Author Archives: Jenna Richards

Dartmoor bird research: Bringing together Exeter researchers and local birders

Sara Zonneveld is a PhD researcher in Biosciences, she is working as part of the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group to build a better understanding of the breeding ecology of ground-nesting birds and Cuckoos on Dartmoor. Sara and the group are using this information to support the conservation of birds on Dartmoor and beyond. Sara explained more about the work…

Our research team consists of Professor Charles Tyler, and two PhD students (Lowell Mills and I). However, we are not just a team of scientists. The Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group is a collaboration between University of Exeter scientists and local volunteers which was formed in 2008 when Charles met two volunteer bird nest recorders on Dartmoor.

They all had a shared interest in the birds and habitats of Dartmoor, and from their friendship the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group was formed. Over the years, more people joined, making up the diverse team of researchers and local birders that form our group today.

The research we do is dependent on detailed bird breeding data, such as the timing of breeding, breeding success and breeding locations. This information is recorded by finding and monitoring nests, a task that requires an incredible amount of field skills and knowledge of bird behaviour. The nest recorders in the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group are highly skilled local birders and volunteer nest recorders, who together have decades of experience in monitoring bird nests.

Over the past eight years, these volunteers have monitored more than 1,300 nests of 30 plus species on our 2km² study site. At the University we use this data to research the breeding dynamics and breeding requirements of our charismatic Dartmoor upland bird community. One of our main research topics focuses on the Meadow Pipit and Cuckoo, studying their breeding, diet and habitat use. Additionally, we aim to understand at which time of the year disturbance needs to be reduced to allow ground-nesting birds to breed successfully.

Our group now also works closely together with other organisations. Nationally, all our nest data is shared with the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme. Locally, we work closely with both Devon Birds and the Dartmoor National Park Authority to help grow our research and communicate our findings.

Our project highlights the importance of skilled volunteers and local support in facilitating scientific research. None of our Dartmoor bird research would have been possible without the dedicated volunteers in our group. In addition to collecting much-needed data, our volunteers provide us with important insights in bird behaviour and pass on their valuable field skills. The passion and knowledge of these local birders drives the research that our team is able to do here at the University of Exeter.

Although our field-work has been volunteer-run for the past eight years, there are equipment costs and running expenses that need to be covered. To be able to expand our project and collect more data to address crucial bird conservation questions, we are currently crowdfunding to support our fieldwork for the 2016 season. Any help would be greatly appreciated, please find out more on our crowdfunding website.

The earth wants to be green

Rewilding the United Kingdom – from restored forests to the return of predators such as the lynx – were in the spotlight at a topical lecture featuring acclaimed writer George Monbiot and leading conservationist Alan Watson Featherstone, Founder of award-winning charity Trees for Life. PhD student Kuba Jablonowski was there….

“Woodland covers 31 per cent of the world’s land area and 37 per cent of Europe, but only 13 percent of Britain,” says journalist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot at the start of his talk at the University of Exeter.

Later, during the question and answer session that follows, someone from the audience adds that natural woodland accounts for even less than that, just about six per cent of the British land. Why is it? Well, according to rewilding pioneer Alan Watson Featherstone, who speaks after George, this is mainly because we are ‘a nation of sheep’. He means it quite literally: Scotland, where he comes from, has 5.3 million people and over six million sheep. Scotland also has countless red deer who have no natural predators in today’s ecosystem and hence are left free to overgraze desolate hills. No trees can take root in such an environment.

Throughout the evening George and Alan explain why Britain’s rolling hills, for many a defining feature of the country’s landscape, should rather be considered as evidence of an environmental disaster which turned our uplands into some of the least functional ecosystems in Europe. They blame it on human activity and yet it is not the industrial revolution and its unintended consequence, the climate change, that they focus on.

The peculiarity of the British landscape with its barren, ‘grass-trashed’ and ‘sheep-wrecked’ uplands is an effect of farming and a particular pattern of land ownership more broadly.

Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, Britain has never had a revolutionary event that would trigger some kind of redistributive land reform. As a result very few people own much of the land, and Britain has one of the most concentrated land ownership patterns in the world, second only to Brazil. To make matters worse, the enduring lack of transparency as to who owns what exactly makes the efforts to mitigate ecological damage harder.

For George, therefore, the main obstacle to rewilding Britain is political ecology and economy. Sheep in the uplands are often a loss-making business and many farmers live off subsidies form the European Union, which are paid per hectare of land in ‘agricultural condition’. This excludes woodlands but does include barren and overgrazed land. The cumulative effect of unusually large size of British farm holdings and European subsidies is a landscape where only the most resilient animals can survive: deer, skylark, and not much more.

Rewilding is about reversing that process and bringing back biodiversity that used to characterise much of rural Britain. There is palpable excitement in the audience as George describes the wilderness of our last interglacial period, when elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions, and hundreds of other species roamed Britain. However, his is not an agenda for conservation with an arbitrarily selected baseline, or for going back to a particular historical moment. Rewilding is a progressive agenda to let nature thrive. As George puts it: “The process is the outcome,” and it is certainly not about protecting the few species we have left.

This makes most sense when Alan speaks about the work of his life which he spent planting trees in Scottish highlands, or often just protecting them with fences to stop sheep and deer overgrazing. The result is there for all of us to see. He shows numerous photos of barren land that becomes overgrown with young trees within just a few years from putting up fences. A few more years and these fences can be dismantled, and lush woodlands stand proudly where there was nothing. This often is achieved with no planting at all – nature does not need our help as much as a chance to grow on its own. Coming back to one place every two years Alan documents the rewilding process and shows how he just lets the nature take its course. There is something incredibly intimate about these photos, showing Featherstone looking after trees until they are strong enough to cope on their own. It is like a family album…

Rewilding has very simple principles, says Alan. It starts with restoration of vegetation communities, which is followed by reinstatement of vital ecological processes, and finally reintroduction of missing species including large mammals and predators. And this process of rewilding is not just a way to heal our dysfunctional landscapes, but also to bring people together. Alan clearly loves trees, but he is also very concerned about the wellbeing of people ‘deprived of nature’. He lists Scotland’s social woes, and says that rewilding is a great way to get people to work together, be out in nature, and do something meaningful for one another and future generations.

