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Webb telescope reaches new milestone in its search for distant galaxies

3 hours 37 min ago

An international team of astronomers, including scientists at the Universities of Cambridge, Hertfordshire and Oxford, has reported the discovery of the earliest galaxies ever confirmed in our Universe.

Using data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scientists have confirmed observations of galaxies dating back to the earliest days of the Universe, less than 350 million years after the Big Bang – when the Universe was just 2% of its current age.

Images from JWST had previously suggested possible candidates for such early galaxies. Now, their age has been confirmed using long spectroscopic observations, which measure light to determine the speed and composition of objects in space.

These observations have revealed distinctive patterns in the tiny amount of light coming from these incredibly faint galaxies, allowing scientists to establish that the light they are emitting has taken 13.4 billion years to reach us, and corroborating their status as some of the earliest galaxies ever observed.

Scientists can also now confirm that two of these galaxies are further away than any observations made by the Hubble telescope – underlining JWST’s incredible power and ability to detect never-before-seen parts of the earliest Universe.

“It was crucial to prove that these galaxies do indeed inhabit the early Universe, as it’s very possible for closer galaxies to masquerade as very distant galaxies,” said Dr Emma Curtis-Lake from the University of Hertfordshire, lead author on one of two papers on the findings. “Seeing the spectrum revealed as we hoped, confirming these galaxies as being at the true edge of our view, some further away than Hubble could see – it is a tremendously exciting achievement for the mission!”

The findings have been achieved by an international collaboration of more than 80 astronomers from ten countries via the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES) programme. The team were allocated just over a month of observation on the telescope, using the two on-board instruments: the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). These instruments were developed with the primary purpose of investigating the earliest and faintest galaxies.

“It is hard to understand galaxies without understanding the initial periods of their development,” said Dr Sandro Tacchella from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Kavli Institute for Cosmology, co-lead author on the second paper. “Much as with humans, so much of what happens later depends on the impact of these early generations of stars. So many questions about galaxies have been waiting for the transformative opportunity of Webb, and we’re thrilled to be able to play a part in revealing this story.”

“For the first time, we have discovered galaxies only 350 million years after the big bang, and we can be absolutely confident of their fantastic distances,” said Brant Robertson from the University of California Santa Cruz, co-lead author on the second paper. “To find these early galaxies in such stunningly beautiful images is a special experience.”

Across 10 days of their observation time, the JADES team of astronomers focused on a small patch of sky in and around Hubble Space Telescope’s Ultra Deep Field, which for over 20 years has been a favourite of astronomers and has been analysed at the limit of nearly every large telescope to have existed. However, with JWST, the team were able to observe in nine different infrared wavelength ranges, providing an exquisitely sharp and sensitive picture of the field. The image reveals nearly 100,000 galaxies, each billions of light years away, in a pinprick of the sky equivalent to looking at a mobile phone screen across a football field.

The very earliest galaxies were identifiable by their distinctive banded colours, visible in infrared light but invisible in other wavelengths. In one rare continuous 28-hour observation window, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph was used to spread out the light emitting from each galaxy into a rainbow spectrum. This allowed astronomers to measure the amount of light received at each wavelength and study the unique light patterns created by the properties of the gas and stars within each galaxy.

Crucially, four of the galaxies were revealed to originate earlier in the Universe than any previous observations.

“Our observations suggest that the formation of the first stars and galaxies started very early in the history of the Universe,” said Professor Andrew Bunker from the University of Oxford.

“This is a major leap forward in our understanding of how the first galaxies formed,” said Professor Roberto Maiolino from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Kavli Institute for Cosmology, co-author on one of the two papers. “We have been able to dissect the light coming from these galaxies in the very early universe and, for the first time, characterise in detail their properties. It’s really fascinating and intriguing to discover how young these systems were and that stellar processes hadn’t yet managed to pollute these galaxies with chemical elements heavier than helium.”

Astronomers in the JADES team now plan to focus on another area of the sky to conduct further spectroscopy and imaging, hoping to reveal more about the earliest origins of our Universe and how these first galaxies evolve with cosmic time.

More information about the findings can be found in a newly-published NASA blog. Pre-prints of the team’s two papers, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, are available online.

The James Webb Space Telescope is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency). Sandro Tacchella is a Fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

Adapted from a University of Hertfordshire media release.

New findings confirm that JWST has surpassed the Hubble telescope in its ability to observe the early Universe

So many questions about galaxies have been waiting for the transformative opportunity of Webb, and we’re thrilled to be able to play a part in revealing this storySandro TacchellaNASA, ESA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb)This image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope highlights the region of study by the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES).


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Yes

COP15: UN and Cambridge sign agreement to bolster conservation

7 hours 20 min ago

The agreement has been made in recognition of the impact and alignment of the novel Masters course with the goals of the CBD Capacity Development framework and ultimately the importance of education and capacity building in the fight to protect the natural world and the biodiversity within it.

The MoU agreement signed yesterday paves the way for shared initiatives to accelerate building the capacity of national biodiversity experts and conservation leaders, crucial for the delivery of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Additionally, it will enable a series of knowledge exchange activities to support effective implementation of the framework.

Established in 2010, the Masters in Conservation Leadership is a ground-breaking course that equips students with the applied leadership and management skills needed to create positive change in conservation. A unique feature of the course is its delivery by a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the leading conservation organisations, which together comprise the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI).

Another notable feature of the course is the development of an active global conservation leadership alumni network (UCCLAN), now totalling over 220 alumni in 89 countries around the world. The alumni network has ‘observer status’ at the conference and has already been influential in the wider negotiations.

“Since 2010 the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership has been building the capacity of outstanding future conservation leaders from around the world. Our alumni have the skills, networks and wisdom needed to support delivery of the Convention on Biological Diversity framework being agreed at COP 15," said Chris Sandbrook, Director of the Masters in Conservation Leadership and CCI Council member. "The MoU we are signing today with the Secretariat of the Convention will enable us to work closely together towards our shared objectives for capacity development. It is a proud moment for me and everyone involved in the Masters.”

The Masters in Conservation Leadership team have been working towards this agreement for several years and are delighted to now finalise the agreement, enabling a cohesive approach to building the leadership capacity needed to create a diverse world in which nature and society thrive.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity secretariat and the University of Cambridge signed a Memorandum of Understanding on day two of COP15, which recognises that the CCI Masters in Conservation Leadership course hosted by the Department of Geography plays a crucial role in conservation capacity building.

Since 2010 the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership has been building the capacity of outstanding future conservation leaders from around the worldChris Sandbrook, Director of the Masters in Conservation Leadership and CCI Council member


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Yes

Protecting Europe’s seabirds

Thu, 08/12/2022 - 16:19

Numerous European seabirds are at risk from climate change, according to new research led by ZSL (The Zoological Society of London) in collaboration with the University of Cambridge.

Researchers have published a first-of-its-kind conservation guide to protecting the 47 species that breed along the Atlantic coastline; offering hope for the future of these important marine birds, by assessing their species-specific needs and laying out the actions needed to preserve each one.

ZSL Institute of Zoology post-doctoral fellow, Henry Häkkinen, who led the production of the guidelines, said: “It’s unthinkable that the Atlantic puffin, one of Europe’s most treasured seabirds, could disappear from our shores by the end of the century – alongside other important marine bird species.

“Seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of birds in the world, with many already seeing rapid global declines due to the impacts of human activity and climate change, including changes to food availability, extreme weather conditions and the loss of breeding grounds.

“These birds face double the challenges as they breed on land but rely on the sea for survival; by living across these two worlds, they are essential to both ecosystems and give us a glimpse into the health of wildlife in otherwise hard-to-monitor areas of the ocean – meaning their loss would impact countless other species and their conservation.”

The two-year project to create the guidelines gathered evidence from more than 80 conservationists and policymakers across 15 European countries, alongside carefully collated information available from scientific papers across 10 different languages.

The pioneering European collaboration is the first to co-develop guidelines in this way, with the team hoping to scale up the project to map the risks to seabirds on a global scale.  

“Seabirds are migratory, flying vast distances overseas and oceans, and so to truly enhance conservation efforts we need to understand how climate change is altering their environment across their entire range. 

“It’s essential to develop strong conservation measures to protect these birds against the climate crisis, but this requires species-specific understanding of the threats that they face. For some birds, like puffins, we have a strong grasp of how climate change impacts them, but for many species, such as eider ducks and ivory gulls, this knowledge is severely lacking. These gaps need to be urgently addressed for us to help these birds to survive.” 

