Tag Archives: research

Talking Data South West 2013

On Thursday 20th June Select, together with the Exeter Initiative for Statistics and its Applications (ExIStA), hosted Talking Data South West, the region’s first conference aimed at showcasing all of the different data-related activities being undertaken within the South West. There was a fantastic response with over 100 delegates representing more than 50 organisations from around the region. The day consisted of a dozen presentations including our three keynote speakers, poster presentations as well as plenty of time to network.

Our first keynote speaker, Markus Gesmann from Lloyds of London, described what tools he uses to communicate to his colleagues ideas from his data analysis in order to initiate change and, most importantly, how to make playing with data fun! Alan Smith, Head of the Data Visualisation Unit at the Office for National Statistics explained how his team visualise data from the ONS. Whilst Alan pointed out that statistics.gov.uk may not look like an exciting URL, he went on to demonstrate how his fantastic visualisations could really engage the public and help them understand their implications – the Census visualisations being a great example. Finally, David Arnold, Senior Statistician at Unilever discussed the importance of multivariate statistics in order to understand consumer preferences in order to ensure the long term success of Unilever brands.

In addition to our keynote speakers, we had a number of presentations from local organisations including Landmark Information Group, Westcountry Rivers Trust, Mango Solutions and the University of Exeter. The variety of topics covered was fantastic including the use of smart phones in improving agronomic decision making, visualising league tables, the growing use of R by commercial companies and using genetic data to identify causes of disease to name just a few.

The day was a great success, which was emphasised by the real-time feedback questionnaire collected and analysed by Paul Howarth from Akumen during the conference. The questionnaire indicated that as a result of the day delegates had gained new tools and techniques to analyse and visualise data and had particularly enjoyed the diversity of talks, which they found to be both inspiring and motivating. Steve Brooks, Director of both Select and ExIStA said “Talking Data South West has been a real success. It has provided a great opportunity for attendees to develop new skills and share expertise as well as the chance to meet with other regional organisations working with data.”

If you would like to see any of the slides and videos of the presentations from Talking Data South West these are available from the ExIStA website or directly from Select’s YouTube channel.

The Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre – the First 25 Years

girltreadmill_mainAs the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre celebrates its 25th anniversary, its Director Professor Neil Armstrong reflects on what has been achieved – and how much is still to be done if we are to tackle rising levels of child obesity.

The Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre’s  initial studies of 800 11 to 16-year-olds identified for the first time the prevalence of coronary risk factors in British children. Unhealthy levels of cholesterol in the blood and body fat were demonstrated but uniquely the findings characterised the fitness and physical activity patterns of children and adolescents.  It was shown for the first time that many young people in the UK had adopted sedentary lifestyles; boys were generally more active than girls and physical activity declined through adolescence. When the findings were presented on BBC and ITN national television news on the day of publication in the British Medical Journal the media coined the phrase couch potatoes’ to describe the phenomenon.  These data predicted the current paediatric obesity epidemic.

Further studies demonstrated gender differences in physical activity to be present as young as five years of age. A re-visit in 1999 to communities studied 10 years earlier provided the first indication that young people’s physical activity levels had stabilised at a sedentary level. Other research in this health-related area investigated physical activity in relation to diet, body fat, visceral fat, obesity, micro vascular function, psychological well-being, physical education, blindness, diabetes, heart rate variability, and cystic fibrosis. These aspects of the work and its implications for present and future health and wellbeing have been widely disseminated in the national and international press and featured in over 300 television and radio programmes. The increase in public awareness of the issues resulted in the data generating questions in both Houses of Parliament, the presentation of invited seminars to MPs in Westminster, private audiences with Ministers and with Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace.

The impact of the research on children’s health and well-being was recognised in 1998 with the award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education. The Prize was the first to be awarded in paediatric sport and exercise medicine and the team had the honour of going to Buckingham Palace to receive the prize from HM the Queen who had shown great interest in the research when she visited the Centre with Prince Philip three years earlier.

