necessarily so in science, where physical experiments are the arbiters of truth. Hallucinations are hypotheses.

AI has been used as a tool in the research behind tens of thousands of scientific papers. We believe this only a start. We believe that AI has the potential to transform the very process of science.

We believe that by harnessing the power of AI, we can propel humanity toward a future where groundbreaking achievements in science, even achievements worthy of a Nobel Prize, can be fully automated. Such advances could transform science and technology, and provide hope of dealing with the formidable challenges that face humankind in the 21st century

The Nobel Turing Challenge aims to develop AI Scientists capable of making Nobel-quality scientific discoveries at a level comparable, and possibly superior to the best human scientists by 2050.

As well as being a potential transformative power for good, the application of AI to science has potential for harm. As a step towards preventing this harm, my colleagues and I have prepared the Stockholm Declaration on AI for Science. This commits the signees to the responsible and ethical development of AI for science. A copy of the declaration can be signed at: https://sites.google.com/view/stockholm-declaration

We urge all scientists working with AI to sign.

Professor Ross King from Cambridge's Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, who originated the idea of a 'Robot Scientist', discusses why he believes that AI-powered scientists could surpass the best human scientists by the middle of the century, but only if AI for science is developed responsibly and ethically. 

kynny via Getty ImagesRobot arm handling test tubes


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Yes

NHS trial of sponge-on-a-string test replaces need for endoscopy for thousands of patients

Mon, 26/02/2024 - 11:40

The NHS pilot, which has tested over 8,500 patients with the ‘capsule sponge test’, showed almost eight out of 10 patients who completed a test were discharged without the need for further testing, freeing up endoscopy capacity for higher risk patients and those referred for urgent tests for oesophageal cancer.

The test involves patients swallowing a small capsule-shaped device that contains a tiny sponge that collects cell samples for analysis before being extracted via a string thread attached to the sponge. It has been developed by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, Director of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Fitzgerald said: “It is very exciting to see the positive results of the NHS England real-world pilot for our capsule-sponge test. This is a major step forward to making this simple test more routinely available outside of clinical trials. Timely diagnosis is vital for improving outcomes for patients.”

Barrett’s oesophagus – a condition affecting the food pipe which can go on to cause oesophageal cancer in some patients – is usually diagnosed or ruled out via endoscopy (a camera test of the food pipe) following a GP referral to a gastroenterologist or other specialist practitioner who can carry out the procedure.

The sponge-on-a-string test being trialled by the NHS can instead be carried out quickly in a short appointment, without the need for sedation.

Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said: “Thousands of people have now benefitted from this incredibly efficient test on the NHS – while the sponge on a string is small in size, it can make a big difference for patients – they can conveniently fit the test into their day and it can often replace the need for an endoscopy while also helping to reduce waiting lists by freeing up staff and resources.

“The NHS is always striving to adopt the latest innovations and new ways of working that help improve patient experience and increase efficiency simple sponge on a string test is just one example of many pioneering tools we’ve trialled in recent years to help diagnose and treat people sooner.”

In a survey of over 250 patients who had the capsule sponge test, patients often said they would recommend the test to a friend or family member, and 94% of patients reported experiencing only mild or no pain at all.

The NHS began piloting the test during the pandemic when there was increased pressure on services and a growing backlog for endoscopy.

Gastro-oesophageal reflux, also known as acid reflux, is a relatively common condition, affecting around one to two in every ten people to some degree, and some of these people may already have or will develop Barrett’s oesophagus, which is a precursor to oesophageal cancer.

There are around 9,300 new oesophageal cancer cases in the UK every year. The key to saving lives is to detect it an earlier stage of Barrett's oesophagus before it becomes cancerous.

The NHS pilot was launched at 30 hospital sites across 17 areas in England including Manchester, Plymouth, London, Kent and Cumbria. Evaluation of the pilot showed that using capsule sponge was highly cost effective compared to using endoscopy-only for diagnosing patients – saving around £400 per patient.

Patients with positive results from the capsule sponge test who were referred on for an endoscopy had the highest prevalence of Barrett’s oesophagus at 27.2%, compared to zero patients with negative results who completed an endoscopy.

One of the first pilot sites at East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust has now performed around 1,400 capsule sponge tests – offering to both patients with reflux symptoms via a new consultant led, nurse run early diagnosis service, as well as to patients on an existing Barrett’s surveillance programme.

