New paper highlights potential impact of COVID-19 on antimicrobial resistance

A short paper on the COVID-19 outbreak and its potential impacts on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has just been published by Dr Aimee Murray, Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School.

As antibiotic use grows, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to treatment. AMR jeopardises modern healthcare which relies on access to antibiotics to prevent and treat infections associated with routine medical procedures.

Dr Murray said: “The COVID-19 epidemic is a massive threat to global health and the global economy. I wanted to highlight that AMR, also a massive threat to society, could be impacted by COVID-19 in lots of different ways.”

It has been estimated that in 30 years, AMR infections will cause one death every three seconds, as well as a loss of over $1 trillion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) worldwide. Dr Murray works on how human use of antibiotics and antimicrobials (like pharmaceuticals or disinfectants) can lead to increased AMR in the environment, with colleagues in the European Centre for Environment and Human Health.

Dr Murray said: “The first thing that crossed my mind was there will be a lot more antibiotics and antimicrobials entering the wastewater treatment plant system, and I wondered if that might increase levels of AMR in the environment.”

Previous work by Dr Murray has shown that low concentrations of antibiotics, similar to those found in the environment, can increase AMR levels. Antibiotic use is likely increasing in hospitals as part of COVID-19 treatment. Though antibiotics are not effective against the virus that causes COVID-19, they are used to treat COVID-19 patients who contract bacterial infections whilst ill. Similarly, use of disinfectants and household cleaners will have soared in the hospital and in the community. Many of these contain antimicrobials that could also lead to the development of AMR. Therefore, the current COVID-19 epidemic could be worsening the AMR problem further down the line.

However, there may be a silver lining. In addition to combatting COVID-19, better hygiene practices globally will also reduce the spread of AMR bacteria, both in hospitals and in the community. Reduced travel will also limit the spread of AMR between countries.

One final area where Dr Murray is optimistic is public awareness of AMR. She hopes that comparisons between COVID-19 and AMR can be used to illustrate how quickly outbreaks can occur, how difficult they are to control, and that sometimes, there is no ‘cure’.

Dr Murray said: “To be able to answer many of these questions, we need to act quickly and do the research now. I hope that sharing these ideas early on will complement current research, stimulate new research and in time, broaden the discussion around COVID-19 to include AMR.”

The paper, entitled, “The Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 Outbreak: Global Implications for Antimicrobial Resistance” is published in Frontiers in Microbiology and is available open access here.

Our future with Europe

Our future with Europe by Sally Faulkner, Exeter’s Assistant Deputy Vice Chancellor (Europe)

Sally Faulkner, Exeter’s Assistant Deputy Vice Chancellor (Europe)

The past few months have marked an extraordinary start to a new decade and the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a crisis across Europe and the world of a magnitude we have probably not seen since the Second World War. European countries and communities have been amongst the worst affected, with high death tolls and major impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods. We have been reminded once more that the challenges facing humanity do not respect borders and that we must work together as nations to solve problems and create a better world.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day on 8 May, a time of reflection and remembrance, and the following day is Europe Day, when many will celebrate our hard won peace and unity. We know that in the UK – and indeed for many in the European Union – the Brexit process has at times been tortuous and divisive, but I believe we must now look to the future and make sure we continue to strengthen our European relationships and work harder than ever to find common ground on the challenges we all face.

Universities must be at the forefront of this collaboration and I believe the academic community are well placed to bring our countries and communities together through this time of crisis and renewal. We already collaborate on world-class education and research that enrich and improve all our lives, from culture and the arts, to science and business. We are well connected to our communities and governments and in the months and years ahead we must use our influence, knowledge and experience to help shape a healthier and happier world that we can sustain for future generations.

At the University of Exeter we are proud of our European connections and collaborations. We currently have around 1400 European students enrolled and nearly 800 European staff at Exeter, and over recent years we have consistently ranked in the top-10 in the UK for outbound student mobility, which includes ERASMUS+ students who go to Europe as part of their higher education.

We have also forged numerous fantastic partnerships with universities across Europe – from Lund University in Sweden, to TU Munich in Germany. In December 2019, we became the first UK University to join the Venice International University (VIU) Consortium – an association of 20 of the world’s top universities. In October, we signed a partnership agreement jointly to fund research and education collaborative projects for another 5 years with the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and together we have already funded 8 research and education partnerships with them.

In December 2018, we established the Europe Network Fund to facilitate research and education collaboration across Europe. There have been 3 calls for funding to date, and we have funded 34 collaborative projects across all Colleges. These academic partnerships will be the building blocks for helping us determine our future strategic partnership and engagement in Europe for the next 3 years, and will be reviewed in detail at our Europe Regional Board meeting on May 20th.

We are also delighted by the recent growth in research funding and collaborations with European partners. Exeter is currently 14th in the UK for EU Horizon funding and in 2020 obtained €90,203,573 for 152 projects – 88 with EU partners.

