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    Researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Society (MPS) met with University of Cambridge counterparts on Tuesday 6 March for the formal launch of the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change.

    The launch event, held at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, was attended by Professor Martin Stratmann, President of the MPS, and by Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

    The new Centre began its operations in July 2017. One of its aims was to deepen researchers’ knowledge of social change by complementing the Cambridge Anthropology Department’s expertise in the anthropology of ethics with research conducted at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religion and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, and economic anthropology research conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle.

    The Centre is the latest of the MPS’s international partnerships. It is funded jointly by the University of Cambridge (including the Isaac Newton Trust) and the MPS, and has an initial budget of £2 million. The funding will allow six postdoctoral fellows will undertake field research at sites around the world. Over the coming four years, public lectures, workshops and larger conferences will be hosted both in Cambridge and the two German locations. It is expected that the Centre will, in the future, expand its activities to offer positions for visiting scholars, and to make the Centre a hub for further initiatives beyond the life-span of the initial projects.

    Speaking at the launch event, Professor James Laidlaw, Head of the Department of Social Anthropology and co-director of the new Centre, said:

    “This new Max-Cam Centre is the most ambitious and important of a number of initiatives the newly restored Department is embarking upon. It is an attempt… to show that ethical values and practice are just as pervasive in economic life as they are in religion, or the family… Morality is as crucial to explaining when people behave badly as it is to explaining when they behave well; as crucial to understanding how they cope with adversity as it is to understanding the ambitions they pursue. This is especially important when those hopes and ambitions are radically different from our own: when people’s values seem to us to be perverse, shallow, distorted, or plain incomprehensible.”

    Fellow co-director Professor Chris Hann, of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology at Halle, described the new Centre as an opportunity to renew the moral sciences, and expressed his hope that, in the wake of Brexit, the new Centre will demonstrate the value of continued European collaboration in science and society:

    “When we prepared the proposal over two years ago, few observers anywhere imagined that citizens of the UK would vote in a referendum to leave the European Union... In this uncertain climate, we would be very happy if the launch of our modest Centre can be a catalyst for further collaboration between the Max Planck Society and this great University.“

    Addressing this point, Professor Martin Stratmann said: “I am delighted that, in this period of uncertainty caused by Brexit, we have established another highly visible collaboration with top British scientists”.

    He added: “Without any doubt, in today’s globalized world, the dynamics between ethics, religion and economy have reached an unprecedented complexity. This makes the research of the new Max Planck Cambridge Centre very relevant for our times. This cooperation brings together the complementary skills of outstanding scientists of the Max Planck Society and the University of Cambridge.”

    Bringing the launch event to a close, Professor Stephen Toope remarked: “The more incomprehensible the world about us seems, the more we need to employ our anthropological imagination to appreciate its depth and diversity. This new joint venture with the Max Planck Society helps us do just that.”

    The collaborative venture will offer insights into the links between ethics and social change

    The more incomprehensible the world about us seems, the more we need to employ our anthropological imagination to appreciate its depth and diversity. This new joint venture with the Max Planck Society helps us do just that.
    Prof Stephen Toope
    Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society, and Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor
    Six research projects currently underway at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social, Change
    • Patrice Ladwig is studying the influence of economic modernisation on Buddhist rites of passage in urban Laos  By focusing on funerals and ordinations into monastic life, he explores how the ritual and moral economy that connects monasteries and laypeople has been affected by economic growth, and how increasing wealth, but also social inequalities are expressed and negotiated in rituals.
    • Johannes Lenhard is working towards an anthropology of the international venture capital industry with field research in London, Berlin, New York, San Francisco and Hong Kong. The focus of his project will be on the values and ethics behind the investors’ decisions: Why do VCs support certain startups - for instance Uber, AirBnB and Transferwise - and not others? What kind of a (better) future do investors want to create? 
    • Anna-Riikka Kauppinen is studying the emergence of new banks led by Ghanaian capital owners in Accra. With a focus on networks of institutional and personal exchange between banks and Charismatic Pentecostal churches, which have become major focal points of urban life in West Africa, the project will generate novel approaches to the study of African capitalism. 
    • Patrick McKearney is developing a comparative anthropology of cognitive disability through fieldwork on Christian NGOs that support these individuals in situations of economic change and development. He will focus on the strategies these organisations develop as they seek to change the role these individuals play in social life, and the practical consequences their ethical projects have on the lives of some of the most dependent in different social settings.
    • Samuel Williams will study the social and economic significance of gold in Turkey over recent decades of market-driven development. Working closely with Turkish goldsmiths in Istanbul and London who help intermediate the scrap gold trade through Turkey between Europe and the Middle East, he will investigate the range of families, businesses, and other organisations that draw on this gold and why it is of value to them.
    • Rachel E. Smith will conduct research in Vanuatu on moral and ritual economies in contexts of social change, particularly in the context of the production of kava (a narcotic beverage) for the domestic and a burgeoning export market. She will focus on how ethical, ritual and spiritual practices and values mediate social and economic change.

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    The material – which is 20 times whiter than paper – is made from non-toxic cellulose and achieves such bright whiteness by mimicking the structure of the ultra-thin scales of certain types of beetle. The results are reported in the journal Advanced Materials.

    Bright colours are usually produced using pigments, which absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, which our eyes then perceive as colour.

    To appear as white, however, all wavelengths of light need to be reflected with the same efficiency. Most commercially-available white products – such as sun creams, cosmetics and paints – incorporate highly refractive particles (usually titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) to reflect light efficiently. These materials, while considered safe, are not fully sustainable or biocompatible.

    In nature, the Cyphochilus beetle, which is native to Southeast Asia, produces its ultra-white colouring not through pigments, but by exploiting the geometry of a dense network of chitin – a molecule which is also found in the shells of molluscs, the exoskeletons of insects and the cell walls of fungi. Chitin has a structure which scatters light extremely efficiently – resulting in ultra-white coatings which are very thin and light.

    “White is a very special type of structural colour,” said paper co-author Olimpia Onelli, from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “Other types of structural colour – for example butterfly wings or opals – have a specific pattern in their structure which results in vibrant colour, but to produce white, the structure needs to be as random as possible.”

    The Cambridge team, working with researchers from Aalto University in Finland, mimicked the structure of chitin using cellulose, which is non-toxic, abundant, strong and bio-compatible. Using tiny strands of cellulose, or cellulose nanofibrils, they were able to achieve the same ultra-white effect in a flexible membrane.

    By using a combination of nanofibrils of varying diameters, the researchers were able to tune the opacity, and therefore the whiteness, of the end material. The membranes made from the thinnest fibres were more transparent, while adding medium and thick fibres resulted in a more opaque membrane. In this way, the researchers were able to fine-tune the geometry of the nanofibrils so that they reflected the most light.

    “These cellulose-based materials have a structure that’s almost like spaghetti, which is how they are able to scatter light so well,” said senior author Dr Silvia Vignolini, also from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “We need to get the mix just right: we don’t want it to be too uniform, and we don’t want it to collapse.”

    Like the beetle scales, the cellulose membranes are extremely thin: just a few millionths of a metre thick, although the researchers say that even thinner membranes could be produced by further optimising their fabrication process. The membranes scatter light 20 to 30 times more efficiently than paper and could be used to produce next-generation efficient bright sustainable and biocompatible white materials.

    The research was funded in part by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the European Research Council. The technology has been patented by Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm.

    Matti S. Toivonen et al. ‘Anomalous-Diffusion-Assisted Brightness in White Cellulose Nanofibril Membranes.’ Advanced Materials (2018). DOI: 10.1002/adma.201704050

    Researchers have developed a super-thin, non-toxic, lightweight, edible ultra-white coating that could be used to make brighter paints and coatings, for use in the cosmetic, food or pharmaceutical industries.

    These cellulose-based materials have a structure that’s almost like spaghetti, which is how they are able to scatter light so well.
    Silvia Vignolini
    Cyphochilus beetle with cellulose-based coating

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    Widely regarded as one of the world’s most brilliant minds, he was known throughout the world for his contributions to science, his books, his television appearances, his lectures and through biographical films. He leaves three children and three grandchildren.

    Professor Hawking broke new ground on the basic laws which govern the universe, including the revelation that black holes have a temperature and produce radiation, now known as Hawking radiation. At the same time, he also sought to explain many of these complex scientific ideas to a wider audience through popular books, most notably his bestseller A Brief History of Time.

    He was awarded the CBE in 1982, was made a Companion of Honour in 1989, and was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He was the recipient of numerous awards, medals and prizes, including the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, the Albert Einstein Award, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Fundamental Physics Prize, and the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Basic Sciences. He was a Fellow of The Royal Society, a Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences.

    He achieved all this despite a decades-long battle motor neurone disease, with which he was diagnosed while a student, and eventually led to him being confined to a wheelchair and to communicating via his instantly recognisable computerised voice. His determination in battling with his condition made him a champion for those with a disability around the world.

    Professor Hawking came to Cambridge in 1962 as a PhD student and rose to become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a position once held by Isaac Newton, in 1979. In 2009, he retired from this position and was the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics until his death - he was also a member of the University's Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, which he founded in 2007. He was active scientifically and in the media until the end of his life.

    Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, paid tribute, saying, “Professor Hawking was a unique individual who will be remembered with warmth and affection not only in Cambridge but all over the world. His exceptional contributions to scientific knowledge and the popularisation of science and mathematics have left an indelible legacy. His character was an inspiration to millions. He will be much missed.”

    Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942 in Oxford although his family was living in north London at the time. In 1959, the family moved to St Albans where he attended St Albans School. Despite the fact that he was always ranked at the lower end of his class by teachers, his school friends nicknamed him ‘Einstein’ and seemed to have encouraged his interest in science. In his own words, “physics and astronomy offered the hope of understanding where we came from and why we are here. I wanted to fathom the depths of the Universe.”