In the first 1000 patients, the capsule test identified Barrett’s in 6% patients with reflux and found two new cancers and three patients with dysplasia who may have had a longer time to diagnosis otherwise. While 72% reflux patients were discharged back to their GP without the need for an endoscopy.

As of January, 368 patients have had a positive test result of whom about half have confirmed Barrett's oesophagus.

Dr Danielle Morris, a consultant gastroenterologist at East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, said: “Using the capsule sponge test as a diagnosis triage tool has had huge benefits for patients, avoiding the need for unnecessary gastroscopy in almost seven out of 10 patients, and helping to reduce endoscopy waiting lists enabling us to prioritise those who really need endoscopy to have it done quickly.

“The test is performed by a single trained practitioner in an outpatient setting, so it is very resource light compared to gastroscopy, and our patients are very supportive of the service – with almost nine in 10 patients preferring the capsule sponge to a gastroscopy.”

Adapted from a press release from NHS England.

A new test to help diagnose a condition that can lead to oesophageal cancer – developed by Cambridge researchers and trialled by the NHS – has reduced the need for invasive endoscopy in thousands of low-risk patients.

It is very exciting to see the positive results of the NHS England real-world pilot for our capsule-sponge testRebecca FitzgeraldCytedCapsule and sponge


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Yes

Vice-Chancellor visits North West to encourage more Cambridge applications

Fri, 23/02/2024 - 14:24

The trip aims to build on the progress made in recent years to welcome a more diverse group of students at Cambridge. Accompanied by Baroness Sally Morgan of Huyton, Master of Fitzwilliam College, who comes from Liverpool herself, Professor Prentice is speaking to students, teachers and education leaders to hear about their experiences and the challenges they face.

The Liverpool Echo has covered the visit and has also published an op-ed by Professor Prentice, sharing her concerns that admissions to Cambridge are skewed towards London and the South East, and reflecting on a recently published Echo piece by Cambridge graduate Eva Carroll, from Everton, who wants to inspire more people in the region to follow in her footsteps.

Professor Prentice writes:

I smiled with warm recognition last month when I read an inspiring article by one of our recent graduates in the Liverpool Echo. Eva Carroll, who comes from Everton, described arriving at the University of Cambridge and settling in, learning new ways and ancient traditions.

Eva’s story is not completely different to my own – although a few thousand miles and some decades apart. We both grew up with single parents and were the first in our families to go to university.

I’ve been Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge for just over seven months now. On arriving here, like Eva, I noticed many of the traditions and have quickly grown used to them. I do know that it is a place of extraordinary beauty, and the punting and gowns still exist against a backdrop of amazing history and achievement.

Yet it is also a vibrant place where people of all backgrounds come to learn, study and carry out world-leading research on issues which affect the lives of people right here in Liverpool and around the world, such as progress on cancer, on other areas of public health, plus AI and climate.

Today, I am getting to visit Liverpool for the first time, a great city which I have always wanted to see for myself. Growing up in a modest corner of Oakland, California in the 1960s, and loving music as my passion, I could only imagine this place, whose musical talent conquered the world.

Cambridge has a huge impact on the economy of the North West: a recent analysis showed that Cambridge contributes around £769m a year to the region’s economy through outstanding research that leads to new companies and economic activity taking place here, and delivering thousands of jobs.

And the university has made real progress in recent years in welcoming a more diverse group of students, and the proportion of students who join from state schools has risen significantly.

Despite this, I share Eva's concern that admissions to Cambridge - which is most certainly a national university - is skewed towards London and the South East. In 2022 nearly half of our undergraduate students came from those areas, while just 7.7% of applications came from the North West. I want the university to serve the UK as a whole.

We want to attract the best talent and the brightest minds wherever they are, and whatever their backgrounds. So my visit is a listening journey. I’m hearing from hard-working staff and the students themselves, and education leaders, about the challenges they face.

I will also hear what they think about Cambridge. Of course this city, and this region – I also visited Manchester University yesterday - has brilliant universities, and we aren’t trying to draw students away from those.

We know that there are many students in the North West, and beyond, who – for whatever reason - will get the grades but will not think of applying to Cambridge. Our aim is that those talented students will think about doing so.