Project lead, ZSL Senior Research Fellow Dr Nathalie Pettorelli added: “The challenges posed by rapid changes in climatic conditions require efficient coordination between science, policy and advocacy to ensure key questions are given research priority and effective conservation actions can be deployed in areas where they are most needed. These seabird conservation guidelines – and the process behind them – provide a vital and transferable framework that can help align efforts to prioritise and implement evidence-based climate change adaptation practices to safeguard a future for the species most at risk. 

“The time to act is now if we are to buffer species from the impacts of climate change.”  

The guidelines will be made available to all conservationists working with seabirds across Europe.

Article adapted from a press release by ZSL.

New conservation guide launched to protect European seabirds at risk from climate change 

The time to act is now if we are to buffer species from the impacts of climate changeNathalie PettorelliSeppo HäkkinenA group of puffins on a cliff at the Farne Islands by Seppo Häkkinen


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Yes

Cambridge signs UN pledge on reversing biodiversity decline at COP15

Thu, 08/12/2022 - 13:39

The Nature Positive Universities Alliance launches at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal, Canada on Thursday 8 December with 111 universities from 44 countries, who have made individual pledges to start a journey towards becoming nature positive.

The pledge strongly aligns with Cambridge’s Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) agreed by Council in July 2020. The commitment is to start a Nature Positive journey by determining baselines and setting targets. 

“Universities are crucibles where learning and research creates futures. Rebuilding nature is a vital foundation for institutional sustainability and an equitable society. The University of Cambridge by signing up to the Nature Positive University Pledge is amplifying the ambitions of the University’s Biodiversity Action Plan and paving the way for a nature positive university where nature is regenerated to the benefit of students, academics and the city as a whole. The Ecological Advisory Panel and Cambridge Conservation Initiative look forward to delivering this pledge in collaboration with other key players in the University,” Mike Maunder, Chair of the University’s Ecological Advisory Panel and Executive Director of the world-leading Cambridge Conservation Initiative said.

University pledges include four key elements:

Carrying out baseline biodiversity assessments

Setting specific, time limited and measurable targets for nature

Taking bold action to reduce biodiversity impacts, protect and restore species and ecosystems, while influencing others to do the same

Transparent annual reporting.

“I am delighted that the University of Cambridge is joining the Nature Positive University Network. Universities make a significant positive contribution to society, but it is vital that we do everything we can to mitigate the harmful unintended impacts that our activities can have on nature. Joining the Nature Positive University Network will inspire us to be more ambitious, enable us to learn from others and hold us to account,” said Professor Chris Sandbrook, Professor of Conservation and Society, Director of the Masters in Conservation Leadership.

The Nature Positive Universities Alliance is a partnership between University of Oxford, UNEP Youth & Education and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which brings higher education institutions together to use their unique power and influence as drivers of positive change.

It is a global network of universities that have made an official pledge to work towards a global Nature Positive goal in order to halt, prevent and reverse nature loss through addressing their own impacts and restoring ecosystems harmed by their activities. This push is part of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a movement to avert climate catastrophe and mass extinction.

All the founding universities announced today have pledged to assess their impacts to determine the most impactful initiatives to introduce, and to report on their progress.

The University of Cambridge has signed a nature positive pledge as a founding member of the global Nature Positive Universities network formed in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 

Rebuilding nature is a vital foundation for institutional sustainability and an equitable societyMike Maunder, Executive Director of Cambridge Conservation Initiative


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Yes

New initiative to promote innovation in the Greater Cambridge area

Thu, 08/12/2022 - 12:51

Innovate Cambridge is an initiative to create an inclusive vision for the future of Cambridge and its innovation ecosystem. The initiative was launched in September 2022 by the University of Cambridge, Cambridge Enterprise and Cambridge Innovation Capital. Organisations that have signed up to its charter include local government, start-ups, universities, science parks and investors. As well as announcing its first 100 signatories, Innovate Cambridge has also appointed an Executive Director and established a steering committee.

Tabitha Goldstaub, co-founder of festival and online platform CogX and a UK government advisor, has been appointed Innovate Cambridge’s Executive Director and the Rt Hon. Lord Willetts as Chair of its Steering Committee. Other members of the Steering Committee include Professor Andy Neely, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations at the University of Cambridge, Professor Yvonne Barnett, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation for Anglia Ruskin University, Shaun Grady, AstraZeneca’s Senior Vice-President Business Development Operations and Robert Pollock, Chief Executive of Cambridge City Council.

Cambridge has been a global leader in innovation for decades, with its two universities, thriving start-up community, global businesses and strong investment network. But, “standing still is not an option,” said Diarmuid O’Brien, CEO of Cambridge Enterprise: “Many cities and regions across the world are rapidly getting organised to secure their futures. We must learn from and build on their experiences.”

The next step, according to Michael Anstey, Partner at Cambridge Innovation Capital, is for the signatories to the Charter, “to come together to define, and then implement, an inclusive, forward-looking vision for the ecosystem, which ensures the City continues to innovate, compete, and deliver impact on a global scale well into the future.”

Professor Andy Neely, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations at the University of Cambridge, said: “Cambridge has made a difference to the lives of millions of people around the world. A constant source of new ideas and innovations, the Cambridge innovation ecosystem spawns new ideas, technologies and insights that change the way we live and learn. The charter is a really exciting next step in the development of the Cambridge innovation ecosystem, bringing together key organisations and people to help shape the future of Greater Cambridge and ensure that together we continue to contribute to society.”

Read about some of the Cambridge start-ups that are having an impact in the UK and around the world here.

100 organisations, including AstraZeneca, Microsoft and Arm, have signed up to a new charter to boost the Cambridge innovation ecosystem and help it address global challenges, announced Innovate Cambridge today (8 December 2022).

The charter is a really exciting next step in the development of the Cambridge innovation ecosystem, bringing together key organisations and people to help shape the future of Greater Cambridge and ensure that together we continue to contribute to society.Andy Neely, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business RelationsInnovate CambridgeTabitha Goldstaub, Innovate Cambridge’s Executive Director


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Yes

Mastercard Foundation African scholars tackle climate change at Cambridge

Mon, 05/12/2022 - 09:24

The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at the University of Cambridge will provide fully funded opportunities for 1,025 young people to complete interdisciplinary programs with a focus on climate resilience and sustainability. This includes 500 in-person Master’s-level degrees and 25 Doctoral scholarships. 

The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is a decade-old initiative designed to support the higher education and leadership development of high-achieving students, largely from Africa, who face social and economic barriers to their learning yet share a strong commitment to service. The Program is intentional in reaching young women, forcibly displaced youth and young people with disabilities. Beyond enabling their academic pursuits, the Program provides Scholars with a platform to practice transformative leadership.

The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at the University of Cambridge is specifically designed to support young future leaders who intend to use their academic training to drive climate resilience and sustainability. Addressing the climate crisis requires a range of expertise across both scientific/STEM disciplines and the arts, humanities and social sciences, so prospective Mastercard Foundation Scholars can apply to the majority of courses available at the University.  

Professor Bhaskar Vira, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Cambridge, said “The Program trains these scholars in a range of academic disciplines – from the creative arts and writing, through the social sciences, to more scientific and technical disciplines, because a multidisciplinary response to the climate crisis is critical. 

“We are looking to support students with academic talent and a commitment to giving back to their community, in particular a desire and commitment to contribute to climate-resilient and sustainable futures for Africa and the world. African women, refugees and internally displaced people, and people with disabilities are encouraged to apply.” 

As part of the application process, prospective Scholars will be asked for a supplementary statement which indicates their personal commitment to contributing to climate-resilient and sustainable futures for Africa. 

The first cohort of Mastercard Foundation Scholars started their courses in Cambridge in October 2022 and applications are now open for the 2023/2024 academic year. Incoming students will join a global community of nearly 40,000 young people who are Scholars or Alumni of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program.

The University of Cambridge and Mastercard Foundation have joined forces to help young African leaders tackle some of the continent’s most pressing climate change issues with an ambitious new set of scholarships aimed at resilience and sustainability.

We are looking to support students with academic talent and a commitment to giving back to their communityProfessor Bhaskar Vira, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education


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Yes

Pedestrians choose healthy obstacles over boring pavements, study finds

Mon, 05/12/2022 - 08:45

Millions of people in the UK are failing to meet recommended targets for physical activity. Exercising “on the go” is key to changing this but while walking along a pavement is better than nothing it causes no significant increase in heart rate so only qualifies as mild exercise. Walking also fails to significantly improve balance or bone density, unless it includes jumping, balancing, and stepping down.

But would adults opt for such ‘fun’ routes if given the choice? A University of Cambridge-led study published today in the journal Landscape Research suggests that with the right design, most would.

Previous research on ‘healthy route choices’ has focused on people’s likelihood of walking instead of using transport. But this study examined how likely people are to pick a more challenging route over a conventional one and which design characteristics influenced their choices.