In the question and answer session much attention is focused on winning over the wider public for rewilding Britain. George and Alan argue that it is all about sharing knowledge and using existing resources smartly. They say that agricultural subsidies, for example, would bring greater returns if they became rewilding subsidies, and that reforested uplands would be the most effective flood defence Britain can have.

Finally, a question about the baseline ecosystems comes up: if we decide to reintroduce missing species, then what is the new, wild landscape supposed to look like? Which point in history do we reference as the right type of wilderness? But Alan says it is really ‘not about turning back the clock, but restarting it’. Let’s begin with that, adds George, and who knows – maybe eventually we will get our elephants, hippos and lions back!
The talk was organised at the University of Exeter on Thursday 14th January by the Network of Wellbeing, Exeter Community Initiatives, and Research Services.

Solving the mystery of missing exoplanet water

Professor David Sing is the lead author on a new research paper that has detailed the atmospheres of a number of planets outside our solar system for that first time. Here he tells us more about this ground-breaking research…

A little over six years ago, the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off for one last repair mission to one of the greatest scientific instruments of all time. NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope spectrographic electronics had failed in 2004 and the spectrograph had been unusable since. A spectrograph analyses the light of the star as it passes through different chemicals and elements of the planet’s atmosphere.

I had been granted precious Hubble time to observe the atmosphere of a transiting exoplanet – ‘transiting’ meaning that, from our point of view on earth, it passes directly in front of its star, and ‘exoplanet’ referring to a planet outside our own solar system. My work was to analyse the spectrographic changes in order to classify the gaseous makeup of a planet’s atmosphere, still a relatively new concept in exoplanet science at the time. But in order to proceed with what I hoped would be groundbreaking science, the instrument had to first be repaired by an astronaut on a space walk.

In space, even the most routine tasks can prove challenging. A space walk can be downright dangerous. Via a live stream, I watched nervously here on Earth as astronaut Mike Massimino left the airlock of Atlantis in order to repair the Hubble’s spectrograph. But in order to install the new electronics board, a handrail that was in the way had to first be removed. The handrail had, of all things, a stripped bolt; it wouldn’t budge, rendering the spectrograph inaccessible.

As I watched, all I could think about was the lost telescope time, lost exoplanet science, and the possibility of the next decade devoid of meaningful scientific progress in my field, all because of a bolt. Astronauts must be intelligent and ingenious in space, but in the end Mike relied on brute strength to rip the bar free– a risky manoeuvre in space. It allowed access and successful repair of the instrument. With Hubble fully repaired and better than ever, not only could we once again look at the composition of exoplanets, but its new infrared capabilities opened a much broader view of their atmospheres.

Today, there are nearly two thousand exoplanets known. My team has just completed a large Hubble survey, the first of its kind, that compares exoplanetary spectra across ten very different planetary worlds.

Teasing out the spectra of a planet is a tricky business, as the star vastly outshines the planet, and there are still only a select few dozen that can be analysed spectroscopically in detail. The exoplanets we can study are nothing like Earth, or even any of the rest of the planets in our solar system. Our survey targeted Hot Jupiters, gaseous planets orbiting so close to their stars they are heated to thousands of degrees, creating immense winds moving thousands of kilometers per hour and pushing heat to the night side.

Unlike other astronomical objects such as stars, exoplanets show immense diversity from planet to planet, and two otherwise similar exoplanets can show very different characteristics. These are, after all, different planets around different stars with completely different formation and evolutionary histories. If you looked at ten planets for the first time, and they were of a type scientists didn’t even expect to exist, what would they look like, what would you discover? The first few glimpses from Hubble’s new infrared camera showed puzzling results; the large water vapor feature everyone expected to see was barely visible. This was quite a surprise as oxygen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, and we would expect to see water vapour dominating the infrared spectra in all Hot Jupiters. Scientists theorised that the answer to the missing water vapour could be traced all the way back to the very formation of these planets.

Gas giant planets form far away from their stars where there is ample gas to accumulate. Far away from the star, ice forms, lowering the water vapour content in the gas. Thus, the theory holds that Hot Jupiter planets form in these far away regions, gathering gas from water-starved regions to form its planetary structure. The planet then migrates very close to the star through processes such as gravitational interactions with another planet or another nearby star. If this theory were true, it would be a major new insight into how planets form and a shakeup of conventional thinking.

We have, however, a competing theory to explain the lack of expected water features on these planets: clouds. Unlike clouds on Earth, the clouds in Hot Jupiters are expected to be quite exotic, made of small iron or silicate particles. It can rain glass on some of these planets, and shortly after Hubble was repaired, our initial observations indicated this was the case on at least one planet. But how common are these clouds, and could they explain low amounts of water vapour in Hot Jupiters simply by covering up their features?

From our Hubble telescope survey of ten planets, we now know the answer. Clouds do indeed hide the water vapour features in many Hot Jupiters, but not all. Using Hubble spectra at optical wavelengths, we can detect and study the light scattering caused by the clouds, and using infrared spectra from both Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope, we can simultaneously study the water vapour, comparing how the two interplay and manifest themselves across the different types of Hot Jupiters.

The diversity we found was unexpected, to say the least. No two planets look the same, ranging all the way from clear, pristine atmospheres to heavily clouded planets. The planets with clear atmospheres show very large water features just as expected, indicating Hot Jupiters are not so water poor after all. The diversity of clouds across the different planet types has also given us new insights into how clouds form in extreme conditions, and we have discovered the unique atmospheric structure of Hot Jupiters makes them particularly sensitive to cloud formation.

We may not yet entirely understand how these planets form, but we’ve devised several metrics to enable astronomers to separate the different planet types, such that clear-atmosphere planets can be specifically targeted to accurately measure their chemical abundances, which will soon provide new insights into planet formation.