From SSIS, for example, Jason Reifler’s DEBUNKER project is an ERC Consolidator Grant that looks at public misperceptions in the areas of politics, health and science and examines how to combat these and how to design policies and communications to better effect. Jason is planning to refocus some of this work to examine misperceptions of Covid-19. You can find a summary of the project here: From Humanities, Muireann Maguire’s RUSTRANS project is an ERC Starting Grant that examines the use of translation as a means of self-promotion and cultural consolidation for emergent nation-states, potentially politicised and conditioned by ideological preferences or state influences, and focuses on Russian translations into English. You can find a summary of the project here

Another of our strengths at Exeter is addressing the environment and climate emergency – perhaps the biggest challenge of our generation beyond Covid-19 – and it is especially noteworthy that under Horizon Society Challenge 5, the “Climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials,” Exeter is the top-performing institution in the UK by value of grant and 7th in the EU as a whole by value and volume of grants.

I mention these facts and figures only because they matter to our core mission at Exeter which is, through our people, partnerships, education and research, to innovate by challenging traditional thinking and defying conventional boundaries.

As Assistant Deputy Vice Chancellor (Europe), I want to help support and promote our European connections and research. I have found joy through my own work in Europe, across both research projects and teaching initiatives, as Professor of Hispanic Studies and Film Studies, and I want to use my knowledge, skills and this new role to ensure we continue to strengthen our bonds across Europe. In research, this means leading or participating in key research collaborations, and, in teaching, continuing our success in student exchanges and building on these as further research and digital possibilities open up. Ideally, our partnerships in Europe will be as multi-layered as possible, combining innovative research collaboration with opening up exciting learning possibilities for our students, as well as working with wider communities with the support of our alumni and philanthropic networks.

One way I want to make progress is to engage more with our community and bring to the fore more of our outstanding work in Europe through our communications, which include this new Exeter and Europe Blog. I also want to hear from colleagues and students about how we can strengthen our European education, research and partnerships.

I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead.


Visit our European news section for the latest updates on research and education stories and I have listed a few to get you started:

How zebrafish could help unlock new approaches to treating human stress

In the thick of job hunting and her postdoc, Professor Soojin Ryu’s sleepless nights provided her first personal insight into the impact of stress on the brain and behaviour. The revelation would shape a research career that is transforming understanding of stress.

“One day it struck me – when I’m stressed I don’t sleep. I got to thinking about the impact of that on the body and on a person’s life, and the consequences are huge. If you’re stressed and not sleeping you can start behaving like an unpleasant human being – agitated and short-tempered, and ultimately you can become really sick. As a modern society, we’ve decided to ramp up our stress hormone to the point that it’s life-threatening. I find that fascinating.”

Now, Soojin has joined the University of Exeter as Mireille Gillings Professor of Neurobiology, heading up a group that studies zebrafish to examine how acute and chronic stress change behaviour and its longer term consequences on the body and brain.

In her early career, in Berkley, Soojin worked in cells, but found the research ultimately unsatisfying. “I spent a number of years working on cell culture, but then I’d ask myself – ‘ is that what’s really happening in the body’?”

She wanted to work in small vertebrate, in which changes in response to hormonal fluctuations occur quickly. She chose zebrafish as the best option, pioneering a new animal model to study stress by discovering important aspects of how they respond to stress.

“Of course, zebrafish are really very different from humans, but it’s important to recognise which aspects are similar,” Soojin said. “I realised that the evolutionarily ancient brain stress response is similar in both humans and zebrafish.”

At the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Soojin started her own research, creating a genetically-modified zebrafish in which scientists are able to manipulate stress hormone levels at will. Published in Nature Communications, the work helped address some of the difficulties researchers had encountered in studying stress. In her last post at the University of Mainz, Soojin was part of a network applying basic stress research to human resilience.

“Some level of stress hormone is beneficial, but once it hits a certain level, it becomes detrimental to the body and brain,” explained Soojin. “Stress can be life-saving. Our stress hormone levels rise shortly before we awake and it helps ensure our systems are ready to respond. The stress hormone is fundamental to animal survival. We need the right level of stress for the appropriate situation and our bodies need to be able to regulate that to be healthy. We know that depressed people have different patterns of stress hormone where that regulation can falter.

“For the first time, our zebrafish model allows us to precisely control both the stress hormone level and the duration which is necessary to understand different effects of stress. That’s why it’s so exciting for the future of stress research.”

One important aspect of securing the Gillings Fellowship was a commitment to promoting women in science, an issue close to the heart of philanthropist Mireille Gillings. Soojin has mentored a number of female scientists and has organised workshops and meetings for women in neuroscience, to discuss the issues they identified as important. Her interest also stems from a personal passion driven by her need to balance work with parenting her eight-year-old daughter Leia. “As a mother, I am deeply committed to helping women combine scientific career with family,” she said.

“I’m delighted to join Exeter. Having seen how successful our model is, I’m passionate about collaborating with people who are working on human health to form a translational network to ensure it benefits people as swiftly as possible. Exeter has a strong focus on mental health and has amazing growth potential. I’m looking forward to working with my new colleagues to explore new treatment targets.”