Lead author, Anna Boldina, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture, said: “Even when the increase in level and extent of activity level is modest, when millions of people are using cityscapes every day, those differences can have a major positive impact on public health.”

“Our findings show that pedestrians can be nudged into a wider range of physical activities through minor changes to the urban landscape. We want to help policy makers and designers to make modifications that will improve physical health and wellbeing.”

Boldina began this research after moving from Coimbra in Portugal – where she found herself climbing hills and ancient walls – to London, which she found far less physically challenging.

Working with Dr Paul Hanel from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, and Prof. Koen Steemers from Cambridge, Boldina invited almost 600 UK residents to compare photorealistic images of challenging routes – variously incorporating steppingstones, balancing beams, and high steps – with conventional pavements.

Participants were shown images of challenging and conventional tarmac routes and asked which route they would choose. The researchers tested out a range of encouraging / discouraging parameters in different scenarios, including crossing water, shortcuts, unusual sculptures and the presence / absence of a handrail and other people. Participants were asked to score how challenging they thought the route would be from 1 (as easy as walking on level tarmac) to 7 (I would not be able to do it).

Eighty per cent of the study’s participants opted for a challenging route in at least one of the scenarios, depending on perceived level of difficulty and design characteristics. Where a challenging option was shorter than a conventional route, this increased the likelihood of being chosen by 10%. The presence of handrails achieved a 12% rise.

Importance for health

The WHO and NHS recommend at least 150 minutes of ‘moderate’ or 75 minutes of ‘vigorous’ activity spread over a week, including a variety of activities aimed at enhancing bones, muscles, and agility to stay healthy. In addition, adults over 65 are advised to perform strength, flexibility, and balance exercises.

Boldina said: “The human body is a very complex machine that needs a lot of things to keep working effectively. Cycling and swimming are great for your heart and for your leg muscles but do very little for your bone density.”

“To improve cardiovascular health, bone density and balance all at once, we need to add a wider range of exercises into our routine daily walks.”

Psychology of choice

Co-author Dr Paul Hanel said: “Children don’t need much encouragement to try out a balance beam but we wanted to see how adults would respond, and then identify design modifications which made them more likely to choose a challenging route.”

“We found that while embarrassment, anxiety, caution and peer pressure can put some adults off, the vast majority of people can be persuaded to take a more challenging route by paying careful attention to design, safety, difficulty level, location and signage.”

The proportion of participants who were willing to pick a more challenging route varied from 14% for a particular balance beam route to 78% for a route involving wide, low stepping stones and a log with a handrail. The least intimidating routes were found to be those with wide, steady-looking balancing beams and wide steppingstones, especially with the presence of handrails.

The researchers suggest that routes that incorporate more difficult challenges, such as obstacle courses and narrow balancing beams, should be placed in areas more likely to be frequented by younger users.

The participants expressed a range of reasons for picking challenging routes. Unsurprisingly, the study found that challenging routes which also acted as short cuts appealed. Up to 55% of participants chose such routes. The researchers also found that the design of pavements, lighting and flowerbeds, as well as signage helped to nudge participants to choose more challenging routes. Many participants (40%) said the sight of other people taking a challenging route encouraged them to do the same.

The participants who picked conventional routes often had concerns about safety but the introduction of safety measures, such as handrails, increased uptake of some routes. Handrails next to one steppingstones route increased uptake by 12%.

To test whether tendency to choose challenging routes was linked to demographic and personality factors, participants were asked to answer questions about their age, gender, habits, health, occupation, and personality traits (such as sensation seeking or general anxiety).

The researchers found that people of all levels of activity are equally likely to pick a challenging route. But for the most difficult routes, participants who regularly engaged in strength and balancing exercises were more likely to choose them.

Older participants were as supportive of the concept as younger ones but were less likely to opt for the more challenging routes for themselves. Nevertheless, across all age groups, only a small percentage of participants said they would avoid adventurous options completely.

The study applies the idea of “Choice Architecture” (making good choices easier and less beneficial choices harder) plus “Fun theory”, a strategy whereby physical activity is made more exciting; as well as some of the key principles of persuasion: social proof, liking, authority, and consistency.

Future work

The researchers hope to run experiments in physical test sites to see how intentions convert into behaviour, and to measure how changes in habits improve health. In the meantime, Boldina continues to present her findings to policy makers.

Critics might question the affordability and cost effectiveness of introducing ‘Active landscape routes’ in the current economic environment.

In response, the researchers argue that installing stepping stones in a turfed area can be cheaper than laying and maintaining conventional tarmac pavements. They also point out that these measures could save governments far greater sums by reducing demand for health care related to lack of exercise.

 

Reference

A. Boldina et al., ‘Active Landscape and Choice Architecture: Encouraging the use of challenging city routes for fitness’, Landscape Research (2022). DOI: 10.1080/01426397.2022.2142204

Up to 78% of walkers would take a more challenging route featuring obstacles such as balancing beams, steppingstones and high steps, research has found. The findings suggest that providing ‘Active Landscape’ routes in urban areas could help tackle an “inactivity pandemic” and improve health outcomes.

Pedestrians can be nudged into a wider range of physical activities through minor changes to the urban landscapeAnna BoldinaAnna BoldinaCollage imagining a challenging 'Active Urbanism' route applied to Sermon Lane in London


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

Thu, 01/12/2022 - 16:02

Funded by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Chair in Emerging Technologies scheme aims to identify global research visionaries and provide them with long-term support. The awards will enable the researchers to focus on strategic approaches for taking their technology from the bench to the boardroom.

Professor Rachel Oliver, from the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, is a Fellow of Robinson College and Director of the Cambridge Centre for Gallium Nitride. Gallium nitride (GaN) is a rising star of the electronics and optoelectronics industries, with GaN-based solid-state lighting bringing about a revolution in how we illuminate our world. Creating porosity in GaN vastly extends the range of materials properties achievable in this key compound semiconductor material. By controlling the porosity, engineers can select the properties they need to create new device concepts or to improve existing products.

Professor Oliver's aim is to create a set of materials fabrication processes which control the structure and properties of porous gallium nitride. Alongside this, she will develop a modelling toolbox for designing new devices. By developing new devices and embedding porous GaN in the UK’s vibrant and expanding compound semiconductor industry, Oliver hopes to drive this emerging materials platform towards widespread industrial adoption, fuelling the future of the UK compound semiconductor ecosystem.

Potential applications for the new research are both wide-ranging and far-reaching. Developing the use of UV LEDs for disinfection would give healthcare professionals new weapons in the fight against viral epidemics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Work on microdisplays using microLEDs could improve augmented and virtual reality headsets. As well as providing immersive experiences for gamers, this technology could be used by organisations for more effective online collaboration. By reducing the need for business travel, the ecological benefits would be significant.

Professor Vignolini and her Bio-inspired Photonics group in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry have discovered that plants produce bright and vibrant colouration through organising cellulose into sub-micrometer structures that manipulate light. These natural examples have inspired Vignolini to mimic the use of biological building blocks to create sustainable colorants in the lab. She is developing a new generation of manufacturing processes to produce colours using only naturally derived biomaterials, such as cellulose, a biodegradable and abundant plant material.

Vignolini's vision is that bio-based pigments will replace current alternatives made with energy-intensive and problematic materials.

Professor Sir Jim McDonald FREng FRSE, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “The Academy places huge importance on supporting excellence in engineering and often the key to engineers fulfilling their potential in tackling global challenges is the gift of time and continuity of support to bring the most disruptive and impactful ideas to fruition.”

Silvia Vignolini is a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. Rachel Oliver is a Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge.

Professor Rachel Oliver and Professor Silvia Vignolini from the University of Cambridge have been awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies. Each award is worth £2.5 million over ten years to develop emerging technologies with high potential to deliver economic and social benefits to the UK.

Nathan Pitt (left), Nick Saffell (right)Silvia Vignolini (left), Rachel Oliver (right)


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Yes

Fitness levels can be accurately predicted using wearable devices – no exercise required

Thu, 01/12/2022 - 10:00

Normally, tests to accurately measure VO2max – a key measurement of overall fitness and an important predictor of heart disease and mortality risk – require expensive laboratory equipment and are mostly limited to elite athletes. The new method uses machine learning to predict VO2max – the capacity of the body to carry out aerobic work – during everyday activity, without the need for contextual information such as GPS measurements.

In what is by far the largest study of its kind, the researchers gathered activity data from more than 11,000 participants in the Fenland Study using wearable sensors, with a subset of participants tested again seven years later. The researchers used the data to develop a model to predict VO2max, which was then validated against a third group that carried out a standard lab-based exercise test. The model showed a high degree of accuracy compared to lab-based tests, and outperforms other approaches.