As Hubble enters its last few years at full capacity – no other servicing missions are planned now that the space shuttle has retired – a new successor is on the horizon, the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in late 2018. It’s a telescope so powerful, it’s expected to revolutionise nearly all areas of astrophysics, particularly exoplanet science. Instead of just water vapour, we’ll be able to study the full, rich chemistry of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, and the makeup of their exotic clouds. The James Webb telescope will enable us to study much smaller planets, possibly even to study rocky and potentially habitable ones.

Being at the spearhead of the fintech revolution

Tico Altahona is a One Planet MBA student who has been doing an internship with Droplet.

‘Too big to fail’, is how the importance of banks has traditionally been defined, as they are so large and interconnected that if they collapse, there would be a chain reaction that would affect the whole economy. They are the link that connects the economy and lets everything happen: from government policy (expand the circulation with credits) to buy groceries (payment services).

We are living in exciting moments because a revolution is happening right now. There are serious threats to the banks foundations, and I am happy to announce that I am part of it. The Financial Technology (Fintech) revolution has been made by start-ups that use Internet and mobile applications to side step banks. Companies like Droplet are now able to replace the traditional services offered ONLY by banks, in this particular case: payments with cards.

droplet1I am undertaking my internship with Droplet, and being in the middle of this revolution is an exciting world for an entrepreneur like me, because it’s a place where there is no navigation chart, only a blank page that we are writing on. At the same time is very risky; we have to succeed because there are no second chances. I love it.

We work with a philosophy: banks can no longer be in the dominant position that fills the pockets of the top management with £150,000 per year while the rest of the economy struggles. Our customers share the same philosophy; because we have a strong social core, customers are incrementing their profits as the service is for free. (We feel like the modern Robin Hood –but within the law!). Want to know how we make revenues? !

I am extremely thankful to the University of Exeter because they made it happen. They offered two subsidies for my internship – please take into account I am Colombian, with no British link at all – making me very attractive to Droplet. The company also recognised the relevance of the university because they had just ended a successful round of crowdfunding with Crowdcube that is located in the university innovation centre.

Making the most of my MBA is more than just coming to class; it is also learning in a work environment that is leading a revolution. Taking an internship is an integral part of this experience and the One Planet MBA has offered their unconditional support for making this whole experience come true.

This post first appeared on the One Planet MBA blog.

Healthy Beards? A ‘Decembeard’ Special!

As the end of Decembeard approaches we decide to share this blog post from Dr Alun Withey, Associate research Fellow in History, which was first published on December 1, 2015 on his blog.

Today marks the start of ‘Decembeard‘, in which tens of thousands of men across the UK and beyond will be donning the facial hair to raise money for research into bowel cancer. It’s often forgotten how closely facial hair has been linked to men’s health. In fact, the health and hygiene history of beards is the subject of my current research. To celebrate ‘Decembeard’, therefore, I thought it might be interesting to explore some of the recent (and not so recent) health aspects of the beard.


Ezra Meeker Image from Wikipedia Commons

I was struck by a recent report of a new study relating to the health and hygiene of beards. In fact, the health and hygiene history of beards is to be a central theme of my research into facial hair over the next few years. How, healthy – or otherwise – are beards? It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot by the media recently. Earlier in the year came the brief furore caused by reports that beards might be dirtier than toilet seats. Apparently, beard hair traps all manner of germs and microbes, which easily find access into the mouth.

But Australian scientists have concluded that beards have many health benefits, including reducing the impact of ultra violet rays by almost a third. Beards apparently have a SPF factor of 21! Other claims were made by the study, including the trapping of pollen and dust (good news for asthma sufferers), maintenance of moisture on the skin underneath the beard, and also a barrier against the elements.

Both camps are firmly dug in. On one side sit those who see beards as dirty and unsanitary; on the other, those who promote the health benefits of beards. These scientific studies might be viewed as the result of modern research techniques allowing us new insights into the workings of the body. But, I would suggest that they are merely a continuance of longstanding arguments about facial hair that have continued on almost identical lines for centuries.

The supposed health benefits of beards have a long history. In the 1850s, the massive popularity of beards was sparked in part by men’s desire to emulate military moustaches, and other bearded heroes, such as explorers. Promoting health benefits was another means of convincing doubtful men of the natural protection afforded by their whiskers.

In March 1859, the Crayon periodical emphasised the protective nature of beards. Wherever there was an important organ, it was argued, nature gave it extra protection. The ‘hard pan’ of the skull, after all, protected the brain. The beard was therefore nature’s protection against extreme heat or cold, and protected the nose and throat, and even the teeth, against disease. ‘Clergymen who are close shavers are much more frequently troubled with disease of the throat, than lawyers, who for the most part wear the beard’.

Arguments for healthy beards went back further than that. In the 1530s, Pierius Valerianus argued that a beard drew off superfluous humours, preserving the teeth from rotting and, interestingly, ‘defends the face from the burning rays of the sun’ [my emphasis]. And this nearly five centuries before the current study!

Another central health claim in Victorian texts was that the beard acted as a filter against germs and smuts. In 1881, Tom Robinson M.D. extolled the virtues of moustaches in ‘preserving the soldiers from catarrhal complaints’. Beardless recruits were apparently far more frequent visitors to the barracks infirmary with bronchial infections, than their hirsute companions.

A report into the health of workers on the Great Northern Railway also noted that only 16 enginemen and firemen on the line shaved, with 77 having a moustache and a further 42 with beard and moustache. The ‘utility of the beard as a hygienic agent’ was seemingly reinforced as ‘the latter enjoyed better health than those who shaved’.

800px-sturrock_0-4-2_suburban_tank_engine_great_northern_railway_246Henry Morley and William Wills, author of the pro-beards article ‘Why Shave?” asserted that beards and moustaches protected the opening of the mouth and filtered the air for people working in smoky or dusty environments. More than this they ‘acted as a respirator and prevent[ed] the inhalation into the lungs of air that is too frosty’. Several eminent physicians were quoted in the article as recommending beards as a preventative against consumption, as well as against the harsh conditions and poor air quality of urban environments.

Indeed, for some, shaving the beard off positively invited illness. According to the Scottish physician Mercer Adams in his ‘Plea for Beards’, (Edinburgh Medical Journal, Dec 1861) an 1853 experiment tested 53 healthy, bearded men who were compelled to shave. According to Adams, ‘all of them at first experienced very unpleasant sensations of cold’, 27 had ‘painful afflictions of the teeth and jaws’, 11 had facial neuralgia, and 16 rheumatism of the gums. For Adams, the medical benefits of beards were proven.

