Monthly Archives: September 2013

Bridging the Gaps Showcase

Bridging the Gaps (BTG) has received £600,000 funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to facilitate interdisciplinary research both between the sciences and between the sciences, social sciences and humanities. A Showcase of what BTG has achieved over the last three years was held on 25 September 2013.

Throughout its duration, BTG provided pump-priming funding for 68 development fund awards for interdisciplinary research projects, workshops and networks, and staged 80 events. Postdoctoral Researcher Dr George Littlejohn attended the event and has given us his thoughts…

One of the BTG’s remits was to create virtual environments in which researchers could collaborate -project leader Prof David Butler acknowledged in his opening comments that these projects, using environments like Elgg and Second Life had not been as popular as real-world events.

The final evaluation of BTG is now over. The success of 12 case study projects was discussed by Prof Mark Goodwin. They yielded 12 publications, 11 grant applications, three of which so far have been successful and 10 ongoing collaborations.

There were six presentations from BTG award holders. Prof Steve Brooks spoke about the Exeter Initiative for Statistics and its Applications (ExIStA) Network, an initiative which has brought together 350 individuals from universities, NHS, Met Office and business. ExIStA aims are to share skills and expertise, foster collaborations and promote the use of statistical models and good practice.

Dr Sarah Goldingay and Prof Paul Dieppe talked about the joint drama and University of Exeter Medical School project looking at the healing response and responses to pain. The project has led to a paper, grant proposals and interest from the BBC in their work. Their work also led to a movie entitled “Lourdes 2011 ”.

Bringing to Exeter to prominence in the study of fungal diseases of trees was highlighted by Dr David Studholme. He discussed a workshop on Phytophthora ramorum, which is devastating larch trees in the UK and cited the workshop as useful in preparing the ground for a successful £4million grant to work on ash dieback.

Prof Richard Everson holds the record for BTG awards, having been involved in 10 interdisciplinary projects. He gave some general lessons, observing that projects work best where the partners have equal shares and equal stakes in the success of the project rather than where one partner is providing a service to the others. He commented on the success of the networks established through BTG citing ExIStA and the Exeter Imaging Network.

Dr Karen Knapp spoke about the development of dance DVDs aimed at perimenopausal and postmenopausal women at risk of osteoporosis. A feasibility study has led to commercial interest and the possibility of extending the study.

Creativity is an important aspect of all academic endeavour and the Creative Systems Group described by Dr Robin Durie was arguably the most wide ranging of the projects presented at the showcase. It was set up to examine the phenomenon of creativity and included individuals working in maths, politics, law, synthetic biology, health and education.

I have been fortunate enough to have collaborated on several BTG projects and echo the sentiments expressed by several speakers and poster presenters that the support given by Project Manager Dr Helen Butler and Project Assistant Lois Spence was absolutely exemplary.

Bridging the Gaps has officially ended, but Profs Goodwin and Butler announced at the meeting that there would be two further BTG calls in the next year, and further internal support would be available.

The greater legacy of BTG was best summed up by Prof Richard Everson when he said that the indirect outputs of BTG, as much as the papers and grant applications were important and made the collegiate atmosphere he experienced walking around campus make it feel like a proper University.

Enhancing ecosystem services through farming and landscape restoration

University Exeter academics Prof Richard Brazier, Prof Michael Winter OBE and Dr Robert Fish recently held a large workshop on: Enhancing Ecosystem Services through Catchment Sensitive Farming and Landscape Restoration. Prof Brazier told us more…

The workshop was funded by the NERC Impact Accelerator initiative, which seeks to promote natural science research within the University with a wide range of stakeholders and partners.

The event was attended by more than 70 invitees, including a number of academics, but primarily partners from the EA, Natural England, the Water Industry, the Wildlife and Rivers Trust, the NFU and charitable organisations including the National Trust and the Game Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The workshop was split into four sessions, the first of which explored the issues and questions that arise from organisations who seek to enhance ecosystem services, but need research to support such aims.

Overcoming the interruption for a fire drill, Lewis Jones (South West Water) opened the session with a passable impression of Al Murray (the pub landlord) outlining a highly informative set of challenges that the Water Industry faces and a clear set of research needs including: robust methods to monitor success of landscape restoration and quality case studies to provide proof-of-concept data.

Sam Bridgewater (Clinton Devon Estates) spoke next on the Otter valley which faces interesting problems of river floodplain management, due to historic engineering of the floodplain. Sam suggested that stronger partnership working is critical if we are to deliver successful landscape restoration.

The farmers perspective was delivered next by Diane Mitchell (NFU) who championed the need for sustainable intensification, in order to meet the food security agenda, but in such a way that other ecosystem services (ES) could also be valued.