Some smartwatches and fitness monitors currently on the market claim to provide an estimate of VO2max, but since the algorithms powering these predictions aren’t published and are subject to change at any time, it’s unclear whether the predictions are accurate, or whether an exercise regime is having any effect on an individual’s VO2max over time.

The Cambridge-developed model is robust, transparent and provides accurate predictions based on heart rate and accelerometer data only. Since the model can also detect fitness changes over time, it could also be useful in estimating fitness levels for entire populations and identifying the effects of lifestyle trends. The results are reported in the journal npj Digital Medicine.

A measurement of VO2max is considered the ‘gold standard’ of fitness tests. Professional athletes, for example, test their VO2max by measuring their oxygen consumption while they exercise to the point of exhaustion. There are other ways of measuring fitness in the laboratory, like heart rate response to exercise tests, but these require equipment like a treadmill or exercise bike. Additionally, strenuous exercise can be a risk to some individuals.

“VO2max isn’t the only measurement of fitness, but it’s an important one for endurance, and is a strong predictor of diabetes, heart disease, and other mortality risks,” said co-author Dr Soren Brage from Cambridge’s Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit. “However, since most VO2max tests are done on people who are reasonably fit, it’s hard to get measurements from those who are not as fit and might be at risk of cardiovascular disease.”

“We wanted to know whether it was possible to accurately predict VO2max using data from a wearable device, so that there would be no need for an exercise test,” said co-lead author Dr Dimitris Spathis from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology. “Our central question was whether wearable devices can measure fitness in the wild. Most wearables provide metrics like heart rate, steps or sleeping time, which are proxies for health, but aren’t directly linked to health outcomes.”

The study was a collaboration between the two departments: the team from the MRC Epidemiology Unit provided expertise in population health and cardiorespiratory fitness and data from the Fenland Study – a long-running public health study in the East of England – while the team from the Department of Computer Science and Technology provided expertise in machine learning and artificial intelligence for mobile and wearable data.

Participants in the study wore wearable devices continuously for six days. The sensors gathered 60 values per second, resulting in an enormous amount of data before processing. “We had to design an algorithm pipeline and appropriate models that could compress this huge amount of data and use it to make an accurate prediction,” said Spathis. “The free-living nature of the data makes this prediction challenging because we’re trying to predict a high-level outcome (fitness) with noisy low-level data (wearable sensors).”

The researchers used an AI model known as a deep neural network to process and extract meaningful information from the raw sensor data and make predictions of VO2max from it. Beyond predictions, the trained models can be used for the identification of sub-populations in particular need of intervention related to fitness.

The baseline data from 11,059 participants in the Fenland Study was compared with follow-up data from seven years later, taken from a subset of 2,675 of the original participants. A third group of 181 participants from the UK Biobank Validation Study underwent lab-based VO2max testing to validate the accuracy of the algorithm. The machine learning model had strong agreement with the measured VO2max scores at both baseline (82% agreement) and follow-up testing (72% agreement).

“This study is a perfect demonstration of how we can leverage expertise across epidemiology, public health, machine learning and signal processing,” said co-lead author Dr Ignacio Perez-Pozuelo.

The researchers say that their results demonstrate how wearables can accurately measure fitness, but transparency needs to be improved if measurements from commercially available wearables are to be trusted.

“It’s true in principle that many fitness monitors and smartwatches provide a measurement of VO2max, but it’s very difficult to assess the validity of those claims,” said Brage. “The models aren’t usually published, and the algorithms can change on a regular basis, making it difficult for people to determine if their fitness has actually improved or if it’s just being estimated by a different algorithm.”

“Everything on your smartwatch related to health and fitness is an estimate,” said Spathis. “We’re transparent about our modelling and we did it at scale. We show that we can achieve better results with the combination of noisy data and traditional biomarkers. Also, all our algorithms and models are open-sourced and everyone can use them.”

“We’ve shown that you don’t need an expensive test in a lab to get a real measurement of fitness – the wearables we use every day can be just as powerful, if they have the right algorithm behind them,” said senior author Professor Cecilia Mascolo from the Department of Computer Science and Technology. “Cardio-fitness is such an important health marker, but until now we did not have the means to measure it at scale. These findings could have significant implications for population health policies, so we can move beyond weaker health proxies such as the Body Mass Index (BMI).”

The research was supported in part by Jesus College, Cambridge and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Cecilia Mascolo is a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge.

 

Reference:
Dimitris Spathis et al. ‘Longitudinal cardio-respiratory fitness prediction through wearables in free-living environments.’ npj Digital Medicine (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41746-022-00719-1

Cambridge researchers have developed a method for measuring overall fitness accurately on wearable devices – and more robustly than current consumer smartwatches and fitness monitors – without the wearer needing to exercise.

You don’t need an expensive test in a lab to get a real measurement of fitness – the wearables we use every day can be just as powerful, if they have the right algorithm behind themCecilia MascoloOscar Wong via Getty ImagesWoman checking her smart watch and mobile phone after run


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Yes

COVID has 'ruptured' social skills of the world’s poorest children, study suggests

Wed, 30/11/2022 - 08:41

School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have “severely ruptured” the social and emotional development of some of the world’s poorest children, as well as their academic progress, new evidence shows.

In a study of over 2,000 primary school pupils in Ethiopia, researchers found that key aspects of children’s social and emotional development, such as their ability to make friends, not only stalled during the school closures, but probably deteriorated.

Children who, prior to the pandemic, felt confident talking to others or got on well with peers were less likely to do so by 2021. Those who were already disadvantaged educationally – girls, the very poorest, and those from rural areas – seem to have been particularly badly affected.

Both this research and a second, linked study of around 6,000 grade 1 and 4 primary school children, also found evidence of slowed academic progress. Children lost the equivalent of at least one third of an academic year in learning during lockdown – an estimate researchers describe as “conservative”. This appears to have widened an already significant attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and the rest, and there is some evidence that this may be linked to the drop in social skills.

Both studies were by academics from the University of Cambridge, UK and Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the Research in Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “COVID is having a long-term impact on children everywhere, but especially in lower-income countries. Education aid and government funding must focus on supporting both the academic and socio-emotional recovery of the most disadvantaged children first.”

Professor Tassew Woldehanna, President of Addis Ababa University, said: “These  severe ruptures to children’s developmental and learning trajectories underline how much we need to think about the impact on social, and not just academic skills. Catch-up education must address the two together.”

Both studies used data from the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) programme in Ethiopia to compare primary education before the pandemic, in the academic year 2018/19, with the situation in 2020/21.

In the first study, researchers compared the numeracy test scores of 2,700 Grade 4 pupils in June 2019 with their scores shortly after they returned to school, in January 2021. They also measured dropout rates. In addition, pupils completed the Children’s Self Report Social Skills scale, which asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I feel confident talking to others”, “I make friends easily”, and “If I hurt someone, I say sorry”.

The second study measured relative progress during the pandemic using the numeracy scores of two separate cohorts of Grade 1 and Grade 4 pupils. The first of these cohorts was from the pre-pandemic year; the other from 2020/21.

The results suggest pupils made some academic progress during the closures, but at a slower than expected rate. The average foundational numeracy score of Grade 1 pupils in 2020/21 was 15 points behind the 2018/19 cohort; by the end of the year that gap had widened to 19 points. Similarly, Grade 4 students started 2020/21 10 points behind their predecessor cohort, and were 12 points adrift by the end. That difference amounted to roughly one third of a year’s progress. Similar patterns emerged from the study of children’s numeracy scores before and after the closures.

Poorer children, and those from rural backgrounds, consistently performed worse academically. Dropout rates revealed similar issues: of the 2,700 children assessed in 2019 and 2021, more than one in 10 (11.3%) dropped out of school during the closures. These were disproportionately girls, or lower-achieving pupils, who tended to be from less wealthy or rural families.

All pupils’ social skills declined during the closure period, regardless of gender or location. Fewer children agreed in 2021 with statements such as “Other people like me” or “I make friends easily”. The decline in positive responses differed by demographic, and was sharpest among those from rural settings. This may be because children from remote parts of the country experienced greater isolation during lockdown.

The most striking evidence of a rupture in socio-emotional development was the lack of a predictive association between the 2019 and 2021 results. Pupils who felt confident talking to others before the pandemic, for example, had often changed their minds two years later.

Researchers suggest that the negative impact on social and emotional development may be linked to the slowdown in academic attainment. Children who did better academically in 2021 tended to report stronger social skills. This association is not necessarily causal, but there is evidence that academic attainment improves children’s self-confidence and esteem, and that prosocial behaviours positively influence academic outcomes. It is therefore possible that during the school closures this potential reinforcement was reversed.