Today, with Baroness Sally Morgan of Huyton (a proud Liverpudlian colleague who runs one of our Cambridge Colleges, Fitzwilliam), I am visiting St Michael’s Church of England School in Crosby which serves as the hub for the University’s HE+ programme on Merseyside, to talk with students who have applied to the University, and the teachers who have been supporting them, about their experiences.

I will also meet trustees from the Liverpool Aspire project, which supports students considering applications to both Cambridge and Oxford, and which Eva wrote about so positively.

It hosts workshops with students in Years 10 and 12 when students are making important choices, and it helps them to maximise their potential and make applications to university. Aspire has helped 120 talented students to get a place at Cambridge and Oxford to date. It is a fantastic initiative.

I may still be relatively new to the role, but I hope that encouraging more people from all backgrounds to apply to Cambridge from great places such as Liverpool, and right across the North West, can be one of my legacies. Cambridge needs more Eva Carrolls, and we must work hard to make that possible.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice is this week visiting the North West of England ­– including Manchester and Liverpool – as part of the University’s work to encourage more applications from the region.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice


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Yes

Having a ‘regular doctor’ can significantly reduce GP workload, study finds

Fri, 23/02/2024 - 01:11

In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers from the University of Cambridge and INSEAD analysed data from more than 10 million consultations in 381 English primary care practices over a period of 11 years.

The results, reported in the journal Management Science, suggest that a long-term relationship between a patient and their doctor could both improve patient health and reduce workload for GPs.

The researchers found that when patients were able to see their regular doctor for a consultation – a model known as continuity of care – they waited on average 18% longer between visits, compared to patients who saw a different doctor. The productivity benefit of continuity of care was larger for older patients, those with multiple chronic conditions, and individuals with mental health conditions.

Although it will not always be possible for a patient to see their regular GP, this productivity differential would translate to an estimated 5% reduction in consultations if all practices in England were providing the level of care continuity of the best 10% of practices.

Primary care in the UK is under enormous strain: patients struggle to get appointments, GPs are retiring early, and financial pressures are causing some practices to close. According to the Health Foundation and the Nuffield Trust, there is a significant shortfall of GPs in England, with a projected 15% increase required in the workforce. The problem is not limited to UK, however: the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates a shortfall of between 21,400 and 55,200 primary care physicians in the US by 2033.

“Productivity is a huge problem across all the whole of the UK – we wanted to see how that’s been playing out in GP practices,” said Dr Harshita Kajaria-Montag, the study’s lead author, who is now based at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. “Does the rapid access model make GPs more productive?” 

“You can measure the productivity of GP surgeries in two ways: how many patients can you see in a day, or how much health can you provide in a day for those patients,” said co-author Professor Stefan Scholtes from Cambridge Judge Business School. “Some GP surgeries are industrialised in their approach: each patient will get seven or ten minutes before the GP has to move on to the next one.”

At English GP practices, roughly half of all appointments are with a patient’s regular doctor, but this number has been steadily declining over the past decade as GP practices come under increasing strain.

The researchers used an anonymised dataset from the UK Clinical Practice Research Datalink, consisting of more than 10 million GP visits between 1 January 2007 and 31 December 2017. Using statistical models to account for confounding and selection bias, and restricting the sample to consultations with patients who had at least three consultations over the past two years, the researchers found that the time to a patient’s next visit is substantially longer when the patient sees the doctor they have seen most frequently over the past two years, while there is no operationally meaningful difference in consultation duration.

“The impact is substantial: it could be the equivalent of increasing the GP workforce by five percent, which would significantly benefit both patients and the NHS,” said Scholtes. “Better health translates into less demand for future consultations. Prioritising continuity of care is crucial in enhancing productivity.”

“The benefits of continuity of care are obvious from a relationship point of view,” said Kajaria-Montag. “If you’re a patient with complex health needs, you don’t want to have to explain your whole health history at every appointment. If you have a regular doctor who’s familiar with your history, it’s a far more efficient use of time, for doctor and patient.”

“A regular doctor may have a larger incentive to take more time to treat her regular patients thoroughly than a transactional provider,” said Scholtes. “Getting it right the first time will reduce her future workload by preventing revisits, which would likely be her responsibility, while a transactional provider is less likely to see the patient for her next visit.”

The researchers emphasise that continuity of care does not only have the known benefits of better patient outcomes, better patient and GP experience, and reduced secondary care use, but also provides a surprisingly large productivity benefit for the GP practices themselves. 