There was some debate, however, about whether physicians should wear beards. A correspondent to the British Medical Journal in 1896 noted the fashion for beards amongst doctors, ‘to stroke and look wise whilst making a doubtful diagnosis’. But, they cautioned, the ‘bacteriology of the beard…has not yet been exhaustively studied’. Was it possible that diseases carried in the beards of physicians could transfer themselves to patients? Should ‘doctors sacrifice their beards on the altar of hygiene’? The answer, they suggested, was the ‘careful sterilisation of the beard’.


Others were less circumspect. In a1907 Tatler article titled ‘How to Tell Character by Beards’, Frank Richardson made it clear that he was no fan. ‘Beards are absolutely unhygienic. They are microbe traps. They are not permitted in such clean places as convict prisons and barracks. Therefore they should not be allowed on the streets of Modern Babylon’. Even shaving brushes have caused scares. Between 1915 and 1917 contaminated brushes made from animal hair caused 56 cases of anthrax, with 21 deaths!

And so the seeming fascination with beard health rumbles on. It is interesting how arguments about clean facial hair are separated from that of hair on the head. Does it make sense to argue, for example, that beard hair should trap germs any more than head hair? More, and probably contradictory, studies will undoubtedly follow, but it is clear that questions about the cleanliness of beards are nothing new.

All images from Wikimedia Commons.

Men, mental health and suicide in the UK: The importance of the long view

Dr Ali Haggett is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter. She works primarily on the history of gender and mental illness and has just published a Wellcome Trust-funded Open Access monograph on male mental illness entitled A History of Male Psychological Disorders in Britain, 1945-1980. This post was origionally published on the History and Policy website.

Although women are likely to be diagnosed twice as often as men for the most common psychological disorders, the most recent suicide statistics for the UK, issued by the Office for National Statistics, show that the male suicide rate is now more than three times higher than the female rate.

Overall, the most recent data on record shows that 4,858 men ended their own lives in 2013, and men aged between 45 and 59 are currently most at risk. Over recent months, expedited by pressure from a number of charities concerned about male suicide, these sobering statistics have begun to attract wider publicity in the press and on television documentaries. BBC 3, for example, recently featured a programme in which rap artist Professor Green explored the harrowing circumstances surrounding his Father’s suicide.

The gender gap in suicide statistics, while shocking, is not new. Data from the beginning of the twentieth century indicates that, notwithstanding a moderate rise in female suicide during the 1960s, the male rate of suicide has always been significantly higher than the rate for women. The scandal is why it has taken so long for the topic to attract the attention it deserves. Studies into suicide during the 1950s and 1960s focused on comparative data between different regions of the UK and examined the influence of other variables such as class and age. While these factors were not unimportant, the fact that men featured in statistics so predominantly has always been ‘the elephant in the room’.

There are complex medical, social and cultural reasons why men might be more likely to end their own lives. These too have a long history – but one that could help us disentangle some of the current problems. The subject of seeking help for psychological disorders certainly seems to be one area that presents particular challenges to the current Western model of masculinity. In part bestowed upon us during the Victorian era (a period in which British ascendency in the world required the projection of ‘power’ and ‘control’) the notion that ‘real’ men should be stoic and independent resulted in boys and men being encouraged to minimise the expression of pain and emotion.

By contrast, during the preceding period, the Georgians viewed nervous disorders as a sign of ‘good breeding’. Advances in scientific and anatomical knowledge from the practice of dissection suggested that the central nervous system was fundamental to understandings of the body. A new interest in nervous disorders, which were thought to affect men and women alike, lead to a belief that the individuals thought to be most seriously affected by ‘nervous distempers’ were those from the cultured, well-to-do classes, who were considered to have a more refined nervous system, which was more prone to collapse. As a result, men were more comfortable being reflective about their own physical and psychological experiences.

It might be helpful to remind ourselves that masculinity has been ‘fluid’ through time – we could look to earlier periods and alternative constructions of masculinity to foster healthier ways of expressing emotional distress.

During more recent times, a number of additional factors might help explain why much male distress remained undetected. From the 1950s, the biomedical model of health and disease predominantly practised in the West, has tended to underplay the role of social and cultural factors in mental health, making it unlikely that the role of masculinity has been considered satisfactorily. When men do seek medical help, they often present with physical or psychosomatic symptoms that may have an underlying emotional cause. It is therefore likely that male cases of depression and anxiety have been under-diagnosed.

In the workplace, debates about sickness absence have historically been dominated by concerns about productivity, resulting in a failure to investigate male psychological illness at work. This has been the case since at least the 1950s when debates about occupational health became fixed upon a number of key threats to health: unemployment, absenteeism, physical and chemical hazards.

By the 1980s, commentators began to caution that mental health had been of subsidiary interest. Dame Carol Black’s report, on the health of the working population, published in 2008, revealed that the importance of the physical and mental health was still ‘insufficiently recognised by society’. As the charity Men’s Health Forum pointed out, this had potentially serious consequences for men who spend more of their lives in the workplace and are less likely than women to make use of statutory health services.

Finally, it is likely that the stigma of mental illness has affected men more acutely than women. The long-held association between women, psychological disorder and ‘weakness’ has been particularly problematic for men who are often reluctant to admit to vulnerability and not ‘coping’. Recent research continues to enforce the association between depression and women. However studies on gender and depression too often draw upon data from surveys that rely on self-reporting. Since men are less likely to recognise or report symptoms of emotional distress, it is not surprising that women feature more regularly in the data.

The constituent countries of the UK have each produced suicide prevention strategies to identify risk and take action across-sector organisations. Young and middle-aged men are now considered to be high-risk groups. There is also now a growing body of excellent academic work on male mental health and the on the commissioning, design and delivery of interventions.