Both reports echo previous research which suggests that lower-income countries such as Ethiopia need to invest in targeted programmes for girls, those from rural backgrounds, and the very poorest, if they are to prevent these children from being left behind. Alongside in-school catch-up programmes, action may be required to support those who are out of school. Ghana’s successful Complementary Basic Education initiative provides one model.

In addition, the researchers urge education policy actors to integrate support for  social skills into both catch-up education and planning for future closures. “Social and emotional skills should be an explicit goal of the curriculum and other guidance,” Rose said. “Schools may also want to think about after-school clubs, safe spaces for girls, and ensuring that primary-age children stay with the same group of friends during the day. Initiatives like these will go some way towards rebuilding the prosocial skills the pandemic has eroded.”

Ruptured School Trajectories is published in the journal, Longitudinal and Life Course Studies. Learning Losses during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Ethiopia, is available on the REAL Centre website.

Two interlinked studies, involving 8,000 primary pupils altogether, indicate children lost at least a third of a year in learning during lockdown.

Education aid and government funding must focus on supporting both the academic and socio-emotional recovery of the most disadvantaged children firstPauline RoseMustafacevcek via PixabayYoung children in Ethiopia


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YesLicence type: Attribution

New study suggests climate change may be affecting animal body size

Tue, 29/11/2022 - 10:25

New evidence shows that some mammals increase in size in warmer settings, upsetting established norms and suggesting that climate change may be having an unexpected impact on animal body size.

The study*, published in Scientific Reports, finds that recent changes in treeshrew body size subvert two of the most studied ecogeographical rules about body size variation within species.

According to Bergmann’s rule, named after nineteenth century German biologist Carl Bergmann who described the pattern in 1847, individuals have larger body sizes in colder climates (typically at higher latitudes). 

The second rule, named Foster’s rule after a 1964 study by mammalogist J. Bristol Foster, predicts that island populations of small-bodied species are on average larger in size than their mainland counterparts. 

The researchers, led by Maya Juman [2022], a Gates Cambridge scholar and PhD student at the University of Cambridge, tested the rules across space and time simultaneously in the Northern Treeshrew, a small mammal native to South and Southeast Asia. They used a dataset of museum specimens collected across a wide spatial and temporal range, along with associated historical climate data. They found that both rules have inverted rapidly over time: body size variation in specimens collected in the late 19th century followed the patterns predicted by Bergmann’s and Foster’s rules, but the pattern reversed in the 20th century.

According to the study, the size of Northern Treeshrews on the mainland has consistently increased over time in warmer settings, with temperature being the most important predictor of body size, although not the only one. Rainfall, for example, also plays a role, with areas of higher precipitation seeing a more pronounced relationship between temperature and body size. 

The researchers also discovered an interaction between the two rules: Bergmann’s rule is upheld in island populations but not mainland ones, so the island rule is upheld at higher latitudes but not closer to the equator. The study demonstrates the complex array of dynamic and potentially interdependent factors that affect body size, which is linked to critical physiological, ecological and behavioural traits.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, Yale University, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and McGill University, call for experts to re-examine ecogeographical rules in light of global warming to see whether climate change may be rewriting the rules themselves. “Our study is the first to demonstrate a rule reversal over time in any species,” said Juman. “We need to revisit some of our assumptions about size variation as our climate continues to rapidly change.”

*Recent and rapid ecogeographical rule reversals in Northern Treeshrews by Maya M. Juman (Cambridge; Yale), Virginie Millien (McGill), Link E. Olson (University of Alaska) and Eric J. Sargis (Yale). Picture credit: Burmese tree shrew ( Tupaia belangeri ) in Planckendael by Vassil. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

 

A new study finds treeshrews increase in size in warmer settings, contrary to established norms.

Our study is the first to demonstrate a rule reversal over time in any species. We need to revisit some of our assumptions about size variation as our climate continues to rapidly change.Maya JumanBurmese tree shrew ( Tupaia belangeri ) in Planckendael by Vassil. Burmese tree shrew ( Tupaia belangeri ) in Planckendael by Vassil. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons


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YesLicence type: Public DomainRelated Links: Gates Cambridge Trust

Non-detection of key signal allows astronomers to determine what the first galaxies were – and weren’t – like

Mon, 28/11/2022 - 16:00

Using data from India’s SARAS3 radio telescope, researchers led by the University of Cambridge were able to look at the very early Universe – just 200 million years after the Big Bang – and place limits on the mass and energy output of the first stars and galaxies.

Counterintuitively, the researchers were able to place these limits on the earliest galaxies by not finding the signal they had been looking for, known as the 21-centimetre hydrogen line.

This non-detection allowed the researchers to make other determinations about the cosmic dawn, placing restraints on the first galaxies, and enabling them to rule out scenarios including galaxies that were inefficient heaters of cosmic gas and efficient producers of radio emissions.

While we cannot yet directly observe these early galaxies, the results, reported in the journal Nature Astronomy, represent an important step in understanding how our Universe transitioned from mostly empty to one full of stars.

Understanding the early Universe, when the first stars and galaxies formed, is one of the major goals of new observatories. The results obtained using the SARAS3 data are a proof-of-concept study that paves the way to understanding this period in the development of the Universe.

The SKA project – involving two next-generation telescopes due to be completed by the end of the decade – will likely be able to make images of the early Universe, but for current telescopes, the challenge is to detect the cosmological signal of the first stars re-radiated by thick hydrogen clouds.

This signal is known as the 21-centimetre line – a radio signal produced by hydrogen atoms in the early Universe. Unlike the recently launched JWST, which will be able to directly image individual galaxies in the early Universe, studies of the 21-centimetre line, made with radio telescopes such as the Cambridge-led REACH (Radio Experiment for the Analysis of Cosmic Hydrogen), can tell us about entire populations of even earlier galaxies. The first results are expected from REACH early in 2023.

To detect the 21-centimetre line, astronomers look for a radio signal produced by hydrogen atoms in the early Universe, affected by light from the first stars and the radiation behind the hydrogen fog. Earlier this year, the same researchers developed a method that they say will allow them to see through the fog of the early universe and detect light from the first stars. Some of these techniques have been already put to practice in the current study.

In 2018, another research group operating the EDGES experiment published a result that hinted at a possible detection of this earliest light. The reported signal was unusually strong compared to what is expected in the simplest astrophysical picture of the early Universe. Recently, the SARAS3 data disputed this detection: the EDGES result is still awaiting confirmation from independent observations.

In a re-analysis of the SARAS3 data, the Cambridge-led team tested a variety of astrophysical scenarios which could potentially explain the EDGES result, but they did not find a corresponding signal. Instead, the team was able to place some limits on properties of the first stars and galaxies.

The results of the SARAS3 analysis are the first time that radio observations of the averaged 21-centimetre line have been able to provide an insight to the properties of the first galaxies in the form of limits of their main physical properties.

Working with collaborators in India, Australia and Israel, the Cambridge team used data from the SARAS3 experiment to look for signals from cosmic dawn, when the first galaxies formed. Using statistical modelling techniques, the researchers were not able to find a signal in the SARAS3 data.

"We were looking for a signal with a certain amplitude,” said Harry Bevins, a PhD student from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and the paper’s lead author. “But by not finding that signal, we can put a limit on its depth. That, in turn, begins to inform us about how bright the first galaxies were.”

“Our analysis showed that the hydrogen signal can inform us about the population of first stars and galaxies,” said co-lead author Dr Anastasia Fialkov from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. “Our analysis places limits on some of the key properties of the first sources of light including the masses of the earliest galaxies and the efficiency with which these galaxies can form stars. We also address the question of how efficiently these sources emit X-ray, radio and ultraviolet radiation.”

“This is an early step for us in what we hope will be a decade of discoveries about how the Universe transitioned from darkness and emptiness to the complex realm of stars, galaxies and other celestial objects we can see from Earth today,” said Dr Eloy de Lera Acedo from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, who co-led the research.

The observational study, the first of its kind in many respects, excludes scenarios in which the earliest galaxies were both more than a thousand times as bright as present galaxies in their radio-band emission and were poor heaters of hydrogen gas.

“Our data also reveals something which has been hinted at before, which is that the first stars and galaxies could have had a measurable contribution to the background radiation that appeared as a result of the Big Bang and which has been travelling towards us ever since,” said de Lera Acedo, “We are also establishing a limit to that contribution.”

“It’s amazing to be able to look so far back in time – to just 200 million years after the Big Bang- and be able to learn about the early Universe,” said Bevins.

The research was supported in part by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), and the Royal Society. The Cambridge authors are all members of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology in Cambridge.

