Articles on this Page
- 02/06/17--03:31: _Cambridge-Africa Pr...
- 02/07/17--01:11: _Concerns over wasti...
- 02/07/17--01:00: _Keeping the lights ...
- 02/08/17--01:00: _Graduate, get a job...
- 02/08/17--04:36: _A bridge of stars c...
- 02/08/17--04:13: _The Bible as a weap...
- 02/09/17--05:00: _New US Scholars sel...
- 02/09/17--09:02: _Deeper origin of gi...
- 02/10/17--00:40: _A sewage system tha...
- 02/10/17--01:26: _Virtual reality jou...
- 02/13/17--03:17: _Of cabbages and cow...
- 02/13/17--04:58: _Opinion: Brain scan...
- 02/13/17--08:01: _Viral charity campa...
- 02/14/17--06:46: _Black Hole powered ...
- 02/15/17--04:00: _When ideas of peace...
- 02/13/17--05:04: _Opinion: India’s mi...
- 02/16/17--00:02: _Nominations for Hon...
- 02/16/17--01:00: _Graduate, get a job...
- 02/16/17--01:40: _Under pressure: the...
- 02/16/17--04:06: _“Denial”: how to de...
- 02/07/17--01:11: Concerns over wasting doctor’s time may affect decision to see GP
- 02/07/17--01:00: Keeping the lights on in Ghana
- 02/08/17--01:00: Graduate, get a job … make a difference #5
- 02/08/17--04:36: A bridge of stars connects two dwarf galaxies
- 02/08/17--04:13: The Bible as a weapon of war
- 02/09/17--05:00: New US Scholars selected for Gates Cambridge Scholarship
- 02/10/17--00:40: A sewage system that ‘digests’ and ‘cooks’ human waste
- 02/13/17--03:17: Of cabbages and cows: increasing agricultural yields in Africa
- 02/14/17--06:46: Black Hole powered jets fuel star formation
- 02/15/17--04:00: When ideas of peace meet politics of conflict
- 02/16/17--00:02: Nominations for Honorary Degrees
- 02/16/17--01:00: Graduate, get a job … make a difference #6
- 02/16/17--01:40: Under pressure: the battle to have a baby in Africa
Having the chance to contribute to the pool of human knowledge depends a great deal on where you live in the world. Opportunities are skewed in favour of those who are better resourced and in favour of those who receive, and give, world-class training.
Knowledge lies at the heart of social and economic development, so countries with a thriving knowledge economy and good research infrastructure develop quicker; and the gap between those that don’t have these advantages grows ever wider. Among those lagging behind are many of the African countries.
And yet, explains Professor David Dunne, Africa has excellent researchers. He knows because for 30 years he’s been working in Africa with African colleagues on neglected tropical diseases: “I realised that they were brilliant but they didn’t have the opportunities they deserved to make their unique contribution both to solving Africa’s challenges and to adding to the sum of global knowledge.
“Even in the best African universities, there is a chronic shortage of researchers with access to the resources they need to be internationally competitive and to mentor future researchers,” he explains. “There just aren’t enough of them.”
“In parts of Africa, sometimes the choice seems to be between prioritising universal access to a basic education or investing in tertiary education and research scholarship. In reality, there is no choice,” says Dunne. “Both are absolutely essential.”
Eight years ago, he realised that universities like Cambridge could help bridge this resource and mentorship gap in Africa in ways that would build research capacity “while avoiding the loss of indigenous talent that so often occurs when better opportunities are available outside of Africa.”
Cambridge-Africa is the result. This University-wide institutional structure is designed to make expertise and resources available to support African researchers working in Africa on African priorities.
Today, the Programme supports African researchers in 58 different institutions in 26 countries across the continent. Its various schemes link PhD, postdoctoral and group leaders with a network of over 200 Cambridge-based researchers.
Key to its success is a ‘matchmaking’ model of partnership, as Dr Pauline Essah explains: “We carefully match the research interests of African and Cambridge researchers. It means there are benefits for both parties, and the potential for equitable and sustainable long-term collaboration after the mentorship has finished.”
She adds: “Being an African myself, and having studied in an African university before studying and working in Cambridge, I know that it wouldn’t work if we were just trying to take what Cambridge has and plant it in Africa. Instead we are modifying and adapting it in response to the needs identified by our African colleagues.”
Dunne and Essah began with targeting research in health: “We saw this as an easy win on both sides – it meets one of Africa’s greatest challenges, and it gives wider geographic scope to Cambridge researchers.”
They were surprised however by the scale of the response: “We were pushing against an open door,” says Dunne. Soon, scholars from archaeology to zoology, engineering to English, politics to plant sciences were joining the scheme. In 2015, the Programme was adopted as the University of Cambridge’s official international strategy to support African academia across all subject areas.
“And of course this is good for Cambridge too,” says Dunne. “It means our researchers have greater opportunities to collaborate globally and our students can experience working in Africa. It has helped make Cambridge a truly international University.”
Speaking at the annual Cambridge-Africa Day symposium, Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said: “The speed with which the Cambridge-Africa Programme has developed is phenomenal. We are trusted by our partners, and the Programme has buy-in from our academic community. This has been essential to the programme’s success. Today, it is no longer something done by a handful of enthusiasts. It is now something embedded in the University’s DNA.”
Adds Dunne: “The first of the Cambridge-Africa fellows are now starting to fulfil their outstanding potential as researchers and leaders, providing mentorship to the next generation of young African researchers.” To date, all 54 of the African PhD and postdoctoral researchers who have completed their fellowships are still working in sub-Saharan universities or research institutions.
“Universities are not just luxury items for wealthy societies,” he says. “They are equally vital to the futures of low- and middle-income countries if those countries are to share in the advantages of knowledge creation.”
Cambridge-Africa fellowship schemes are funded by the Wellcome Trust, the ALBORADA Trust, the Isaac Newton Trust and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
To keep up to date with the latest stories about Cambridge’s engagement with Africa, follow #CamAfrica on Twitter.
Inset picture: Professor David Dunne and Dr Pauline Essah. Credit: Mark Miniszko.
We ask how a 'matchmaking' programme that teams up Cambridge and African researchers is making expertise and resources available to support Africans working in Africa.
In the study, published today in the journal Social Science and Medicine, researchers from the Cambridge Centre for Health Services Research report how the theme of ‘wasting doctors’ time’ arose so often during interviews conducted with patients about their experiences of primary care that they chose to study this topic in its own right.
“‘Am I wasting the doctor’s time?’ is a question that many patients ask themselves when deciding whether or not to visit the doctor,” explains Dr Nadia Llanwarne, who led the study. “We already knew that this worry existed among some patients, but this is the first study entirely dedicated to the subject that reports the existence of this worry among a variety of patients, young and old, healthy and sick, visiting their GP for a wide range of complaints.”
As part of the study, Dr Llanwarne and colleagues filmed patients’ consultations with their GPs and then interviewed 52 patients across GP surgeries in London, the east of England and south west England about their experience. It was in these interviews that the issue of timewasting arose.
The researchers identified three threads common to the issue of timewasting present across patients’ narratives in general practice: the experience of a conveyor belt approach to care, the intimation that ‘other patients’ waste time, and uncertainty among patients over what is worthy of their doctor’s time.
The authors consider the reasons why people appear concerned about timewasting. Patients spoke of the pressured context in which their consultations take place: the demand on services, the NHS’s limited resources, the lack of time, and busy doctors. Understanding the time pressures that doctors face, patients described how these challenges influenced their decision to see their GP.
In an overstretched NHS, time becomes all the more precious, and this has meant that public campaigns often refer to appropriate and inappropriate users. For decades, doctors have expressed frustration that too many patients visit unnecessarily. As a result of these judgments cast upon them, patients voice the pressure to consult only when necessary and speak openly of ‘timewasters’.
“Patients are keen to avoid this label, but neither the patients, nor the doctors, are able to clearly define what precise problems might attract such a label,” says Dr Llanwarne. “This is because some patients will present with what seems on the surface a minor problem, but once through the door of the doctor’s consulting room, they may open up about more serious complaints. With some symptoms it may be very difficult for the patient to know whether these are serious enough or not to need review by the doctor.
“Recognising this worry about timewasting among patients is important because it could influence whether a patient chooses to see the doctor or not. If a patient decided to hold off seeing the doctor for fear of wasting resources, this could have serious implications for their health.”
Dr Llanwarne adds: “It’s important for patients to not delay contacting their doctor simply because of worry about wasting doctors’ time. And it’s important for doctors to be attentive to the fact that many patients will be worried about this. Doctors can then ensure they allay patients’ concerns when they do seek help.”
The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research.
Llanwarne, N et al. Wasting the doctor's time? A video-elicitation interview study with patients in primary care. Social Science & Medicine; e-pub 18 January 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.01.025
Worries over wasting their doctor’s time, particularly at a time when NHS resources are stretched, may influence when and whether patients choose to see their GP, according to a study carried out by the University of Cambridge.
In Ghana, ‘Dumsor’ is a part of life. An annoyance, a risk, an impediment to be sure, but a part of life all the same.
The half-joking, half-serious term, which roughly translates to ‘off-and-on’, refers to the frequent blackouts in the country. Entire neighbourhoods go dark in an instant. The patchwork electrical grid can leave one side of a street in darkness and the other fully lit. So widespread are the blackouts that John Mahama, until recently the country’s President, was often referred to as ‘Mr Dumsor’ by Ghanaians.
Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana doesn’t produce enough power to meet demand. Its power supply has been erratic since the early 2000s, when water levels in the Akosombo Dam, the country’s main hydroelectric dam, dropped to dangerously low levels, and they have yet to recover fully. Although Ghana has one of the highest rates of access to electricity in Africa, in 2015 the country still experienced blackouts on 159 days.
“Ghana’s not so different from the UK, really – both countries have an electrical grid that’s under enormous strain,” says Dr Kevin Knowles of Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. “The difference is we’d be up in arms if the lights went out all the time, whereas in Ghana it’s just a fact of life. But there are things that researchers in Ghana are doing to help improve the electrical infrastructure.”
One such researcher is Dr Abu Yaya, Head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Ghana. Yaya has been working with Knowles with the aim of developing a home-grown industry back in Ghana to make a small but crucial component for power transmission: electroporcelain.
For electricity to get from the places where it is generated, such as the Akosombo Dam, to homes and businesses, it needs a well-established electrical grid made up of pylons, substations and transmission lines. Whereas high-voltage power lines are insulated by the surrounding air, a physical insulator is required at the point where the power lines are supported by utility poles or transmission towers, or where power lines enter buildings. These insulators prevent the loss of current and concentrate its flow, as well as help prevent electric shock.
Most insulators for high-voltage power transmission are made from glass or porcelain. Knowles describes the electroporcelain manufacturing industry as “mature”. In fact, in the UK it’s been around since the 1860s – a reason perhaps why the insulators can look curiously old-fashioned and incongruous, like small white ceramic bowls or brown spiral candlesticks perched on the arms of pylons.
However, despite the prevalence of raw materials to make electroporcelain in Ghana, electroporcelain ceramics are imported from other countries at great expense.
"Ghana’s not so different from the UK, really – both countries have an electrical grid that’s under enormous strain. The difference is we’d be up in arms if the lights went out all the time, whereas in Ghana it’s just a fact of life"Kevin Knowles
It’s a frustrating situation says Yaya, who has now developed a method of making electrical insulators out of the materials available in Ghana. His aim is to scale up the process for commercial use in the country, and possibly to other sub-Saharan countries as well. The process is economical because all it needs is the raw materials, water and a furnace.
Yaya grew up in the slums in Nima, a suburb of Accra in Ghana. After completing his undergraduate studies in his home country, he received funding from the European Union to complete his Master’s degree in materials science at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, and the University of Aalborg, Denmark, and his PhD at the University of Nantes, France, after which he returned home to take up a post at the University of Ghana.