 

Reference:
Harshita Kajaria-Montag, Michael Freeman, Stefan Scholtes. ‘Continuity of Care Increases Physician Productivity in Primary Care.’ Management Science (2024). DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.2021.02015

If all GP practices moved to a model where patients saw the same doctor at each visit, it could significantly reduce doctor workload while improving patient health, a study suggests. 

The Good Brigade via Getty ImagesDoctor examining a patient


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Yes

Shimmering seaweeds and algae antennae: sustainable energy solutions under the sea

Thu, 22/02/2024 - 16:40

Funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the Bio-inspired and Bionic materials for Enhanced Photosynthesis (BEEP) project, led by Professor Silvia Vignolini in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, studied how marine organisms interact with light.

The four-year sustainable energy project brought together nine research groups from across Europe and drew its inspiration from nature, in particular from the marine world, where organisms including algae, corals and sea slugs have evolved efficient ways to convert sunlight into energy. Harnessing these properties could aid in the development of new artificial and bionic photosynthetic systems.

Some of the brightest and most colourful materials in nature – such as peacock feathers, butterfly wings and opals – get their colour not from pigments or dyes, but from their internal structure alone. The colours our eyes perceive originate from the interaction between light and nanostructures at the surface of the material, which reflect certain wavelengths of light.

As part of the BEEP project, the team studied structural colour in marine species. Some marine algae species have nanostructures in their cell walls that can transmit certain wavelengths of visible light or change their structures to guide the light inside the cell. Little is known about the function of these structures, however: scientists believe they might protect the organisms from UV light or optimise light harvesting capabilities.

The team studied the optical properties and light harvesting efficiency of a range of corals, sea-slugs, microalgae and seaweeds. By understanding the photonic and structural properties of these species, the scientists hope to design new materials for bio-photoreactors and bionic systems.

“We’re fascinated by the optical effects performed by these organisms,” said Maria Murace, a BEEP PhD candidate at Cambridge, who studies structural colour in seaweeds and marine bacteria. “We want to understand what the materials and the structures at the base of these colours are, which could lead to the development of green and sustainable alternatives to the conventional paints and toxic dyes we use today.”

BEEP also studied diatoms: tiny photosynthetic algae that live in almost every aquatic system on Earth and produce as much as half of the oxygen we breathe. The silica shells of these tiny algae form into stunning structures, but they also possess remarkable light-harvesting properties.

The BEEP team engineered tiny light-harvesting antennae and attached them to diatom shells. “These antennae allowed us to gather the light that would otherwise not be harvested by the organism, which is converted and used for photosynthesis,” said Cesar Vicente Garcia, one of the BEEP PhD students, from the University of Bari in Italy. “The result is promising: diatoms grow more! This research could inspire the design of powerful bio-photoreactors, or even better

The scientists engineered a prototype bio-photoreactor, consisting of a fully bio-compatible hydrogel which sustains the growth of microalgae and structural coloured bacteria. The interaction of these organisms is mutually beneficial, enhancing microalgal growth and increasing the volume of biomass produced, which could have applications in the biofuel production industry.

Alongside research, the network has organised several training and outreach activities, including talks and exhibitions for the public at science festivals in Italy, France and the UK.

“Society relies on science to drive growth and progress,” said Floriana Misceo, the BEEP network manager who coordinated outreach efforts. “It’s so important for scientists to share their research and help support informed discussion and debate because without it, misinformation can thrive, which is why training and outreach was an important part of this project.”

“Coordinating this project has been a great experience. I learned immensely from the other groups in BEEP and the young researchers,” said Vignolini. “The opportunity to host researchers from different disciplines in the lab was instrumental in developing new skills and approaching problems from a different perspective.”

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under a Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant.

How could tiny antennae attached to tiny algae speed up the transition away from fossil fuels? This is one of the questions being studied by Cambridge researchers as they search for new ways to decarbonise our energy supply, and improve the sustainability of harmful materials such as paints and dyes.

BEEPSeaweeds showing structural colour


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Yes

Long COVID linked to persistently high levels of inflammatory protein: a potential biomarker and target for treatments

Wed, 21/02/2024 - 18:45

A University of Cambridge-led study identifies the protein interferon gamma (IFN-γ) as a potential biomarker for Long COVID fatigue and highlights an immunological mechanism underlying the disease, which could pave the way for the development of much needed therapies, and provide a head start in the event of a future coronavirus pandemic. 