 

Reference:
H. T. J. Bevins et al. ‘Astrophysical constraints from the SARAS 3 non-detection of the cosmic dawn sky-averaged 21-cm signal.’ Nature Astronomy (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-022-01825-6

Researchers have been able to make some key determinations about the first galaxies to exist, in one of the first astrophysical studies of the period in the early Universe when the first stars and galaxies formed, known as the cosmic dawn.

This is an early step for us in what we hope will be a decade of discoveries about how the Universe transitioned from darkness and emptiness to the complex realm of stars and galaxies we can see todayEloy de Lera AcedoNASA GoddardEarly galaxies capture by the NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Mussel survey reveals alarming degradation of River Thames ecosystem since the 1960s

Mon, 28/11/2022 - 09:27

The detailed study measured the change in size and number of all species of mussel in a stretch of the River Thames near Reading between 1964 and 2020.

The results were striking: not only had native populations severely declined, but the mussels that remained were much smaller for their age – reflecting slower growth.

Mussels are important in freshwater ecosystems because they filter the water and remove algae. As filter feeders they’re exposed to everything in the water, and this makes them a valuable indicator of ecosystem health. Mussel shells also provide places for other aquatic species to live.

“Mussels are a great indicator of the health of the river ecosystem. Such a massive decline in mussel biomass in the river is also likely to have a knock-on effect for other species, reducing the overall biodiversity,” said Isobel Ollard, a PhD student in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and first author of the report.

She added: “The depressed river mussel used to be quite widespread in the Thames, but this survey didn’t find a single one - which also raises concerns for the survival of this species.”

The study also recorded new arrivals: the invasive, non-native zebra mussel, Dreissena polymorpha, and Asian clam, Corbicula fluminea - both absent from the original 1964 survey - were present in high numbers. The scientists say invasive species probably hitched a ride on boats as they sailed up the Thames, and established themselves in the river.

The results are published today in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

“This dramatic decline in native mussel populations is very worrying, and we’re not sure what’s driving it,” said Professor David Aldridge in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, and senior author of the report.

He added: “While this might seem like a rather parochial little study of a single site in a single river in the UK, it actually provides an important warning signal about the world’s freshwaters.”

The invasive species could be behind the decline in the native mussel populations: zebra mussels are known to smother native species to death. But the scientists say more work is needed to be sure. Other causes could be changes in land use along the river, or changes in the fish populations that mussels depend on as part of their life cycle.

Many empty shells of the depressed river mussel, Pseudanodonta complanata, were found in the survey, indicating that the species had been living at this site in the past. The depressed river mussel is one of the most endangered mussel species in the UK.

The survey found that the population of duck mussels, Anodonta anatina, had decreased to just 1.1% of 1964 levels, and the painter’s mussel, Unio pictorum, decreased to 3.2%.

The scientists think the mussels’ reduced growth rate may reflect the river’s return to a more ‘natural’ state. Since 1964, levels of nitrate and phosphate in the river water have fallen due to tighter regulation of sewage treatment. A reduction in these nutrients would reduce the growth of algae, limiting the food available to the mussels.

Mussel species are threatened globally. The scientists say that regular population surveys of key species, like this one, are essential to tracking the health of rivers and guiding their management.

To ensure the survey was an exact replica of the original, Ollard contacted Christina Negus – who had done her survey while a researcher at the University of Reading in the sixties. Negus, who is no longer a scientist, shared details of the methods and equipment she had used. Her report, published in 1966, continues to be cited extensively as evidence of the major contribution mussels make to ecosystem functioning in rivers.

The research was funded by a Whitten studentship, Department of Zoology, Cambridge.

Reference

Ollard, I., & Aldridge, D.C. ‘Declines in freshwater mussel density, size and productivity in the River Thames over the past half century.’ Journal of Animal Ecology, November 2022. DOI: 10.17863/CAM.80071

Scientists replicated a 1964 River Thames survey and found that mussel numbers have declined by almost 95%, with one species – the depressed river mussel – completely gone.

This dramatic decline in native mussel populations is very worrying, and we’re not sure what’s driving itDavid Aldridge


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Yes

Blood thinning drug to treat recovery from severe COVID-19 is not effective

Mon, 28/11/2022 - 06:00

The HEAL-COVID trial (Helping to Alleviate the Longer-term consequences of COVID-19) is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and the Cambridge NIHR Biomedical Research Centre.  To date, more than a thousand NHS patients hospitalised with COVID have taken part in HEAL-COVID, a platform trial that is aiming to find treatments to reduce the number who die or are readmitted following their time in hospital.

In these first results from HEAL-COVID, it’s been shown that prescribing the oral anticoagulant Apixaban does not stop COVID patients from later dying or being readmitted to hospital over the following year (Apixaban 29.1%, versus standard care 30.8%).

As well as not being beneficial, anticoagulant therapy has known serious side effects, and these were experienced by participants in the trial with a small number of the 402 participants receiving Apixaban having major bleeding that required them to discontinue the treatment.

There was also no benefit from Apixaban in terms of the number of days alive and out of hospital at day 60 after randomisation (Apixaban 59 days, versus standard care 59 days).

Following these results, the trial will continue to test another drug called Atorvastatin, a widely used lipid lowering drug (‘a statin’) that acts on other mechanisms of disease that are thought to be important in COVID.

Chief Investigator for the trial Professor Charlotte Summers is an intensive care specialist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the University of Cambridge.  She said: "Having survived the ordeal of being hospitalised with COVID-19, far too many patients find themselves back in hospital, often developing longer-term complications as a result of the virus. There is an urgent need for us to find treatments that prevent this significant burden of illness and improve the lives of so many still being affected by COVID.

“These first findings from HEAL-COVID show us that a blood thinning drug, commonly thought to be a useful intervention in the post-hospital phase is actually ineffective at stopping people dying or being readmitted to hospital. This finding is important because it will prevent unnecessary harm occurring to people for no benefit. It also means we must continue our search for therapies that improve longer term recovery for this devastating disease.”

Dr Mark Toshner, joint Chief Investigator for HEAL-COVID said: “Up until now it’s been assumed that Apixaban helps patients recover after severe COVID-19 and that thinning their blood to prevent clots is beneficial. This trial is the first robust evidence that longer anticoagulation after acute COVID-19 puts patients at risk for no clear benefit.

“Our hope is that these results will stop this drug being needlessly prescribed to patients with COVID-19 and we can change medical practise. Finding out that a treatment doesn’t work is really important. It’s not the solution many hoped it would be, with our results highlighting once again why testing treatments in randomised trials is important.

“At present, the world’s research efforts have focussed on acute COVID-19. We now urgently need evidence about how to best treat patients beyond their initial infection.”

Professor Nick Lemoine, NIHR Clinical Research Network Medical Director, said: "Research into COVID-19 recovery remains vital as we move out of the pandemic. Results such as these from the HEAL-COVID study, help to strengthen our knowledge of how patients can be treated following their stay in hospital and how recovery rates can be improved upon.

“Findings from clinical trials, whether they identify new treatments or rule out methods of care, are vital and rigorous evidence when it comes to changing best medical practice.”

The trial is being led by Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH) and University of Cambridge, in collaboration with Liverpool Clinical Trials Centre (University of Liverpool) and Aparito Limited. 

HEAL-COVID enrols patients when they are discharged from hospital, following their first admission for COVID-19. They are randomised to a treatment and their progress tracked.

Adapted from a press release from Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

A drug used to reduce the risk of blood clots does not help patients recovering from moderate and severe COVID-19, despite this approach being offered to patients, a UK-wide trial, led by Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the University of Cambridge has found.

This finding is important because it will prevent unnecessary harm occurring to people for no benefitCharlotte Summers CUH | Blood thinning drug to treat recovery from severe Covid is not effective Westend61 (Getty Images)Hands of senior man with cannulae and band-aid being in intensive care


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Yes

Most young people’s well-being falls sharply in first years of secondary school

Wed, 23/11/2022 - 09:10

Most young people in the UK experience a sharp decline in their subjective well-being during their first years at secondary school, regardless of their circumstances or background, new research shows.

Academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Manchester analysed the well-being and self-esteem of more than 11,000 young people from across the UK, using data collected when they were 11, and again when they were 14. The adolescents’ overall ‘subjective well-being’ – their satisfaction with different aspects of life (such as friends, school and family) – dropped significantly during the intervening years.

It is widely accepted that young people’s well-being and mental health are influenced by factors such as economic circumstances and family life. The research shows that notwithstanding this, well-being tends to fall steeply and across the board during early adolescence.

That decline is probably linked to the transition to secondary school at age 11. The study identified that the particular aspects of well-being which changed in early adolescence were typically related to school and peer relationships, suggesting a close connection with shifts in these young people’s academic and social lives.

In addition, students with higher self-esteem at age 11 experienced a less significant drop in well-being at age 14. This indicates that structured efforts to strengthen adolescents’ self-esteem, particularly during the first years of secondary school, could mitigate the likely downturn in well-being and life satisfaction.