    His ambition brought him a scholarship to University College Oxford to read Natural Science.There he studied physics and graduated with a first class honours degree.

    He then moved to Trinity Hall Cambridge and was supervised by Dennis Sciama at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics for his PhD; his thesis was titled ‘Properties of Expanding Universes.’ In 2017, he made his PhD thesis freely available online via the University of Cambridge’s Open Access repository. There have been over a million attempts to download the thesis, demonstrating the enduring popularity of Professor Hawking and his academic legacy.

    On completion of his PhD, he became a research fellow at Gonville and Caius College where he remained a fellow for the rest of his life. During his early years at Cambridge, he was influenced by Roger Penrose and developed the singularity theorems which show that the Universe began with the Big Bang.

    An interest in singularities naturally led to an interest in black holes and his subsequent work in this area laid the foundations for the modern understanding of black holes. He proved that when black holes merge, the surface area of the final black hole must exceed the sum of the areas of the initial black holes, and he showed that this places limits on the amount of energy that can be carried away by gravitational waves in such a merger. He found that there were parallels to be drawn between the laws of thermodynamics and the behaviour of black holes. This eventually led, in 1974, to the revelation that black holes have a temperature and produce radiation, now known as Hawking radiation, a discovery which revolutionised theoretical physics. 

    He also realised that black holes must have an entropy – often described as a measure of how much disorder is present in a given system – equal to one quarter of the area of their event horizon: – the ‘point of no return’, where the gravitational pull of a black hole becomes so strong that escape is impossible. Some forty-odd years later, the precise nature of this entropy is still a puzzle. However, these discoveries led to Hawking formulating the ‘information paradox’ which illustrates a fundamental conflict between quantum mechanics and our understanding of gravitational physics. This is probably the greatest mystery facing theoretical physicists today.

    To understand black holes and cosmology requires one to develop a theory of quantum gravity. Quantum gravity is an unfinished project which is attempting to unify general relativity, the theory of gravitation and of space and time with the ideas of quantum mechanics. Hawking’s work on black holes started a new chapter in this quest and most of his subsequent achievements centred on these ideas. Hawking recognised that quantum mechanical effects in the very early universe might provide the primordial gravitational seeds around which galaxies and other large-scale structures could later form. This theory of inflationary fluctuations, developed along with others in the early 1980’s, is now supported by strong experimental evidence from the COBE, WMAP and Planck satellite observations of the cosmic microwave sky. Another influential idea was Hawking’s ‘no boundary’ proposal which resulted from the application of quantum mechanics to the entire universe. This idea allows one to explain the creation of the universe in a way that is compatible with laws of physics as we currently understand them. 

    Professor Hawking’s influential books included The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime, with G F R Ellis; General Relativity: an Einstein centenary survey, with W Israel; Superspace and Supergravity, with M Rocek (1981); The Very Early Universe, with G Gibbons and S Siklos, and 300 Years of Gravitation, with W Israel.

    However, it was his popular science books which took Professor Hawking beyond the academic world and made him a household name. The first of these, A Brief History of Time, was published in 1988 and became a surprise bestseller, remaining on the Sunday Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. Later popular books included Black Holes and Baby Universes, The Universe in a Nutshell, A Briefer History of Time, and My Brief History. He also collaborated with his daughter Lucy on a series of books for children about a character named George who has adventures in space.

    In 2014, a film of his life, The Theory of Everything, was released. Based on the book by his first wife Jane, the film follows the story of their life together, from first meeting in Cambridge in 1964, with his subsequent academic successes and his increasing disability. The film was met with worldwide acclaim and Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen Hawking, won the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 2015 ceremony.

    Travel was one of Professor Hawking’s pastimes. One of his first adventures was to be caught up in the 7.1 magnitude Bou-in-Zahra earthquake in Iran in 1962. In 1997 he visited the Antarctic. He has plumbed the depths in a submarine and in 2007 he experienced weightlessness during a zero-gravity flight, routine training for astronauts. On his return, he quipped “Space, here I come.”

    Writing years later on his website, Professor Hawking said: “I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family and being successful in my work. I have been lucky that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case. But it shows that one need not lose hope.”

    At a conference In Cambridge held in celebration of his 75th birthday in 2017, Professor Hawking said “It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics. Our picture of the Universe has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, and I’m happy if I’ve made a small contribution.”

    And he said he wanted others to feel the passion he has for understanding the universal laws that govern us all. “I want to share my excitement and enthusiasm about this quest. So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

    Friends and colleagues from the University of Cambridge have paid tribute to Professor Stephen Hawking, who died on 14 March 2018 at the age of 76. 

    Stephen Hawking pictured with Newton's own annotated copy Principia Mathematica as part of Cambridge University Library's 600th anniversary.

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    Researchers from the UK, Norway, US and Sweden have used a combination of 3D computer modelling and real-world observations to show the previously unknown, yet profound dynamic consequences tied to a growing number of lakes forming on the Greenland ice sheet.

    Lakes form on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet each summer as the weather warms. Many exist for weeks or months, but drain in just a few hours through more than a kilometre of ice, transferring huge quantities of water and heat to the base of the ice sheet. The affected areas include sensitive regions of the ice sheet interior where the impact on ice flow is potentially large.

    Previously, it had been thought that these ‘drainage events’ were isolated incidents, but the new research, led by the University of Cambridge, shows that the lakes form a massive network and become increasingly interconnected as the weather warms. When one lake drains, the water quickly spreads under the ice sheet, which responds by flowing faster. The faster flow opens new fractures on the surface and these fractures act as conduits for the drainage of other lakes. This starts a chain reaction that can drain many other lakes, some as far as 80 kilometres away.

    These cascading events – including one case where 124 lakes drained in just five days – can temporarily accelerate ice flow by as much as 400%, which makes the ice sheet less stable, and increases the rate of associated sea level rise. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

    The study demonstrates how forces within the ice sheet can change abruptly from one day to the next, causing solid ice to fracture suddenly. The model developed by the international team shows that lakes forming in stable areas of the ice sheet drain when fractures open in response to a high tensile shock force acting along drainage paths of water flowing beneath the ice sheet when other lakes drain far away.

    “This growing network of melt lakes, which currently extends more than 100 kilometres inland and reaches elevations as high a 2,000 metres above sea level, poses a threat for the long-term stability of the Greenland ice sheet,” said lead author Dr Poul Christoffersen, from Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute. “This ice sheet, which covers 1.7 million square kilometres, was relatively stable 25 years ago, but now loses one billion tonnes of ice every day. This causes one millimetre of global sea level rise per year, a rate which is much faster than what was predicted only a few years ago.”

    The study departs from the current consensus that lakes forming at high elevations on the Greenland ice sheet have only a limited potential to influence the flow of ice sheet as climate warms. Whereas the latest report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that surface meltwater, although abundant, does not impact the flow of the ice sheet, the study suggests that meltwater delivered to the base of the ice sheet through draining lakes in fact drives episodes of sustained acceleration extending much farther onto the interior of the ice sheet than previously thought.

    “Transfer of water and heat from surface to the bed can escalate extremely rapidly due to a chain reaction,” said Christoffersen. “In one case we found all but one of 59 observed lakes drained in a single cascading event. Most of the melt lakes drain in this dynamic way.”

    Although the delivery of small amounts of meltwater to the base of the ice sheet only increases the ice sheet’s flow locally, the study shows that the response of the ice sheet can intensify through knock-on effects.

    When a single lake drains, the ice flow temporarily accelerates along the path taken by water flowing along the bottom of the ice sheet. Lakes situated in stable basins along this path drain when the loss of friction along the bed temporarily transfers forces to the surface of the ice sheet, causing fractures to open up beneath other lakes, which then also drain.

    “The transformation of forces within the ice sheet when lakes drain is sudden and dramatic,” said co-author Dr Marion Bougamont, also from the Scott Polar Research Institute. “Lakes that drain in one area produce fractures that cause more lakes to drain somewhere elsewhere. It all adds up when you look at the pathways of water underneath the ice.”

    The study used high-resolution satellite images to confirm that fractures on the surface of the ice sheet open up when cascading lake drainage occurs. “This aspect of our work is quite worrying,” said Christoffersen. “We found clear evidence of these crevasses at 1,800 metres above sea level and as far 135 kilometres inland from the ice margin. This is much farther inland than previously considered possible.”

    While complete loss of all ice in Greenland remains extremely unlikely this century, the highly dynamic manner in which the ice sheet responds to Earth’s changing climate clearly underscores the urgent need for a global agreement that will reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

    The work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the European Research Council (ERC).

    Poul Christoffersen et al. ‘Cascading lake drainage on the Greenland Ice Sheet triggered by tensile shock and fracture.’ Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03420-8

    A growing network of lakes on the Greenland ice sheet has been found to drain in a chain reaction that speeds up the flow of the ice sheet, threatening its stability. 

    Melting of Greenland ice sheet forms lakes that drain in summer

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    As I write this, my office is surrounded by loud protesters – students and staff expressing frustration at recent proposals to resolve the university pensions dispute. Over the last decade, pensions have had to be restructured three times, effectively downgrading benefits while increasing costs. Pensions are a key component of academic compensation, and people are understandably annoyed.

    My colleagues and I continue to seek a solution leading to a scheme that is both fair and viable in the long-term. Despite the failure of current talks between the Universities and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK, this must remain our goal.

    However, it would be mistake to assume that the current anger directed at university leadership is all about staff pensions. Something more is happening on university campuses across the UK. Resentment has been building steadily, rooted in a widely shared sentiment that policies pursued by successive governments over two decades are fundamentally damaging British higher education.