The study, published today in Science Advances, followed a group of patients with Long COVID fatigue for over 2.5 years, to understand why some recovered and others did not. 

Long COVID continues to affect millions of people globally and is placing a major burden on health services. An estimated 1.9 million people in the UK alone (2.9% of the population) were experiencing self-reported Long COVID as of March 2023, according to the ONS. Fatigue remains by far the most common and debilitating symptom and patients are still waiting for an effective treatment.

The study shows that initial infection with SARS-CoV-2 triggers production of the antiviral protein IFN-γ, which is a normal reaction from the immune system. For most people, when their infection clears, COVID-19 symptoms cease and production of this protein stops, but the researchers found that high levels of IFN-γ persisted in some Long COVID patients for up to 31 months.

“We have found a potential mechanism underlying Long COVID which could represent a biomarker – that is, a tell-tale signature of the condition. We hope that this could help to pave the way to develop therapies and give some patients a firm diagnosis,” said co-author, Dr Benjamin Krishna, from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology & Infectious Disease (CITIID).

The research began in 2020 when Dr Nyarie Sithole set up a Long COVID clinic in Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where he started collecting blood samples from patients and set about studying their immunology. Sithole soon enlisted the support of Dr Benjamin Krishna and Dr Mark Wills from the University of Cambridge’s Dept. of Medicine.

“When the clinic started, a lot of people didn't even believe Long COVID was real,” Dr Sithole said. “We are indebted to all the patients who volunteered for this study, without whose support and participation we would obviously not have accomplished this study”.

The team studied 111 COVID-confirmed patients admitted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital CUH, Royal Papworth Hospital and Cambridge and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trusts at 28 days, 90 days and 180 days following symptom onset. Between August 2020 and July 2021, they recruited 55 Long COVID patients – all experiencing severe symptoms at least 5 months after acute COVID-19 – attending the Long COVID clinic at Addenbrooke’s.

The researchers analysed blood samples for signs of cytokines, small proteins crucial to the functioning of immune system cells and blood cells. They found that the white blood cells of individuals infected with SARS-CoV-2 produced IFN-γ, a pro inflammatory molecule, and that this persisted in Long COVID patients.

Dr Krishna said: “Interferon gamma can be used to treat viral infections such as hepatitis C but it causes symptoms including fatigue, fever, headache, aching muscles and depression. These symptoms are all too familiar to Long COVID patients. For us, that was another smoking gun.”

By conducting ‘cell depletion assays’, the team managed to identify the precise cell types responsible for producing IFN-γ. They pinpointed immune cells known as CD8+ T cells but found that they required contact with another immune cell type: CD14+ monocytes.

Previous studies have identified IFN-γ signatures using different approaches and cohorts, but this study’s focus on fatigue revealed a much stronger influence. Also, while previous studies have noticed IFN-y levels rising, they have not followed patients long enough to observe when they might drop back down.

The Cambridge team followed its Long COVID cohort for up to 31 months post-infection. During this follow up period, over 60% of patients experienced resolution of some, if not all, of their symptoms which coincided with a drop in IFN-γ.

 

Vaccination helping Long COVID patients


The team measured IFN-γ release in Long COVID patients before and after vaccination and found a significant decrease in IFN-γ post vaccination in patients whose symptoms resolved.

“If SARS-CoV-2 continues to persist in people with Long COVID, triggering an IFN-γ response, then vaccination may be helping to clear this. But we still need to find effective therapies,” Dr Krishna said.

“The number of people with Long COVID is gradually falling, and vaccination seems to be playing a significant role in that. But new cases are still cropping up, and then there is the big question of what happens when the next coronavirus pandemic comes along. We could face another wave of Long COVID. Understanding what causes Long COVID now could give us a crucial head start.”

 

Microclotting

Some well-publicised previous studies have proposed microclotting as a principle cause of Long COVID. While not ruling out a role of some kind, these new findings suggest that microclotting cannot be the only or the most significant cause.


Classifying long COVID

This study argues that the presence of IFN-γ could be used to classify Long COVID into subtypes which could be used to personalise treatment. 

“It’s unlikely that all the different Long COVID symptoms are caused by the same thing. We need to differentiate between people and tailor treatments. Some patients are slowly recovering and there are those who are stuck in a cycle of fatigue for years on end. We need to know why,” Dr Krishna said.