It was when he returned to Ghana that Yaya first became interested in developing electroporcelain, after a discussion with a retired lab technician who had a stockpile of clays and feldspar, but wasn’t sure what to do with it. “I figured out the clays and feldspar could be used to make electroporcelain, and at the same time I realised that Ghana imports all of its electroporcelain from Asian countries,” he says. “So I asked myself why can’t we make these products – and that is how I ended up in Cambridge.”
In 2015, Yaya won a six-month CAPREx fellowship at Cambridge to work with Knowles, an expert in materials for use in challenging engineering environments. Most of Knowles’ research focuses on how small changes to the microstructure of materials can improve their mechanical, electronic or optical properties for use in components such as connecting rods, fan blades, glass and fuel cells.
“In electroporcelain, the raw materials are clay, feldspar and silica,” explains Knowles. “When these raw materials are mixed together in the right proportions and fired together, at a temperature such as 1,200°C, an electrical insulator is produced. What happens during firing is that the feldspar melts and this helps to bind the particles together inducing further chemical reactions and reducing porosity. The result is a dense product that can be given a surface glaze to enable it to pass national safety standards tests for porcelain insulators.”
Yaya adds: “Normally, imported electroporcelains are made to suit the original country’s specifications, and are not made specifically for Ghana or other African countries, where the climatic conditions could vary. By producing these products in Ghana using local raw materials, they are subjected to our own environmental conditions.
They would be sent to the Ghana Standards Authority for further testing to ensure that failure does not occur rapidly when the electroporcelains are in use.”
"Dumsor is an irritation at times but it also shows the power crisis we must overcome"Abu Yaya
As well as working closely with Knowles, Yaya has also spent time working with UK-based company Almath Crucibles to optimise his process. His aim from the outset was to develop a manufacturing process for electroporcelain that would meet international standards so it can be sold to Ghana’s electricity company.
It’s a crucial time for Ghana, which has committed itself to universal electricity access by 2020. Making sure the electricity supply is widely available and reliable will aid the growth of industries and the economic development of the country. It will also support the demand for power by an increasing population.
“If we are able to manufacture insulators in Ghana then they will be far more affordable than imported insulators, and we stand a better chance of expanding our electrical infrastructure to improve capacity,” explains Yaya. Meanwhile, foreign investors are beginning to take notice of Ghana’s richness in materials: in August 2016, a Chinese-owned company opened the first phase of a US$60m factory in the Free Zone in Eshiem in Ghana to manufacture floor tiles and other ceramic products to supply domestic and international ceramics markets.
Yaya continues to collaborate with Knowles, as well as with other researchers in Europe. He is currently in the process of patenting his technique through a University of Ghana Technology Transfer Grant, and is now looking for potential commercial partners to help him bring the technology from a laboratory to an industrial scale.
“Dumsor is an irritation at times but it also shows the power crisis we must overcome,” he says. “We need to be sure that limitations in generating and distributing electricity do not become a development challenge for the country.
Dr Abu Yaya is at the University of Ghana. His research with Dr Kevin Knowles was funded by the Cambridge-Africa Partnership for Research Excellence (CAPREx) and The ALBORADA Trust, through the Cambridge-Africa Programme.
To keep up to date with the latest stories about Cambridge’s engagement with Africa, follow #CamAfrica on Twitter.
When Ghanaian Abu Yaya wondered why his country imports all of its electroporcelain – a small but crucial component for electrical power transmission – it led to a collaboration with Cambridge materials scientist Kevin Knowles that might one day result in Ghana being able to reduce its frequent blackouts.
Cambridge graduates enter a wide range of careers but making a difference tops their career wish lists. In this series, inspiring graduates from the last three years describe Cambridge, their current work and their determination to give back.
Nina studied archaeology as part of the Human, Social, and Political Sciences (HSPS) course. Archaeology is now taught in a free-standing Archaeology course.
For the past 15 years, scientists have been eagerly anticipating the data from Gaia. The first portion of information from the satellite was released three months ago and is freely accessible to everyone. This dataset of unprecedented quality is a catalogue of the positions and brightness of a billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy and its environs.
What Gaia has sent to Earth is unique. The satellite’s angular resolution is similar to that of the Hubble Space Telescope, but given its greater field of view, it can cover the entire sky rather than a small portion of it. In fact, Gaia uses the largest number of pixels to take digital images of the sky for any space-borne instrument. Better still, the Observatory has not just one telescope but two, sharing the one metre wide focal plane.
Unlike typical telescopes, Gaia does not just point and stare: it constantly spins around its axis, sweeping the entire sky in less than a month. Therefore, it not only measures the instantaneous properties of the stars, but also tracks their changes over time. This provides a perfect opportunity for finding a variety of objects, for example stars that pulsate or explode - even if this is not what the satellite was primarily designed for.
The Cambridge team concentrated on the area around the Magellanic Clouds and used the Gaia data to pick out pulsating stars of a particular type: the so-called RR Lyrae, very old and chemically un-evolved. As these stars have been around since the earliest days of the Clouds’ existence, they offer an insight into the pair’s history. Studying the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC respectively) has always been difficult as they sprawl out over a large area. But with Gaia’s all-sky view, this has become a much easier task.
Around the Milky Way, the clouds are the brightest, and largest, examples of dwarf satellite galaxies. Known to humanity since the dawn of history (and to Europeans since their first voyages to the Southern hemisphere) the Magellanic Clouds have remained an enigma to date. Even though the clouds have been a constant fixture of the heavens, astronomers have only recently had the chance to study them in any detail.
The Magellanic Clouds can be seen just above the horizon and below the arc of the Milky Way - D Erkal
Whether the clouds fit the conventional theory of galaxy formation or not depends critically on their mass and the time of their first approach to the Milky Way. The researchers at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy found clues that could help answer both of these questions.
Firstly, the RR Lyrae stars detected by Gaia were used to trace the extent of the Large Magellanic Cloud. The LMC was found to possess a fuzzy low-luminosity ‘halo’ stretching as far as 20 degrees from its centre. The LMC would only be able to hold on to the stars at such large distances if it was substantially bigger than previously thought, totalling perhaps as much as a tenth of the mass of the entire Milky Way.
An accurate timing of the clouds’ arrival to the galaxy is impossible without knowledge of their orbits. Unfortunately, satellite orbits are difficult to measure: at large distances, the object’s motion in the sky is so minute that it is simply unobservable over a human lifespan. In the absence of an orbit, Dr Vasily Belokurov and colleagues found the next best thing: a stellar stream.
Streams of stars form when a satellite - a dwarf galaxy or a star cluster - starts to feel the tidal force of the body around which it orbits. The tides stretch the satellite in two directions: towards and away from the host. As a result, on the periphery of the satellite, two openings form: small regions where the gravitational pull of the satellite is balanced by the pull of the host. Satellite stars that enter these regions find it easy to leave the satellite altogether and start orbiting the host. Slowly, star after star abandons the satellite, leaving a luminous trace on the sky, and thus revealing the satellite’s orbit.
“Stellar streams around the Clouds were predicted but never observed,” explains Dr Belokurov. “Having marked the locations of the Gaia RR Lyrae on the sky, we were surprised to see a narrow bridge-like structure connecting the two clouds. We believe that at least in part this ‘bridge’ is composed of stars stripped from the Small Cloud by the Large. The rest may actually be the LMC stars pulled from it by the Milky Way.”
The researchers believe the RR Lyrae bridge will help to clarify the history of the interaction between the clouds and our galaxy.
"We have compared the shape and the exact position of the Gaia stellar bridge to the computer simulations of the Magellanic Clouds as they approach the Milky Way”, explains Dr Denis Erkal, a co-author of the study. "Many of the stars in the bridge appear to have been removed from the SMC in the most recent interaction, some 200 million years ago, when the dwarf galaxies passed relatively close by each other. “We believe that as a result of that fly-by, not only the stars but also hydrogen gas was removed from the SMC. By measuring the offset between the RR Lyrae and hydrogen bridges, we can put constraints on the density of the gaseous Galactic corona.”
Composed of ionised gas at very low density, the hot Galactic corona is notoriously difficult to study. Nevertheless, it has been the subject of intense scrutiny because scientists believe it may contain most of the missing baryonic - or ordinary - matter. Astronomers are trying to estimate where this missing matter (the atoms and ions that make up stars, planets, dust and gas) is. It’s thought that most, or even all, of these missing baryons are in the corona. By measuring the coronal density at large distances they hope to solve this conundrum.
During the previous encounter between the Small and Large Magellanic Cloud, both stars and gas were ripped out of the Small Cloud, forming a tidal stream. Initially, the gas and stars were moving at the same speed. However, as the Clouds approached our Galaxy, the Milky Way’s corona exerted a drag force on both of them. The stars, being relatively small and dense, punched through the corona with no change in their speed. However, the more tenuous neutral hydrogen gas slowed down substantially in the corona. By comparing the current location of the stars and the gas, taking into account the density of the gas and how long the Clouds have spent in the corona, the team estimated the density of the corona. Dr. Erkal concludes, “Our estimate showed that the corona could make up a significant fraction of the missing baryons, in agreement with previous independent techniques. With the missing baryon problem seemingly alleviated, the current model of galaxy formation is holding up well to the increased scrutiny possible with Gaia.”
Vasily Belokurov et al. “Clouds, Streams and Bridges. Redrawing the blueprint of the Magellanic System with Gaia DR1”. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society; 8th Feb. 2017; DOI:10.1093/mnras/stw3357
The Magellanic Clouds, the two largest satellite galaxies of the Milky Way, appear to be connected by a bridge stretching across 43,000 light years, according to an international team of astronomers led by researchers from the University of Cambridge. The discovery is reported in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) and is based on the Galactic stellar census being conducted by the European Space Observatory, Gaia.
In 2012, one of the world’s most wanted war criminals, Joseph Kony, became one of the most repeated names on the planet thanks to a YouTube documentary (Kony 2012) and a call to action that sought to expose the terror and slaughter he inflicted on thousands of men, women and children in Central Africa.
Indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, Kony is now believed to be in hiding with his followers. He remains the genocidal leader of the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who claimed to have been sent by God to liberate the people of Northern Uganda from the rival National Resistance Army (NRA). From the start of their insurgency in 1987, Kony’s LRA claimed as their major objective the establishment of a government based on the Ten Commandments.
In the decades since, his army – often made up of thousands of forcibly conscripted child soldiers – have wounded, widowed and orphaned indiscriminately as they prosecuted a campaign of violence with a vigour befitting Kony’s vengeful readings of the Old Testament.
In the process, the LRA are thought to have displaced as many as two million Ugandans, the vast majority from Uganda’s Acholiland, where Kony originally hails from.
Today, Acholiland is a haunted place; haunted by the ghosts and memories of a recent past that has been written in blood rather than ink during nearly two decades of conflict.
But what happens when former LRA soldiers, those who have used the Bible as a weapon of war, return home from the front lines? How do former soldiers – male and female, adults and children – learn to reread and reinterpret scriptures that once spoke to them of fire and brimstone?
Kony says it is God who sent him to kill people so nobody should stop him. You know this thing is very difficult to understand as Kony refers us to the Bible... In Kony’s time, God has sent the Holy Spirit, and it is the one which is doing the work through Kony.Zacchaeus, a former LRA commander
This is the puzzle facing Dr Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala from Makerere University in Uganda. As a CAPREx fellow, she spent time in Cambridge working with Dr Emma Wild-Wood, from the Faculty of Divinity and the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.
Nambalirwa Nkabala interviewed returning LRA soldiers in Uganda in order to examine how a positive engagement with biblical texts – especially those that seem to support violence – can help to promote peace instead.