However, there is an important role for history in these developments. By exploring the social and the cultural, as well as the medical and the psychological, and by viewing ideas about male behaviour within the context of their time, history illustrates how symptoms have been viewed differently in response to prevailing cultural and medical forces. It offers us the opportunity to expose and uncover male ‘distress’ where it seemed previously hidden, but was perhaps prevalent, either presenting in complex ways or undiagnosed in the community.

The longer view most certainly suggests that for too long we have been constrained by a biological paradigm and the unhelpful notion that one sex might be biologically more vulnerable to mental illness than the other. A more productive approach would be to explore what it is about being a man or a woman in our culture that make us react differently to psychological stress. For future generations, interventions that promote healthier ways of expressing emotion in young boys will be key.

* Author’s note: It should be acknowledged that not all suicide is caused by mental illness. However, it is known that people with mental health problems are at greater risk of suicide.

Fabulous facial hair history

At the end of last month Alun Withey, Associate research Fellow at the University of Exeter and, Jennifer Evans from the University of Hertfordshire hosted Framing the Face: New Perspectives of the History of Facial Hair, a one day conference funded by the two institutions.

Jennifer tells us more about the conference….

Alun has just begun a three year Wellcome Trust funded project on facial hair and I have been working on a history of men’s sexual health in the seventeenth century that has (surprisingly) led to lots of facial hair related material. We thus wanted to bring together scholars working across temporal and geographic boundaries to see what conversations would emerge.
The day started with a fantastic interdisciplinary panel exploring the role of moustaches on canvas, stage, and screen.

Art historian Victoria Alonso Cabezas examined the representation of young male painters in nineteenth-century Spanish art. We saw that several paintings included shadows of potential facial hair indicating the artist’s entrance in adult manhood. Victoria also showed how some Spanish artists introduced facial hair into their self-representations following involvement in the military or more usually following marriage.

Het Philips then considered the role of moustaches as a marker of ‘creepy’ objectionable masculinity in television and film. Moustachioed characters in Trainspotting and Orange is the New Black, for example, display excessively violent, and often sexually violent, forms of masculinity that Het suggested masks the moral failing of more ‘normal’ male characters. The enjoyment of these masculinities in popular culture is, she argues, rather disconcerting. But having this immediately visually obvious character creates a trope to be subverted, where ‘normal’ men are revealed to be even more morally dubious than the moustache wearing villains.

The panel was completed by makeup artist Helen Casey who explored three case studies where moustaches have been central to the creation of a male character: Charlie Chaplin’s tramp clown, Groucho Marx’s stage persona and David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot. Chaplin made a conscious choice to reject the traditional painted on stubble of tramp clowns played into his desire to have everything about the persona be a contradiction –the tramp clown who is actually a gentleman down on his luck. Poirot’s moustache, meanwhile, portrays everything about the character in one clear visual signifier; he is a man that is precise, clean, fussy and isolated.

The speakers in the second panel looked at facial hair more broadly and crossed gender lines.
Emily Cock questioned the ways in which early modern literature utilised the beard as a key characteristic of a bawd. These one-time prostitutes turned madams were inversions of all that was sexually attractive. They were not though described as having full beards but were endowed with prickly hairs upon their chins. This facial hair excluded them from the realms of the feminine but did not bestow masculinity.

Ellie Rycroft also took us into the world of early modern England examining the lifecycle of boy players and the roles they played on the stage. Beards, as she pointed out, did not suddenly appear but grew over time. Young male actors slipped through social categories and may have had to employ false beards to play adult men. However, as Rycroft noted, in the seventeenth century concern about false beards perhaps meant companies of players moved towards using actors with their real facial hair at its different stages of development. While young and beardless these boys played roles like the page, a bawdy role, which unnerved society by connecting youth to criminality. The growth of facial hair moved youths into the role of gallant or soldier. The extravagance and impermanence of Gallants, who shaved their beards, represented a real threat to society, whilst soldiers, whose martial masculinity was repeatedly asserted through excessive beard growth, suggested the wildness and disorder of unbridled masculine activity.

The final paper in the paper was delivered by Hanna Weibye who described the complex representational qualities of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn’s beard. The nineteenth-century creator of a gymnastic movement in Germany, she argued, perhaps used his beard to signify his sense of difference to the ruling class of German bourgeoisie. While they were clean shaven or wore neat short beards, Jahn’s rather long beard associated him with artisans and a nostalgic Germanic past. His beard was a memorial to his patriotic youth movement that the government refused to support. It was sign of his constancy, loyalty to the state and the fact that he was alienated from his own time.

From the representational qualities of beards the conference moved on to think about choice and consumerism.

John Gagné revealed the intriguing example of Italian beards around 1500. After charting the rise and fall of facial hair in the Roman epochs, he explored the beard wearing of Francesco Gonzaga, who was unusual amongst European princes for wearing a beard. This coincided with Gonzaga’s fight against the French, and under French rule Milanese men were ordered to shave off their beards within three days. Their choice was thus nominally removed from them by a French government who feared that beards were connected to wickedness and sin and that false beards allowed for the disguise of men who had committed crime. Enforced shaving was an indignity to the Milanese who sought diplomatic redress and wore their beards as a sign of mourning for their city, and their defiance of their French overlords.

Moving into the nineteenth-century Justin Bengry delved into the world of shaving adverts and showed how shaving companies sought to instill anxieties about disease and the vulnerability of the masculine body into their potential customers. Concerns that could of course be eased and abated by the use of the ‘right’ shaving products. Adverts both showed the man at home as model of domestic patriarchal bliss, and showed men in the rugged outdoors, escaping the confines of domesticity. Bengry argued that adverts invoked domestic, imperial, modern and traditional tropes to tie their products to extant and new identities. They created tensions in masculinity – showing men that it was fragile, defensive and at risk – in order to encourage men’s consumer choices.