Mireille Gillings Fellow will innovate to improve lives of frail older people

Over her career, Professor Sallie Lamb has developed a huge respect for the older people she works with on her ground-breaking rehabilitation programmes.

Professor Lamb, Mireille Gillings Professor of Health Innovation, has recently joined Exeter, having worked with a wide range of patients over the years, and has a specialism in frailty.

“I really admire how tenacious so many older people are,” said Sallie, who joins Exeter from Oxford University. “They’re the most vulnerable, yet they’re the ones who try the hardest and complain the least. I think it’s because they already know what losing their mobility feels like. They want to do everything they can to prevent that further and to get better, and they’re willing to fight for it.”

Sallie’s Fellowship at Exeter will help her develop more tools for older people to combat frailty. She has already had huge success in other areas, developing a programme for the common and often debilitating issue of lower back pain that was acknowledged as one of the most successful innovations in the NHS. The programme uses a cognitive behavioural approach to promote appropriate physical activity, which can effectively reduce symptoms over the long term.

“If you’re in a lot of pain, you feel like you can’t move and that you should lie still in bed – but that creates a vicious cycle of making the symptoms worse. With back pain, you really need to move to relive the symptoms. Our programme teaches people how to pace themselves and what type of activities to select, plus what to do if you get a setback.”

As a marker of the success of the programme, thousands of health professionals have so far undertaken a free online learning course, known as a MOOC, to upskill in the programme.

At Exeter, Sallie’s research will focus on frailty, an area where the College of Medicine and Health has existing expertise including Professors Louise Allen and Vicki Goodwin. “It’s a really exciting opportunity,” said Sallie. “There’s a huge opportunity to drive forward innovation and improve the health and wellbeing of older people – and particularly to improve mobility, which is key to a healthy and active life.

“The funding from the Gillings Foundation is really going to accelerate the development of a strong research programme to complement the existing research going on at Exeter. It’s a huge boost and will really accelerate getting this research to a point where it benefits people in need.”

Sallie is known for her rigorous approach to research, previously leading the Oxford Clinical Trials Research Unit, and will contribute to expanding capacity and expertise in clinical trials and medical statistics in the South West. .

A key aspect of the Fellowship appointments is a commitment to promoting women, a passion shared by entrepreneur Mireille Gillings. Sallie said she found herself in a role model position by leading by example, and as mother to 7-year-old Emelia, she is passionate about promoting work-life balance while enabling career progression.

“I’m also really committed to promoting a culture of teamwork between academic and professional services staff,” said Sallie. “People in professional services roles are absolutely critical and it’s important that’s recognised and valued.

“I’m really excited to join so many excellent scholars at Exeter, at such a dynamic time of growth and development.”

New Fellowship will tackle overlap between cancer and diabetes

Around 415 million people worldwide have diabetes, while 100 million people have cancer. They are unequivocally two of today’s greatest global health challenges. In bringing her world-leading knowledge of cancer to Exeter’s renowned diabetes research team, Professor Chrissie Thirlwell aims to benefit people with both conditions.

The newly-appointed Mireille Gillings Professor of Cancer Genomics will investigate the increased risk of some cancers in type 2 diabetes and obesity.

“If you have type 2 diabetes, you have a 20 – 30 per cent increased risk of developing certain cancers including bowel, liver and pancreatic cancer. The potential mechanisms underlying this increased risk are complex and incorporate lifestyle, dietary and other known risk factors such as obesity. The first step will be to determine any specific mechanisms associated with type 2 diabetes or obesity individually.

“The Mireille Gillings Fellowship has given me the infrastructure and opportunity to bring together my experience of cancer genomics and the wealth of world class research in diabetes and obesity at Exeter. It will accelerate our understanding of the increased cancer risk through utilising genomic data that has already been generated while producing new epigenetic data which will inform us about the impact of lifestyle on cancer risk.”

Chrissie’s expertise neatly crosses over with several research strengths at Exeter’s College of Medicine and Health and the wider university. She has natural synergy with Professors Sian Ellard and Andrew Hattersley in genomics, including a shared involvement with Sian in the 100,000 Genomes Project. Chrissie will join the Genomic Medical Centre team bringing her cancer genomics experience at a pivotal time when the 100,000 genomes project is being completed and DNA sequencing is becoming a routine part of patient care through the delivery of the next 5 million genomes.

The research funded by the Mireille Gillings Fellowship dovetails with several other groups in the RILD allowing new and exciting collaborations including with Professor Tim Frayling in large-scale genome-wide association studies looking for patterns in genes, and Professors Jon Mill and Katie Lunnon in epigenetics, or the study of how genes are activated, and Prof Lorna Harries in how genes are transcribed. Like Professor Noel Morgan, she is also already looking at clusters of cells known as islets in the pancreas, and how they contribute to the development of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours.

Chrissie plans to apply these burgeoning collaborations to her new research and her body of work studying neuroendocrine tumours – rare tumours that can grow in different body organs. The international collaborations she has established to aid understanding and improve treatment have made her a global authority.