She says: “My project identifies difficult texts in the Old Testament and seeks to identify the means by which they can be used in a constructive and meaningful way – with the central focus being on whether a particular interpretation promotes human dignity or not.
“The way the LRA used the Bible, in a literal sense, to justify their violent actions has caused a complete overturn of the social and generational structures of the Acholi people.
“The former LRA members I interviewed claim that all their actions are in accordance with Bible teachings; obedience to the law meant that anyone considered to have broken the Ten Commandments had to be destroyed.”
Kelly, a former child soldier, told Nambalirwa Nkabala that the Bible teaches that ‘somebody who does not obey must be killed’. This is the level of indoctrination that Cambridge researchers are trying to untangle as they work alongside Acholi leaders of varying denominations to promote peace and reconciliation using texts that were once wielded to justify murder on an industrial scale.
However, their work is complicated by the fact that Acholi cultural beliefs – as well as some readings of the Old Testament – also permit killing in exceptional circumstances, meaning that the LRA may have appropriated elements of Acholi culture to justify their own murderous ideology. For instance, the Achioli Chief and elders can pass ngolo kop me too– or ‘judgement of death’ – where killing is permitted, Likewise, Kony, a former altar boy in the Catholic Church, was brought up by a catechist father whom Nambalirwa Nkabala believes exposed him to Old Testament passages of death and punishment from an early age.
“Former LRA soldiers must be ready to reread the texts they were exposed to in a different way,” adds Nambalirwa Nkabala. “Texts with a violent message should be read with an ethical and nonviolent stance. Rather than passively accept what the text says, we must engage in dialogue with it. It is every Christian’s duty to expose and challenge any textual message which permits violence.
“The Bible must be read contextually. By asking about the role of the text to a particular context, interpreters will automatically be pushed into the habit of checking what implications a particular reading/interpretation could have on a particular community.”
Wild-Wood met with Christian and Muslim leaders of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) during her trip to Uganda in 2015 as she sought to understand how the Bible is now being used to rebuild society. She was struck by the commitment to peace across differing faiths and denominations.
“A great deal of thought has gone into how former combatants can be rehabilitated,” says Wild-Wood. “From my focus groups, the religious leaders were optimistic about the future, but the challenges are many. They are dealing with people who are very traumatised. Some see the LRA soldiers as perpetrators, some see them as victims. But there is a recognition that people have dealt with awful situations – and may fall apart afterwards.”
When you look at what happened in the north and you go to the Bible and you read from the beginning to the last part you may find that 90 per cent of what happened here is in the Bible. Whatever has happened is exactly how God designed it.Steve, a former LRA commander
Wild-Wood says that the ARLPI’s initial desire to publicise the atrocities being carried out by the LRA – and to protect civilians where possible – has now refocused to aid the process of reintegrating former combatants, and is working alongside international charities like World Vision to facilitate the transfer of former LRA soldiers from reception centres back to their communities.
“Projects of post-war reconciliation often engage with traditional beliefs and customs in order to effect lasting peace,” adds Wild-Wood. “Acholiland is no exception, and Acholi practices have been ultilised in restoring human relations. However, in the LRA and the wider population there are many Christians and a significant number of Muslims. It is important to engage the beliefs of those religious traditions when working towards long-term solutions to the destruction of society.”
While there may be a distance yet to travel, Nambalirwa Nkabala remains optimistic about Uganda’s future as it seeks to heal the deep scars caused by Kony and the decades of division and war he brought to his country.
“The advantage in all this is that the Acholi have a deep sense of community and solidarity,” she says. “This is exemplified in the various means they use to reincorporate wrongdoers back into their community. If the Acholi communities can be encouraged to maintain their cultural values of healing and reconciliation – even while reading texts that may have a violent message – then they can in the future avoid situations that can lead to the destruction and erosion of these most important of values.”
Dr Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala was funded by the Cambridge-Africa Partnership for Research Excellence (CAPREx) and The ALBORADA Trust, through the Cambridge-Africa Programme.
To keep up to date with the latest stories about Cambridge’s engagement with Africa, follow #CamAfrica on Twitter.
How do former Lord’s Resistance Army soldiers – men, women and children who have used the Bible as a weapon of war – learn to reread the scriptures once they return home? This is the puzzle facing researchers from Uganda and Cambridge.
Thirty-six of the most academically outstanding and socially committed US citizens have been selected to be part of the 2017 class of Gates Cambridge Scholars at the University of Cambridge.
The US Scholars-elect, who will take up their awards this October, are from 34 universities, including three which have never before had a Gates Cambridge Scholar - Mississippi State University, California State University (Los Angeles) and Loyola University (New Orleans).
They include the first Native American Gates Cambridge Scholar; the founder of the Alabama REACH programme for college students who are homeless, in foster care or wards of the state; and the first millennial scholar [born in 2000].
Montana Wilson, who did his undergraduate degree at Montana State University, will become Gates Cambridge’s first Native American Scholar when he takes up his MPhil [master’s] in Development Studies. His research will focus on governing institutions, most notably tribal governments, and how an individual’s decision affects economic development policies. Montana is a member of the Gros Ventre tribe of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Prior to receiving his bachelor degrees, Montana held commissions as Assistant Public Defender and Deputy Chief Prosecutor for the Fort Peck Tribes.
Caroline James will pursue an MPhil in Education in order to explore research-based methods to help democratise education, with a particular focus on the US. Caroline grew up in foster care and at the University of Alabama created Alabama REACH which aims to provide support for college students who are homeless, in foster care or wards of the state. She has also been featured on CNN for her academic achievements and diversity work. She subsequently worked as a teacher, winning a national teaching award for her work on student leadership development. Caroline has most recently worked in teacher leadership development and at Teach For America she partnered with and managed almost 60 educators.
Angela Madira will be just 17 when she starts her MPhil in Health, Medicine and Society, becoming the first genuine millennial Gates Cambridge Scholar. She began her BSc in Biochemistry at California State University in Los Angeles at the age of 12 and is about to publish a paper on the removal of dermoid cysts based on clinical research at the LA Children's Hospital. Her MPhil dissertation will focus on the efficacy and ethics of existing mammalian research models. She hopes to target the philosophy of cognitive psychology through the multispecies interactions between humans and animals, particularly scientists and their test subjects. She plans to become a paediatric neurosurgeon.
The US Scholars-elect will study and research subjects ranging from collaborative songwriting to improve health outcomes, spider behaviour, voter analytics to cancer therapeutics targeting the side effects associated with chemotherapy. Scholarships were awarded to 20 women and 16 men from a wide range of backgrounds. Twenty five will study for one-year master's degree courses and 11 will pursue three-year PhD degrees.
The prestigious postgraduate scholarship programme – which fully funds postgraduate study and research in any subject at the University of Cambridge - was established through a US$210 million donation to the University of Cambridge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000; this remains the largest single donation to a UK university. Since the first class in 2001 there have been more than 1,600 Gates Cambridge Scholars from 104 countries who represent more than 600 universities globally (more than 200 in the USA) and 80 academic departments and all 31 Colleges at Cambridge. The gender balance is approximately 50% men and women.
In addition to outstanding academic achievement the programme places emphasis on social leadership in its selection process as its mission is to create a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.
In the US round 2017 approximately 800 candidates applied for the scholarship; 200 of these were nominated by their prospective departments in Cambridge and 97 were put forward for interview by shortlisting committees and were interviewed by panels of academics from the UK and USA in Washington D.C. at the end of January.
The 36 US Scholars-elect will join 54 Scholars from other parts of the world, who will be announced in early April after interviews in late March and will complete the class of 2017. The class of 2017 will join current Gates Cambridge Scholars in October to form a community of approximately 220 Scholars in residence at the world-leading University of Cambridge.
Professor Barry Everitt FRS, Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, said: “We have interviewed nearly 100 outstanding candidates in the US selection round 2017. The 36 US Scholars-elect have been selected to reflect the mission of the Gates Foundation’s generous and historic gift to the University of Cambridge. They are an extraordinarily impressive and diverse group who have already achieved much in terms of their academic studies and leadership abilities and have shown their commitment to improving the lives of others in a multitude of ways. We are sure they will flourish in the vibrant, international community at Cambridge as Gates Cambridge Scholars and that they will make a substantial impact in their fields and to the wider global community.”
*Biographies of the 36 US Scholars-elect are available from the New Scholars page.
Thirty six future leaders have been selected for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A new study has revealed that gills originated much deeper in evolutionary history than previously believed. The findings support the idea that gills evolved before the last common ancestor of all vertebrates, helping facilitate a "lifestyle transition" from immobile filter-feeder to actively swimming predator.
The research, published today in the journal Current Biology, shows that gills develop from the same embryonic tissue in both jawed and jawless vertebrates - a lineage that split very early in our ancestral tree.
Jawed vertebrates - such as fish, birds and mammals - make up 99% of all living vertebrates, including us. Jawless vertebrates include the parasitic lamprey and scavenging hagfish: eel-like creatures that diverged from the ancestral line over 400 million years ago.
Previous work in this area involved slicing thin sections of fish embryos to chart organ growth. These "snapshots" of development led scientists to believe that gills were formed from different tissues: the internal 'endoderm' lining in jawless vertebrates, and the 'ectoderm' outer skin in the jawed.
As a result, since the mid-20th century it was thought that the ancient jawed and jawless lines evolved gills separately after they split, an example of 'convergent evolution' - where nature finds the same solution twice (such as the use of echolocation in both bats and whales, for example).
Biologists at the University of Cambridge used fluorescent labelling to stain cell membranes in skate embryos, and tracked them through the dynamic development process. Their experiment has now shown that the gills of jawed vertebrates emerge from the same internal lining cells as their jawless relatives.
The researchers say this is strong evidence that gills evolved just once, much earlier in evolutionary history - before the jawless divergence - and that the "crown ancestor" of all vertebrates was consequently a more anatomically complex creature.
The findings pull the invention of gills closer to the "active lifestyle" shift in our early ancestors: the evolution from passive filter feeders to self-propelled ocean swimmers. Scientists say that gill development may have been a catalyst or consequence of this giant physiological leap.
"These findings demonstrate a single origin of gills that likely corresponds with a key stage in vertebrate evolution: when some of our earliest relatives transitioned from filtering particles out of water pumped through static bodies to actively swimming through the oceans," says lead author Dr Andrew Gillis, a Royal Society University Research Fellow in Cambridge's Department of Zoology, and a Whitman Investigator at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, US.
"Gills provided vertebrates with specialist breathing organs in their head, rather than having to respire exclusively through skin all over the body. We can't say whether these early animals became more active and needed to evolve a new respiratory mechanism, or if it was gill evolution that allowed them to move faster.
"However, whether by demand or opportunity, our work suggests that the physiological innovation of gills occurred at the same time as the lifestyle transition from passive to active in some of our earliest ancestors."
While the jawed vertebrate lineage spawned the majority of vertebrate life that exists on Earth today - "evolutionarily speaking, we are all bony fish," says Gillis - lamprey and hagfish are the living remnants of a once extensive assemblage of primitively predatory jawless vertebrates.
"Lamprey are eel-like parasites that use their tooth-like organs and raspy tongue to latch onto fish and suck out the blood, while hagfish scavenge by taking bites out of dead matter," he says.
Gillis and colleagues used embryos of the little skate to track early gill development through cell tracing. The skate is a cartilaginous fish - an early-branching lineage of jawed vertebrates that includes the sharks and stingrays.
This made skate an excellent comparison point to try and infer the primitive anatomical and developmental conditions in the last common ancestor of jawed and jawless vertebrates.
The embryonic work of the Gillis laboratory neatly complements paleontological research from their Cambridge colleague Prof Simon Conway Morris, who has spent much of his career studying fossils of the Cambrian period of rapid evolution - when most major animal groups originated.