 
Reference
 

B. A. Krishna et al., ‘Spontaneous, persistent, T-cell dependent IFN-γ release in patients who progress to long COVID’, Science Advances (2024). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adi9379

SARS-CoV-2 triggers the production of the antiviral protein IFN-γ, which is associated with fatigue, muscle ache and depression. New research shows that in Long COVID patients, IFN-y production persists until symptoms improve, highlighting a potential biomarker and a target for therapies. 

We hope that this could help to pave the way to develop therapies and give some patients a firm diagnosisBenjamin KrishnaAnnie Spratt via Unsplashwoman sat on sofa in the dark placing a hand to her forehead


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YesLicence type: Attribution

Vice-Chancellor visits Cambridge University Boat Club training

Tue, 20/02/2024 - 15:53

It might have been a chilly and dark 6am start, but a warm welcome awaited Professor Deborah Prentice, who joined Chief Women’s Coach Paddy Ryan on a launch following the crews out on the River Great Ouse.

Professor Prentice said it was an opportunity to witness the dedication of the students, who routinely set off from Cambridge at five in the morning, arrive at Ely Boathouse just after six, then complete around an hour’s training before needing to get back to Cambridge in time for morning lectures.

“These students and their coaches are doing unbelievable work, they’re out here every day at six in the morning,” said Professor Prentice.

“The fact that they are combining this training with study is a reminder of how disciplined and committed our students are. Rowing is a team sport and they are a fantastic team for sure.”

Annamarie Phelps, CUBC Club Chair, said she was delighted the Vice-Chancellor was able to visit and meet the students, coaches and staff.

“It was fantastic to welcome the Vice-Chancellor to our Ely Boathouse, where she was able to see first-hand the dedication of these student athletes and their coaches.

“We were also able to show Professor Prentice the amazing facilities we have here – something made possible only with the generous support of the University and alumni.

“We’re now looking forward to welcoming Professor Prentice to the Boat Race itself next month, when she will be presenting the Boat Race Trophies - hopefully to Cambridge!”

This year’s race, on 30th March, will mark the 78th Women’s race and the 169th Men’s race, with Cambridge leading across all categories in historic results.

With The Boat Race 2024 just weeks away, the Vice-Chancellor has been to meet Cambridge University Boat Club students and staff at their Ely training centre.

Nick Saffell


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Yes

New Cambridge-developed resources bring infectious diseases into the maths classroom

Mon, 19/02/2024 - 07:00

From measles and flu to SARS and COVID, mathematicians help us understand and predict the epidemics that can spread through our communities, and to help us look at strategies that we may be able to use to contain them.

The project, called Contagious Maths, was led by Professor Julia Gog from Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), and was supported by a Rosalind Franklin Award from the Royal Society.

The curriculum-linked resources will give students between the ages 11 and 14 the opportunity to join researchers on the mathematical frontline to learn more about infectious disease spread, along with interactive tools to try mathematical modelling for themselves. Teachers receive full lesson plans, backed up by Cambridge research.

“I’ve always loved maths. I was lucky enough to have amazing teachers at sixth form who challenged me and were 100% behind me pursuing maths at the highest level, but maths as it’s taught in school can be highly abstract, so students often wonder what the point of maths even is,” said Gog, who is also Director of the Millennium Maths Project. “This is something I’m trying to help with now: to offer a glimpse from school to the research world to see the role mathematics can play in tackling important real-world problems.”

The Contagious Maths project introduces mathematical modelling; explores how mathematicians can model the spread of disease through a population and the type of questions we might think about when looking at models; and gives an insight into what mathematics researchers working on these real-life problems actually do.

“I’ve been engaged in outreach for many years at Cambridge, and the Contagious Maths project grew out of discussions with colleagues who have expertise in reaching school-age children,” said Gog. “The 11-14 age group we are targeting is a real crunch point for retaining girls in maths, and future female mathematicians. What exactly happens is complex and multifaceted, but this is a period when people form their views on how they fit with maths and science.

“Many of them disengage, as it can seem that maths at school is utterly disconnected from the real world. It can also be a time when maths appears very starkly right or wrong, whereas any research mathematician can tell you it’s always so much more subtle that than, and therefore so much more interesting!”

Gog hopes the Contagious Maths resources might be able to help, as they are designed to be used in regular school lessons, and cover a topic with clear real-world importance.