The initial studies in the 1980s raised numerous theoretical and methodological problems regarding the assessment and interpretation of young people’s responses to exercise in relation to age, maturation and gender and the examination of these issues has been a major focus of the Centre’s research programme. The Centre through its research and dissemination has been at the forefront of establishing that children are not mini-adults and the research programme has encompassed sick children, ‘normal’ healthy children and elite young athletes. This week the Centre is hosting for the second time the world’s most prestigious paediatric conference, the International Symposium of the European Group of Pediatric Work Physiology, where the latest world-wide research on many of the lines of enquiry initiated in the Centre will be presented.

25 years on and paediatric exercise medicine has been firmly established as a major research topic around the world and the Centre has helped to keep the issue of children’s health and exercise in the public eye. Our research has time and time again shown that children respond to exercise in a different manner to adults, that physical activity is essential for healthy growth and maturation and that obesity is simply the result of consuming more energy than you burn up.

Looking back as we celebrate our first quarter of a century we must thank the over 5,000 westcountry children who have willingly given their time, blood, sweat and energy to make the research possible and their laughter to make it in enjoyable. Great progress has been made: we now know a great deal about how the young body responds to exercise and understand the importance of physical activity on child and adolescent health. However, child obesity is at an all-time high and society seems unable to find a way to translate the scientific findings into practical solutions. We know that our children need to be more active, but how can we get them away from their televisions, their computers and their smart phones and onto the football pitch or running track or simply out into the playground? The Centre’s challenge for the next 25 years is to embrace new technologies and pursue innovative research programmes in paediatric exercise medicine with the objectives of enhancing further understanding of the exercising child and promoting young people’s health and wellbeing.

Posted by Professor Neil Armstrong (Professor of Paediatric Physiology / Deputy Vice-Chancellor)

Regional science research collaboration


The other Friday (July 8th) a group of academics and PhD students from our College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences came together with similar groups from the universities of Bath and Bristol, along with industry representatives, to discuss a new partnership and idea that we’ve been considering: a graduate training alliance.

This mixed group of physicists and engineers had two things in common; firstly, a shared interest in physics-based ‘-onics’ – photonics, plasmonics, magnonics, spintronics, electronics, etc (hence the name Onyx), and secondly, a desire to engage more effectively with, and prepare our PhD students more effectively for, business and industry.

We have three aims for our nascent alliance: to bridge the innovation gap between universities and business more effectively in order to benefit the economy, to offer students a richer PhD experience and better preparation for entering the workplace after graduating, and to provide a forum for developing regional research collaborations.

The day was effectively a brainstorming session; after a presentation from Myrddin Jones of the Technology Strategy Board (“Funding for innovation is complex. We need to build a more effective environment for innovation & reduce risk for business in research”) we split into four action groups and discussed the issues and how the Onyx alliance might address them.

Discussion was lively and several important topics were brought up. These ranged from timing issues for PhD students, to confidentiality needs of the industry partners, and the inherently different needs and ideas of universities and industry – for example, PhD students like the idea of two month internships, while business would prefer them to last closer to two years. Likewise industry also wants to recruit students who are broad, flexible, with transferable skills, and who can apply themselves to a range of tasks and areas; PhD-level research necessarily focuses people very tightly – are these incompatible?

Over lunch we had an extended poster session from the PhD students, which enabled a more detailed discussion of the findings presented than is normally the case at workshops. The afternoon saw us delve more deeply into the idea of stakeholder engagement and industry relations, before summing up and deciding what the best way to move forward might be.

With the aim of getting things going as quickly as possible we’re already talking about running a conference event in the Autumn term so we can start to develop just what the Onyx graduate teaching alliance can and should offer.

Most of all we want to see how we can develop added value by bringing the Universities closer, in conjunction with forging stronger, relevant relations with business.