In 2014, Conway Morris was part of the team that discovered Metaspriggina: one of the oldest-known vertebrate fossils, perhaps over 500 million years old, which displayed hints of a gill structure, as well as the muscle arrangement of an active swimmer.
"Our embryological research helps us understand exactly how the gill structures in early vertebrates such as Metaspriggina relate to the gills of living forms," says Gillis.
"Embryology can tell us about the evolutionary relationship between anatomical features in living animals, while palaeontology can pinpoint precisely when these features first appear in deep time. I think that this work nicely illustrates how these two areas of research can inform one another."
Fish embryo study indicates that the last common ancestor of vertebrates was a complex animal complete with gills – overturning prior scientific understanding and complementing recent fossil finds. The work places gill evolution concurrent with shift to self-propulsion in our earliest ancestors.
We are surrounded by friendly and welcoming people, but the language barrier makes communication monumentally challenging. We feel far from the immaculate lawns and gleaming stone of King’s Parade on a summer’s day. Navigating through a cluster of buildings in sweltering heat, even the smell is new. It has a sort of rawness: uncooked meat, unrefined exhaust fumes, untreated sewage.
This isn’t a quick and isolated visit. Instead, it will be the first of many over the next two months to Vingunguti, a densely populated part of Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania.
We are here as members of the student-led Cambridge Development Initiative (CDI), which runs several projects in the area. Ours focuses on engineering and, over the past three years, we have been designing and piloting an innovative sewage system to bring cheap and safe sanitation to households that are beyond the reach of the urban infrastructure.
Today we’re helping to lay pipes at shallow depths and gradients to expand our sewage network to 11 new houses, one of the aims on this trip. We’re helped along by the enthusiasm of members of the community, who are keen to have latrines that are connected to a sewage system.
Pit latrines are common here. Not only are they dangerous to empty, and frequently overflow in monsoon season, but these holes in the ground also contribute to the high incidence of water-borne diseases.
But it’s not just about cleaner toilets and streets. CDI’s innovation is the conversion of simplified sewage into useful products – fuel and fertiliser – using a system that has no net waste. The sewage flows into a ‘digester’ (designed by a SOWtech, a Cambridge-based company) that generates methane gas, which can then be used by households as a safer and cleaner alternative to charcoal for cooking. The effluent output of the digester is then ‘cooked’ using a solar-powered dryer (the EvapoDryer) to make fertiliser for agricultural purposes.
Once the new households are added, CDI will have managed to connect over 400 people to good-quality sanitation infrastructure, moving 1.9 tonnes of waste away from houses every day and generating products for the community that are either used in the households or sold by local entrepreneurs to establish an additional source of income.
On paper, this sounds great. But ensuring that it’s successful and sustainable in practice is tough. There are several case studies – even within Vingunguti – that highlight the dangers of not adequately including the community in projects that directly affect them. With its ethos of participatory development, the CDI model focuses on community organisation, financial ownership and targeted skills and knowledge training. Mobilising the community is a critical first step in the process.
After a community has identified the need for improved sanitation, a Sanitation Users Association (SUA) is established, bringing all the households together and giving them responsibility for managing construction and maintenance. In fact, the householders themselves finance and help to build the network. They are loaned the capital for their latrine construction and they pay this back through a microfinance scheme delivered by a Tanzanian NGO founded and run by a CDI alumnus.
Equally important is the involvement of students from universities in Dar Es Salaam, who are part of a complementary organisation (CDI Tanzania). We work alongside each other every day on all aspects of the project, from designing the network to facilitating community meetings. The Tanzanian students offer a unique and valuable perspective on the sanitation issues facing these areas – their insights are crucial to the success of the project.
To be sure that the project has a sustainable impact, we organise educational sessions for community members, delivered by our Tanzanian partners. One focus is health awareness sessions for women and children, covering topics like hand washing and malaria prevention. According to a recent survey, 97% of households agree that the project has improved the health of the community.
One local participant, Mr Mbetela, believes that the dangers of cholera and malaria have now been eliminated as a result of the CDI project. Fatima, another resident, says it has brought peace between neighbours because of the better conditions of the street. Ms Zacharia tells us that the new system has removed the embarrassment she used to feel when using exposed pit latrines.
As we prepare to return to Cambridge, we hear that the municipal water authority is looking to adopt our team’s sewage model, which could lead to 1,000 more people having access to safe, hygienic sanitation facilities in the coming years.
Meanwhile, CDI Cambridge and CDI Tanzania will carry on optimising the digester and cooker. Within 12 months, our goal is for there to be a fully functioning sanitation system, run and maintained by the community, removing human waste from households and turning it into essential products. The phrase ‘waste not, want not’ never seemed so apt.
Susannah is studying management at the Judge Business School, and Izhan has just graduated from the Department of Engineering.
Inset image: Susannah Duck and Izhan Khan; credit: Lloyd Mann.
Student volunteers Susannah Duck and Izhan Khan describe working with a Tanzanian community to install a system that turns sewage into essential products.
The funding will come from the first Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge awards– set up to help scientists solve some of the hardest unanswered questions in cancer research, and to revolutionise the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
Teams based at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute – both part of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre – have been awarded two of the four grants.
Professor Greg Hannon will lead a team at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, part of the University of Cambridge. Working with researchers in America, Switzerland, Canada and Ireland, they aim to build 3D versions of breast tumours, which can be studied using virtual reality, allowing scientists and doctors to study every cell and aspect of a tumour in unprecedented detail.
This new way of studying breast cancer could change how the disease is diagnosed, treated and managed. The virtual reality experience will include a ‘superman mode’ which will allow users to fly inside the tumour, point at every cell and find out exactly what kind of cell it is and what it’s doing.
Professor Hannon said: “This is an enormous challenge. I liken it to the idea of putting a man on Mars – there’s so much technology that you have to develop to do it. All sorts of things are happening in tumours that we can’t study using the technology we have. But with our project, we hope to change that.
“We want to create an interactive, faithful, 3D map of tumours that can be studied in virtual reality that scientists can ‘walk into’ and look at it in great detail. By doing this, we could learn more about tumours and begin to answer questions that have eluded cancer scientists for many years."
At the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Professor Sir Mike Stratton will lead a team aiming to build a deeper understanding of what causes cancer.
It’s already known that things in our environment, and behaviours like smoking and drinking alcohol, cause cancer by damaging the DNA in our cells. This damage occurs in distinctive patterns known as mutational fingerprints that are unique to their cause. For example, cancers caused by UV exposure have a different mutational fingerprint to cancers caused by tobacco.
There are at least 50 cancer-associated mutational fingerprints but researchers only know what causes around half of them. Professor Stratton’s team hope to fill in the missing gaps and determine the as yet unknown causes of cancer.
They’ll do this by studying 5,000 pancreatic, kidney, oesophageal and bowel cancer samples, which come from five continents. This will generate as much cancer DNA sequence data as the whole world has produced so far. This work could help prevent more cancers and reduce the global burden of the disease.
Professor Stratton said: “The main aim of our Grand Challenge is to understand the causes of cancer. Every cancer retains an archaeological trace, a record in its DNA, of what caused it. It’s that record that we want to explore to find out what caused the cancer.
“We’re going to sequence the DNA of thousands of cancer samples that have been collected from many different countries around the world, and study them to see what archaeological trace they contain. By doing this, we hope to figure out what caused those cancers.
“The thing that’s really exciting me is the challenge of making it all happen. And I’m looking forward to seeing the answers this work brings.”
The Cambridge projects were selected by an international panel of experts from a shortlist of nine exceptional, multi-disciplinary collaborations from universities, institutes and industry across the globe.
Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Cancer Research UK set up the Grand Challenge awards to bring a renewed focus and energy to the fight against cancer. We want to shine a light on the toughest questions that stand in the way of progress. We’re incredibly excited to be able to support these exceptional teams as they help us achieve our ambition.
“Cancer is a global problem, and these projects are part of the global solution. Together, we will redefine cancer – turning it from a disease that so many people die from, to one that many people can live with. We will reduce the number of people worldwide affected by cancer and achieve our goal of beating cancer sooner.”
Adapted from a press release by Cancer Research UK
Cambridge scientists have received two of the biggest funding grants ever awarded by Cancer Research UK, with the charity set to invest £40 million over the next five years in two ground-breaking research projects in the city.
The humble cabbage, universally despised by British schoolchildren, has found unexpected popularity on another continent. But just as the people of Ghana have developed an appetite – and a market – for this leafy green, so too has something else: a virus carried by aphids that causes the cabbages to wilt and die
By contrast, a parasite that emaciates cattle across sub-Saharan Africa has been around for thousands of years but continues to take its toll on certain species of the animals it infects. Prominent ribs are the frequent hallmarks of trypanosomiasis – caused by the presence of a cunning parasite that evades the animal’s immune system by periodically changing its protein ‘coat’.
Meanwhile, farmers in Ethiopia are turning away from the traditional zebu cattle towards breeds that produce greater quantities of milk. As a result they are exposing their herds – and themselves – to increasing levels of tuberculosis (TB) that are brought about by intensified animal husbandry practices.
What links cabbages and cows are three programmes that hope to connect fundamental research with improving farm yields, and in so doing contribute to solving a looming pan-African problem. More than half of global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa. And more people means a requirement for more food.
Ethiopia, for example, has the largest livestock population in Africa but, with a growing population and increasing urbanisation, even its 53 million cattle are not enough. And now efforts to intensify farming in the country are bringing a significant health concern. “The new breeds are more vulnerable than zebu to bovine TB,” explains Professor James Wood from Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine. “This may have health implications for those who work with and live alongside infected cattle, and also raises concerns about transmission to areas with previously low TB.”
Wood leads a £2.9 million research programme, ETHICOBOTS, which is looking at the feasibility of control strategies, including cattle vaccination. The programme combines partners in eight Ethiopian and UK institutions, and brings together veterinary scientists, epidemiologists, geneticists, immunologists and social scientists. “We need this mix because we are not only asking how effective strategies will be, but also whether farmers will accept them, and what the consequences are for prosperity and wellbeing.”
The difference that increasing productivity can have on farmers’ livelihoods is not lost on an insect expert at the University of Ghana, Dr Ken Fening, who is working on another food-related research project. Cabbages are not indigenous to the continent but have become a major cash crop for Ghanaian farmers and an important source of income for traders to markets and hotels.
“A good crop can bring in money to buy fertilisers and farm equipment, and also help to pay for healthcare and education for the family,” he says. Recently, however, fields of stunted, yellowing, wilting cabbages, their leaves curled and dotted with mould, have become an all too familiar and devastating sight for the farmers of Ghana.
From his field station base in Kpong, Ghana, Fening works closely with smallholder farmers on pest control strategies. Two years ago they started reporting that a new disease was attacking their crops. “It seemed to be associated with massive infestations of pink and green aphids,” says Fening, “and from my studies of the way insects interact with many different vegetables, I’m familiar with the types of damage they can cause.”
Farmers were typically seeing the total loss of their crops and he realised that the devastation couldn’t just be caused by sap-sucking insects. Despite no previous reports of viral diseases affecting cabbage crops in Ghana, the symptoms suggested a viral pathogen.
With funding through the CAPREx programme, Fening began work with Cambridge plant biologist Dr John Carr. The pair collected samples of cabbage plants in Ghana showing signs of disease, and also aphids on the diseased plants. Back in Cambridge, Fening used screening techniques including a type of DNA ‘fingerprinting’ to identify the aphid species, and sophisticated molecular biology methods to try to identify the offending virus.
“Aphids are a common carrier of plant-infecting viruses,” explains Carr, whose research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council as part of the £16 million SCPRID (Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development) initiative. “The ‘usual suspects’ are turnip mosaic virus and cauliflower mosaic virus, which affect cabbages in Europe and the US.”