    I received a letter this week from the President of the Cambridge University Students’ Union. She argued that the strikes and demonstrations are “about the future of higher education, continued marketization and the move towards students as consumers.” It may surprise some to discover that I fully share her worries. I know that many of my friends and colleagues in universities across the country do, too.

    For too long the damaging idea that students are “consumers” has been only weakly resisted. Being a “consumer” implies that students are nothing more than passive recipients of ideas delivered by lecturers. Yet, at its core, education is about active engagement of students with inherited knowledge, with new research, with other students, and with more senior academic guides and mentors. Of course, education is also about preparing students for life in the wider world, for careers, and for making a contribution to the community.

    Reducing students to mere consumers only makes sense if the value of universities is simply economic. That would be a fundamental error. For centuries, universities have helped successive generations to achieve their potential in these places of breath-taking discovery and disruptive insight.

    Cambridge’s own research has led to discoveries and inventions that have profoundly transformed our knowledge of ourselves, and of our world. But our universities do much more in striving to improve livelihoods and communities, domestically and globally.

    Our students get it. That is why so many of them are worried that their own experience is being devalued.

    For generations, the rest of the world has looked up to the British higher education system. It is far from perfect, I agree. But, collectively, UK universities have long been a by-word for excellent teaching and learning, and for creative research.

    As a relative newcomer to this country, I can say that no other society has been so defined by its universities as the UK’s. That is why we still attract thousands of students from around the world. That is why we have continued to welcome research and teaching talent from across the globe.

    But for a generation now, politicians of all stripes have talked as if UK universities are broken, and hence in need of “market discipline”. They talk as if our students, smart and energetic people, are in need of protection. This is an own goal.

    We are just beginning yet another review covering higher education that fails to get to the heart of concerns around the role of universities.  The focus should be on what values our society expects to see reflected in our universities, not just value for money. 

    We need a broader debate about the role of universities in the UK. We live in times of great uncertainty. But our universities have the capacity to work across society to discover creative ways forward. Universities are not the problem. We are part of the solution.

    An edited version of this post was published today (16 March 2018) in the letters section of a national newspaper.

    Over the last few weeks, tensions have been rising in British universities. Now anger is boiling over.

    The focus should be on what values our society expects to see reflected in our universities, not just value for money.
    Prof Stephen Toope

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    A team of scientists and medieval historians, led by the University of Cambridge, has used information contained within ice cores and tree rings to accurately date a massive volcanic eruption, which took place soon after the island was first settled.

    Having dated the eruption, the researchers found that Iceland’s most celebrated medieval poem, which describes the end of the pagan gods and the coming of a new, singular god, describes the eruption and uses memories of it to stimulate the Christianisation of Iceland. The results are reported in the journal Climatic Change.

    The eruption of the Eldgjá in the tenth century is known as a lava flood: a rare type of prolonged volcanic eruption in which huge flows of lava engulf the landscape, accompanied by a haze of sulphurous gases. Iceland specialises in this type of eruption – the last example occurred in 2015, and it affected air quality 1400 kilometres away in Ireland.

    The Eldgjá lava flood affected southern Iceland within a century of the island’s settlement by Vikings and Celts around 874, but until now the date of the eruption has been uncertain, hindering investigation of its likely impacts. It was a colossal event with around 20 cubic kilometres of lava erupted – enough to cover all of England up to the ankles.

    The Cambridge-led team pinpointed the date of the eruption using ice core records from Greenland that preserve the volcanic fallout from Eldgjá. Using the clues contained within the ice cores, the researchers found that the eruption began around the spring of 939 and continued at least through the autumn of 940.

    “This places the eruption squarely within the experience of the first two or three generations of Iceland’s settlers,” said first author Dr Clive Oppenheimer of Cambridge’s Department of Geography. “Some of the first wave of migrants to Iceland, brought over as children, may well have witnessed the eruption.”

    Once they had a date for the Eldgjá eruption, the team then investigated its consequences. First, a haze of sulphurous dust spread across Europe, recorded as sightings of an exceptionally blood-red and weakened Sun in Irish, German and Italian chronicles from the same period.

    Then the climate cooled as the dust layer reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the surface, which is evident from tree rings from across the Northern Hemisphere. The evidence contained in the tree rings suggests the eruption triggered one of the coolest summers of the last 1500 years. “In 940, summer cooling was most pronounced in Central Europe, Scandinavia, the Canadian Rockies, Alaska and Central Asia, with summer average temperatures 2°C lower,” said co-author Professor Markus Stoffel from the University of Geneva’s Department of Earth Sciences.

    The team then looked at medieval chronicles to see how the cooling climate impacted society. “It was a massive eruption, but we were still amazed just how abundant the historical evidence is for the eruption’s consequences,” said co-author Dr Tim Newfield, from Georgetown University’s Departments of History and Biology. “Human suffering in the wake of Eldgjá was widespread. From northern Europe to northern China, people experienced long, hard winters and severe spring-summer drought. Locust infestations and livestock mortalities occurred. Famine did not set in everywhere, but in the early 940s we read of starvation and vast mortality in parts of Germany, Iraq and China.”

    “The effects of the Eldgjá eruption must have been devastating for the young colony on Iceland – very likely, land was abandoned and famine severe,” said co-author Professor Andy Orchard from the University of Oxford’s Faculty of English. “However, there are no surviving texts from Iceland itself during this time that provide us with direct accounts of the eruption.”

    But Iceland’s most celebrated medieval poem, Vǫluspá (‘The prophecy of the seeress’) does appear to give an impression of what the eruption was like. The poem, which can be dated as far back as 961, foretells the end of Iceland’s pagan gods and the coming of a new, singular god: in other words, the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, which was formalised around the turn of the eleventh century.

    Part of the poem describes a terrible eruption with fiery explosions lighting up the sky, and the Sun obscured by thick clouds of ash and steam:

    “The sun starts to turn black, land sinks into sea; the bright stars scatter from the sky.
    Steam spurts up with what nourishes life, flame flies high against heaven itself.”

    The poem also depicts cold summers that would be expected after a massive eruption, and the researchers link these descriptions to the spectacle and impacts of the Eldgjá eruption, the largest in Iceland since its settlement.

    The poem’s apocalyptic imagery marks the fiery end to the world of the old gods. The researchers suggest that these lines in the poem may have been intended to rekindle harrowing memories of the eruption to stimulate the massive religious and cultural shift taking place in Iceland in the last decades of the tenth century.

    “With a firm date for the eruption, many entries in medieval chronicles snap into place as likely consequences – sightings in Europe of an extraordinary atmospheric haze; severe winters; and cold summers, poor harvests; and food shortages,” said Oppenheimer. “But most striking is the almost eyewitness style in which the eruption is depicted in Vǫluspá. The poem’s interpretation as a prophecy of the end of the pagan gods and their replacement by the one, singular god, suggests that memories of this terrible volcanic eruption were purposefully provoked to stimulate the Christianisation of Iceland.”

    Clive Oppenheimer et al “The Eldgjá eruption: timing, long-range impacts and influence on the Christianisation of Iceland.” Climatic Change (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s10584-018-2171-9

    Inset image: Codex Regius, which contains a version of the Vǫluspá.

    Memories of the largest lava flood in the history of Iceland, recorded in an apocalyptic medieval poem, were used to drive the island’s conversion to Christianity, new research suggests. 

    With a firm date for the eruption, many entries in medieval chronicles snap into place as likely consequences.
    Clive Oppenheimer
    Eldgjá fissure in southern Iceland

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  • 03/20/18--08:22: The body in miniature
  • In Cambridge alone, there are groups growing mini-livers, mini-brains, mini-oesophaguses,mini-bile ducts, mini-lungs, mini-intestines, mini-wombs, mini-pancreases… Almost the whole body in miniature, it seems.

    Read more about how these remarkable 'organoids' are helping transform biomedical research - including helping reduce the number of animals used in research.

    The past few years has seen an explosion in the number of studies using organoids – so-called ‘mini organs’. While they can help scientists understand human biology and disease, some in the field have questioned their usefulness. But as the field matures, we could see their increasing use in personalised and regenerative medicine.

    Confocal microscope image of gastruloid

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    An international team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge found that the addition of potassium iodide ‘healed’ the defects and immobilised ion movement, which to date have limited the efficiency of cheap perovskite solar cells. These next-generation solar cells could be used as an efficiency-boosting layer on top of existing silicon-based solar cells, or be made into stand-alone solar cells or coloured LEDs. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

    The solar cells in the study are based on metal halide perovskites – a promising group of ionic semiconductor materials that in just a few short years of development now rival commercial thin film photovoltaic technologies in terms of their efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity. Perovskites are cheap and easy to produce at low temperatures, which makes them attractive for next-generation solar cells and lighting.

    Despite the potential of perovskites, some limitations have hampered their efficiency and consistency. Tiny defects in the crystalline structure of perovskites, called traps, can cause electrons to get ‘stuck’ before their energy can be harnessed. The easier that electrons can move around in a solar cell material, the more efficient that material will be at converting photons, particles of light, into electricity. Another issue is that ions can move around in the solar cell when illuminated, which can cause a change in the bandgap – the colour of light the material absorbs.  

    “So far, we haven’t been able to make these materials stable with the bandgap we need, so we’ve been trying to immobilise the ion movement by tweaking the chemical composition of the perovskite layers,” said Dr Sam Stranks from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research. “This would enable perovskites to be used as versatile solar cells or as coloured LEDs, which are essentially solar cells run in reverse.”

    In the study, the researchers altered the chemical composition of the perovskite layers by adding potassium iodide to perovskite inks, which then self-assemble into thin films. The technique is compatible with roll-to-roll processes, which means it is scalable and inexpensive. The potassium iodide formed a ‘decorative’ layer on top of the perovskite which had the effect of ‘healing’ the traps so that the electrons could move more freely, as well as immobilising the ion movement, which makes the material more stable at the desired bandgap.