Jeremy Bailey then followed with the perspective of the Environment Agency (EA), to provide a very clear account of how the EA evaluates the ecological status of surface waters and four main challenges that they face in doing so:

  1. Which measures should we choose to mitigate diffuse surface water pollution?
  2. How can we quantify wider ES?
  3. Can we undertake multiple environmental ES monitoring (as is practiced in the Culm grasslands with Prof Brazier’s work with Devon Wildlife Trust/SWW) and
  4. Where do we prioritise?

Finally, Bob Middleton (Catchment Sensitive Farming, Natural England) gave the national scale picture and posed the key question of how do we engage farmers in the long term?

The session was followed by a lively round of questions and answers and much needed coffee before Richard Brazier led a session on what we can learn from NERC-funded research.

The session opened with a double-act (Richard Brazier and Miriam Glendell, Geography, University of Exeter) who outlined their research in two different landscapes – the uplands of Dartmoor and Exmoor and the contrasting catchments within the Holnicote Estate run by the National Trust.

The research presented was ‘landscape restoration science’ an effort to establish holistic understanding of the multiple environmental benefits that restoring landscapes can provide. Key messages were:

  1. Without evaluation of multiple benefits, we are likely to make mistakes in land management, as we have done in the past,
  2. Long-term (pre- and post-restoration) monitoring of the effects of landscape restoration is required and
  3. Detailed, spatio-temporal monitoring can provide a strong basis for decision-making at catchment scales.

Dr Ilya Maclean (Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter) then outlined his work on the Lizard Peninsula, describing both biodiversity of the system, but also posing questions about how resilient the ecosystem was to changing climates, especially changing water availability.

The session was wrapped up by Rob Fish (Politics, University of Exeter) who argued that Social Science has an important role to play in understanding the intangible ES that might be impacted by changing land management.

The third session, led by Rob Fish asked how we can use research and knowledge transfer to lead to chaneg and impact.

The first speaker (Charles Cowap, Harper Adams) described an elegant model of the effect of Moorland restoration on water supply and carbon capture, suggesting that cross-industry payments (from the water industry to the land owner) might support restoration of the landscape at large scales.

Charles was followed by Dan McGonigle (Defra, Sustainable Land and Soils Research) who established the national scale challenges that Defra faces and suggested that we need an integrated, systems-based approach to understand move towards ‘sustainable intensification’ of farmland in England and Wales.

Finally, Laurence Couldrick (West Country Rivers Trust) gave an impassioned account of how we can operationalise payments for Ecosystem Services, using the example of the Tamar catchmnet to demonstrate how multiple layers describing each ES can be brought together to understand where sustainable intensification might be best practiced within the landscape and where maximisation of ES might be a better focus.

The last session of the meeting brought groups of participants together for half an hour to summarise the key questions that must be addressed in future research and the key partnerships that might need to form in order to address these issues.

The most committed members of the workshop were last seen in animated discussion of catchment sensitive farming in the Imperial pub later that evening…

Thanks to all who attended and made this a very informative and interesting day.

Business Leaders Forum: Understanding gender diversity

On Monday local business leaders gathered for the Business Leaders Forum to listen to Professor Michelle Ryan talk about how business leaders and academics can work together to understand gender diversity, Jess Hurrell Business Development Officer from Research and Knowledge Transfer, was amongst them…

Michelle’s work with the Royal College of Surgeons provided the basis of her talk. She is always captivating to listen to and once again she had the audience in the palm of her hands.

The Royal College of Surgeons are concerned that only 7 per cent of women completing their surgeon training.  They approached Michelle to look into why this is the case and see if there might be any way to remedy this.

Michelle’s research group’s study identified that much of the reason for the drop in women completing their surgery training is due to their perceived fit in surgery and the number of women to look up to as role models.

There is also evidence to suggest that women’s ambition declines; however men’s may increase.

Michelle and her team spent many months completing a longitudinal study sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and used the finding to work with the Royal College of Surgeons and put together a seminar series  and vodcast to disseminate the research and makes sure there is a provision of role models both male and female for trainee surgeons.

The usual question and answer was replaced by Michelle setting the audience the task of discussing a series of questions over dinner amongst their tables to feedback to the room during coffee.  These included whether members of the business community believe these issues exist within their own organisations, what we can learn from Michelle’s work and how we might redress the balance.

This led to a lively debate which included the idea of flexible and part time working and women taking time out to have children and then care of their children. Whether women are as ambitious as men. The issue of changes in generational beliefs and working habits and whether the best and most successful companies are addressing this problem already.

Another well made point included that not all women are good role models and that in actual fact women need good male role models as well.

Looking around the room it became apparent that women were prevalent in the audience and that maybe a lot of the men that usually attend Business Leaders Forum had opted out and the topic, choosing instead to send one of the women in the organisation instead!

One thing’s for sure, Michelle provided us all with food for thought amongst a backdrop of a beautiful red sky, a stunning view and chilli and cheesecake. She left our local business community with no doubt about the level of expertise that can be found ‘up there on top of the hill’ as someone so eloquently described us!

The next Business Leaders Forum is December 18. Please contact for more details on the next event and for information about joining Business Leaders Forum.