“We found that two different species of aphids, pink and green, were generally found on the diseased cabbages,” says Fening. “It turned out this was the first record of the green aphid species, Lipaphis erysimi (Kaltenbach), ever being seen in Ghana.” The pink aphid was identified as Myzus persicae (Sulzer).
What’s more, the virus was not what Carr expected, and work is now ongoing to identify the culprit. The sooner it can be characterised, the sooner sustainable crop protection strategies can be developed to prevent further spread of the disease not only in Ghana, but also in other countries in the region.
Another researcher who hopes that eradication strategies will be the outcome of her research project is Dr Theresa Manful. Like Fening, she is a researcher at the University of Ghana and a CAPREx fellow. She has been working with Cambridge biochemist Professor Mark Carrington on African animal trypanosomiasis.
The trypanosome that causes the disease is carried by the tsetse fly, which colonises vast swathes of sub-Saharan Africa. “This is a major constraint to cattle rearing in Africa,” she explains. “Although trypanosomiasis is also a disease of humans, the number of cases is low, and the more serious concerns about the disease relate to the economic impact on agricultural production.”
Carrington has worked for a quarter of a century on the parasite that causes the disease. He understands how the organism evades the immune system of the animal by changing its coat proteins so as to remain ‘invisible’.
“When you first start working on these parasites you are enamoured with the molecular mechanisms, which we now know a huge amount about,” he says. “But then when you look at the effect on large animals like cows you realise that there is almost nothing known about the dynamics of an infection, and even whether an infection acquired at an early age persists for its lifetime.”
Manful and Carrington set about testing herds in Ghana. They discovered that several trypanosome species can be found in the cattle at one time and that nearly all cattle were infected most of the time.
For Manful, one of the important gains has been the ability to expand the research in Ghana: “I now have a fully functional lab and can do DNA extraction and analysis in Ghana – I don’t have to bring samples to Cambridge. We are teaching students from five Ghanaian institutions the diagnostic methods.” She and Carrington have been recently funded through a Royal Society Leverhulme Trust Africa Award to continue their work.
“Agriculture faces increasing challenges,” adds Carr. “Bioscience is playing a crucial part in developing ways to mitigate pest impact and reduce the spread of parasites.
“We want to ensure not only that every harvest is successful, but also that it’s maximally successful.”
ETHICOBOTS is funded under the Zoonoses and Emerging Livestock Systems (ZELS) programme, a research initiative in the UK jointly funded by six research council and government bodies. Dr Ken Fening and Dr Theresa Manful were funded by the Cambridge-Africa Partnership for Research Excellence (CAPREx) and The ALBORADA Trust, through the Cambridge-Africa Programme.
Images: top: cabbage aphids (credit: Dr Ken Fening); bottom: cattle in Ghana (credit: Dr Theresa Manful and Professor Mark Carrington).
Africa’s food requirements, along with its population, are growing fast. Three research programmes ask how a better understanding of viruses, parasites and the spread of disease can pave the way to improving agricultural yields.
Are you lying? Do you have a racial bias? Is your moral compass intact? To find out what you think or feel, we usually have to take your word for it. But questionnaires and other explicit measures to reveal what’s on your mind are imperfect: you may choose to hide your true beliefs or you may not even be aware of them.
But now there is a technology that enables us to “read the mind” with growing accuracy: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). It measures brain activity indirectly by tracking changes in blood flow – making it possible for neuroscientists to observe the brain in action. Because the technology is safe and effective, fMRI has revolutionised our understanding of the human brain. It has shed light on areas important for speech, movement, memory and many other processes.
More recently, researchers have used fMRI for more elaborate purposes. One of the most remarkable studies comes from Jack Gallant’s lab at the University of California. His team showed movie trailers to their volunteers and managed to reconstruct these video clips based on the subjects’ brain activity, using a machine learning algorithm.
In this approach, the computer developed a model based on the subject’s brain activity rather than being fed a pre-programmed solution by the researchers. The model improved with practice and after having access to enough data, it was able to decode brain activity. The reconstructed clips were blurry and the experiment involved extended training periods. But for the first time, brain activity was decoded well enough to reconstruct such complex stimuli with impressive detail.
So what could fMRI do in the future? This is a topic we explore in our new book Sex, Lies, and Brain Scans: How fMRI Reveals What Really Goes on in our Minds. One exciting area is lie detection. While early studies were mostly interested in finding the brain areas involved in telling a lie, more recent research tried to actually use the technology as a lie detector.
As a subject in these studies, you would typically have to answer a series of questions. Some of your answers would be truthful, some would be lies. The computer model is told which ones are which in the beginning so it gets to know your “brain signature of lying” – the specific areas in your brain that light up when you lie, but not when you are telling the truth.
Afterwards, the model has to classify new answers as truth or lies. The typical accuracy reported in the literature is around 90%, meaning that nine out of ten times, the computer correctly classified answers as lies or truths. This is far better than traditional measures such as the polygraph, which is thought to be only about 70% accurate. Somecompanies have now licensed the lie detection algorithms. Their next big goal: getting fMRI-based lie detection admitted as evidence in court.
They have tried several times now, but the judges have ruled that the technology is not ready for the legal setting – 90% accuracy sounds impressive, but would we want to send somebody to prison if there is a chance that they are innocent? Even if we can make the technology more accurate, fMRI will never be error proof. One particularly problematic topic is the one of false memories. The scans can only reflect your beliefs, not necessarily reality. If you falsely believe that you have committed a crime, fMRI can only confirm this belief. We might be tempted to see brain scans as hard evidence, but they are only as good as your own memories: ultimately flawed.
Still, this raises some chilling questions about the possibility for a “Big Brother” future where our innermost thoughts can be routinely monitored. But for now fMRI cannot be used covertly. You cannot walk through an airport scanner and be asked to step into an interrogation room, because your thoughts were alarming to the security personnel.
Undergoing fMRI involves lying still in a big noise tube for long periods of time. The computer model needs to get to know you and your characteristic brain activity before it can make any deductions. In many studies, this means that subjects were being scanned for hours or in several sessions. There’s obviously no chance of doing this without your knowledge – or even against your will. If you did not want your brain activity to be read, you could simply move in the scanner. Even the slightest movements can make fMRI scans useless.
Although there is no immediate danger of undercover scans, fMRI can still be used unethically. It could be used in commercial settings without appropriate guidelines. If academic researchers want to start an fMRI study, they need to go through a thorough process, explaining the potential risks and benefits to an ethics committee. No such guidelines exist in commercial settings. Companies are free to buy fMRI scanners and conduct experiments with any design. They could show you traumatising scenes. Or they might uncover thoughts that you wanted to keep to yourself. And if your scan shows any medical abnormalities, they are not forced to tell you about it.
Mapping the brain in great detail enables us to observe sophisticated processes. Researchers are beginning to unravel the brain circuits involved in self control and morality. Some of us may want to use this knowledge to screen for criminals or detect racial biases. But we must keep in mind that fMRI has many limitations. It is not a crystal ball. We might be able to detect an implicit racial bias in you, but this cannot predict your behaviour in the real world.
fMRI has a long way to go before we can use it to fire or incarcerate somebody. But neuroscience is a rapidly evolving field. With advances in clever technological and analytical developments such as machine learning, fMRI might be ready for these futuristic applications sooner than we think. Therefore, we need to have a public discussion about these technologies now. Should we screen for terrorists at the airport or hire only teachers and judges who do not show evidence of a racial bias? Which applications are useful and beneficial for our society, which ones are a step too far? It is time to make up our minds.
Brain imaging can reveal a great deal about who we are and what is going inside our heads. But how far can – and should – this research take us? Julia Gottwald and Barbara Sahakian, authors of Sex, Lies, and Brain Scans: How fMRI Reveals What Really Goes on in our Minds, investigate for The Conversation.
A University of Cambridge researcher has identified a recipe for the new breed of wildly successful online charity campaigns such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge– a phenomenon he has labelled “viral altruism” – and what might make them stick in people’s minds.
However, he says the optimistic use of global digital networks to propel positive social change is balanced by the shallow, short-lived nature of engagement with anything viral.
Writing in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, social psychologist Dr Sander van der Linden has outlined the key psychological levers he says underpin the new wave of viral altruism that is increasingly taking over our Facebook feeds.
These include the power of social norms, particularly the appeal of joining a social consensus and the desire to conform to prosocial behaviour (such as appearing charitable), having a clear moral incentive to act, and the appetite for a ‘warm glow’: the positive emotional benefit derived from feeling compassionate.
One of the most important ingredients – and the hardest to achieve – is ‘translational impact’: the conversion of online token support, or ‘clicktivism’, into sustained real world contributions, whether financial donations or a long-term commitment to an issue.
This, he says, involves a shift in motivation from the ‘extrinsic’ – incentives conditional on outside social pressures – to the ‘intrinsic’: an incentive that has been internalised to become a “new personal normal” for an individual.
Part of van der Linden’s initial research has been to pull together data such as Google and Wikipedia searches as well as donations to indicate the longevity and engagement levels of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign.
The Challenge reached unprecedented ‘virality’ during August 2014. The formula of videoing ice-cold water being poured over your head and posting it to social media while publicly nominating others to do the same in support of a motor neurone disease charity reached approximately 440 million people worldwide, with over 28 million joining in.
'Brightly but briefly'
Yet van der Linden found that the Challenge burned brightly but briefly: with online interest and donations reverting to pre-viral levels in mere weeks. The engagement was also superficial: estimates suggest that 1 in 4 participants did not mention the ALS charity in their videos and only 1 in 5 mentioned a donation.
And, while the 2014 campaign caused a significant spike in donations – some $115m – when the ALS charity attempted to reboot the Ice Bucket Challenge the following year it raised less than 1% of the previous summer.
Other examples of viral altruism considered to be successful also appear to have an equally brief “half-life”. The Facebook organ donor initiative elicited more than 60% of its total online registrations in the first two days before numbers rapidly dropped off. Save Darfur was one of the largest campaigns on Facebook; after joining, most members never donated money or recruited anyone else.
Van der Linden believes converting the brief social pressures of viral altruism into self-sustaining personal motivations is the key to leveraging new digital networks for long-term engagement with the big issues of our time, such as climate change.
However, he argues that it may be the very viral nature of ‘viral altruism’ that acts as a barrier to this.
“Society now has the ability to connect and mobilise over a billion Facebook users to action on specific social issues in a fast and low-cost manner, but it is becoming clear this entails viral phenomena which by their very nature are ephemeral and superficial,” says van der Linden, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.
“Just as a flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long, so a rapid social consensus spike reaches an equally rapid saturation point.
“Once the social tipping point of a campaign has passed, momentum can decay quickly and the purpose can get diluted. Once the ALS campaign had reached peak virality, many people were just pouring cold water over their heads without necessarily referencing the charity.
“Paradoxically, increasing meaningful engagement through viral altruism might actually require deliberately hindering the hyper-viral nature at some point with a stabilising force. Perhaps introducing aspects to a campaign that increasingly require more commitment – slowing growth and encouraging deeper engagement. If we want people to internalise a new normal, we need to give them a window big enough to do that.
“Deeper engagement seems especially vital. Something as simple as a single phrase connecting a campaign to its cause can make a difference. For example, those who mentioned the ALS charity in their Ice Bucket Challenge video were five times more likely to donate money than those who did not.”
Van der Linden has set out his recipe for viral altruism using the acronym SMART: Social influences; Moral imperatives; Affective Reactions; Translational impact.
The ALS campaign managed to exploit a two-pronged approach to 'social influences'. People were influenced by the example of those in their network, and wanted to join the burgeoning consensus. The nature of the campaign also meant that many were publicly challenged to participate by their social network, and risked the 'social sanction' of being seen to lack compassion if they then didn't.
Helping people with a debilitating disease was seen as a 'moral imperative'. Van der Linden says that having 'identifiable victims' such as scientist Prof Stephen Hawking allowed people to relate to the cause.