    The researchers demonstrated promising performance with the perovskite bandgaps ideal for layering on top of a silicon solar cell or with another perovskite layer – so-called tandem solar cells. Silicon tandem solar cells are the most likely first widespread application of perovskites. By adding a perovskite layer, light can be more efficiently harvested from a wider range of the solar spectrum.

    “Potassium stabilises the perovskite bandgaps we want for tandem solar cells and makes them more luminescent, which means more efficient solar cells,” said Stranks, whose research is funded by the European Union and the European Research Council’s Horizon 2020 Programme. “It almost entirely manages the ions and defects in perovskites.”

    “We’ve found that perovskites are very tolerant to additives – you can add new components and they’ll perform better,” said first author Mojtaba Abdi-Jalebi, a PhD candidate at the Cavendish Laboratory who is funded by Nava Technology Limited. “Unlike other photovoltaic technologies, we don’t need to add an additional layer to improve performance, the additive is simply mixed in with the perovskite ink.”

    The perovskite and potassium devices showed good stability in tests, and were 21.5% efficient at converting light into electricity, which is similar to the best perovskite-based solar cells and not far below the practical efficiency limit of silicon-based solar cells, which is (29%). Tandem cells made of two perovskite layers with ideal bandgaps have a theoretical efficiency limit of 45% and a practical limit of 35% - both of which are higher than the current practical efficiency limits for silicon. “You get more power for your money,” said Stranks.

    The research has also been supported in part by the Royal Society and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The international team included researchers from Cambridge, Sheffield University, Uppsala University in Sweden and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

    Mojtaba Abdi-Jalebi et al. ‘Maximising and Stabilising Luminescence from Halide Perovskites with Potassium Passivation.’ Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038/nature25989

    A simple potassium solution could boost the efficiency of next-generation solar cells, by enabling them to convert more sunlight into electricity. 

    Perovskites are very tolerant to additives – you can add new components and they’ll perform better.
    Mojtaba Abdi-Jalebi
    Atomic scale view of perovskite crystal formation

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    The numbers are frightening, but even more daunting is the very real danger of a major flu pandemic emerging at any moment. Experts around the world agree that it’s a question of when not if the next deadly pandemic will strike, making it number one on the government civilian risk register in the UK.

    When it happens the pandemic will almost certainly reach the UK and the government will be faced with a series of life-saving decisions. Should we close schools or public transport? Who should be given priority when the first doses of vaccine become available? How will we cope if there is a high mortality rate? Having the right answers to these and many other crucial pandemic response questions depends on mathematical models.

    The model behind the results, designed by researchers at the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is based on data from nearly 30,000 volunteers and represents the largest and most comprehensive dataset of its kind. The results will be broadcast on Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic, tonight (22 March) at 9pm on BBC Four, presented by Dr Hannah Fry and Dr Javid Abdelmoneim. The results are also published in the journal Epidemics.

    “The value of predictions hinges completely on the quality of the model,” said Professor Julia Gog from Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, who heads the disease dynamics group. “Up to now, the picture of how the population in the UK move around has been surprisingly limited, and existing studies use relatively small samples of the population. Getting a handle on how people move and interact day to day is vital to understanding how a virus will actually spread from person to person and place to place. The BBC Pandemic project has aimed to address this gap, with volunteers using an app to track movements and record who they encounter day to day, creating the biggest dataset for UK pandemic research ever collected.”

    “BBC Pandemic experiment has been hugely successful in recruiting study participants,” said Dr Petra Klepac, the lead author of the paper. “The resulting dataset is incredibly rich and will become a new gold standard in modelling contact and movement patterns that shape the spread of infectious diseases. For the programme, we were able to create a detailed UK model based on data from almost 30,000 users.”

    The BBC Four programme will show how a pandemic might spread in the UK, starting from Haslemere in Surrey, where the team modelled in detail an introduction starting from a hypothetical patient zero.

    “We don’t know of any studies that join up the movement and survey data so comprehensively,” said Gog. “And this experiment is just huge already, an order of magnitude bigger than anything even similar. The BBC Pandemic experiment sets a new benchmark for other future studies around the world.”

    The study remains open during all of 2018, and anyone in the UK can volunteer by using the app (available via App Store or Google Play). Once the project is complete, the anonymised dataset will be made available to all researchers, enabling more accurate prediction in future. “Our focus so far has been on a prospective influenza pandemic, but this dataset will be valuable in our efforts to understand and control a variety of infectious diseases, both in the UK and in extrapolating to other countries,” said Gog.

    “While these preliminary results are eye-opening there’s a lot more this data can be used for,” said programme host Dr Hannah Fry. “Scientists around the country will be using it for years to come.”

    The BBC Pandemic app was launched in September 2017. Once downloaded, app users enter some basic anonymous demographic information about themselves such as age and gender, and then are asked to be tracked via the GPS on their phone once an hour for 24 hours. The app also records the people they come into close contact with. This is the first time tracking, demographic and contact data have been combined, making it an unrivalled tool for pandemic research.

    The headline results of the simulation shown in the programme are based on a moderately transmissible influenza pandemic virus with a high fatality rate, in accordance with a ‘reasonable worst case’. The details of assumptions and limitations are discussed in detail in the paper.

    Petra Klepac, Stephen Kissler and Julia Gog. ‘Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic – the model behind the documentary.’ Epidemics (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.epidem.2018.03.003


    How fast could a new flu epidemic spread? The results of the UK’s largest citizen science project of its kind ever attempted, carried out by thousands of volunteers, predict that 43 million people in the UK could be infected in an influenza pandemic, and with up to 886,000 of those infected expected to be fatalities. 

    We don’t know of any studies that join up the movement and survey data so comprehensively.
    Julia Gog
    Geographic patterns of spread of influenza pandemic

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    Twenty-four academics from across the disciplines will take part in this year’s Cambridge Series of talks at the Hay Festival, one of the most prestigious literary festivals in the world.

    The Series celebrates its 10th anniversary at the Festival in 2018. This year it features a range of speakers, with experts on everything from conspiracy theories, digital fakery and the history of islands to the future of MRI, human-like robots and how plants can think without a brain.

    The Series is part of the University of Cambridge’s commitment to public engagement. The Festival runs from 24th May to 3rd June and is now open for bookings.

    This year's line-up includes from the Arts and Humanities and Social Science: Hugo Drochon on conspiracy theories; Ella McPherson on digital fakery and human rights reporting; Professor Jaideep Prabhu on frugal innovation and how entrepreneurs are learning to do more - and better - with less; Sarah Nouwen on how international law addresses the tensions between the need for peace and the desire for justice in the aftermath of civil wars; Professor Diane Coyle on GDP and how countries can tell if we are getting richer or not; Sujit Sivasundaram on the history of islands and their impact on the modern world; Shruti Kapila on the origins of modern anti-terror legislation in India's struggle for independence and reverberations today; Lucy Delap on men and feminism; Dacia Viejo Rose on the politics of reconstructing cultural heritage; and Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett on the menace of monolingualism.

    From the world of science speakers include Ferdia Gallagher on the future of MRI scans​; Professor Ottoline Leyser on how plants 'think' without a brain; and Hatice Gunes on how social robots can contribute to the public good. Lucy van de Wiel will speak about egg freezing and how reproductive technology is changing in the 21st century.

    In addition, there will be discussions on automatic translation and on making art from science: Helena Sanson, Marcus Tomalin and Professor Bill Byrne will debate how automatic translation works and whether machines will ever be able to replace a ‘human’ translator while Professor Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins, artist-in-residence at the University's Psychology Department, will explore the subjective experience of thinking and the fundamental role that storytelling plays  in understanding our past and determining our futures. Their discussion will be based around “The Moustachio Quartet”, in particular “Eissenstrom”, the last in the series of novels published by Clive Wilkins, which deals specifically with memory and perception.

    Several of the speakers have new books out - Helen Castor will talk about her new book, Elizabeth I: a study in insecurity, and will explore how England's iconic queen was shaped by profound and enduring insecurity; Terri Apter's book, Passing Judgment: praise and blame in everyday life, shows how the way we praise and blame our children, our colleagues, our friends and our partners may sustain or break our relationships with them; and Cecilia Brassett, Emily Evans and Isla Fay will speak about their book, The Secret Language of Anatomy, which describes the fascinating origins of the words we use to describe our anatomy.

    Charlie Gilderdale, NRICH Project Secondary Coordinator, will hold six interactive Thinking Mathematically workshops with Alison Eves of the Royal Institution. Also taking part in the Festival from the University of Cambridge are Professor Diane Reay from the Faculty of Education and neuroscientist Professor Ed Bullmore.

    Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival, said: "Cambridge University nurtures and challenges the world's greatest minds, and offers the deepest understanding of the most intractable problems and the most thrilling opportunities. Every Hay Festival week for the past 10 years they have brought that thinking to a field in Wales to share it with everyone. What a wonderful gift."

    Ariel Retik, who oversees the Cambridge Series, said: “We are proud to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cambridge Series this year. It is a fantastic way to share fascinating research from the University with the public. The Hay Festival draws an international cross-section of people, from policy makers to prospective university students. We have found that Hay audiences are highly interested in the diversity of Cambridge speakers, and ask some great questions. We look forward to another wonderful series of speakers, with talks and debates covering so many areas of research and key ideas emerging from Cambridge, relevant to key issues faced globally today."

    *To book tickets, click here. For the full line-up of the Cambridge Series and times, click here. Picture credit: Marsha Arnold.

    This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival, with academics from across disciplines speaking about their research.