Bridging the Gaps: DIY Biologging

Dr Lucy Hawkes explains how animal tracking and open source technology collided in a Bridging the Gaps workshop…

In 1822 a white stork was shot by hunters in a small coastal village in the north of Germany.

But this was no ordinary stork – lodged in its neck was an 80cm central African spear, which had been carried from its wintering grounds. This impressive feat of survival marked a turning point in our understanding of animal migration.

In 1822 our understanding of the natural world was still fairly limited, Charles Darwin was not to leave for his seminal voyage on the HMS Beagle for another nine years.

Bird migration remained a particular mystery, although there were plenty of theories as to where birds disappeared in the winter. For example, an essay written in 1703 stated that many birds flew to the moon for the winter, while others reported that some species spent the winter underwater or even turned into other creatures.

However, that one white stork proved for the first time that birds simply travelled to different places during winter, in this case, probably to Sudan, where it had been speared. In fact, we now know that birds hold the record for the fastest, highest and furthest migrations on earth and some species travel around the entire globe during the course of a year.

It was not for another 120 years that serious investigation into animal movements began to happen. Perhaps inspired by carrier pigeons, deployed with breast-mounted cameras during the war to photograph behind enemy lines, a Swedish scientist called Per Scholander attached a home made depth gauge to a harpooned whale to try to find out quite how deep it could dive.

Sometime later, another researcher from California, Gerry Kooyman, made another time-depth recorder and attached it to a friendly Weddell seal in Antarctica.

But it wasn’t until the 80s that the first animal’s movements (rather than diving habits) were followed. Back then, the technology was clunky and primitive. Researchers today can make use of a huge range of innovative technology, crafted and improved through the revolution in mobile phone technology and laptop computers.

A pulse oximetry logger built using Microsoft Gadgeteer technology. This device uses a clip-on finger stall (grey plastic object attached to blue wire) to measure the amount of oxygen circulating in the wearers blood, by shining light through your finger and measuring reflectance. The finger stall sends an analogue signal, which is collected and analysed by the Gadgeteer mainboard (black square, middle top of picture). The Gadgeteer then displays the data on an LCD screen (top left of picture). The device is powered by four AA batteries (top right of picture), so can be taken anywhere. (L Hawkes and M Witt).

Here at the College of Life and Environmental Sciences I interact with such technology daily and have been lucky enough to be the first to describe the migrations and behaviour of several populations of animals.

However, I for one did not understand the electronics behind much of the technology I used, and didn’t know how I could adapt it to fit my specific research questions. Sometimes research questions can be so specific that there are no technological solutions that can be purchased off the shelf to answer them.

I had become detached from the initial invention and creativity that started my field of research – it was time to do something about it.

Around the same time, some bright souls started thinking about the lack of people with computer programming skills entering the job market.

They surmised that computer programming needed more exposure, and decided to invent kits to get children into programming. This led to the invention of the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Beagle Bone and Gadgeteer, to name a few tiny computers that can be programmed to carry out tasks.

This has turned out to be such a good idea, and the need for such technology and skill base so critical, that schools in the UK are adopting a new Computer Technology curriculum from this month (September 2013).

Children as young as five will now begin to learn to programme using cheap open source technology, such as the Raspberry Pi.

We brought these two worlds, animal tracking and open source technology, together in a Bridging the Gaps funded workshop, DIY Biologging.

The workshop brought together staff from the College of Life and Environmental Sciences (the stock Biologists) plus engineers, medical researchers, designers and even a 3D printing and digital fabrication lab based in Falmouth University College of Arts.

A logger to measure and display how hot you are. This device is built from an Arduino (the blue-green electronics board to the left of the picture) and a breadboard (the white plastic rectangle with lots of holes). The device hosts a temperature sensor (the tiny black component at the far side of the breadboard) and three red LEDs. The subject holds onto the temperature sensor and waits to see how many LEDs they can light up. The hotter they are, the more they can light!

We were also lucky to have an electronics specialist from Microsoft’s team that made their version of this technology, The Gadgeteer.

For the workshop, we started small – making devices to GPS track large objects, or to monitor heart rate and blood oxygenation. We progressed to making a device to monitor conditions inside a honey bee nest and made a start on making a bicycle that will log carbon dioxide levels as it travels around.

We were excited, we were frustrated and we thought we had broken at least one computer as we learnt the tips and tricks to communicate effectively with the technologies we had (the computer was fine in the end).

What precipitated from the workshop was a real appetite between the participants to start to integrate these technologies in our day-to-day research, and to use them to communicate more effectively with each other too.

We are hoping to start a Tremough Geek Club to build and programme in our evenings and weekends. We are beginning new partnerships between the participants, colleges and institutions that attended the workshop, and discussions for future work and grants is already underway.

Bridging the Gaps made it possible for us to bring this exciting field to Tremough and we hope to get our first Tremough-made devices out into the field soon.

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