Campaigns that allow for the creation of a shared identity between the individual and the cause over time appear to be more successful in achieving translational impact.Sander van der Linden
'Affective Reactions' is the response to strong emotional content. "Empathy is an emotional contagion," says van der Linden. "We are evolutionarily hard-wired to 'catch' other people's feelings. Responding with an altruistic act give us a 'warm glow' of positivity. Similarly, people often respond to social injustice, such as genocide, with strong moral outrage."
However, where almost all campaigns stumble is 'Translational impact', he says. "Extrinsic incentives, such as competitions or network pressure, can actually undermine people's intrinsic motivation to do good by eroding moral sentiment. Motivation to participate can get sourced from a desire to 'win' a challenge or appear virtuous rather than caring about the cause itself."
Climate change is an example of a major global issue that currently scores pretty much zero for the SMART recipe, says van der Linden.
"Climate change often fails to elicit strong emotional engagement, there is little to no societal pressure to act on climate change in our daily lives, most people do not view it as a fundamental moral issue, and the long-term nature of the problem requires more than a one-off donation."
He suggests that using the SMART recipe could be a way to reverse engineer more effective climate change campaigns that harness viral altruism, but the problem of translating impact remains.
One of the more impactful campaigns van der Linden highlights is 'No-Shave November': the month-long growing of a moustache to raise awareness of men's health. Starting with just 30 people in 2003, the campaign didn't experience viral hypergrowth, but developed over years to reach about 5 million members by 2014 - by which time the charity reported 75% of participants were more aware of health issues facing men.
"Campaigns that allow for the creation of a shared identity between the individual and the cause over time appear to be more successful in achieving translational impact."
New work focusing on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge reveals very brief shelf life of such viral campaigns, and suggests the nature of ‘virality’ and social tipping points themselves may be a stumbling block to deeper engagement with social issues that campaigns aim to promote.
Powerful radio jets from the black hole – which normally suppress star formation – are stimulating the production of cold gas in the galaxy's extended halo of hot gas. This newly identified supply of cold, dense gas could eventually fuel future star birth as well as feed the black hole itself. The researchers used ALMA to study a galaxy at the heart of the Phoenix Cluster, an uncommonly crowded collection of galaxies about 5.7 billion light-years from Earth.
The central galaxy in this cluster harbours a supermassive black hole that is in the process of devouring star-forming gas, which fuels a pair of powerful jets that erupt from the black hole in opposite directions into intergalactic space. Astronomers refer to this type of black-hole powered system as an active galactic nucleus (AGN).
Earlier research with NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory revealed that the jets from this AGN are carving out a pair of giant 'radio bubbles', huge cavities in the hot, diffuse plasma that surrounds the galaxy. Previously, astronomers believed that this region would be too hot for the gas to cool and condense, preventing it from fuelling future star birth or feeding the super-massive black hole.
The latest ALMA observations, however, reveal long filaments of cold molecular gas condensing around the outer edges of the radio bubbles. These filaments extend up to eighty-two thousand light-years from either side of the AGN. They collectively contain enough material to make about 10 billion suns.
"With ALMA we can see that there's a direct link between these radio bubbles inflated by the supermassive black hole and the future fuel for galaxy growth," says Dr Helen Russell, an astronomer with the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy (UK), and lead author on a paper appearing in the Astrophysical Journal. "This gives us new insights into how a black hole can regulate future star birth and how a galaxy can acquire additional material to fuel an active black hole."
Artist's impression of the galaxy at the centre of the Phoenix Cluster. Powerful radio jets from the super-massive black hole are creating giant radio bubbles (blue) in the ionized gas surrounding the galaxy. Credit: B Saxton
The new ALMA observations reveal previously unknown connections between an AGN and the abundance of cold molecular gas that fuels star birth.
"To produce powerful jets, black holes must feed on the same material that the galaxy uses to make new stars," says Michael McDonald, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (USA) and co-author on the paper. "This material powers the jets that disrupt the region and quenches star formation. This illustrates how black holes can slow the growth of their host galaxies."
Without a significant source of heat, the most massive galaxies in the universe would be forming stars at extreme rates that far exceed observations. Astronomers believe that the heat, in the form of radiation and jets, from an actively feeding supermassive black hole prevents overcooling of the cluster's hot gas atmosphere, suppressing star formation. This story, however, now appears more complex. In the Phoenix Cluster, Russell and her team found an additional process that ties the galaxy and its black hole together. The radio jets that heat the core of the cluster's hot atmosphere also appear to stimulate the production of the cold gas required to sustain the AGN.
"That's what makes this result so surprising," says Brian McNamara, an astronomer at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and co-author on the paper. "This supermassive black hole is regulating the growth of the galaxy by blowing bubbles and heating the gases around it. Remarkably, it’s also cooling enough gas to feed itself.”
This result helps astronomers understand the workings of the cosmic 'thermostat' that controls the launching of radio jets from the supermassive black hole.
"This could also explain how the most massive black holes were able to both suppress run-away starbursts and regulate the growth of their host galaxies over the past six billion years or so of cosmic history," notes Russell.
Helen Russell et al. ALMA Observations of Massive Molecular Gas Filaments Encasing Radio Bubbles in the Phoenix Cluster The Astrophysical Journal DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/836/1/130
Press release courtesy of National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)
Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered a surprising connection between a supermassive black hole and the galaxy where it resides.
Burundi has experienced cycles of violence, civil war and even genocide since achieving independence from Belgium in 1962. So, when this small central African country finally held democratic multiparty elections in 2005 following a lengthy peace process, the international community cheered.
Here, perhaps, was a nation set to become a model for post-conflict inclusive governance. A model for building peace.
Now, Burundi once again teeters on the brink. In 2015, President Nkurunziza refused to step down at the end of his term, violating the new constitution and leading to a failed coup attempt – the aftermath of which has seen violent repression of the population.
Hundreds of thousands have fled, including much of civil society and a once-flourishing media. Torture, rape, imprisonment and extrajudicial killings are now commonplace, and in July 2016 the United Nations (UN) Security Council strongly urged all parties to cease and reject violence. The language of ethnic difference and the politics of ethnic scapegoating are once again coming to the fore, and tensions are extremely high.
For regional and international actors, such as the African Union (AU) and UN, which played key roles in the peace initiatives that paved the way for the 2005 elections, come familiar questions: what went wrong, and what to do now?
Through hundreds of interviews with everyone from government officials to local activists, AU and UN representatives, ex-combatants and aid workers, Dr Devon Curtis from Cambridge's Centre of African Studies (see panel below) is exploring what happens when the lofty ambitions of peace programmes – the language of security and democracy – encounter, as she says, “African realities and politics on the ground”.
“Before I became an academic I worked with government and the UN and it was almost easier then to provide policy recommendations in broad bullet points. It’s not so easy now that I have a real sense of the complexities of a country like Burundi, based on extensive research,” says Curtis.
Her research, in collaboration with UK and African-based scholars, is revealing the myriad ways international peacebuilding is reinterpreted and distorted by the politics of post-conflict African countries.
“Various local groups attract attention, funds or delegitimise opponents by manipulating – or ‘instrumentalising’ – the simplistic categories set by international donor organisations,” she says. “This can lead to unintended consequences for international agencies.”
For instance, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants has become an integral part of international peace operations over the past 20 years and a key area of programmatic activity, yet even the very category of ‘combatant’ in DDR programmes is problematic.
“The international distinction between combatant and civilian doesn’t make much sense in Burundi, where many people have been both at different times. In fact, armed movements used DDR programmes as the basis for recruitment drives – promising potential recruits ‘attractive demobilisation packages’ from international donors.”
In other cases, international actors keen to see regional stability and cessation of overt violence can be “instrumentalised” by a country’s ruling elites, such as in Burundi and its neighbour Rwanda, where funds and support were funnelled to the security services to increase the control and repression of populations.
“Grand ideas of democracy and empowerment can get lost in conversions towards militarisation that, on a short-term and basic level, meet with the international donors’ initial desire for security,” says Curtis.
International agencies have typically understood Burundi’s conflict to be along the same ethnic lines as Rwanda’s: the majority Hutu against the minority Tutsi.
These basic ethnic categories were deployed by internationals during peace talks, and ethnic power-sharing was promoted as the “anchor of the peace agreement”, says Curtis. “For a time, this succeeded in bridging ethnic divisions, as all political parties had to include representatives from each perceived ethnicity. However, it did not address other divisions in Burundi.”
“Also, at the time of the peace negotiations, inclusive power-sharing provided a perverse incentive to keep fighting if an individual or group didn’t get what they wanted. Violence continued to be a way to get a seat at the table.” Armed groups would continue to splinter – creating more and more subgroups that would then demand representation in the peace negotiations. “As soon as someone was brought in, another movement would break away, forming a new faction.”
This was in part an effort to gain power, but there were also tactics to keep the peace talks going indefinitely, for financial gain. “Burundian representatives were flown to the city of Arusha in Tanzania for talks, and paid per diem rates.” There is a well-to-do neighbourhood in Burundi’s capital city nicknamed ‘Arushaville’, which is said to be built on the earnings of these protracted negotiations.
While the peace negotiations meant one thing for international and regional mediators and donors, they were viewed in different ways by Burundians. In fact, the very language of the international donor community can be coopted and reinterpreted for local gain.
For instance, networks of traditional elders, called the Bashingantahe, were considered a thorn in the side of the current regime in Burundi. “The regime implemented a ‘democratic decentralisation’ programme – something designed to appeal to donors – which established an elected government at the local level. It led to fierce competition between these newly elected local officials and the Bashingantahe elders, so the elders formed their own ‘NGO’ to appeal to international donors and to be able to attend donor-financed civil society forums.
“Everybody’s manoeuvering,” says Curtis. “These international ideas and labels are not imposed on a blank slate, but are forced to interact with existing political and economic agendas.
“I wanted to focus on Burundi partly because there are few strategic and economic considerations for the international donor community – so one would assume that they are going in with relatively unbiased good intentions. Yet, even in this case, peacebuilding programmes do not bring about their intended effects. What does this mean for the even more ‘difficult’ cases such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Somalia?”
With funding from the British Academy, Curtis recently co-edited a book on peacebuilding ideas in different African contexts. She continues to consult with and advise the peacebuilding commission at the UN and the UK’s Foreign and International Development offices on a number of issues related to African peace and security.
Recently, in discussion with a network of African scholars, she has turned her attention to possible new approaches and ideas of peacebuilding: “International packages for peace tend to focus first and foremost on stability and electoral democracy, both of which are important, but which don’t affect the entrenched self-interest of ruling elites.
“Questions of social justice and equality are expected to come later – but what if it was flipped so they were prioritised? There are very few success stories in international peacebuilding, and I’m concerned we’re in danger of learning the wrong lessons: that peace is too problematic, and that we should focus on narrower goals of counter-insurgency.
“I’d like to try and shift the debate towards questions of social justice and international solidarity. If we changed the notion of what is important in peacebuilding, I wonder what peace might look like then?”
Inset images: Voluntary disarmament and demobilisation of combatants as part of the UN Operation in Burundi in 2004-2005; credit: United Nations Photo.
Research by an expert in peacebuilding shows how international ideas, practices and language of conflict resolution are transformed when they meet African “realities and politics on the ground”.
For half-a-century, the Centre of African Studies has served as the hub of research in the humanities and social sciences at the University of Cambridge. Collaboration with research institutes and individual researchers in Africa has long been key to its work, from its founding director Audrey Richards’s contribution to the establishment of social sciences in Uganda to a range of more recent forms of collaboration. In a scheme that is unique to Cambridge among African Studies Centres in the UK, the Centre hosts each year visiting research fellows from Africa, who spend six months in Cambridge unencumbered by duties in their home institutions.