A large aspect of the Gillings Fellowship, supported by entrepreneur Mireille Gillings, is a commitment to promoting women in leadership roles. Through her involvement in UCL Cancer Institute’s Athena SWAN team, where they secured a coveted silver award to recognise commitment to equality, Chrissie realised the extent of a problem that had been invisible to her. “I was at a stage in my career when I wasn’t even aware that so few senior roles were held by women. I naively thought a lot of it was down to personal choice around work-life balance and families. Through working with industry during the UCL Cancer Institute Athena SWAN process, I learned that there were many incredibly capable women who really wanted those opportunities – they just weren’t getting them. I was struck how the statistics are alarmingly similar across the public and private sectors in that only 20% of senior leadership roles are held by women.

“It has to be about the right person with the right skills to do the job, there’s so much evidence that having diversity across all areas in leadership roles and on executive boards, leads to a far more productive workforce.”

Now, the medical oncologist plans to continue her clinical work alongside her research, joining the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. She has bold ambitions for the region. “I’m really keen to link with other trusts and create a European Centre of Excellence for the management of neuroendocrine tumours in the South West. We have the expertise across the region and it would mean a huge benefit to patients.

“It always blows people away when I mention the statistic that one in two people born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. Yet I’ve seen through my working life that prognosis and treatments are continuously improving. We’re moving towards a time where cancer becomes a chronic disease that people live with, rather than die from. There have been recent improvements in early diagnosis, and Exeter’s research has contributed to that through Professor Willie Hamilton’s team, however there’s still more work to be done .
“We’ve also seen major advances in treatment, particularly through immunotherapy, which harnesses the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. Being part of those advances make my job extremely rewarding. When a patient is referred to an oncologist, you generally look after them for life. You get to know them and their families really well, and these days, there’s so much more we can do to improve their prognosis and enable them to live as normal life as possible during and after treatment.”

Chrissie arrives at Exeter at an exciting time. The diabetes research team recently secured a major £6 million award as part of the Government’s modern industrial strategy. The award recognises excellence with capacity to grow, and aims to enable the research to reach the next level, through academic recruitment and investment in infrastructure and facilities.
A keen open water swimmer who swam the English Channel while completing her PhD, Chrissie is looking forward to exploring all that the South West can offer. “The lifestyle is the icing on the cake for me in moving to Exeter,” she said. “It’s such an amazing time to come here. I‘m passionate about education and the expanding Medical Sciences and Medicine programmes present some really exciting opportunities, alongside the many research opportunities. I’ve had an incredible welcome so far and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in and making a difference.”

University of Exeter, University of Sanctuary Award Presentation, 20 November 2019

Welcome everyone, I’m Janice Kay, of the University of Exeter. It’s wonderful to see so many of you for this award ceremony. It is a moment of celebration, and one that has a very deep and important meaning. On behalf of the senior management team and our whole university community, we are absolutely delighted to have achieved University of Sanctuary status. This award is a clear marker of our commitment, our progress and our success in creating a welcoming and supportive environment for refugees and asylum seekers.

I quote directly from the Universities of Sanctuary organisation: Universities, as key institutions within our society, have a responsibility to support people from all walks of life to reach their potential. The notion of sanctuary fits with the values and strategic plans of most universities; it contributes towards progress in inclusivity, diversity, and sustainability. It means taking a practical, public step towards inclusion, and countering discourses of xenophobia and racism both within and outside university life.

The idea of Universities of Sanctuary has grown from the Cities of Sanctuary scheme. Exeter has had an active and engaged City of Sanctuary group since 2014 with a thriving network of supporters. I am extremely proud that our students and staff instrumental in setting up the City of Sanctuary group. Not only that, they have gone on take action here at the university to enable us to become a University of Sanctuary, a university that welcomes refugees into our community and actively supports them.

This award recognises the efforts of many members of our community. I would particularly like to  recognise the work of last year’s Guild and specifically the former Students’ Guild President Grace Frain and previous Vice-President for Welfare and Diversity Rose Ahier. They championed and drove forward our activities to become a University of Sanctuary. It is wonderful to see Grace here today. Working alongside them has been our Sanctuary Scholars, our academic lead Dr Nick Gill and our Head of Student Immigration Services Jim Price, as well as many others.  Our ongoing thanks go to all of our local partners who work with the university to provide advice, guidance and support to our scholars. I would especially like to thank Refugee Support Devon and our local City of Sanctuary group.

This is a moment for celebration but I want to reflect for a moment on how important it is that we provide a safe and welcoming university community for refugees and asylum seekers. Refugees come to our country to seek safety from fear and persecution, be it for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Latest government figures indicate that there have been over 32,000 applications for asylum in the last 12 months. These numbers include people for whom a higher education in their country of birth may have been an unattainable goal. For some, exploring and fulfilling their potential through academic exploration would never have been an option. Universities in our country can help. Higher education has a longstanding tradition of providing sanctuary to academics and students. We are proud to be able to continue this tradition. The University of Sanctuary status shows we are doing this, and our commitment to going further. Equal Access to Higher Education is of course a universal right under Article 26 of the Declaration of Human Rights.

