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    In a study published in Nature Cell Biology, the team from the Wellcome/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute show that Shieldin – so-called because it shields the ends of broken DNA – regulates DNA repair and could be a useful marker for identifying which patients are likely to respond poorly to PARP inhibitors.

    The DNA in our cells is susceptible to damage caused by external factors such as sunlight or smoking, or internal factors including our genetics. One form of damage is when both strands of the DNA double helix break – this can lead to cell death, so cells have various repair mechanisms to fix the damage.

    The simplest mechanism for repairing DNA breaks is known as ‘non-homologous end-joining’ (NHEJ). This mechanism essentially ‘sticks together’ the broken DNA strands, but it is imperfect and can result in deletions of segments of DNA.

    A more accurate repair mechanism is ‘homologous recombination’ (HR). This mechanism uses a copy of our DNA as a reference text to fill in any missing gaps. However, NHEJ and HR work in competition against each other: if the balance is tipped in favour of HR, then cells will use this mechanism to repair the DNA damage.

    Among the proteins involved in HR is BRCA1. However, some people carry a ‘bad’ BRCA1 mutation, which makes them more susceptible to cancer. Normal cells in these people have one ‘bad’ copy of the BRCA1 gene, but still have one ‘good’ copy, meaning that they can still carry out HR – and hence are still able to carry out vital DNA repair; however, their cancer cells have lost the good copy of BRCA1 and are no longer able to carry out homologous recombination.

    Professor Steve Jackson and colleagues at the Gurdon Institute previously exploited this weakness to develop PARP-inhibitor drugs, which cause a double-strand DNA break that can only be repaired by homologous recombination: so, BRCA1-negative cancer cells die, while surrounding healthy cells survive.

    However, some patients taking PARP inhibitors develop resistance to the drugs – and some patients do not even respond from the outset. To understand why this should be the case, Professor Steve Jackson and colleagues used cutting-edge CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing techniques to screen breast cancer cells with the BRCA1 mutation and identify which genes drive resistance.

    They identified two genes that produce a protein complex now referred to as Shieldin. From this they were able to show that Shieldin plays an important role in NHEJ, binding at the site of the broken strands of DNA. It is this complex that appears to be the key to patients responding to PARP inhibitors.

    The balancing act between NHEJ and HR should mean that the cells of people with the BRCA1 mutation cannot perform homologous recombination – hence PARP inhibitors are able to kill the cells. But when Shieldin levels are depleted – which may arise from spontaneous mutations in tumour cells – the balance changes and the patient’s tumour cells regain the ability to perform homologous recombination – and hence, PARP inhibitors are no longer effective.

    Professor Jackson, whose group led the research, said: “There is a balancing act within our cells – a tug of war between proteins such as BRCA1 and Shieldin. Who wins determines whether the cell carries out error-free, albeit slower DNA repair, or faster, error-prone repair.”

    The study’s lead author, Wellcome Clinical Fellow Dr Harveer Dev, explained: “In BRCA1 mutated cells, it appears as though the persistence of the Shieldin complex at DNA breaks renders these cells sensitive to PARP inhibitors. This explains why these drugs are normally effective in patients with BRCA1 mutations. But when Shieldin levels are low, patients can develop resistance to these drugs.”

    To confirm their results, the researchers took breast cancer biopsies from patients with the BRCA1 mutation and transplanted them into mice. They found that mice that had low levels of Shieldin from the outset did not respond to the PARP inhibitors, and mice that evolved resistance to the drugs had tumours with low levels of Shieldin. They also went on to show that resistance to PARP inhibitors can lead the same cancer cells to develop vulnerabilities to alternative cancer treatments, such as radiotherapy or platinum-based chemotherapy.

    Professor Jackson concluded: “As we improve our understanding of these DNA repair networks and how they interact, we should be able to better predict the responsiveness of an individual patient’s tumour to specific therapies like PARP inhibitors, and ultimately personalise cancer therapy to achieve the maximum benefit.”

    This study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK, and core funding to the Gurdon Institute from the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK.

    Reference
    Dev H. et al. The SHLD1/2 protein complex promotes non-homologous end-joining and counters homologous recombination in BRCA1-deficient cells. Nature Cell Biology; 18 July; DOI: 10.1038/s41556-018-0140-1

    A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge has identified a protein complex that might explain why some cancer patients treated with the revolutionary new anti-cancer drugs known as PARP inhibitors develop resistance to their medication.

    As we improve our understanding of these DNA repair networks and how they interact, we should be able to better predict the responsiveness of an individual patient’s tumour to specific therapies
    Steve Jackson
    Alineando secuencias

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    Although these materials, known as niobium tungsten oxides, do not result in higher energy densities when used under typical cycling rates, they come into their own for fast charging applications. Additionally, their physical structure and chemical behaviour give researchers a valuable insight into how a safe, super-fast charging battery could be constructed, and suggest that the solution to next-generation batteries may come from unconventional materials. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

    Many of the technologies we use every day have been getting smaller, faster and cheaper each year – with the notable exception of batteries. Apart from the possibility of a smartphone which could be fully charged in minutes, the challenges associated with making a better battery are holding back the widespread adoption of two major clean technologies: electric cars and grid-scale storage for solar power.