Posted by Professor Bill Barnes (Professor of Photonics, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences)

Studying sea star sperm in Sweden

boy-urchinsHow many people would travel to one of the most beautiful coastal tourist destinations in northern Europe, at the height of summer, and spend three weeks sitting in a 10 degree cold room with their eyes glued to a microscope? Not many, I’d guess, but it’s exactly what I’ve done by visiting the Kristineberg Marine Station in Sweden.

I’ve swopped my tent on the Arctic ocean for another wonderful place to come and work, but yet again am nose to a microscope all hours of the day. Most of the world’s top marine biology stations are set in truly beautiful surroundings, but are generally full of people far too busy working to get out and enjoy the surroundings properly.

The Kristineberg Marine Laboratories, part of Gothenburg University, is situated in a really pretty part of the Swedish fjords, and is a fantastic place to come and do marine research as it has wonderfully clean seawater and an amazing array of marine species live here. I’m here to continue my ocean acidification research, looking at how the change in seawater pH caused by increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere might affect the reproduction of small marine invertebrates, or more specifically, how it might impact the performance of their sperm.

Marine invertebrates makes up over 80% of the oceans biodiversity, and many of these small creatures reproduce by simply shedding their eggs or sperm straight into the water, often in synchronised spawning clouds, so that fertilisation happens ‘by chance’ in the open sea. This is often referred to as a fertilisation ‘lottery’, as the chances of sperm and egg meeting seems so small, yet these small animals have adapted to maximise the chances of this happening in numerous clever ways.

One such adaption shared by many species is the ability of the sperm to sense the egg and then swim towards it. But, how might a change in pH affect this swimming ability? That’s the main question I’m asking with my research, and I’m looking at a whole range of animals to see how their sperm ‘performance’ might be affected by future ocean conditions. By measuring sperm swimming speeds, respiration, and viability of sperm under future ocean conditions, I’m giving the sperm a future health check. So I’m basically doing the kind of tests that an IVF clinic would do, except on mussels and sea stars under future ocean conditions!

So how do you get a mussel or sea star to spawn and provide the valuable sample to be analysed? Well actually it’s pretty easy; most marine invertebrates store their eggs and sperm for a while before spawning, so that they can all release them at the same time and increase their odds in the fertilisation lottery. They then use a number of environmental signals to tell them all when to spawn, so all you have to do is mimic these signals to get them to spawn in the lab. Normally a good shake to mimic the tide coming in and some warmer seawater is all they need, but we can also use a small hormone injection to start spawning for some species. Sperm have a pretty short life span so it’s a mad dash to get as many measurements made as possible. I’m finding different species are showing quite different responses to the ocean acidification conditions, and it’s now my aim to understand why this is.

This kind of information will add another important piece to the puzzle in terms of our understanding of climate change impacts in our oceans, and really help us understand which species are going to be most susceptible to ocean acidification and which ones might be less affected. I have a lot of sperm to count and analyse for now though, whilst gazing out the window at the beautiful fjords. Still at least it’s not -40⁰C this time, and I can go and jump in the sea at the end of the day.

Posted by Dr Ceri Lewis, NERC Research Fellow (College of Life and Environmental Science).

Follow Ceri’s updates from Sweden via her Twitter feed @CezzaLew

Life on the Catlin Arctic Survey 2011

The Catlin Arctic Survey team

The Catlin Arctic Survey team

I’m writing this blog sat in a tent on the frozen Arctic Ocean at 78⁰46.4”N, 104⁰43.3”W, with just a meter and a half of frozen seawater between me and a 500m deep and very cold ocean. The temperature outside is -25⁰C today, which amazingly now feels almost warm after a week of camping out here in temperatures of -35⁰C to -44⁰C. Its blowing a gale today though and that makes it feel colder when out of the tents, -45⁰C wind chill factor, so just popping out still means covering every inch of skin up to stop frost bite and snow blowing in your face. As I sit in my tent writing this the wind is rattling the sides of the tent, the small jet-fuelled stove is struggling to keep the temperature in the tent above freezing and the generator is a constant drum in the background providing the only power we have out here.