    We are proud to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cambridge Series this year. It is a fantastic way to share fascinating research from the University with the public.
    Ariel Retik
    Hay Festival, Wales, by Marsha Arnold

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    Professor Stephen Toope, the University of Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor, today signed an agreement to formalise a strategic partnership with the Nanjing Municipal Government.

    The creation of the Cambridge University-Nanjing Centre of Technology and Innovation will entail the establishment of a joint research centre and the sharing of revenue derived from the commercialisation of intellectual property. It is the University’s first overseas enterprise at this scale.

    Funded by Nanjing Municipality for five years in the first instance, the project will have its own dedicated building in Nanjing’s Jiangbei New Area – a pilot urban development based on high levels of technological innovation.

    At the heart of the new Centre’s activities will be research into technologies that support a modern 21st century city with integrated IT, health care and building management. Innovations emerging from the Centre will enable the development of 'smart' cities in which sensors – applied at the individual level and all the way through to the level of large infrastructure – will enable sustainable lifestyles.

    As well as supporting health and wellbeing in new cities, the new Centre will help deliver efficient energy use through its academic and entrepreneurial activities.

    The agreement will fund positions in Nanjing, both academic and management, and will allow Cambridge-based academics to engage with specific, long-term projects in Nanjing. It will also support the establishment of a professorship, based in Cambridge, with responsibility as the Centre’s Academic Director.

    The project has been driven by Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, although it is hoped that there will be opportunities to widen participation to other departments and Schools. IP generated by research funded through the Centre will be licensed for commercialisation by the University’s innovation branch, Cambridge Enterprise.

    Speaking just before the official signing of the agreement, held at the British embassy in Beijing, Professor Toope said: “This is only the most recent example of our collaboration with Chinese partners – but it is by far the most ambitious to date. And it is very exciting indeed.”

    “We see it as an essential part of Cambridge’s contribution to society to tackle some of the great world problems. But we cannot do this on our own. There is a proverb: ‘You cannot clap with just one hand’. To me this means that we can only accomplish great things by working together – which is what we will be doing with Nanjing.”

    Mr. Luo Qun, a member of the Standing Committee of Nanjing's Municipal Party Committee, and Deputy Party Secretary of the Party Committee of Jiangbei New Area, added: "We sincerely hope that both sides will rely on this new Centre to push the world's technological frontiers and to promote the integration of science, technology, industry and financial innovation."

    The Vice-Chancellor was joined by Professor Sir Mark Welland, Head of the University's Electrical Engineering Division and Master of St Catharine's College. The signing of the agreement was witnessed by H.E. Dame Barbara Woodward, the United Kingdom's ambassador to China.

    Knowledge and development

    The launch of the Cambridge University-Nanjing Centre of Technology and Innovation came only a few days after the Vice-Chancellor addressed the annual China Development Forum, in Beijing.

    Prof Stephen Toope speaks at CDFSpeaking on the subject of 'Knowledge Capital and development for all', Professor Toope said: "Of all the intangible assets that underpin our knowledge capital, the most precious is people. It is people who generate the new ideas; it is people who ask the searching questions, and collect the relevant data to answer them; it is people who make the discoveries; it is people who bring those discoveries to the market, and create the intellectual property. The conclusion I draw from this is that, for countries and institutions wishing to expand their knowledge capital, the single most important investment is in their human capital."

    He singled out equality and diversity as essential to the sustainability of knowledge-based capital, before concluding: “'Knowledge itself is power' is a famous line attributed to one of Cambridge’s most famous graduates – 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon. The question before us – particularly those of us in universities – is how we build and deploy and share all that knowledge for the greater good."

    The new joint centre will support innovative research into smart cities and fully integrated urban environments.

    We see it as an essential part of Cambridge’s contribution to society to tackle some of the great world problems. But we cannot do this on our own. We can only accomplish great things by working together – which is what we will be doing with Nanjing.
    Prof Stephen Toope

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    The victorious team from the University of Edinburgh won the top prize of £6,000, with second place going to the University of Southampton and Imperial College London taking home bronze.

    The winners will now compete with the best of the USA at C2C –‘Cambridge2Cambridge’, a transatlantic contest jointly organised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Cambridge to be held between the 29th of June and 1st of July 2018 at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

    Now in its third year, Inter-ACE was established to help resolve the vast and growing cyber security skills gap, with an estimated shortfall of 1.8 million workers worldwide by 2022. Inter-ACE aims to inspire young tech enthusiasts into the cyber security sector, while also honing the skills of those who already have a strong aptitude for ethical hacking and helping them meet like-minded individuals and potential employers.

    Professor Frank Stajano, Founder of Inter-ACE and Professor of Security and Privacy at the University of Cambridge, said: “It’s no secret that the cybersecurity industry is suffering from a large and growing skills gap. We must do more to attract a more diverse pool of talent into the field. This is about demonstrating that careers in cybersecurity not only help to keep your country, your friends and your family safe, but are varied, valued and most of all fun.

    “There is still much more to be achieved, but I have been delighted over the last three years to be welcoming a growing number of female participants and contestants from increasingly diverse backgrounds to the two-day competition. We had 18 women competing this year, as opposed to just two when we started! It's working. There is no set profile for a cybersecurity professional and Inter-ACE contributes to reaching more people with that important message.” 

    Nick L, a student from the winning team at the University of Edinburgh said “For people out there thinking about getting into cybersecurity and sitting on the fence, get yourself into a cybersecurity competition. Chances are the first one might not go so great, but you’ll get there and learn a lot. That’s exactly how we started out.”

    Inter-ACE 2018 involved a number of different scenarios, including preventing a hack on a UK city’s infrastructure and a tap on an undersea communications cable. Connected devices such as a children’s toy were also used to demonstrate the impact of hacking techniques. The two-day event featured over 20 challenges in total, set by experts from the University of Cambridge and sponsors including Context IS and Palo Alto Networks.

    Established through the UK’s National Cyber Security Strategy and supported by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, Inter-ACE is sponsored by Microsoft, BT, Palo Alto and Context IS.

    The 18 universities that participated in this year’s Inter-ACE were Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Birmingham, the University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, De Montfort University, the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University, Imperial College London, the University of Kent, Lancaster University,  Newcastle University, the University of Oxford, Royal Holloway University of London, the University of Southampton, the University of Surrey, University College London, the University of Warwick and the University of York.

    More than 130 students representing 18 of the UK’s top cybersecurity universities battled it out at the Inter-ACE 2018 cybersecurity challenge, hosted by the University of Cambridge. The competition, supported by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, and designed to attract the next generation of cybersecurity talent took place over two days on the 16th and 17th of March 2018.

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    Very soon after I was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Cambridge in 2014, a student came to see me. She had never told anyone what she shared with me in our conversation. Months before, at a student society event, she had been raped. She had not wanted to report this to the police. She thought in my new role, I could do something about the incident.  She tasked me with taking action.

    At the time, the only support I could offer her was emotional as well as sign-post her to student support services. Uncomfortably, her only hope for justice was to go to the police.  Guidance at the time stipulated that universities should not investigate sexual misconduct cases themselves, but had to refer them to the police.

    We have come a long way from there, as is shown in today’s UUK report, Changing the culture: one year on – an assessment of strategies to tackle sexual misconduct, hate crime and harassment affecting university students. In the UK, it is now a sector standard to have a disciplinary procedure that refers to harassment or sexual misconduct for both staff and students. The student who came to see me was not alone. Thousands issued their own calls to action and their combined volume shifted sector thinking. The many students who were brave enough to speak up, to share their experiences, to challenge and to campaign for change have brought us here.

    The status quo is no longer an option

    Evidence played a key part in forcing the change. With today’s UUK report highlighting that one-fifth of the providers in the sample have made very limited progress in addressing key issues around sexual misconduct, maintaining the status quo becomes uncomfortable.

    Before mandatory frameworks were introduced, students created their own programmes to inform students about sexual misconduct. After national guidance was issued in 2016, universities were able to translate this momentum into policy supported by procedures and resources.

    The uneven progress highlighted in today’s report brings to mind my own surprise at witnessing attitudes in higher education today that date back to the era before Ireland’s Say Something and the UK’s Hidden Marks reports revealed the scale of sexual misconduct on campus. A few colleagues at other universities have come up against a reluctance to expose the scale and nature of the problem on their campus.

    Advocates trying to launch a campaign like It Stops Now or Cambridge’s Breaking the Silence have found roadblocks being thrown in the way. Opponents have spread confusion and delays saying - “But we don’t have that problem here”, “It will put students or staff off applying”, and, “Well, we don’t want to look like we’re conducting witch hunts”. Have those people ever had a student sit opposite them, disclosing a raw and immensely painful trauma, and yet they told them, “Sorry, we just can’t help you”?

    I do not underestimate the courage it takes to tell another person about a deeply personal and distressing incident, not least because I have witnessed it first-hand. Nor do I forget the strength of those who choose not to report, but to work through their pain alone. But we as institutions need to match their bravery with our own. As the Director of the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre Norah Al-Ani, has said, ‘no discomfort we, as an institution, may experience in tackling sexual misconduct can come close to the suffering of a victim’.

    Anonymous reporting is about victim choice

    At the beginning of last month, Cambridge announced that 173 anonymous reports of sexual misconduct had been made since May 2017. In the weeks following that announcement, there were 76 more bringing the total to 249. Since the beginning of last term, six complaints have been made formally, with victims choosing to have those incidents investigated by the University. There has been much debate over the gap between those two figures.

    Some people have chosen to see anonymous reporting as a tool institutions use to avoid tackling incidents. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does anonymous reporting give victims a greater choice in how they wish to start talking about what has happened to them, it creates a climate in which calling out sexual misconduct is the norm rather than the exception.

    To place our own interpretation on why victims choose to report anonymously, and worse, put a lower value on this than on formal reporting, is wrong because it denies victims the right to make their own choices.