“The maths is never black and white in this field: there are always ways to challenge and develop the models, and some tricky thinking to be done about how the real epidemics and the simulations are really related to each other,” she said. “I suspect some students will find this frustrating, and just want maths to be algorithmic exercises. But some will be intrigued, and they are the ones we are trying to reach and expose to this larger world of applied maths research.”

Contagious Maths also provides teachers with all the ideas and tools they need, so they have at their fingertips all they need to deliver these lessons, even if they have no experience with research mathematics. “We hope this project will help these teachers to bring in the wider view of mathematics, and we hope it inspires them too,” said Gog. “It’s been really fun developing these resources, teaming up with both NRICH and Plus to make the most of our combined expertise.”

Maths teachers can attend a free online event on 20 March to learn more about the project.

In addition to the school resources, Gog and her colleagues have designed another version of Contagious Maths for a more general self-guided audience, which will work for students older than 14 or anyone, of any age, who is interested in learning about mathematical modelling.

“The paradox between the cleanness and precision of mathematics, and the utter hot mess of anything that involves biological dynamics across populations – like an outbreak of an infectious disease, is what intrigued me to stay in mathematics beyond my degree, and to move into research in mathematical biology,” said Gog. “Elegant theoretical ideas can tell us something valuable and universal about mitigating the devastating effects of disease on human and animal populations. Super abstract equations can hold fundamental truths about real-world problems - I don't think I will ever tire of thinking about that.”

Adapted from a Royal Society interview with Professor Julia Gog.

Cambridge mathematicians have developed a set of resources for students and teachers that will help them understand how maths can help tackle infectious diseases.

Orbon Alija via Getty ImagesAerial view of crowd connected by lines


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Yes

Scientists identify genes linked to DNA damage and human disease

Fri, 16/02/2024 - 10:17

The work, published in Nature, provides insights into cancer progression and neurodegenerative diseases as well as a potential therapeutic avenue in the form of a protein inhibitor.

The genome contains all the genes and genetic material within an organism's cells. When the genome is stable, cells can accurately replicate and divide, passing on correct genetic information to the next generation of cells. Despite its significance, little is understood about the genetic factors governing genome stability, protection, repair, and the prevention of DNA damage.

In this new study, researchers from the UK Dementia Research Institute, at the University of Cambridge, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute set out to better understand the biology of cellular health and identify genes key to maintaining genome stability.

Using a set of genetically modified mouse lines, the team identified 145 genes that play key roles in either increasing or decreasing the formation of abnormal micronuclei structures. These structures indicate genomic instability and DNA damage, and are common hallmarks of ageing and diseases.

The most dramatic increases in genomic instability were seen when the researchers knocked out the gene DSCC1, increasing abnormal micronuclei formation five-fold. Mice lacking this gene mirrored characteristics akin to human patients with a number of rare genetic disorders, further emphasising the relevance of this research to human health.

Using CRISPR screening, researchers showed this effect triggered by DSCC1 loss could be partially reversed through inhibiting protein SIRT1. This offers a highly promising avenue for the development of new therapies.

The findings help shed light on genetic factors influencing the health of human genomes over a lifespan and disease development.

Professor Gabriel Balmus, senior author of the study at the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, formerly at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Continued exploration on genomic instability is vital to develop tailored treatments that tackle the root genetic causes, with the goal of improving outcomes and the overall quality of life for individuals across various conditions.”

Dr David Adams, first author of the study at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Genomic stability is central to the health of cells, influencing a spectrum of diseases from cancer to neurodegeneration, yet this has been a relatively underexplored area of research. This work, of 15 years in the making, exemplifies what can be learned from large-scale, unbiased genetic screening. The 145 identified genes, especially those tied to human disease, offer promising targets for developing new therapies for genome instability-driven diseases like cancer and neurodevelopmental disorders.”

This research was supported by Wellcome and the UK Dementia Research Institute.

Reference
Adams, DJ et al. Genetic determinants of micronucleus formation in vivo. Nature; 14 Feb 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-07009-0

Adapted from a press release from the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Cambridge scientists have identified more than one hundred key genes linked to DNA damage through systematic screening of nearly 1,000 genetically modified mouse lines.

Continued exploration on genomic instability is vital to develop tailored treatments that tackle the root genetic causesGabriel BalmusqimonoDNA puzzle


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Award winning author and former MPhil in African Studies student Mary Ononokpono talks about how her work has been inspired by our MPhil programme

 

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