We have very many initiatives at Exeter to support refugees either directly through education and training or indirectly through our research which contributes to the evidence base and body of knowledge about forced migration and frail and failed states. Our academics and students have set up language exchange programmes, they conduct outreach activities using drama as a medium of engagement and have set up new information resources. Dr Nick Gill will share more about these later.

One of our most fundamental initiatives is the Sanctuary Scholarship programme which started in 2017. The scholarships enable the cost of tuition to be waived and provide support for living costs. We have now supported nine studentships and we are fortunate to have one of our Sanctuary Scholars with us today.

One of our Sanctuary Scholars has taken part in a video project called Lost in the Noise, which has been pioneered by Harry Bishop, a former student and Vice President for Community and Welfare at our Cornwall campus and who is now a member of staff in Cornwall. This project has sought to profile individuals and students whose voices may otherwise indeed have become ‘lost in the noise’. It is vital that we hear these stories and that we start to understand the experiences of others. This is a powerful route to becoming a more diverse, compassionate, progressive and culturally competent community. Thank you to the scholar for sharing their experiences so candidly in this film and to Harry for your project which has enabled this to happen. This film extremely impactful and brings to life the importance of universities as a place of sanctuary.

So once again, thank you for joining us to mark our award as a University of Sanctuary. It is an important milestone for us as an institution and one from which we will continue to build.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

The year is 2050, the stench of plague fills the air and 10 million people are dying from cuts and grazes due to an enemy that cannot be seen. You would be forgiven for believing that we had entered a dystopian, parallel future, but alas not. This is the current future of mankind if we do not address the ever-growing threat: antibiotic resistance.

Whether we want to face it or not, our antibiotics are failing. Drugs that we have relied upon to so effectively treat bacterial infections are no longer working due to these crafty bugs becoming resistant to them. Over time, bacteria have evolved to survive antibiotics, with this “survival of the fittest” process resulting in populations of menacing “superbugs”. No matter how many different antibiotics we throw at these resistant microbes, some can no longer be killed and so what were once minor infections become fatal.

So how can we fight back!?

One avenue is to discover and develop new antibiotics. However, this has proven to be extremely costly and difficult, so alternative options are being explored. Mankind’s possible saviour: bacteriophages.

Bacteriophages, or simply phages, are viruses that infect and kill bacteria. Just as humans get viruses like flu, bacteria suffer from their own invaders which hijack the bacterial cell and turn it into a virus making factory, before killing them. With their large bulbous head and spindly legs (think War of the Worlds alien invader fighting ships), they are perfectly adapted for attaching to bacteria. Phages are the optimal killing machines. Currently, phages are not widely used to treat infections in the Western world as not enough is known about them. If we want to be able to harness the power of these microscopic bacteria killers, then we need to know more about how they work.

Most research studying bacteria and phages use methods that involve growing billions of cells in a test tube, and looking at how fast the population grows and dies on average. But this is not always the most informative. Imagine you want to know how fast humans run 100m. Someone tells you the average time is 15 seconds. Although all humans, not everyone would take 15 seconds. Clearly if Usain Bolt ran the race he would be much quicker, and the man who decided to hop all the way much slower! This also applies to bacteria. Even though they should all be identical, individual bacteria can behave very differently.

My work lets us identify the Usain Bolts and the Hop-Alongs of the bacteria world, as well as many others in between. I want to know which responses occur when we expose bacteria to phages and how this may affect the killing ability of these viruses.

Erin Attrill, Living Systems Institute

I use technology called ‘microfluidics’ that allows me to isolate and experiment on individual bacteria. With ‘micro’ meaning small, and ‘fluidics’ relating to the movement of liquids, I perform experiments on bacteria with equipment no larger than a postage stamp. Using networks of thousands of tiny channels, I can trap single bacteria in their own tiny chamber under a microscope and watch what happens when I add phages. Over the course of a day, I can continually monitor and photograph the same cells and record whether they are growing, dividing and even the exact point at which they lyse – that is, when they burst open releasing hundreds more phages.

I have observed that although all identical, some bacteria die instantly, but others grow much faster and divide multiple times before finally lysing hours later. Perhaps most importantly, some bacteria in the experiments are not killed by the phages at all. These bacteria survive the exposure and fill their chambers with more bacteria offspring. What makes these cells special and able to survive is unclear, and one aim of my work is to use microfluidics to try and understand why.

It is important to understand these differences to be able to optimise how many phages would be needed to eradicate the bacteria in a human as a potential treatment. If most bacteria are killed with two hours of phage treatment, a person may begin to look healthy, but if the “Usain Bolt” variants survive, then they could cause the infection to return. A longer dose or a higher concentration of phages may be required to eradicate the entire population so we need to fully understand how the different cells behave.

There is no need to be afraid of the word ‘virus’ – the good news is that phages cannot infect human cells. These minuscule invaders are the enemy of bacteria and so we should harness their power to defeat our bacterial foes. As stated, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So let’s welcome in the age of the phage.