The research is published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. It was led by Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, building on research he undertook while studying for an MPhil in Psychology and Education.

“Even though this was a large, diverse group of adolescents, we saw a consistent fall in well-being,” Katsantonis said. “One of the most striking aspects was the clear association with changes at school. It suggests we urgently need to do more to support students’ well-being at secondary schools across the UK.”

Ros McLellan, an Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge, specialist in student well-being, and co-author, said: “The link between self-esteem and well-being seems especially important. Supporting students’ capacity to feel positive about themselves during early adolescence is not a fix-all solution, but it could be highly beneficial, given that we know their well-being is vulnerable.”

Globally, adolescents’ well-being is in decline. In the UK, the Children’s Society has shown that 12% of young people aged 10 to 17 have poor well-being. Dr Jose Marquez, a Research Associate at the Institute of Education, University of Manchester, and co-author, said: “Until now, we haven’t fully understood how universally poor well-being is experienced. The relationship between well-being and self-esteem has also been unclear.”

The researchers used data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which involves a nationally representative sample of people born between 2000 and 2002 and incorporates standard questionnaires about well-being and self-esteem. They then calculated a well-being ‘score’ for each student, balanced to control for other factors that influence well-being – such as economic advantage, bullying, and general feelings of safety.

While most adolescents were satisfied with life at age 11, the majority were extremely dissatisfied by age 14. By that age, the well-being scores of 79% of participants fell below what had been the average score for the entire group three years earlier. “This is a statistically significant drop,” Katsantonis said. “It goes far beyond anything we would classify as moderate.”

The study also captured information about the adolescents’ satisfaction with specific aspects of their lives, such as schoolwork, personal appearance, family and friends. This suggested that the most dramatic downturns between 11 and 14 were probably related to school and relationships with peers.

Despite the overall fall, students with better well-being at age 14 tended to be those who had higher self-esteem at age 11. The pattern did not apply in reverse, however: better well-being at age 11 did not predict better self-esteem later. This implies a causal link in which self-esteem seems to protect adolescents from what would otherwise be sharper declines in well-being.

“Supporting self-esteem is not the only thing we need to do to improve young people’s well-being,” Katsantonis said. “It should never, for example, become an excuse not to tackle poverty or address bullying – but it can be used to improve young people’s life satisfaction at this critical stage.”

The researchers identify various ways in which schools could support this. At a basic level, Katsantonis suggested that celebrating students’ achievements, underlining the value of things they had done well, and avoiding negative comparisons with other students, could all help.

More strategically, the study suggests incorporating more features that promote self-esteem into England’s well-being curriculum, and stresses the need to ensure that similar efforts are made across the UK. Recent studies have, for example,  highlighted the potential benefits of mindfulness training in schools, and of ‘positive psychology’ initiatives which teach adolescents to set achievable personal goals, and to acknowledge and reflect on their own character strengths.

McLellan added: “It’s really important that this is sustained – it can’t just be a case of doing something once when students start secondary school, or implementing the odd practice here and there. A concerted effort to improve students’ sense of self-worth could have really positive results. Many good teachers are doing this already, but it is perhaps even more important than we thought.”

Research based on data from 11,000 students charted an across-the-board fall in well-being, regardless of circumstances, between ages 11 and 14.

Even though this was a large, diverse group of adolescents, we saw a consistent fall in well-beingIoannis Katsantonis


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The Mystery of Darwin's Stolen Notebooks - Cambridge University Library Podcast

Mon, 21/11/2022 - 11:28

Darwin’s tiny, priceless Tree of Life sketch is arguably the most iconic drawing in the history of science. In this first podcast from one of the world’s great libraries, you’ll find out about the notebooks’ great importance, the endlessly curious life and letters of Charles Darwin, and the end of a nearly 50-year mega project to transcribe and publish 15,000 letters to and from Darwin – making them freely available to us all.


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The future of aviation: how will we fly to COP in 2035?

Fri, 18/11/2022 - 09:33

Along with all areas of the global economy, flight must become climate neutral. However, huge uncertainty remains around what technology, policy, finance, and behaviour will be needed to get it there.

Inspired by a call in early 2020 from His Majesty, King Charles III, for industry, academia, and Government to move much faster to get aviation to net zero, the University of Cambridge set up the Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA). The AIA aims to accelerate the journey to sustainable aviation by developing evidence-based tools that allow people to map, understand, and embark on the pathways towards sustainable flight.   

The team are now working on the Journey Impact Simulator, a tool that can be used to explore how a flight from A to B might look now and in the future, showing the best possible technology options to minimise climate impact while showing the user the trade-offs in terms of cost, land and electricity required. This tool draws results from the whole system model built by the AIA’s international and multi-disciplinary team.

“What we are trying to do is work with experts from industry, government, academia and civil society from around the world to identify 'unlocks' which will open the door to much wider transformation in the sector,” explains Professor Rob Miller, AIA lead and Director of the Whittle Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

Dr Samuel Gabra, an Egyptian research associate with the AIA, is passionate about scaling up energy access while reaching net-zero. Explaining how one might use the Simulator to explore a flight from London Standard to Sharm El Sheikh in 2035, he says that the model suggests a synthetic jet fuel and hydrogen combustion aircraft as the best options for limiting the climate impact.

“Although we reduce emissions by depending on hydrogen and synthetic jet fuel, this comes with a significant cost,” Gabra says.

It is startling to see the cost, land and electricity required for these future options. For example, for just one flight from London to Egypt in 2035 using synthetic jet fuel, the electricity requirement is approximately 166% of Egypt’s average electricity use per capita per year.

Gabra adds: “As we saw, the future of sustainable aviation is likely to require a huge amount of energy, which means it is impossible for a single country or region to single-handedly provide this amount of energy. This presents an opportunity for all countries, especially developing ones, to participate in the future of sustainable aviation. By capitalising on their abundant renewable resources, countries can act as hubs for producing green electricity and synthetic jet fuel.”

It is vital that as the world faces climate change adaptation and mitigation, all countries are included in the discussion around the opportunities and challenges. Aviation plays a key role in connecting our world, but access to the economic and social opportunities it brings are not equally available. As the aviation industry works to transform the sector, it is not just the climate impact that must be considered but the impact on people.

Adapted from an article from the Aviation Impact Accelerator

In the week of COP27 people across the world have flown to Sharm El Sheikh to discuss action on climate change. Aviation is a crucial way to bring us together to tackle this challenge – but it is also a major contributor to the problem.

The future of sustainable aviation is likely to require a huge amount of energy... This presents an opportunity for all countries, especially developing ones, to participate in the future of sustainable aviationSamuel Gabra How will we fly to COP in 2035? dmncwndrlchAeroplane flying


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Cambridge engagement with banks wins Green Gown Award

Thu, 17/11/2022 - 12:04

Cambridge, Jesus and Trinity were leading participants in efforts of the Responsible Investment Network – Universities (RINU) to focus engagement on persuading banks to stop financing companies that continue to build new fossil fuel infrastructure.

“Banks have a key role to play in the energy transition," University of Cambridge Chief Financial Officer Anthony Odgers said. "Our historic relationship with major banks, combined with our academic expertise, puts the University of Cambridge in a strong position to influence finance towards net zero goals. This award will help us share this approach with other institutions.” 

The University and the two colleges helped a global bank include methane emissions in its methodology, and to report on absolute emissions for the first time.

They also persuaded a second global bank to commit to phasing down their financing of the fossil fuel industry on a timeline consistent with the UN goal to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to update oil, gas and coal policies by the end of 2022.

“Our engagement with HSBC and other banks, including through the activities of the Trinity Responsible Investment Society, has shown how influential networks can be in accelerating the energy transition, especially when communicating expectations both as shareholders and clients,” Trinity College Investment and Sustainability Officer Romane Thomas said.

Jesus College Bursar Dr Richard Anthony said the award was a significant achievement, which shows how working in partnership to effect change can deliver on a scale that is much bigger than the College.

"We must all work together as we face the real and immediate challenge of climate change," Anthony said.

Green Gown judges were incredibly impressed with the quality of the Collegiate Cambridge initiative, calling it “innovative” and “sector-changing”.

“This initiative is leading the way and we cannot wait to see the change they create using money for good,” the judges said. 

Green Gown Awards are awarded by the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), an alliance for sustainability leadership in education with more than 300 member institutions in the Further and Higher Education sector of the UK and Ireland.

The University of Cambridge, alongside Trinity and Jesus Colleges, shared a prestigious 2022 Green Gown Award in the Money for Good category for effective engagement with the banking sector on climate finance.