    The cornerstone to all of our work on tackling sexual misconduct is building trust with our staff and students; so that, where issues arise, they feel safe in using our full range of support services and reporting processes.

    At Cambridge, this work is far from over. And in the wider sector, there is still much to be done. A recent EU studyfound that policies regarding gender-related violence towards young people in Ireland, Italy, Spain and the UK varied and many were in urgent need of review.

    Across Europe, policies remain centred on violence between students, and some critics have argues that students who are victimised by staff do not enjoy the same level of support.

    Cambridge has a staff student relationship policy that can be accessed on the Breaking the Silence website. With it, clear lines can be drawn between consensual relationships and abuses of power that we will meet with zero tolerance.

    Breaking down barriers

    When you begin to draw lines, clarify what sexual misconduct means and what the consequences for perpetrators will be, a rise in reports is an inevitable and important result of increased confidence in how they will be handled. See this as a positive, and you have taken a huge step in understanding, and then acting on, issues that are affecting members of your community in ways that can be devastating.

    There is still much to fight for. Where barriers put up within our communities, or the wider society, are preventing victims from speaking up, we must break them down. At Cambridge, 26% of people who reported anonymously chose not to formally report because they were worried about the reactions of their friends. We all have a part to play in ensuring those around us feel safe to disclose, knowing we will believe and support them. And it is up to the institution to respond to the finding that 35% of people who reported anonymously chose not to formally report because they were worried about being considered a trouble maker.  Harassment, hate crime or sexual misconduct is never the fault of the victim.

    As our community’s understanding of sexual misconduct and power dynamics deepens, we must re-evaluate our definitions and policies. 

    This is an issue that affects the community as a whole and we must work together to remain agile in our response, to keep listening and acting.


    For more information on the Breaking the Silence campaign visit

    One year on from the publication of landmark sexual misconduct guidance that empowered universities to investigate cases, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Cambridge, Professor Graham Virgo, looks at what more needs to be done

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    The PHG Foundation, which has received major funding from the Hatton Trust for over ten years of its twenty-year history, will be hosted by the University’s School of Clinical Medicine. The Foundation already enjoys close links with other parts of the University, including the Centre for Law, Medicine and Society at the Faculty of Law, the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University Health Partners and Hughes Hall.

    The think-tank will also be working with the Clinical School, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and the Cambridge Institute for Public Policy (CIPP) to create cross-cutting policy impact in the application of science to benefit health and society.

    Commenting on the new association, the Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said:

    ‘This initiative brings together the unique research strengths of both the PHG Foundation, which has led such exemplary thinking around how science can best work for health, and the University’s world-leading School of Clinical Medicine. It marks a new stage in a long association between our two organisations, and one which has great potential in working across disciplinary boundaries. I am enormously grateful to the Hatton Trust for making this possible, and look forward to the University and the Foundation jointly addressing some of the major health challenges facing society today.’

    The Regius Professor of Physic and Head of the School of Clinical Medicine, Professor Sir Patrick Maxwell, said:

    “As the world of medicine changes more rapidly than perhaps ever before, and the ethical and societal questions that we face become ever more complex, interdisciplinary collaboration will increasingly be the key to success. I am delighted that we will be working so closely with the PHG Foundation, an organisation which shares our unswerving commitment to excellence in healthcare and to ensuring that biomedical innovation can truly deliver better health for all.’

    The Founder and Chair of Trustees of the PHG Foundation, Dr Ron Zimmern, said: “It has long been my vision that excellence in medicine should combine with that in law, ethics, philosophy and the humanities to consider both practical policy needs and wider societal implications posed by scientific innovations for health. I am delighted to see the work of the PHG Foundation over the last twenty years recognised by the University of Cambridge, and I am sure that the unique combination of a policy think-tank and Clinical School will be highly successful.”

    PHG Foundation Director Dr Mark Kroese said: “We support policy development that accelerates the appropriate use of the very best new science in healthcare, offering better patient experiences and outcomes. The Clinical School is a world-leading source of medical excellence, research and leadership, and we are very much looking forward to working more closely with colleagues there as we continue to provide multidisciplinary perspectives on the policy issues around cutting-edge medical interventions and technologies.”

    A leading multidisciplinary think tank, the PHG Foundation, will become part of the University of Cambridge from 1 April this year, with a focus on making science work for health. This has been made possible by a philanthropic gift from the Hong Kong-based Hatton Trust, which has recognised the University’s global eminence in science, medicine and the humanities alongside the pioneering policy development work of the Foundation.

    As the world of medicine changes more rapidly than perhaps ever before, and the ethical and societal questions that we face become ever more complex, interdisciplinary collaboration will increasingly be the key to success.
    Patrick Maxwell

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    A joint research team from the University of Cambridge and Dartmouth College has developed a system for using infrared light tags to monitor face-to-face interactions. The technique could lead to a more precise understanding of how individuals interact in social settings and can increase the effectiveness of communications coaching.

    The system, named Protractor by the Cambridge-Dartmouth team, uses invisible light to record how people employ body language by measuring body angles and distances between individuals. 

    Prior studies have revealed that body language can influence many aspects of everyday life including job interviews, doctor-patient conversations and team projects. Each Protractor setting includes a specific set of interaction details such as eye contact and hand gestures for which an accurate monitoring of distance and relative orientation is crucial. 

    “The ability to use invisible light to determine someone’s role and attitude in social settings has powerful implications for individuals and organisations that are concerned about how they communicate,” said Professor Cecilia Mascolo from Cambridge's Department of Computer Science and Technology, who led the research. 

    Body language is already commonly studied through video sessions, audio recordings and paper questionnaires. Compared to the new, light-based system, these approaches can require invasive cameras, necessitate complex infrastructure support, and impose high burdens on users. 

    “Our system is a key departure from existing approaches,” said co-author Xia Zhou from Dartmouth. “The ability to sense both body distance and relative angle with fine accuracy using only infrared light offers huge advantages and can deepen the understanding of how body language plays a role in social interactions.” 

    Protractor is a lightweight, wearable tag resembling an access badge worn with a lanyard or clip. The device measures non-verbal behaviour with fine granularity by using near-infrared light from photodiodes. The light technology operates at a wavelength commonly used in television remote controls. 

    Before settling on infrared light for the unit, the research team also considered ultrasound and radio frequency. In addition to the overall accuracy, infrared was favourable because light cannot penetrate human bodies, ensuring the accurate sensing of face-to-face interaction. Near-infrared light is also imperceptible to human eyes and keeps the sensing unobtrusive.

    Although well-suited for measuring body language, the research team needed to correct for when a user’s hand or clothing could temporarily block the light channel. They did so by designing algorithms that exploit inertial sensors to work around the absence of light tracking results. 

    In demonstrating the system, the researchers also had to devise a way for the sensors to accurately identify participants and to limit power consumption. 

    “By modulating the light from each Protractor tag to encode the tag ID, each tag can then figure out which individuals are participating. To increase energy efficiency, we also adapt the frequency of emitting light signals based on the specific context,” said co-author Zhao Tian, a PhD candidate at Dartmouth.  

    To study the technique’s effectiveness, the team used the Protractor tags to track non-verbal behaviours during a problem-solving group task known as “The Marshmallow Challenge.” In this task, teams of four members were given 18 minutes to build a structure that could support a marshmallow using tape, string and a handful of spaghetti. 

    “Beyond simply observing body language with the tags, we identified the task role each group member was performing and delineated each stage in the building process through the recorded body angle and distance measurements,” said Alessandro Montanari, a researcher at the University of Cambridge. 

    In the study of 64 participants, Protractor achieved 1- to 2-inch mean error in estimating interaction distance and less than 6 degrees error 95 percent of the time for measuring relative body orientation. The system also allowed researchers to assess an individual’s task role within the challenge with close to 85 percent accuracy while identifying stages in the building process with over 93 percent accuracy. 

    According to the research team, the system will not only support social research, but it can also potentially provide real-time feedback during interviews and other interactions. Trainers, supervisors and team facilitators can use these findings to better understand team dynamics and intervene during intense problem-focused discussions to achieve higher creativity.

    Protractor can also help study the impact of culture on body language in light of research that shows that cultural backgrounds can impact the way people think, feel, and act while working with others – an important feature in today’s highly-internationalized workplaces. 

    Researchers at Maastricht University and the University of Nottingham also contributed to this study.

    The research was published in Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies and will be presented during UbiComp’18.

    Adapted from a Dartmouth press release

    Infrared sensors and a marshmallow offer researchers a new way to monitor and assess social interaction.

    The ability to use invisible light to determine someone’s role and attitude in social settings has powerful implications for individuals and organisations that are concerned about how they communicate.
    Cecilia Mascolo

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    Why do some plants welcome some microbes with open arms while giving others the cold-shoulder? Like most relationships, it’s complicated, and it all goes back a long way. By studying liverworts – which diverged from other land plants early in the history of plant evolution – researchers from the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge have found that the relationship between plants and filamentous microbes not only dates back millions of years, but that modern plants have maintained this ancient mechanism to accommodate and respond to microbial invaders.


    Liverworts are small green plants that don’t have roots, stems, leaves or flowers. They belong to a group of plants called Bryophytes, which also includes mosses and hornworts. Bryophytes diverged from other plant lineages early in the evolution of plants and are thought to be similar to some of the earliest diverging land plant lineages. Liverworts are found all over the world and are often seen growing as a weed in the cracks of paving or soil of potted plants. Marchantia polymorpha, which is also known as the common liverwort or umbrella liverwort, was used in this research.