Erin Attrill, Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter

This article was the runner up in Max Perutz Science Writing Competition 2019.
Read all the shortlisted articles here

Digital Transformation: how corporate culture responds to the internet

Prepaid business card provider, Soldo, spoke with Prof. Mark Thompson as part of a series, speaking to today’s most influential digital disruptors. Prof. Mark Thompson is Professor in Digital Economy at Exeter Business School, and Strategy Director at the Methods Group.  He is a leading contributor to Digital Leaders, the Digital transformation business intelligence network with over 110,000 subscribers in the UK. Mark was co-author of the 2014 book “Digitizing Government” and the “2018 Manifesto for Better Public Services”. He also serves on the board of TechUK. Previous roles include National Audit Office Digital Advisory Panel, Cabinet Office Data Steering Group and acting as senior adviser to the Cabinet Office on ICT Futures.

Professor Mark Thompson

Professor Mark Thompson, Professor in Digital Economy at The University of Exeter Business School

We hear a lot about digital transformation – what does it mean to you?

Everybody bangs on about digital transformation, but it’s often hugely misleading because these discussions are usually technology led. To me, Digital Leaders’ version of digital transformation comes down to one thing: the arrival of mature services that have been developed around the shared infrastructure of the internet.

This infrastructure element cannot be overstated. Imagine, for example, that we had electricity and understood how to make washing machines and TVs, but we had no National Grid. On every street, it would be completely rational to build our own washing machines and TVs, because there’s no market – people would be using different voltages, current and plugs. Indeed, the birth of electricity was very much like this.  It’s nobody’s fault – the absence of a common infrastructure means everyone’s on their own.

Add the National Grid, and suddenly it’s irrational to build your own appliances – someone else can profitably make devices because they’ll work for millions of people. So the game-changer is the shared infrastructure.

Four decades after the internet’s invention, we finally have online technologies that can meaningfully interact with each other and be joined up and used at scale. Digital transformation is nothing to do with websites or front ends (although they’re important of course); it’s about the shared plumbing.

But that is technology led, yet you said at the outset that a purely tech discussion is misleading…

Very true. What is transformational is what these new technologies mean for businesses and the way they operate – which is both exciting and hugely challenging.

To see why, instead of focusing on innovation, let’s look at what it means to be an incumbent, a legacy business.

A legacy business is any organisation – and the challenges are absolutely organisational –  which grew up in the last century with processes, infrastructure, services, an operating model and, most importantly, a value proposition, defined before the prevalence of the internet. They lived successfully through the online services revolution which created new opportunities to get closer to their customers, without challenging their fundamental value propositions.

Today, however, incumbents face Big Tech like Amazon on the one hand, and startups like regtech, fintech, proptech etc. on the other. Any legacy business in 2019 is surrounded on all sides by challengers to their traditional value proposition.

For example, I was speaking with a pharmaceuticals executive recently who advocated “sticking to the knitting”: he said “We make drugs, and the minute we take our eye of that, we’re dead in the water”. But we now live in a health data economy which focuses on keeping people well rather than curing them when they are ill. Businesses like Amazon are outspending pharma in the healthcare sector exponentially.

So digital transformation is actually the belated response of legacy organisations, in particular, to the arrival of the shared plumbing of the internet. It’s a dawning realisation in modern boardrooms that capitalising on new technology demands a wholesale review of business models and core value propositions based on what you can achieve with digital technology and services; and that the new wave of emerging technologies – AI, virtual reality etc. – will only accelerate the need to throw off the shackles of old practices.

How can boards do that?

Well, above all, don’t do everything yourself. In the old days, billions were spent on in-house development of services, especially back-office functions. That is simply no longer of any value, indeed it’s hugely costly.

Every business is different, but as a matter of general advice:

  • Reconfigure everything you do around the customer – learn from their activity and take datapoints from every interaction to feed back into responsive service design. A good acronym for this is “SMAC”: Social Media, Mobile, Analytics and the C
  • Use digital platforms for the heavy lifting of service delivery. There’s plenty of competition between all the major players – Salesforce, AWS, Microsoft etc. to handle the infrastructure of corporate service delivery.
  • And finally, but most importantly, it will require a dramatic transformation of culture.

Why is culture such a problem?

Because we all find comfort in the status quo, and modern digital businesses demand that we focus exclusively on outcomes and rip apart the comfortable architectures that prevent us achieving those outcomes. Plenty of core and back-office functions will be either removed completely or consumed as-a-service in the pursuit of leanness, efficiency and agility.

Take Transferwise, an upstart in the money transfer business but now a world-leading ‘unicorn’. It’s user-friendly and beautifully designed, it’s disruptively cheap, and yet underneath the hood, they didn’t build it. Much of the key functionality is a white-label version of a different company’s business, Currency Cloud. They have built a $1BN business without reinventing the wheel and minimising their infrastructure investment.