Although the Centre does not have permanent academic staff, at present it hosts postdoctoral researchers whose interests range from heritage in Southern Africa to religion and popular culture in Rwanda. The Centre also monitors the provision of Africa-related teaching and research across the University. Cambridge’s well-established strengths in history and social anthropology have recently been complemented by growth in African politics – in both student demand and staff numbers.
The Centre has the only specialist African Studies library in Cambridge. Its archival collections are also significant. Academics across faculties and schools take part in teaching the interdisciplinary MPhil in African Studies. The Centre also hosts weekly research seminars and organises academic conferences in Cambridge and Africa. Some of the outcomes of these activities are published in its book series with Ohio University Press, a leading publisher in African Studies.
In Kaziranga, a national park in north-eastern India, rangers shoot people to protect rhinos. The park’s aggressive policing is, of course, controversial, but the results are clear: despite rising demand for illegal rhino horn, and plummeting numbers throughout Africa and South-East Asia, rhinos in Kaziranga are flourishing.
Yet Kaziranga, which features in a new BBC investigation, highlights some of the conflicts that characterise contemporary conservation, as the need to protect endangered species comes into contact with the lives and rights of people who live in and around the increasingly threatened national parks. India must balance modernisation and development with protections for the rights of local people – all while ensuring its development is ecologically sustainable.
To understand what’s at stake in Kaziranga, consider these three crucial issues:
1. The militarisation of conservation
The BBC feature shows park rangers who have been given the license to “shoot-on-sight”, a power they have used with deadly effect. In 2015 more than 20 poachers were killed – more than the numbers of rhino poached that year.
The programme accuses the rangers of extra-judicial killings of suspected rhino poachers. This resonates with a wider trend in the use of violence in defence of the world’s protected areas and the growing use of military surveillance technologies to support the efforts of conservation agencies.
In India, the Forest Department, which is responsible for the protection of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, has always been a “uniformed” service. Rangers wear military-style khakis, are allowed to carry arms, and have powers to prosecute offenders. Recently, the government allowed them to use drones as an anti-poaching measure in Kaziranga.
To justify such escalation and its talk of a “war” against poaching, the government cites the growing power and sophistication of the crime syndicates involved in the illegal wildlife trade. However, as with all wars, a serious conflict over rhinos risks collateral damage. The worry is that increased militarisation is not conducted within strict legal limits or subject to judicial scrutiny. The BBC alleges that such checks and balances were not in place in Kaziranga.
2. The rights of local and indigenous populations
The BBC story also points to the growing conflict in and around Kaziranga between the interests and rights of local and indigenous people and the need to protect threatened species. Groups including Survival International – which features in the BBC story – claim that well-meaning conservation projects have denied and undermined the rights of indigenous groups around the world. The group calls for these rights to be placed at the heart of modern approaches to conservation – and most enlightened environmentalists now agree. It’s increasingly hard to look at conservation without also considering human rights and social issues.
The context for these struggles in India is the colonial legacy of forest settlement, which reserved forests for the imperial state, but failed to take account of the rights of people who already lived there. This injustice was recognised in 2006, in landmark legislation known colloquially as the Forest Rights Act, which restored both individual and community rights based on evidence of historic access and use.
Yet there remains significant tension between India’s wildlife conservation lobby, which perceives the Forest Rights Act as the death-knell for nature, and groups such as Survival International which argue that it is only by recognising the rights of local people that the country’s wildlife will be protected.
3. Can we keep expanding protected areas?
To protect threatened species across the world, conservationists have called for more and more land to be placed under protection. Renowned biologist EO Wilson, for instance, wants us to set aside “half the planet”.
In an unconstrained world, dedicating half the earth to the protection of the most threatened species and the world’s important habitats might seem like a sensible way to avoid the risks of what people fear might trigger the next great extinction. In reality, there are few places left where such a proposal might practically be implemented.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in rapidly developing India. The country already has a population of 1.3 billion – and it aspires to both develop as a global economic powerhouse and lift its poorest people out of poverty. This development requires land and resources, with little space left for nature.
Plans to double the size of Kaziranga means villagers are being displaced with little due process and there are documented cases of violence and even death. This is a violent “green grab”, where land is usurped for ostensibly progressive environmental objectives, but which results in the dispossession of some of the most vulnerable people on this planet.
Kaziranga illustrates the dilemmas of contemporary conservation. If it is to be successful, environmentalism in India must be seen as part of the changing social and economic context, and not set itself up in opposition to these wider trends.
Conservation needs to recognise the need to build bridges, sometimes with its fiercest critics. While Kaziranga is in many ways a remarkable conservation success, its costs are considerable. The forces driving the world to overuse its resources haven’t gone away, and finding sustainable futures for both people and the planet requires coalitions that work together – let’s begin with Kaziranga.
There is a dilemma in contemporary conservation: how to balance modernisation, people’s rights and environmentalism. Nowhere is this visible that in Kaziranga, India, writes Dr Bhaskar Vira, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute for The Conversation.
The nominees are:
Doctor of Law
Professor Sir Malcolm Grant, Honorary Fellow of Clare College, lawyer and university leader
The Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, Honorary Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, economist, businessman and financial regulator
Doctors of Science
Professor Jean-Marie Lehn, former Alexander Todd Visiting Professor in Chemistry, Nobel Laureate, chemist
Professor Eric Maskin, Honorary Fellow of St John's College and Jesus College, former visiting student of Darwin College, Nobel Laureate, economist
Professor Janet Rossant, Darwin College, developmental biologist
Dame Stephanie Shirley, Honorary Fellow of Murray Edwards College, information technologist, businesswoman and philanthropist
Ms Sophie Wilson, Honorary Fellow of Selwyn College, computer scientist and software engineer
Doctors of Letters
Professor Manuel Castells, Honorary Fellow of St John's College, Balzan Laureate, sociologist
The University Council has submitted to the Regent House, the University's governing body, the names of eight renowned individuals, seeking authority for their admission to Honorary Doctorates at a Congregation in the Senate House on Wednesday 21 June 2017, at which the Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, will preside.
As a young doctor in Uganda a few years ago, Dr Annettee Nakimuli was told that nothing could be done about a complication of pregnancy that was putting thousands of pregnant women a year at risk of death.
She remembers the frustration: “I felt like we were accomplices in this war of sorts. People say we do not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. I did not want to accept that it was beyond hope.”
The disease is pre-eclampsia, a condition that is thought to be caused by the placenta developing abnormally. Women with pre-eclampsia often experience very high blood pressure, which can be fatal without medical intervention. Although the condition affects women worldwide, in African women it is more common and particularly severe. It also occurs earlier in pregnancy and can recur in subsequent pregnancies.
“What makes pre-eclampsia such a challenge is it has been impossible to predict or prevent,” explains Professor Ashley Moffett, from Cambridge’s Department of Pathology and Centre for Trophoblast Research, who is an expert on the disease.
“It’s been called the ‘silent killer’ because many women cannot feel the danger sign that their blood pressure is rising until it’s too late. Even when it is detected the only course of action is constant monitoring, and ultimately the only cure is delivery – sometimes at too early a stage for the baby to survive,” adds Moffett.
The silent killer
Nakimuli knows only too well the difficulties that African women face. Today she’s an obstetrician in Mulago Hospital, Kampala, where 33,000 babies are born each year. It has the highest number of live births of any hospital in the world (around 100 per day), and 15% of pregnancies develop life-threatening complications such as pre-eclampsia, haemorrhage, obstructed labour and sepsis. She describes herself and her colleagues as being “on the front line” in the battle against death in pregnancy and childbirth.
“I would often see women who had had four or more Caesarean sections with no living child – they continued exposing themselves to the danger until they had a baby,” says Nakimuli, who is also a lecturer at Makerere University. “I felt like not sitting back and just saying this is a disease with theories.”
Seven years ago, she began work with Moffett through the Cambridge-Africa Programme, first as a MUII PhD fellow registered at Makerere University, then as a MUII postdoctoral fellow and now as a research collaborator. Based in Kampala throughout, she would periodically travel to Cambridge to learn new techniques, analyse samples and spend time with Moffett trying to unravel why a complex disease is so much worse in Africa.
A few years earlier, Moffett had discovered that, when the placenta is formed, a remarkable ‘boundary-setting’ process occurs between the mother and the fetus deep within the lining of the womb.
“The placenta must invade the mother enough to access nourishment for the growing baby, yet not so much as to penetrate through the uterus,” she explains. “Placentation is a setting up of the territorial boundary between two genetically different individuals – the mother and her baby, who carries genes from the father. It needs to be in exactly the right place for both to survive and thrive.”
Moffett found that maternal immune cells called uterine natural killer cells mediate the compromise between mother and baby. These cells have unique proteins on their surface called killer-cell immunoglobulin receptors (KIRs), which recognise proteins called MHC on the invading fetal cells. Certain combinations of maternal KIR genes and fetal MHC genes are associated with pre-eclampsia, whereas other KIR genes appear to protect against the disease.
But why would women of African descent suffer so much more from pre-eclampsia than other women? “There was an assumption in Africa that there was a socioeconomic reason, like poverty,” says Nakimuli. “I was convinced that there was something biological.”
Nakimuli set about recruiting 750 mothers at Mulago Hospital to what is the largest genetic study of pre-eclampsia conducted in Africa. She collected blood and umbilical cord samples and, in Cambridge, ‘typed’ the DNA to look at all the genetic variation. “It was kind of a high-risk project, but my determination kept my hope alive. I wanted to find big things.”
Her hunch proved right. She found that the KIR genes that protect African women against pre-eclampsia are different from those that protect European women. Moreover, the risky combination of maternal KIR and fetal MHC proteins occurs at a much higher frequency in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world.
We think that women of African ancestry may have these risk genes because of certain beneficial selective pressures, otherwise why would genes that kill mothers and babies be so common in the population?Ashley Moffett
The findings immediately opened up new avenues of research into the biology of pre-eclampsia. The study also has implications for understanding infectious diseases, as Moffett explains: “We think that women of African ancestry may have these risk genes because of certain beneficial selective pressures, otherwise why would genes that kill mothers and babies be so common in the population? People with the gene that causes sickle-cell anaemia are able to fend off malaria – perhaps something similar is happening for KIR genes? And so now we are starting work to see whether the genes are protecting against infections such as measles, HIV and malaria.”
While Nakimuli and Moffett continue pinpointing the genetic basis of pre-eclampsia, and hope to bring out the first comprehensive textbook on African obstetrics, they are aware that one of the key issues surrounding pregnancy is that too many African women go to hospital too late, leaving it until their complications are advanced and dangerous.
“There’s a general lack of awareness and understanding,” explains Nakimuli. “There isn’t even an Ugandan word for pre-eclampsia. The closest people get to describing the condition is ‘having hypertension which is different from the other hypertension when you’re not pregnant’. It becomes a mouthful.”
Last year she took part in a series of radio programmes in Uganda as ‘Doctor Annettee’, the on-air doctor ready to answer questions from the audience. The programmes were part of an innovative Cambridge-led research project, ‘Africa’s Voices’, which uses interactive radio and mobile communications to gather and analyse the views of ordinary citizens.
“Because of the high rates of maternal mortality, a coping mechanism among Ugandan women is to consider pregnancy as being about bravery and fortitude,” says Nakimuli. “This way of coping might however lead to late self-diagnosis of the warning signs.”
“Sociocultural beliefs like coping mechanisms will determine how people behave,” says Dr Sharath Srinivasan, who is Head of Cambridge’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights and leads Africa’s Voices, “and so it’s important to understand a person’s thinking to support better maternal and neonatal health policies.”
However, the challenge has always been how to collect and assess all of the different ‘voices’ from hard-to-reach African communities. Srinivasan and colleagues realised that Africa’s digital revolution – particularly the widespread use of mobile phones and SMS messaging – could provide the answer when combined with the huge popularity of local radio stations and the team’s technical know-how.