    Published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a new study shows that aggressive filamentous microbial (fungi-like) pathogens can invade liverworts and that some elements of the liverwort’s response are shared with distantly related plants. The first author of the paper, Dr Philip Carella, said the research showed that liverworts could be infected by the common and devastating microorganism Phytophthora: “We know a great deal about microbial infections of modern flowering plants, but until now we haven’t known how distantly related plant lineages dealt with an invasion by an aggressive microbe. To test this, we first wanted to see if Phytophthora could infect and complete its life cycle in a liverwort."

    Above image: ​A healthy Marchantia polymorpha liverwort (left) and one that has been infected by Phytophthora palmivora (right).

    "We found that Phytophthora palmivora can colonise the photosynthetic tissues of the liverwort Marchantia polymorpha by invading living cells. Marchantia responds to this by deploying proteins around the invading Phytophthora hyphal structures. These proteins are similar to those that are produced in flowering plants such as tobacco, legumes or Arabidopsis in response to infections by both symbiont and pathogenic microbes.”

    Above image: Microscopy image of a cross-section of a Marchantia polymorpha thallus showing the Phytophthora infection (red) in the upper photosynthetic layer of the liverwort plant.

    These lineages share a common ancestor that lived over 400 million years ago, and fossils from this time period show evidence that plants were already forming beneficial relationships with filamentous microbes. Dr Carella added: “These findings raise interesting questions about how plants and microbes have interacted and evolved pathogenic and symbiotic relationships. Which mechanisms evolved early in a common ancestor before the plant groups diverged and which evolved independently?”


    Phytophthora is a water mould. Although it looks like it, it is not a fungus at all. Instead it belongs to the oomycetes and is a type of filamentous microbe. Phytophthora pathogens are best known for devastating crops, such as causing the Irish potato famine through potato late blight disease as well as many tropical diseases. This research used the tropical species, Phytophthora palmivora, which causes diseases in cocoa, oil palms, coconut palms and rubber trees.

    Dr Sebastian Schornack, who led the research team, says the study indicates that early land plants were already genetically equipped to respond to microbial infections: “This discovery reveals that certain response mechanisms were already in place very early on in plant evolution.”

    “Finding that pathogenic filamentous microbes can invade living liverwort cells and that liverworts respond using similar proteins as in flowering plants suggests that the relationship between filamentous pathogens and plants can be considered ancient. We will continue to study whether pathogens are exploiting mechanisms evolved to support symbionts and, hopefully, this will allow us to establish future crop plants that both benefit from symbionts while remaining more resistant to pathogens. “Liverworts are showing great promise as a model plant system and this discovery that they can be colonised by pathogens of flowering plants makes them a valuable model plant to continue research into plant-microbe interactions.” 

    This research was funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Royal Society, the BBSRC OpenPlant initiative and the Natural Environment Research Council.

    Relationship between plants and filamentous microbes not only dates back millions of years, but modern plants have maintained this ancient mechanism to accommodate and respond to microbial invaders.

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    The psychometric tool, developed by researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Helsinki, asks participants to answer a range of questions in order to measure how likely they are to respond to persuasive techniques. The test, called Susceptibility to Persuasion II (StP-II) is freely available and consists of the StP-II scale and several other questions to understand persuadability better. A brief, automated, interpretation of the results is displayed at the end of the questionnaire.

    The results of the test can be used to predict who will be more likely to become a victim of cybercrime, although the researchers say that StP-II could also be used for hiring in certain professions, for the screening of military personnel or to establish the psychological characteristics of criminal hackers. Their results are reported in the journal PLOS One.

    “Scams are essentially like marketing offers, except they’re illegal,” said paper’s first author Dr David Modic from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology. “Just like in advertising, elements of consumer psychology and behavioural economics all come into the design of an online scam, which is why it’s useful to know which personality traits make people susceptible to them.”

    Modic and his colleagues at the University of Exeter designed an initial version of the test five years ago that yielded solid results but was not sufficiently detailed. The new version is far more comprehensive and robust.

    “We are not aware of an existing scale that would measure all the constructs that are part of StP-II,” said Modic, who is also a senior member of King’s College, Cambridge. “There are existing scales that measure individual traits, but when combined, the sheer length of these scales would present the participant with a psychometric tool that is almost unusable.”

    The questions in StP-II fall into 10 categories, measuring different traits which might make people more susceptible to fraud: the ability to premeditate, consistency, sensation seeking, self-control, social influence, need for similarity, attitude towards risk, attitude towards advertising, cognition and uniqueness. Participants are given a score out of seven in each of the ten areas.

    Using a large data set obtained from a collaboration with the BBC, the researchers found that the strongest predictor was the ability to premeditate: individuals who fail to consider the possible consequences of a particular action are more likely to engage with a fraudster. However, they found that the likelihood of falling for one of the measured categories of Internet fraud is partially explained by at least one of the mechanisms in StP-II.

    “Over the past ten years, crime, like everything else, has moved online,” said co-author Professor Ross Anderson, also from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science. “This year, about a million UK households will be the victim of typical household crime, such as burglary, where the average victim is an elderly working-class woman. However, now 2.5 million households will be the victims of an online or electronic scam, where the victims are younger and more educated. Crime is moving upmarket.”

    “Scams have been around for hundreds of years, and over the centuries, they haven’t really changed that much – the only difference now is with the internet, it requires a lot less effort to do it,” said Modic.

    The researchers say that despite the changing demographics of crime victims, there isn’t a ‘typical victim of cybercrime. “Older generations might be seen as less internet-savvy, but younger generations are both more exposed to scams and might be seen as more impulsive,” said co-author Jussi Palomӓki, from the University of Helsinki’s Cognitive Science Unit. “There isn’t a specific age range – there are many different risk factors.”

    “The immediate benefit of StP-II is that people will get an indication of the sorts of things they should look out for – I’m not saying it’s a sure-fire way that they will not be scammed, but there are things they should be aware of,” said Modic. “StP-II doesn’t just measure how likely you are to fall for scams, it’s how likely you are to change your behaviour.”

    Ross Anderson’s blog on the paper can be found at:


    David Modic, Ross Anderson and Jussi Palomäki. ‘We will make you like our research: The development of a susceptibility-to-persuasion scale.’ PLOS ONE (2018). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0194119

    Researchers have developed an online questionnaire which measures a range of personality traits to identify individuals who are more likely to fall victim to internet scams and other forms of cybercrime. 

    Scams have been around for hundreds of years, and over the centuries, they haven’t really changed that much – the only difference now is with the internet, it requires a lot less effort to do it.
    David Modic

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    The data was collected by researchers from Aalto University in Finland and the University of Cambridge. Volunteers from over 200 countries took the typing test, which is freely available online. Participants were asked to transcribe randomised sentences, and their accuracy and speed were assessed by the researchers.

    Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that faster typists make fewer mistakes. However, they also found that the fastest typists also performed between 40 and 70 percent of keystrokes using rollover typing, in which the next key is pressed down before the previous key is lifted. The strategy is well-known in the gaming community but has not been observed in a typing study. The results will be presented later this month at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Montréal.

    “Crowdsourcing experiments that allow us to analyse how people interact with computers on a large scale are instrumental for identifying solution principles for the design of next-generation user interfaces,” said study co-author Dr Per Ola Kristensson from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering.

    Most of our knowledge of how people type is based on studies from the typewriter era. Now, decades after the typewriter was replaced by computers, people make different types of mistakes. For example, errors where one letter is replaced by another are now more common, whereas in the typewriter era typists often added or omitted characters.

    Another difference is that modern users use their hands differently. “Modern keyboards allow us to type keys with different fingers of the same hand with much less force than what was possible with typewriters,” said co-author Anna Feit from Aalto University. “This partially explains why self-taught typists using fewer than ten fingers can be as fast as touch typists, which was probably not the case in the typewriter era.”

    The average user in the study typed 52 words per minute, much slower than the professionally trained typists in the 70s and 80s, who typically reached 60-90 words per minute. However, performance varied largely. “The fastest users in our study typed 120 words per minute, which is amazing given that this is a controlled study with randomised phrases,” said co-author Dr Antti Oulasvirta, also from Aalto. “Many informal tests allow users to practice the sentences, resulting in unrealistically high performance.”

    The researchers found that users who had previously taken a typing course actually had a similar typing behaviour as those who had never taken such a course, in terms of how fast they type, how they use their hands and the errors they make - even though they use fewer fingers.

    The researchers found that users display different typing styles, characterised by how they use their hands and fingers, the use of rollover, tapping speeds, and typing accuracy.

    For example, some users could be classified as ‘’careless typists’’ who move their fingers quickly but have to correct many mistakes; and others as attentive error-free typists, who gain speed by moving hands and fingers in parallel, pressing the next key before the first one is released.

    It is now possible to classify users’ typing behaviour based on the observed keystroke timings which does not require the storage of the text that users have typed. Such information can be useful for example for spell checkers, or to create new personalised training programmes for typing.

    “You do not need to change to the touch typing system if you want to type faster,” said Feit. “A few simple exercises can help you to improve your own typing technique.”

    The anonymised dataset is available at the project homepage:

    Dhakal, V., Feit, A., Kristensson, P.O. and Oulasvirta, A. 2018. 'Observations on typing from 136 million keystrokes.' In Proceedings of the 36th ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2018). ACM Press.

    Adapted from an Aalto University press release. 

    The largest-ever dataset on typing speeds and styles, based on 136 million keystrokes from 168,000 volunteers, finds that the fastest typists not only make fewer errors, but they often type the next key before the previous one has been released. 