This applies to legacy businesses too, but they are weighed down by a century of baggage – that they themselves have built. Five years ago, boardrooms fought that realisation; they embraced a certain digital mindset of sorts – open standards, agile development, the Eric Ries doctrine of failing fast etc.; but I think there is now a readiness in some quarters to think the unthinkable in big corporates about the radical changes required to core value propositions and organisational structure.

Now, I say “in some quarters” because there’s also plenty standing in the way of larger legacy businesses. I like to look at the incentives which drive behaviours, and unfortunately many holders of the CXO roles ultimately empowered to upend their organisations to undergo this extremely painful transition are only a couple of years away from the golf course. They are often grotesquely disincentivised at an organisational level from driving change, so there’s a lot of kicking the can down the road.

Furthermore, there’s a marked lack of education for non-technical senior people about these issues. We’re awash with training in technology, and it’s full of buzzwords.  But there’s no safe space for senior executives to join up the buzzwords and assemble them meaningfully in order to consider the effect of digital on their industries, behaviours, cultures, value propositions and service architectures. They can pay exorbitant fees for the major consultancies to develop a strategy, but the consultancies themselves are often incentivised to produce outsource arrangements that don’t necessarily represent the best interests of the company – whose leaders can often shrug off responsibility for understanding it all themselves to ‘the experts’, rather than getting properly to grips with it and owning the change themselves.

What can executives do, then? Because they’re being pushed tactical product by tech firms, endorsed by the analysts, the Gartners and IDCs – and nobody is talking corporate strategy?

Exactly. But we can group the current crop of technologies into some useful groups which senior executives can think about.

  • We’ve already mentioned SMAC, a focus on the front-end, data-driven approach to continuous customer-centric service redesign. It seems to me that at the highest level, you can look at that cluster of social, mobile analytics and Cloud and ask fundamental, often very challenging questions about how a business can reconfigure itself around its customers.
  • Then there are technologies around the back office, for example we talk about Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which is for attacking process-heavy administration. Increasingly, the genie’s out of the bottle because cloud-based services and infrastructure are commoditised and cheap, and creating tools to shorten back-office functions or eliminate repetitive ones is becoming as simple as bolting Lego bricks together: if companies don’t keep up, their own people will start doing it for them – bypassing governance and risk management structures.
  • There’s a third, less sexy consideration. Many large enterprises have grown by acquisition. They find themselves with multiple CRMs or ERPs, a vast hinterland of slow and old-moving technologies. It’s less glamorous, but there’s a huge piece of work in identifying common capabilities and service patterns across large organisations and then executing on the heavy consolidation that needs to happen in order to remain competitive. Without re-architecting into the cloud, you won’t get the interoperability and scalability that makes all this worth while.

That feels like three good clusters of activity, but again they’re all pretty useless unless, as a board, you’ve got some handle on your value proposition; which is going to change because you’re not going to do everything yourself.

One last example to help explain: the Hollywood Studio of the 1930s. It’s a fantastic example of a fully vertically-integrated organisation: the movie mogul owned everybody from the scriptwriters to musicians to set designers, actors and even movie theatres. Move to today’s HBO-type model and you have a sea of niche providers, all sustained by digital infrastructure. Creatives, production teams, aggregators, portals and marketers all operate separately and optimally, focused on a core value proposition and depending on a network of other operators to monetise their own particular service.

It required upheaval to move from the 1930s to today, but the magnitude and velocity of change – and associated transformational challenges – facing today’s incumbents is unprecedented.


This article first appeared on Soldo, a solution providing multi-user business expense cards that empowers employees by automating their expenses. You can read more interviews from Soldo’s digital disruptor series here.

Gender equality : « See it to be it » – Professor Janice Kay, Provost

How many women head up the UK’s leading companies? Our research has found that of 350 CEOs, it was just 12, equal to the number of male CEOs called David. And Andrew. And John.

Our expert Professor Ruth Sealy analysed the names of the FTSE 350 CEOs. Of this powerful group, 18 were called David, 13 were named Andrew and 12 called John. Just 12 were women, representing only 3.4 per cent of the group. Are you surprised?

Professor Janice Kay

Professor Janice Kay, Provost

Today (March 8) is International Women’s Day  –a valuable opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women, and to call for gender balance in society. Some people think this job is done, but while we have made strides in equality, this example shows there’s still a long way to go.

Last year’s gender pay gap report exposed the grim realities of a national picture in which men are consistently paid more than women, and hold more of the most senior roles. In fact, more than three quarters of 10,000 companies paid men more than women. Just one in three have women among their highest paid earners. Males are paid higher bonuses than females, and earn more than women overall – in every single sector.

Universities are no exception. Undergraduate students are roughly 50/50 male and female, so this should be reflected all the way up the scale. Yet only 15 per cent of senior leaders are women. At the University of Exeter, we acknowledge this problem and we’re on the right track. .We’re really proud of our national Advance HE Athena SWAN silver award – awarded to only 17 universities in the UK to recognise this commitment.