Our historic relationship with major banks, combined with our academic expertise, puts the University of Cambridge in a strong position to influence finance towards net zero goalsAnthony Odgers, Chief Financial Officer


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Yes

Cambridge Dictionary names 'homer' Word of the Year 2022

Thu, 17/11/2022 - 10:04

The Cambridge Dictionary has revealed its word of the year for 2022 as "homer". Editors have credited disgruntled Wordle players whose winning streak was ended by the unfamiliar American English term.

Homer, an informal American English word for a home run in baseball, was searched for nearly 75,000 times on the Cambridge Dictionary website during the first week of May when it was an answer in the online five-letter word puzzle.

It became the dictionary's highest-spiking word of the year, and editors said five-letter Wordle answers dominated searches this year as the game became a global phenomenon.

Tellingly, 95% of searches for homer were from outside North America as baffled Wordle players turned to the Cambridge Dictionary to find out what it meant.

Some speakers of British English expressed frustration on social media about the choice of "homer" as the Wordle answer for 5th May. But many players would have been rewarded for demonstrating Cambridge Dictionary's Word of the Year 2021: perseverance.

In 2022, the American spelling of humor caused the second highest spike. In third place was caulk, a word more familiar in American English than in British English, meaning to fill the spaces around the edge of something, for example a bath or window frame, with a special substance.

Wendalyn Nichols, Cambridge Dictionary's publishing manager, said: "Wordle's words, and the public's reactions to them, illustrate how English speakers continue to be divided over differences between English language varieties, even when they're playing a globally popular new word game that has brought people together online for friendly competition about language.

"The differences between British and American English are always of interest not just to learners of English but to English speakers globally, and word games are also perennially entertaining.

"We've seen those two phenomena converge in the public conversations about Wordle, and the way five-letter words have simply taken over the lookups on the Cambridge Dictionary website."

Searches for Wordle's five-letter words on the Cambridge Dictionary website squeezed out other high-interest words that reflected current affairs.

These included oligarch, likely triggered by new international sanctions and geopolitical shifts amid Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine.

Ableist spiked during the controversy over the use of an ableist slur in lyrics to the pop song Grrrls by Lizzo.

Additions to the Cambridge Dictionary this year have included shrinkflation, defined as the situation when the price of a product stays the same but its size gets smaller.

Cambridge University Press has been publishing dictionaries for learners of English since 1995. Cambridge Dictionary began offering these dictionaries completely free of charge online in 1999 and is now the top learner dictionary website in the world, serving 2.6 billion page views a year.

Homer, an informal American English word for a home run in baseball, is Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2022, thanks to Wordle.

English speakers continue to be divided over differences between English language varietiesWendalyn NicholsKeith Johnston from PixabayA home run in a baseball game


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COP must reverse rising pessimism over building sector decarbonisation, new study argues

Thu, 17/11/2022 - 09:05

Negativity on Twitter about decarbonising the built environment has increased by around a third since 2014, according to a new analysis of more than 250,000 tweets featuring #emissions and #building between 2009 and 2021.

The pessimistic trend has followed the launch of major climate action reports. The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, reveals that expressions of ‘fear’ in Twitter dialogue increased by around 60% following the launch of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change in 2015.

The researchers, from Cambridge, Boston, Sussex and Aarhus Universities and Caltech, also found that ‘sadness’ increased by around 30% following the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming 1.5˚C in November 2019; while debate in November 2020 over lobbying of builders and utility companies over non-compliance with new building codes in the US triggered a spike in ‘anger’.

Mapping tweets that caused spikes in emotional engagement revealed that public concerns triangulated around inaction towards emission reduction, the fairness of carbon tax, the politicisation of building codes (distinctively seen for the US) and concerns over environmental degradation. This demonstrates, the researchers argue, “a strong environmental justice discourse.”

The findings appear on the heels of COP27’s building sector events (10th – 14th November), which sought to promote a just transition and enhancing building resilience with the tagline ‘Build4Tomorrow’.

Lead author Ramit Debnath, Cambridge Zero Fellow at the University of Cambridge and a visiting faculty associate in Computational Social Science at Caltech, said:

“Major climate policy events including COP have emphasised how difficult it is to decarbonise the built environment and this has been reflected in the rise of negative feelings on social media.

“But our research also offers hope – we found that climate policy events can and do foster public engagement, mostly positive, and that this has the power to increase the building sector’s focus on environmental justice.

“To build for tomorrow fairly, global climate action has to incorporate and empower diverse public voices. Policy actions are no longer isolated events in this digital age and demand two-way communication. Policy events and social media have a crucial role to play in this.”

The study highlights that the building sector is one of the most important and challenging to decarbonise. The IPCC suggests that restricting climate change to 1.5˚C requires rapid and extensive changes around energy use, building design, and broader planning of cities and infrastructure. The buildings and construction sector currently accounts for around 39% of global energy and process-related carbon emissions. The International Energy Agency estimates that to achieve a net-zero carbon building stock by 2050, direct building carbon emissions must decrease by 50%, and indirect building sector emissions must also decrease 60% by 2030.

But decarbonising the building sector is challenging because it involves a complex overlap of people, places and practices that creates a barrier to designing just emission reduction policies. The study argues that democratising the decarbonisation process “remains a critical challenge across the local, national and regional scales”.

“Our findings shed light on potential pathways for a people-centric transition to a greener building sector in a net-zero future,” Debnath said.

Using advanced natural language processing and network theory, the researchers found a strong relationship between Twitter activity concerning the building sector and major policy events on climate change. They identify heightened Twitter engagement around developments including: the Paris Agreement’s call for the building sector to reduce its emissions through energy efficiency and address its whole life cycle; COP-23’s ’Human Settlement Day’ which focused on cities, affordable housing and climate action; COP25’s discourse on green/climate finance for residential homes; and COP26’s ’Cities, Region and Built environment Day’.

The researchers found that despite negative sentiments gaining an increasing share since 2014, positive sentiments have continued to multiply as Twitter engagement has exploded. Across the entire study period (2009–21), positive sentiments have fairly consistently maintained a larger share of the conversation than negative sentiments.

The study highlights the fact that core topics covered by tweets have changed significantly over time, as new innovations, technologies and issues have emerged. Hashtags associated with COP26, for instance, included #woodforgood and #masstimber, as well as #housingcrisis, #healthybuildings #scaleupnow, and #climatejusticenow, all largely or entirely absent in Twitter conversations between 2009 and 2016.

The researchers found that discourse on innovative emissions reduction strategies which remain uncommon in the building sector— including use of alternate building materials like cross-laminated timber; implementing climate-sensitive building codes; and the circular economy – inspired Tweets expressing ‘anticipation’.

“COP26 was an extraordinary moment," Debnath said. "The Twitter engagement surrounding the event connected public health, the circular economy, affordable housing, and decarbonisation of the built environment like never before.”

“We are seeing a paradigm shift in the building emission discourse towards broader social and environmental justice contexts. Reference to low-carbon alternatives to concrete, housing crisis, scaling-up and climate justice are all part of the growing social justice movement associated with healthy and affordable social housing narratives globally.”

The study notes that considering the size of Twitter’s current user base (around 211 million users globally), the number of tweets about emissions in the building sector, remains relatively small.

“It’s crucial that policymakers raise the salience of these issues and develop communications strategies to emphasise the importance of climate action in hard-to-decarbonise sectors like the building sector,” Debnath said.

The authors of the study intend to continue to analyse social media interaction with further climate policy events, beginning with COP27.

Co-author Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Director of Institute for Global Sustainability at Boston University said: “Some people dismiss Twitter as a poor focus of academic research, given its ability to spread misinformation and fake news. But we instead see it as a lens into the inner workings of how millions of people think, and rethink, about energy and climate change. It offers an incredible opportunity to reveal people’s true intentions, their revealed preferences, in unbiased form on a public forum.”

Co-author Prof R. Michael Alvarez, Professor of Political and Computational Social Science at Caltech, said: “This is an innovative and important study, showing how an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars can use big data and machine learning to provide policy guidance on how to decarbonize the build sector. Research like this is critical at this time, to inform the debates at forums like COP27 and to energise additional scholarly work that can help further our goal of democratising climate action.”

Reference

R. Debnath, R. Bardhan, D.U. Shah, K. Mohaddes, M.H. Ramage, M.R. Alvarez, and B. Sovacool, ‘Social media enables people-centric climate action in the hard-to-decarbonise building sector’. Nature Scientific Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41589-022-23624-9

Social media engagement with climate policy events is vital to reducing building emissions and ensuring environmental justice, research led by Cambridge suggests

To build for tomorrow fairly, global climate action has to incorporate and empower diverse public voicesRamit DebnathBrian (Ziggy) Liloi. CC license via FlikrPeople installing a living roof in 2012


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