    Crowdsourcing experiments that allow us to analyse how people interact with computers on a large scale are instrumental for identifying solution principles for the design of next-generation user interfaces.
    Per Ola Kristensson
    Want to type faster?
    • Pay attention to errors, as they are costly to correct. Slow down to avoid them and you will be faster in the long run.
    • Learn to type without looking at fingers; your motor system will automatically pick up very fast ‘’trills’’ for frequently occurring letter combinations (“the”), which will speed up your typing. Being able to look at the screen while typing also allows you to quickly detect mistakes.
    • Practice rollover: use different fingers for successive letter keys instead of moving a single finger from one key to another. Then, when typing a letter with one finger, press the next one with the other finger.
    • Take an online typing test to track performance and identify weaknesses such as high error rates. Make sure that the test requires you to type new sentences so you do not over-practice the same text.
    • Dedicate time to practice deliberately. People may forget the good habits and relapse to less efficient ways of typing. 

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    The research also found that the two Tasmanian devil transmissible cancers are very similar to each other, and likely both arose due to susceptibilities inherent to the devils themselves.

    Tasmanian devils are marsupial carnivores endemic to the Australian island of Tasmania. The species is considered endangered due to devil facial tumour 1 (DFT1), a cancer that is passed between animals through the transfer of living cancer cells when the animals bite each other. DFT1 causes grotesque and disfiguring facial tumours, which usually kill affected individuals.

    The DFT1 cancer first arose in a single individual devil several decades ago, but rather than dying together with this devil, the cancer survived by ‘metastasising’ into different devils. Therefore, the DNA of the devils’ tumour cells is not their own DNA, but rather belongs to the individual devil that first gave rise to DFT1 all those years ago. Remarkably, DFT1 cells can escape the devils’ immune systems despite being in essence a foreign body.

    The DFT1 cancer was first observed in north-east Tasmania in 1996, but has subsequently spread widely throughout the island, causing significant declines in devil populations.

    In 2014, routine diagnostic screening revealed a second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils, devil facial tumour 2 (DFT2), which causes facial tumours indistinguishable to the naked eye from those caused by DFT1, and which is probably also spread by biting. However, analysis showed that the two types of cancer differ at a biological level, and whereas DFT1 first arose from the cells of a female devil, DFT2 appears to have first arisen from a male animal. For now, DFT2 appears to be confined to a peninsula in Tasmania’s south-east.

    “The discovery of a second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils was a huge surprise,” says Dr Elizabeth Murchison from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. “Other than these two cancers, we know of only one other naturally occurring transmissible cancer in mammals – the canine transmissible venereal tumour in dogs, which first emerged several thousand years ago.”

    In fact, outside of mammals, only five transmissible cancers have been observed, all of which cause leukaemia-like diseases in clams and other shellfish.

    “The scarcity of transmissible cancers suggests that such diseases emerge rarely,” she adds. “Before 1996, no one had observed them in Tasmanian devils, so finding two transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devils in just eighteen years was very surprising.”

    In order to see whether the devil transmissible cancers are caused by external factors or whether the animals were just particularly susceptible to developing these cancers, a research team led by Dr Murchison analysed the genetic profiles of DFT1 and DFT2 tumours taken from a number of Tasmanian devils. The results are published today in the journal Cancer Cell.

    The team found striking similarities in tissues-of-origin, genetics, how the cancer cells mutate, and possible drug targets. This implies that the two tumours belong to the same cancer type and arose via similar mechanisms.

    The team studied the genetic and physical features of the tumours, and compared the two lineages with each other and with human cancers. In doing so, they identified an important role in the tumours for particular types of molecules known as receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) in sustaining growth and survival of DFT cancers.

    Importantly, drugs targeting RTKs have already been developed for human cancer, and the researchers showed that these drugs efficiently stopped the growth of devil cancer cells growing in the lab. This leads to hope that it may be possible to use these drugs to help Tasmanian devils.

    First author of the study, Maximilian Stammnitz, adds: “Altogether, our findings suggest that transmissible cancers may arise naturally in Tasmanian devils. We found no DNA-level evidence of these cancers being caused by external factors or infectious agents such as viruses. It seems plausible that similar transmissible cancers may have occurred in the past, but escaped detection, perhaps because they remained in localised populations, or because they existed prior to the arrival of Europeans in Tasmania in the nineteenth century.”

    Why Tasmanian devils should be particularly susceptible to the emergence of DFTs is not clear. However, devils bite each other frequently around the facial area, often causing significant tissue injury. Given the important role for RTK molecules in wound healing, the researchers speculate that DFT cancers may arise from errors in the maintenance of proliferative cells involved in tissue repair after injury.

    “When fighting, Tasmanian devils often bite their opponent’s face, which may predispose these animals to the emergence of this particular type of cancer via tissue injury,” adds Stammnitz. “As biting occurs on the face, this would simultaneously provide a route of cell transmission.”

    The researchers say it is also possible that human activities may have indirectly increased the risk of the emergence or spread of transmissible devil facial tumours (DFTs) in recent years. For instance, it is possible that some modern land use practices may have provided favourable conditions for devils, leading to an increase in local population densities of devils, and to greater competition, interactions and fights between animals, which may in turn have raised probabilities of DFTs arising or spreading. Alternatively, early persecution of devils by European colonists may have additionally contributed to this species' documented low genetic diversity, a possible risk factor for disease spread and the ability of DFTs to escape the immune system.

    The researchers also identified deletions in DFT1 and in DFT2 in genes involved in recognition of cancer cells by the immune system. This may help explain how these cancers escape the immune system.

    “The story of Tasmanian devils in recent years has been a very concerning one,” says Dr Murchison. “This study gives us optimism that anti-cancer drugs that are already in use in humans may offer a chance to assist with conservation efforts for this iconic animal.”

    The research was funded by Wellcome, the National Science Foundation, Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal, Leverhulme Trust, Cancer Research UK and Gates Cambridge Trust.

    Stammnitz, M.R., et al. (2018). The origins and vulnerabilities of two transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devils. Cancer Cell 33(4), 607-619.

    Transmissible cancers are incredibly rare in nature, yet have arisen in Tasmanian devils on at least two separate occasions. New research from the University of Cambridge identifies key anti-cancer drugs which could be trialled as a treatment for these diseases, which are threatening Tasmanian devils with extinction.

    This study gives us optimism that anti-cancer drugs that are already in use in humans may offer a chance to assist with conservation efforts for this iconic animal
    Elizabeth Murchison
    Tasmanian devil
    Researcher profile: Maximilian Stammnitz

    One of Maximilian Stammnitz’s best memories at Cambridge has been his encounter with Tasmanian devils on a field trip to Tasmania in 2016. “There is nothing more exciting than examining actual devils in the wild – they are truly majestic animals!” he says.

    Stammnitz is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine. Originally from “Germany's sunniest spot: Heidelberg”, he came to Cambridge to join the Computational Biology MPhil program at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in 2014.

    “This course provides fascinating opportunities to study biology through a big data lens, and to learn about vastly emerging genomics technologies from experts in the field,” he says. “The DNA-level expertise and collaboration at Cambridge surrounding topics of genetics, evolution, medicine and computational data analysis is breath-taking.”

    It was a seminar by Elizabeth Murchison on transmissible cancers that caught his imagination, however, and he subsequently joined her group at Veterinary Medicine for a summer internship, and then as a PhD student and Gates Cambridge Scholar. The ultimate aim of his work is to save the largest carnivorous marsupial on the planet, but by studying the fundamental processes of cancer development in Tasmanian devils, his work could help us understand better how cancer develops in humans.

    “I spend most of my working days behind a computer screen, processing and analysing large volumes of DNA and RNA sequencing data from Tasmanian devil tumour biopsies,” he says. “Occasionally, I also do molecular biology experiments in the 'wet lab', to validate our computational results or to establish testing protocols for the devils.”

    It isn’t all about work, though. “Over the past year, I have been the captain of our university's Blues men's volleyball team and co-founded PuntSeq, a citizen science project aiming at cost-effective pathogen surveillance of our house river Cam's water,” he says.

    “My biggest challenge of living here is to balance truly focused work life and quiet time with the many inspiring distractions that wait behind the corners of Cambridge's old walls. It’s a luxury problem to have as a PhD student.”

    Follow Maximilian Stammnitz on Twitter @DevilsAdvoMax

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    The Ceres Agritech Knowledge Exchange Partnership links the universities of Cambridge, East Anglia, Hertfordshire, Lincoln and Reading, as well as the John Innes Centre, NIAB and Rothamsted Research, to enable effective sharing of commercialisation expertise, a key aim of Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund, which has awarded the partnership £4.78 million in funding.

    Ceres will work with business partners to identify, build, invest in and run the most commercially viable development projects, based on the needs of the agritech sector. The resulting technologies can then be licensed to industry or form the basis of start-up companies or partnerships with SMEs and large agritech corporations.

    In addition to the funding from Research England, Ceres has secured funding commitments of over £15 million from industry and technology investors for further investment in commercial opportunities.

    A 2016 government report estimated that the agritech sector was worth £14.3 billion and employed 542,000 people in the UK.

    “The time is ripe for catalysing early stage technology transfer in the globally critical agritech sector,” said Iain Thomas, Head of Life Sciences at Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm. “Advances in nutrition, genomics, informatics, artificial intelligence, remote sensing, automation and plant sciences have huge potential in precision agriculture and food production. Farmers, food processors and producers are eager to explore and adopt new technologies to improve their competitiveness and efficiency.

    “Cambridge University wants to play a significant part in the successful development of an agritech cluster. The Ceres Partnership builds on models of collaboration, technology acceleration and effective commercial demonstration of proof-of-concept from other technology sectors, such as the pharma-biotech cluster currently flourishing in the Cambridge region.”

    The Ceres funding is part of an investment of £67 million through Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund in new collaborative projects to drive forward the commercialisation of university research across the country.  

    Five leading universities, including the University of Cambridge, have formed a partnership to develop and commercialise agritech research, in order to improve sustainability, increase productivity and contribute to global food security.

    Cambridge University wants to play a significant part in the successful development of an agritech cluster.
    Iain Thomas
    Hauser Forum

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