Christopher Oldston-Moore concluded the speakers’ sessions by taking a longue durée approach to understanding choices and trends in facial hair fashion. He suggested that there have been four relatively brief periods of ‘bearded’ history in a western tradition dominated by clean shaven faces. These beard wearing eras were provoked, he argued, by shifts in the foundation of masculine authority towards the ‘naturalness’ of the male body.
The day concluded with a plenary paper by Margaret Pelling that took us on a tour through early modern portraiture and the self-presentation of hair and facial hair. Margaret pointed out that the body and clothing have tended to be considered by historians separately from hair and facial hair. Heads, she noted, have received a lot of scholarly attention because they force themselves on our notice. Yet sexuality and sex, which have often been considered, might not be the best ways to think about the history of the beard: Shylock’s beard, for example, was central to his identity but this was not simply about his masculinity. Hair after all was visible and alterable and could be shaped to show ritual, religious and social status. Beards and hair were not covered by sumptuary laws that, although not rigidly enforced, suggested that appropriate ways to manifest these outward signs of status through clothing. This is intriguing given that the head and hands were the most exposed and vulnerable parts of the body. Facial hair could be used as a screen to hide the face, but is easily distorted by emotive movements meaning that in many contexts it exaggerates rather than hides the face and emotions. Another way to read the wearing of facial hair in this era, Margaret offered, is to think about the static nature of the court which might have given rise to boredom and the growing of facial hair to provide a diversion. Alternatively, older men in particular were prone to wear facial hair, which might have acted as a compensation for male pattern baldness.

Margaret’s paper summarised a key theme of the day which is that there are many ways to think about and understand beards and facial hair in the past. And importantly points out that there is much ground still to be covered.

This blog post was originally published on Jennifer Evans’ blog.

Intrepreting the Nurse review

Professor Nick Talbot FRS is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Impact at the University of Exeter. Here he gives his interpretation of the Nurse review…

JimW-Nick Talbot 18

Professor Nick Talbot

The much-anticipated Nurse Review ‘Ensuring a successful UK research endeavour’ was published on the 19th November. Authored by the current president of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate, Sir Paul Nurse, the review is typically thoughtful and perceptive.

Indeed, the thing that really stands out in the Nurse Review, is that it is very clear throughout that it is authored by someone who has thought long and hard about the research endeavour, the nature of scientific investigation, the differences between discovery science and applied research, and how to organise research so that it delivers for the public good. These are difficult and complex issues and the opening sections should be required reading for anyone associated with the administration of research, including of course politicians, who do not always understand the motivations of scientists, or the nature of scientific enquiry.

The review starts from the premise that the very best research system thrives on excellent scientists, who are motivated by their own curiosity and have the freedom to pursue their intellectual interests. This is, of course, enshrined by the Haldane Principle of 1918, which states that decisions about how to spend research funds should be made by researchers rather than politicians. The Haldane Report led to the establishment of the Research Councils, starting with the Medical Research Council, and has clearly served the UK very well. We have, by most objective criteria, one of the most successful research communities in the world– a very high proportion of the most cited research discoveries are from the UK, compared to our population. Changing the structure of a highly successful research system should therefore only by embarked upon with considerable care and thought.

So what does the Nurse Review conclude? Well, the main recommendation, which has been picked up in most commentaries, is the establishment of an overarching non-departmental government body called Research UK (RUK), which should be headed by a highly distinguished scientist to act as a single Accounting Officer for all seven Research Councils (RCs). They would be supported by the current Chief Executives of the RCs, as an executive committee, but would be the single accountable voice for research, reporting to the Secretary of State. RUK would be responsible for determining spending allocations between the RCs and would also ensure more coherent cross-council strategy– of increasing importance in this era of interdisciplinary research.

However, Nurse is also a political realist. He has, after all been a University President and currently heads the Crick Institute. He knows that the interaction between scientists and government is critical and that ministers, as the elected representatives of taxpayers, must play a role in determining science policy. To provide for this role, he suggests formation of a government committee chaired by a senior minister with cross-cutting cabinet responsibilities that would act as a forum for discussions between policy makers and the research establishment. This has been picked up by some as being a threat to Haldane, but strikes me as a potentially clever move. After all, isn’t it better for there to be a forum in which policymakers and scientists can discuss spending allocations and large science capital decisions in full view of the evidence? At present, it is clear that political considerations, however understandable (why wouldn’t we want to build the northern powerhouse, or put another huge research institute in London?), can lead to decisions about science spend that can appear, at best, opaque. Creating a forum in which legitimate political and economic factors can be balanced with the need for scientific excellence, seems both logical and sensible. On top of that, it might develop a common view about the research priorities of government departments, which are often contradictory and underresourced.

Nurse goes further in recommending that ‘Place-based Innovation’, a concept at the heart of the current government’s industrial policy, becomes a responsibility of the RCs, who would be charged with undertaking a mapping exercise of the UK’s research strength, building upon the Science and Innovation audits, recently announced by BIS. This would ensure that the best research can be supported wherever it is found, but with due recognition of key regional strengths, such as Graphene in the North-West, Aerospace in the South-West, and Satellites in Surrey (although I should stress that these are my examples and not Nurse’s!).

Nurse also suggests that in a post-HEFCE world (as suggested in the recent Green Paper), the Research Excellence Framework and its distribution of Quality Research (QR) funding should also sit within RUK. Thus, both strands of the dual support system for universities would be controlled by a single government body. As dual support already sits in the same government department, this is probably not as revolutionary as it sounds, but one of the real powers of dual support has been the delegated freedom of universities to spend QR exactly as they please (not exactly loved as a concept by ministers). RUK would, therefore, need to assure the HE sector of this core principle and their ability to keep political pressure away, preventing the diversion of QR to strategically directed, project-related spend. This will not be an easy task and, arguably, harder than when QR was distributed by a body whose primary responsibility was for the quality of higher education.

So, will the Nurse Review save the RCs from being part of the government’s promised bonfire of the quangos? The single accounting officer model of RUK creates more efficiencies, as the back-office functions are already merged. It would also allow RC chief executives more time to be strategic and not ‘managing-up’, which I suspect they spend an awful lot of their time doing now, keeping inquisitive ministers and their civil servants at bay. Perhaps Nurse has prevented a merger of the RCs, even if the McKinsey report recommends it. He has provided a framework that could, in my view, work very well.