To be clear, men and women who do the same work at Exeter are paid the same salary. The issue around our gender pay gap is career progression. We’re establishing a range of schemes to ensure women aren’t disadvantaged by taking maternity breaks or caring responsibilities – that they’re supported and their expertise is recognised when they return to work, or through flexible working schemes. As women, we all have a role to play in this, whatever our age and stage.  This might be through tangible support such as mentoring. We have to make sure that women have the right opportunities at the right time to progress, and that strong female talent is visibly nurtured. As Billie Jean King said, you’ve got to see it to be it.

At the University, we’ve taken a good look at how our academic career progression works.  The proportion of female Professors has increased from 17 per cent in 2012 to 27 per cent today. The percentage of women on the University’s Executive Group has risen to 29 per cent. It’s not enough, but we’re working on it. The importance of having a balanced senior leadership team is vital in decision-making and signalling our values.

I’m proud of our work to support women’s careers. Female staff were the main beneficiaries of our decision to introduce the Living Wage in 2014. Our policy on maternity and paternity leave and family-friendly benefits is best in sector. We allow new parents to take six months of leave at full pay, followed by a further 13 weeks of leave at statutory pay. The policies are available for employees as soon as they start and parents can choose to share their leave entitlement. Our new menopause policy resulted from consulting female staff members.

We want to do what we can to develop real cultural change that is embedded in the values of our organisation, that avoids tokenism, and in which people of all genders are committed to gender equality. Our policies are supported by outstanding research. Internationally respected work on the phenomenon of the ‘glass cliff’ for female leaders has taken place in Exeter by Professor Michelle Ryan and her colleagues.

Just last month, leading Medical research journal The Lancet published a special edition dedicated to advancing gender equity in science, medicine and global health. Their editorial highlights the fact that systems must change – not just to support women, but to avoid disproportionately privileging men. Executive editor Dr Jocalyn Clark summarised: “Gender equity is not only a matter of justice and rights, it is crucial for producing the best research and providing the best care to patients. If the fields of science, medicine, and global health are to hope to work towards improving human lives, they must be representative of the societies they serve.”

In the Westcountry, we’re working to inspire, inform and prepare young people to take the best decisions about their future. More than two thirds of the 900 year 9-13s from disadvantaged and under-represented groups who took part in our University of Exeter Scholars programme last year were female.

This article first appeared in the Western Morning News.

Wetsuits from wetsuits | update

A Knowledge Transfer Programme between Finisterre and the University of Exeter’s Centre for Alternative Materials and Remanufacturing are investigating remanufacturing and circular economy initiatives which address the problem of discarded wetsuits.

Full-time Wetsuit Recycler Jenny Banks gives us an update about what the programme has been up to.

This blog first appeared on Finisterre’s THE BROADCAST.

We’re now three months into the Wetsuits From Wetsuits Programme and have learnt an incredible amount about the potential recyclability of our own Nieuwland winter wetsuit. Our committed wetsuit tester community have been a huge help in providing us with some of our Original Tester suits back from 2014, allowing us to compare the performance of old suits that have had real-lives, with that of a new suit.


It actually wasn’t as easy as we thought it might be to get our original tester wetsuits back as nearly all of them are still going strong – which is of course fantastic news! Most wetsuits last around two years before they’re replaced so we’re really happy that our Nieuwland suit is still delivering!


Splitting my time between Exeter and Finisterre HQ provides me with the perfect balance of influences. Over the last two months in Exeter, I haven’t left the lab. From microscopic surface imaging to tensile (elasticity) and thermal testing, we’re building a vital understanding of how and where the Nieuwland wetsuit changes during its life.

When I’m at Finisterre, all that testing is put into context. Being at the Wheal Kitty workshops – by the sea and amongst the team – reminds me of the real needs of cold-water surfers and ensures that I’m not tackling this challenge inside a bubble. Everyone here is really engaged with the programme and the energy within the team keeps me going if I ever feel over-whelmed by the challenge that lies in front of us.


De-constructing the Nieuwland was our first step towards understanding what difficulties we may face when making the world’s first fully recyclable wetsuit.


That complexity potentially poses a challenge for us in terms of wetsuit recycling but it’s not a question of just simplifying the suit – why would we change a wetsuit that we know performs so well?

Thus far, we’ve had some surprising results in the lab. Under the microscope, we can see the difference between our original tester suits and our new suit very clearly. Three years of frigid waters and regular surfing causes the neoprene’s cells to start to buckle (see first image). This change in our neoprene’s cell structure, however, is having next to no effect on the flexibility of our suit, which we really didn’t expect. We will be continuing our testing to verify this but this finding is promising and means we may be able to recycle our neoprene rubber without needing expensive and energy-consuming re-processing techniques.

Now we’re working on finding out whether that same cell structure change is affecting the Nieuwland’s thermal properties.


We want to deliver the world’s first recyclable wetsuit for testing in Autumn this year. Progress is good and we’re now moving into the design phase of the programme. Right now, no idea is a bad idea. We’re being very open-minded and exploring ideas that are far-out as well as those that involve simple, minor tweaks to our current Nieuwland suit.  Watch this space! #wetsuitsfromwetsuits