The team developed a format in which a radio presenter would play a real-life testimonial – such as a woman relaying the complications of her pregnancy – and then invite listeners to reply to a related question by sending a text to a toll-free number. Each respondent would subsequently receive an SMS sociodemographic survey to complete.
“What makes this set-up so rich is the fact that ordinary citizens are encouraged to voice their views. They aren’t restricted by a poll-style yes/no answer,” says Srinivasan. “We’ve developed a methodology that can take this data, which is often complex, unstructured and in more than one local language, and analyse it with qualitative social science and computational techniques to draw out key themes and insights.”
During Africa’s Voices pilot phase, the team used this format in eight sub-Saharan countries, working with nine radio stations, and choosing radio presenters who have a good relationship with their audience. In these ‘social spaces’, they probed beliefs on HIV/AIDS, vaccination, women’s issues, agriculture and governance processes.
Now spun-out of the University as a non-profit organisation, Africa’s Voices works in East Africa with NGOs, health agencies and media organisations, and maintains strong links with researchers such as Nakimuli and Moffett.
An interactive radio project to shed light on pregnancy complications like pre-eclampsia was recently completed with three local language radio stations in Kampala, Uganda, and rich insights emerged into the perceived causes of complications in pregnancy. One finding is the difference in beliefs between men and women.
“Men, more than women, tend to think that the causes of complications are related to enduring traits of the mothers – their biology or their personality – but that the risk of complications is more likely to happen to other women, not their own partner,” explains Srinivasan.
“Women on the other hand are more likely to believe that complications arise because of factors that they can control – such as their lifestyle. Both women and men agree that insufficient health provision is the major reason women delay seeking healthcare.”
Srinivasan suggests from his experience that governments and service deliverers are keen to listen intelligently to what people are saying and to organise their work more attentively to the world views and collective beliefs of the populations they serve. “Sociocultural beliefs that limit the seeking of healthcare are addressable,” he says. “Interventions that engage women and communities in conversations can help change beliefs, opinions and norms, and thus behaviour patterns.”
"We needed to study the disease in Africa"
When Nakimuli is asked what her own research findings on the genetics of pre-eclampsia will mean for the mothers she sees every day on the wards at Mulago hospital, she is pragmatic.
“Can it help medically? We are still far from that,” she says. “Yes, theoretically we can predict risk by genotyping pregnant mothers, but we are in a low-resource setting – everything needs to be cost-effective. Really we need to develop a bedside test that doesn’t require costly and time-consuming laboratory analysis. Then we could know which women need to be monitored carefully.”
Sociocultural beliefs that limit the seeking of healthcare are addressable. Interventions that engage women and communities in conversations can help change beliefs, opinions and norms, and thus behaviour patterns
In the seven years since Nakimuli first embarked on her studies to understand why so many women die in pregnancy, Cambridge-Africa research partnerships with Mulago Hospital have widened considerably. They now include pharmacist Dr Ronald Kiguba and Professor Sheila Bird OBE (Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit, Cambridge) investigating how to report medication errors and adverse drug reactions; microbiologist Dr David Kateete and Professor Stephen Bentley (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute) tracking how infections like MRSA spread through hospitals; and a group of obstetricians and midwives from Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust looking at best practice with their contemporaries in Kampala.
Meanwhile, a typical day at Mulago Hospital will bring around five pre-eclamptic pregnancies and several cases of obstructed labour, preterm birth and stillbirths; and a team of five doctors will be supervising 80–100 deliveries.
Funds are being sought by Cambridge-Africa to help set up an African Centre of Excellence in Pregnancy and Childbirth at Mulago Hospital, in partnership with Makerere University’s College of Health Sciences. “We would like to train more specialised staff who in turn will train the next generation, and we want to turn new understanding of pregnancy complications into clinical interventions,” explains Nakimuli.
Looking back to when she decided not to accept that nothing could be done about pre-eclampsia, Nakimuli says: “I was convinced that the reason we didn’t know much about the disease was because we’d been looking in the wrong place. We needed to study the disease in Africa. After all, if you want to study a disease properly, then you should look at the population most affected by it.”
Dr Annettee Nakimuli was funded by the Makerere University-Uganda Virus Research Institute Infection and Immunity Research Training Programme (MUII).
Inset images: Top: Dr Annettee Nakimuli; Bottom: radio interview with 'Dr Annettee' as part of the Africa's Voices study (credit: Africa's Voices).
A complication of pregnancy that causes the mother’s blood pressure to rise – often fatally – is more common in women of African descent than any other. Research in Uganda by African and Cambridge researchers is helping to uncover why.
Cambridge graduates enter a wide range of careers but making a difference tops their career wish lists. Read about Kathryn Savage who now works in Uganda to improve health service delivery and increase utilisation by strengthening the leadership skills of health workers and district health teams. 'Graduate, get a job … make a difference' is a series in which inspiring graduates from the last three years describe Cambridge, their current work and their determination to give back.
I only have a very small part in the film Denial compared to those of David Irving (played by Timothy Spall), Richard Rampton QC (played by Tom Wilkinson), Anthony Julius (played by Andrew Scott), and Professor Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz), but I like to think it’s an important one. When Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin, her publishers, in the High Court for libeling him by calling him a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history, Julius, as her solicitor, decided to defend her by proving that what she had written about Irving was true.
He asked me to go through Irving’s books, articles and speeches and address the issues at the centre of the case. With the help of two of my PhD students, who also appear in the film, I spent 18 months doing just that, and writing a 740-page report that was put before the court. We demonstrated that he was indeed a Holocaust denier, who had claimed that there was no Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews, that 6 million did not die as a result of it, that gas chambers were not used to carry it out, and that the evidence on which historians relied was forged.
Irving lost the case comprehensively. When the case was heard before the High Court in the early months of 2000, Irving was unable to shake the foundations of my report or the conclusions of several other expert witnesses who presented evidence on the gas chambers at Auschwitz, on the planning and implementation of what the Nazis euphemistically called “the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe”, and on Irving’s connections with far-right, neo-Nazi groups.
In the film, John Sessions plays me incisively and with vigor as I give my evidence from the witness box. True, he only speaks for three or four minutes, whereas in the actual trial I was cross-examined by Irving for 28 hours, spread over more than a week. But the brilliant screenplay by David Hare gets over the essential point, which is that Irving deliberately falsified the historical evidence to bring it into conformity with his prejudices, his Holocaust denial. If all the egregious errors in his historical writings had been the result of mere carelessness then their effect on his arguments would have been random. But they all went to support his denial of Hitler’s responsibility for the Holocaust, the absence of any Nazi plan, and the claim that gas chambers were not used to kill vast numbers of Jews; so therefore they could only have been the result of deliberate falsification.
Irving wanted to argue, as he did in his opening statement, that Deborah Lipstadt was part of a Jewish conspiracy to discredit him. The judge did not permit him, however, to pursue this line in his closing statement. The allegation was irrelevant to the actual subject of the trial, which was Lipstadt’s charge that Irving was a falsifier of history and a Holocaust denier. Shifting the ground of an argument from the issues to the person who has raised them is a standard tactic of conspiracy theorists. They should not be allowed to get away with it.
In the end, by substantiating the defence of truth and accuracy in Lipstadt’s defamatory allegations, it was proved by implication that these things that Irving denied actually did happen. It was a victory for historical investigation. Seventeen years later, that victory no longer seems quite so comprehensive or secure. True, Irving was discredited in the eyes of the historical profession, some of whose members had previously taken his research seriously as scholarship. He also lost access to the newspapers and the broadcast media, where he had up to that point sometimes been treated as an expert on Nazism and the Second World War.
But the case was heard before the era of social media. Facebook was founded in 2004 and Twitter two years later. The Internet and the World Wide Web were already in existence, though their use was still not very widespread. These new institutions have transformed the nature of communication, putting out vast masses of unedited, undigested, uncontrolled information and, more importantly, misinformation out into the public arena.
The rapid and still largely unregulated spread of abusive ‘trolling’, the aggressive harassment of individuals through obscenities and even threats of violence and rape by social media, has introduced a new element venom into the public discourse. During and after the trial, I received a large number of abusive and obscene letters through the post from Irving’s supporters. I did not find them upsetting; they were uniformly stupid and many of them were semi-literate. I filed them away. Nobody ever saw any of them apart from those who wrote them, and myself, their recipient. But nowadays they would not be put into envelopes, they would go out there onto the Internet, via social media. This is a huge difference, and it’s degrading and defiling what should be a means of open and friendly communication, information and debate.
More importantly, however, while the trial, as it happened and as it is depicted in Denial, gave the stamp of the High Court, of the legal profession, of academic historians and political scientists, to the authenticity of the massive documentation that exists showing the Holocaust really happened, the emergence of social media and the proliferation of Holocaust-denying websites has allowed people who refuse to accept the facts to put their obnoxious opinions before the public as if they were statements of the truth.
What is at the core of Holocaust denial is of course anti-Semitism: in essence a vast and pernicious conspiracy theory that believes that there is a Jewish plot to convince the world that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, and that the plot has only succeeded because ‘the Jews’ control the media and rule the world of academic historical research. This is of course utter nonsense, as we showed in court. Apart from anything else, Jewish communities everywhere are divided politically and socially, and the media and the newspapers are not controlled by Jews of any description acting in any kind of concert. Still less is this the case with universities and institutes of research that discover and publicize the huge mass of historical documentation now available on the Holocaust.
But all opinions are equal in the new public sphere of the Internet. And there is a new form of ‘soft’ Holocaust denial making itself heard: the suggestion that the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis was just another genocide among many, however terrible it may have been. Anyone who has ever worked on Nazi Germany knows that this was not the case: while millions of others who were the victims of Nazism – ‘Slavs’, ‘Gypsies’, the mentally ill and handicapped, homosexuals, and others – were seen as obstacles to the rise of German power, the purity of the German race, and the implementation of German plans to colonise eastern Europe, the Jews were regarded quite differently, as the ‘world-enemy’, engaged in a global conspiracy that aimed at the destruction of the German, or as the Nazis put it, ‘Aryan’ race. They were an existential threat, so had to be killed wherever they were found. That is the reason why they were singled out by the Nazis, and even by ordinary German soldiers during the invasions of Poland and Russia in 1939 and then 1941, for specially sadistic and humiliating treatment, unlike the Nazis’ other victims.
The ‘Final Solution’ was thus far more than just another set of massacres. That is why we commemorate it on Holocaust Memorial Day, on 27 January. Yet when the Trump White House put out a statement on the Day, it made no mention of the Jews at all. Questioned on this, a spokesman claimed that the President wanted the Day to be ‘inclusive’. But the Nazis weren’t inclusive: it was only the Jews whom they tried to exterminate everywhere they found them, in their millions, in gas chambers, ghettoes and shooting pits. Seemingly the kind of anti-Semitism that reared its ugly head during the US election campaign, with Trump’s claim that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” and that Jews “control the levers of power”, has now moved into the White House.
Hard and soft Holocaust denial are now back in business, thanks to the Internet and to social media. All we can do to counter them is to insist again and again on the facts. The release of Denial, I hope, has made and will continue to make a major contribution to the discrediting of these obnoxious and paranoid conspiracy theories.
This article was originally published by the Conspiracy & Democracy Project: a five-year, interdisciplinary research project at Cambridge aiming to provide a “natural history” of conspiracy theorising. Prof Sir Richard Evans (inset above) is a co-Director of the Project.
The new film Denial dramatises the landmark libel trial when David Irving sued the academic Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier – a case Irving lost. Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History and an authority on the Third Reich, was called as an expert witness in the trial. Here, Evans discusses the case and the film, the emergence of 'soft' Holocaust denial, and the now infamous statement put out by Trump's White House on this year's Holocaust Memorial Day.