The question of course is whether the review will be acted upon and whether the forthcoming spending review outcome will simply drown out any serious debate, as the realities of austerity descend upon the university and wider research sector. The government, and perhaps the Treasury even more than BIS, understands that the knowledge economy they seek can only happen with a well-funded and organised research base working closely with business and government, with world-class discovery, innovation and economic growth in mind. So for now, we still live in hope and I share Sir Paul’s cautious optimism.

First published on HEi-know, the HE intelligence service

What they don’t tell you about ethnographic fieldwork

Sarah Foxen is doing a PhD in French Linguistics at the University of Exeter. On her personal blog NEWBROGUESANDBLISTERS she writes about researcher skills, academia and impact from the perspective of a junior academic.

Two weeks ago I returned to the UK having spent six months in Belgium doing ethnographic fieldwork for my PhD. It was my first experience of ethnography and was one of the most amazing and enriching experiences of my life. But it was also one of the hardest, most challenging things I’ve ever done. And I really wasn’t prepared for it.

I wish someone had told me about the isolation, the pressure, the vulnerability, the guilt, the pragmatic challenges and the Club. Once you’ve done ethnography you’ll realise that you’ve become part of a club: the Ethnographers’ Club.

I wish someone had talked to me about it. I wish I’d known that there was a club, and that others had experienced what I was going through, but no-one told me that. And because doing ethnographic fieldwork is like nothing else, whilst I was doing it there were few who could meaningfully empathise with me.

So today I’m writing this for those of you who will soon or one day embark upon your first experience of ethnography. I want to prepare you, reassure you, and encourage you. I’m going to share some of the things and thoughts I went through and some coping mechanisms.

“I’m trapped, and surrounded”

When you do ethnographic fieldwork everything is potentially significant: every place, interaction, event, comment, news article, whatever. This means that for as long as you are in ‘the field’, you’re at work. Such a feeling affected me in two ways: it exhausted me, and it made me feel trapped.

I found two ways of combatting these feelings: 1) from time to time I went to a near-by city. There I couldn’t observe and so could switch off; and 2) I made friends in that city, who I spent time with. Because they didn’t meet the demographic criteria for my research, they couldn’t be a part of it; they had to just be friends.

“I feel so vulnerable”

However small they might be, as we go from one place to another – be it from county to county or continent to continent – we are met with different cultural norms. I’ve lived in several European cities and I don’t know about you, but I always feel slightly more vulnerable when I’m abroad. I think this is because I just don’t have the same cultural insight as a resident, which in turn marks me out as different and this makes me feel vulnerable. In the early stages of my fieldwork I felt quite vulnerable as I wasn’t familiar with the research site and its cultural norms. With time, and through participating in the community, my insight grew, I felt less like an outsider, and consequently less vulnerable.

“Who’s doing the observing here?”

I did two lots of fieldwork, and in the first stint I had a constant feeling that everyone (be it the man walking the dog or the lady buying milk) somehow knew I was ‘observing.’ I felt like they knew, and that they were looking at me: a whole town was observing me. It wasn’t a very nice feeling.

In my second stint I didn’t have this feeling really, and I think this is why: in phase one I felt like my entire identity was ‘researcher-observer’. In contrast, in phase two I felt it was more like ‘human who does research.’ By getting some perspective on who I was in the grander scheme of things, I felt less conspicuous, more normal and better.

“This is beyond my control”

Although ethnographic insight feeds into my research, the data for my PhD comes from interviews with inhabitants from the region I lived in. I was principally living in the field in order to interview people. To interview people, you have to find people, ask them if they will participate, then, if they agree, organise a time, a place, and finally interview them.

However hard you try, if someone ultimately says no, or changes their mind, or cancels on you, there’s absolutely nothing you can do: it is entirely beyond your control. Being dependent on other people was quite stressful; however, eventually I learnt to go with the flow, which reduced the stress level.

“No-one understands what I’m going through”

As I explained right at the beginning, doing ethnographic fieldwork is like nothing else. At times when I was really struggling with the feelings above, I did what I what I think most people would do in that situation: I rang friends and family in search for comfort and support. They did their very best, and they were supportive. But they just couldn’t quite understand what I was going through, and sometimes that made me feel even more alone. However, I have a friend who has done ethnographic fieldwork and, before I left for Belgium, he told me to call him if I needed to. It’s like he knew what was going to happen: of course he did; he’s part of the Club.

So, when things got really tough, I rang my friend, and we chatted through what was going on. And I knew he understood. And that was a great comfort and encouragement.

“I only want you for your data”

This is a weird one, and it’s only now as I’m writing this that I realise how I overcame one of the most unpleasant feelings I had in the field. In the early days I had this slightly horrible feeling every time I spoke to someone: as we were chatting I couldn’t help but size up their potential to be a research participant. And this made me feel quite calculating.

But I’ve realised now how I overcame it: I started doing what I do in any non-ethnographic situation and showed interest in them quite simply as human beings. My engagement in the conversation was honest. Then, as they reciprocated with showing interest in me, my research became quite naturally a topic of conversation.

“But no-one likes a nagger”

As my leaving date got closer, and I was still lacking research participants, my supervisor encouraged me more and more to chase up people (which I read as ‘nag them’). As someone who doesn’t like to ask people for help, or put people out, I hated this idea. No-one likes a nagger. But, when it came down to it, it was a case of nag, or not get my data. So I nagged; or rather, I chased people up and I was honest: I told them I was struggling to find participants and that my departure date was not far off. I hated nagging, but it was justified. And the thing is, people are good, and they are compassionate, and so, in the end, my honest nagging paid off.

“Oh these demography-tinted glasses are turning me into a terrible person”

My project requires data from men and women of all ages and from all socio-economic backgrounds. Inevitably, it got to a point in my fieldwork where I’d done a number of interviews, but was lacking participants of certain demographic criteria. Time was finite and so I didn’t have time to waste interviewing people who didn’t meet the right criteria. Resultantly, towards the end of my research, I found myself thinking about people I knew, wondering if they met the right criteria, or if they were likely to have anyone in their network who would.

I started to see people in terms of their age, sex and socio-economic background, or rather, I started to make judgments about their identity according to these criteria. It felt horrid judging people in that way. But, I had no choice but to do that; I had to be pragmatic about it. As soon as the fieldwork was over, though, the glasses got shelved.