I’m here for my second year running as part of the Catlin Arctic Survey, a scientific expedition that combines a multidisciplinary team of international scientists with a group of Arctic explorers to enable us to undertake important climate change research in the High Arctic during the harsh winter-spring transition period. My role in the survey is to look at ocean acidification processes in the Arctic and its potential effects on the small pelagic marine animals called zooplankton that live under the sea ice. Ocean acidification is the other carbon dioxide problem associated with climate change. Our oceans absorb over a third of atmospheric carbon dioxide, so as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase our oceans are absorbing more carbon dioxide and as a result are becoming more acidic. Carbon dioxide dissolves into cold waters more readily and so our polar regions are going to be affected first, hence our urgent need to study these remote seas. The dominant zooplankton in the Arctic ocean are small crustaceans called copepods, and it is the potential impact of ocean acidification on these tiny but important creatures that is the focus of my time on the ice.

Our window into the Arctic ocean beneath us is a metre square hole in the ice, through which we send all of our sampling kit, collecting information on the ocean’s physical and chemical properties, and collecting samples of the small plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton) that live beneath the ice and which support the larger marine animals of the Arctic food web. For me this means regular trawls using a plankton net, sending it down to 200m beneath the ice and then winching it back to the surface using our modified bicycle winch. I then take my samples back to the lab tent for hours of examining them down a microscope and counting out the copepods. I’m collecting data on what the zooplankton are doing at this time of the year, for which there is remarkably little data due to the harsh conditions, and relating their abundance and behaviour to the physical and chemical properties of the seawater. I’m also conducting incubation experiments, taking my copepods into the future by mimicking the warmer and more acidic seawater condition predicted for 100 years time and seeing how the copepods respond in terms of their physiology and behaviour. These experiments are extremely difficult to run in the freezing conditions, but we all pull together to come up with some ingenious solutions to every problem encountered, and work is progressing well.

Whilst this is my second year of working in these extreme conditions, it was still tough for the first few days of getting used to the cold. We sleep in unheated tents, to escape the Arctic’s biggest killer – carbon monoxide poisoning. This meant climbing into a sleeping bag at -40⁰C on the first few nights, and second year round this still felt horrid. Even with two hot water bottles, three sleeping bags and some tactically placed chemical hand warmers (not just for hands), I was still cold for the entirety of my first night back on the ice. I don’t think you ever get used to waking up with snow on your face, but I soon settled back into to the Ice Base way of life. Food is fuel here, so meal times are the highlights of the day and large amounts of chocolate, together with the great team atmosphere we have out here, help keep you warm and your sprits high. Your metabolism goes through the roof at these temperatures and it’s amazing how much more we all eat out here.

Whilst the Arctic is a tough and incredibly challenging place to do biological research, it is also a beautiful and hugely inspiring place to work. It’s a very dynamic place, and looks different every day according to the light and weather conditions. The snow on the ice is constantly moving depending on the wind, creating amazing shapes that constantly amaze us. It’s also a very humbling place to be, knowing that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature and that things can go wrong very quickly at these temperatures. Our only shelters are our tents, and a flight might take several days to get to us in any emergency. The contradiction between the power of the Arctic elements and its vulnerability to climate change impacts is striking and adds to its charisma. My time on the ice also reminds me of the beauty of the simple things in life. The luxuries we take for granted at home I am hardly missing, except for maybe a warm shower as it’s far too cold for a proper wash up here! I personally feel hugely privileged to be out here doing the science that I love and believe to be important in such a stunning environment.

Posted by Dr Ceri Lewis, NERC Research Fellow (College of Life and Environmental Science).

Follow Ceri’s updates from the Arctic via her Twitter feed @CezzaLew