“It’s all take take take”

It’s hard to write about this now as I really don’t feel this way anymore, but in the early days of my PhD I struggled with the feeling that when I did my fieldwork, I would go into the community, take from it for my own benefit, then leave the community. It all felt wrong to me.

When I arrived in Belgium, I set about trying to do as much to mitigate this feeling; looking for ways to participate in the community and give to it. In the end I managed to get involved in several different organisations and groups and share my teaching and artistic skills. In the early days this helped me feel better about ‘taking’ from the community. It also helped me to integrate, and feel more like a human and less like a researcher. So I would totally recommend getting involved in networks that interest you as a human.

However, and this is a big HOWEVER, with time I started to realise that the community were interested in my research. I realised that when I’ve completed my thesis I will share my findings with the community. And so, with time I stopped seeing my research as take take take; I saw it more as a co-production of knowledge. And since I’m going to share the research with the community, rather than me taking from them, ultimately I will be giving them something.

“I just want to go home”

When you’ve spent the previous X number of weeks stepping out of your comfort zone to try to pull of this ethnographic study, you’re on tenterhooks to see if you’re going to get cancelled on, your fieldwork isn’t going as you hope, you’re tired, you’re routine is different; in fact everything is different, be prepared to be hit with the thought “I just want to go home.” It happened to me from time to time, but I got through, and you will too. Try to get some perspective: it’s just research, it’s not your life; call your friends and family – they are rooting for you, even if they don’t fully understand; and stop to congratulate yourself on all that you’ve achieved. So to conclude:

Ethnographic Fieldwork Top Tips:

  1. Find yourself an ethnobuddy: someone who has already done ethnographic fieldwork who you can ask if they will be prepared to take your calls when you’re really struggling. I can’t honestly imagine that someone would say no; we’re a small empathetic club, and we know it. If you can’t find anyone, email me. If you’ve got time before you head out, look around for ethnography research communities you can get involved in – you are certain to find an ethnobuddy there.
  2. Find your sanctuary: a place away from the research site where you can’t do ethnography. It is really important for your sanity that you find a place where you can take a break, and ideally people to spend time with who can’t be involved in your research.
  3. Congratulate yourself: we are so quick to focus on what we’ve not achieved, and that takes our mood down. So make sure you celebrate your achievements, no matter how big or small they are. Whether it is going into a shop and talking to someone, going to an event, or asking someone for an interview.

It will be challenging, but it will be amazing. Be bold and brave and know that we can’t wait to welcome you to the Club!

One child on a beach

Darren Schreiber is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter, his research looks at how our brain’s process the world around us. Here he examines why one picture of a dead child captured such attention…

Refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria.

Refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria.

One child, face down in the water on a beach. In week where tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing civil wars and genocide, where thousands are stuck on trains and in train stations as they try to escape to a better life, where seventy-one corpses are found abandoned by human traffickers in a truck on the side of road … why do photos of one dead child evoke such intense emotion and capture so much attention?

For the past decade and a half, I have been bringing together the tools of political science, psychology, and neuroscience to try to understand how our brains process the world. While we have language instincts, we are great at making tools, and we can do a range of other impressive things with the fantastic brains we have, my research has brought me to the conclusion that our brains are built for politics. We evolved the particular set of cognitive and emotional abilities enabled in our brains because we faced an environment where understanding how to form and manage coalitions was critical to survival.

A consequence is that we are constantly trying to assess who is an ‘us’ and who is a ‘them’. But this evaluation is complicated because coalitions are nested, overlapping, and dynamic. The person we rode with in the elevator today was a part of team ‘us’, even for just a few seconds. The people who didn’t get there before the doors closed were part of ‘them’. Similarly, it is easy to think of the streams of strangers at the ports and on the trains as ‘them’, with ‘their problems’.

One odd thing is that we have two different sets of tools for moral evaluations depending on whether someone is an ‘us’ or a ‘them’. When research participants are presented with the ‘train’ version of a famous moral dilemma, they decide to pull the lever and save the five people facing doom from a runaway train, diverting the train and sacrificing a person stuck on the other track. In this utilitarian judgment, the research participants were weighing the costs and benefits and sacrificing the one for the many. When we make such utilitarian calculations, we deactivate the Default Mode Network of the brain, just as we do when we are solving math problems.

But, when asked about pushing a person standing next to them over the edge of the bridge to stop a trolley that is heading towards five people, research participants refuse to sacrifice one for the many. Rather, they activate the brain’s Default Mode Network and make a judgment based on a categorical moral imperative akin to the type described by philosopher Immanuel Kant. It is simply wrong to push someone off a bridge, so we don’t.

When we hear about thousands dying in a war, it is easy to get out the mental calculator and run the sums. ‘They’ are suffering, but we calculate those losses, we don’t feel them. The social, economic, psychological, and political costs of the multiple crises feeding the influx of refugees are down the train tracks.

But that little boy, Aylan Kurdi, he is standing next to us on the bridge. We see through his eyes, through the eyes of his parents and family. We imagine his potential future or we hear his playful giggles when he is tickled.

Why this child when so many have died before him? One part of that Default Mode Network, the medial prefrontal cortex, activated when I showed photos of the faces of white people to white participants, but deactivated when they saw black faces. This specific brain region is involved in mentalising, the process of putting ourselves in the shoes of another, suggesting a tendency to objectify blacks and personalise whites. But, we don’t encounter abstract disembodied faces floating about, rather we encounter people, in contexts.

So in the next experiment I showed photos of blacks and whites, who were either fit social norms (students, doctors, families) or violated social norms (homeless people, gang members, criminals). The activity in the medial prefontal cortex followed the social norms, and the effect of race was erased instantly. They personalised the families, irrespective of whether they were black or white and they dehumanised the criminals, regardless of race.

Little Aylan, wearing clothes you could buy on the High Street, was dead, carried along with the waves of refugees and waves of an unforgiving sea. Our magnificent brains could add him to the incalculable tally of loss, but the gift this photo is that we can see him as one of us and we can realise a moral imperative to do the right thing.