    “We’re always looking for materials with high-rate battery performance, which would result in a much faster charge and could also deliver high power output,” said Dr Kent Griffith, a postdoctoral researcher in Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry and the paper’s first author.

    In their simplest form, batteries are made of three components: a positive electrode, a negative electrode and an electrolyte. When a battery is charging, lithium ions are extracted from the positive electrode and move through the crystal structure and electrolyte to the negative electrode, where they are stored. The faster this process occurs, the faster the battery can be charged.

    In the search for new electrode materials, researchers normally try to make the particles smaller. “The idea is that if you make the distance the lithium ions have to travel shorter, it should give you higher rate performance,” said Griffith. “But it’s difficult to make a practical battery with nanoparticles: you get a lot more unwanted chemical reactions with the electrolyte, so the battery doesn’t last as long, plus it’s expensive to make.”

    “Nanoparticles can be tricky to make, which is why we’re searching for materials that inherently have the properties we’re looking for even when they are used as comparatively large micron-sized particles. This means that you don’t have to go through a complicated process to make them, which keeps costs low,” said Professor Clare Grey, also from the Department of Chemistry and the paper’s senior author. “Nanoparticles are also challenging to work with on a practical level, as they tend to be quite ‘fluffy’, so it’s difficult to pack them tightly together, which is key for a battery’s volumetric energy density.”

    The niobium tungsten oxides used in the current work have a rigid, open structure that does not trap the inserted lithium, and have larger particle sizes than many other electrode materials. Griffith speculates that the reason these materials have not received attention previously is related to their complex atomic arrangements. However, he suggests that the structural complexity and mixed-metal composition are the very reasons the materials exhibit unique transport properties.

    “Many battery materials are based on the same two or three crystal structures, but these niobium tungsten oxides are fundamentally different,” said Griffith. The oxides are held open by ‘pillars’ of oxygen, which enables lithium ions to move through them in three dimensions. “The oxygen pillars, or shear planes, make these materials more rigid than other battery compounds, so that, plus their open structures means that more lithium ions can move through them, and far more quickly.”

    Using a technique called pulsed field gradient (PFG) nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which is not readily applied to battery electrode materials, the researchers measured the movement of lithium ions through the oxides, and found that they moved at rates several orders of magnitude higher than typical electrode materials.

    Most negative electrodes in current lithium-ion batteries are made of graphite, which has a high energy density, but when charged at high rates, tends to form spindly lithium metal fibres known as dendrites, which can create a short-circuit and cause the batteries to catch fire and possibly explode.

    “In high-rate applications, safety is a bigger concern than under any other operating circumstances,” said Grey. “These materials, and potentially others like them, would definitely be worth looking at for fast–charging applications where you need a safer alternative to graphite.”

    In addition to their high lithium transport rates, the niobium tungsten oxides are also simple to make. “A lot of the nanoparticle structures take multiple steps to synthesise, and you only end up with a tiny amount of material, so scalability is a real issue,” said Griffith. “But these oxides are so easy to make, and don’t require additional chemicals or solvents.”

    Although the oxides have excellent lithium transport rates, they do lead to a lower cell voltage than some electrode materials. However, the operating voltage is beneficial for safety and the high lithium transport rates mean that when cycling fast, the practical (usable) energy density of these materials remains high.

    While the oxides may only be suited for certain applications, Grey says that the important thing is to keep looking for new chemistries and new materials. “Fields stagnate if you don’t keep looking for new compounds,” she says. “These interesting materials give us a good insight into how we might design higher rate electrode materials.”

    The research was funded in part by the European Union, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

    Reference:
    Kent J. Griffith et al. ‘Niobium tungsten oxides for high-rate lithium-ion energy storage.’ Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0347-0

    Researchers have identified a group of materials that could be used to make even higher power batteries. The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, used materials with a complex crystalline structure and found that lithium ions move through them at rates that far exceed those of typical electrode materials, which equates to a much faster-charging battery.

    Fields stagnate if you don’t keep looking for new compounds.
    Clare Grey
    Impression of rapidly flowing ionic diffusion within a niobium tungsten oxide

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    Dr Samantha Williams’ Unmarried Motherhood in the Metropolis: 1700-1850 reveals, using London’s few surviving ‘bastardy books’, how the parishes of Lambeth, Southwark and Chelsea chased the fathers of illegitimate babies – and the lengths some errant fathers went to in order to escape not only their moral and financial obligations, but the clutches of parish constables and the feared houses of correction.

    Read the full Shorthand story here

    How 18th and 19th century London supported its unmarried mothers and illegitimate children – essentially establishing an earlier version of today’s Child Support Agency – is the subject of newly-published research by a Cambridge historian.

    Workhouse Women in St. Giles's Church by Charles Holroyd (1880-84). ©Trustees of the British Museum

    Creative Commons License
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    The European Court of Justice has made an important ruling on genetically modified crops. Since 2003, new crop varieties produced by genetic modification have had to be assessed for their risks to the environment and human and animal health before they can be farmed in the European Union.

    The court has now decided that genetic modification includes any technique that induces genetic changes “in a way that does not occur naturally”. This includes new genome editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9, but also approaches that have been used in plant breeding since the 1960s.

    Some scientists have criticised the court for “shutting the door” on new technologies that could benefit human health and the environment. This is certainly a concern. The ruling will discourage the use of genome editing that could bring significant environmental benefits by making it more expensive for such such crops to clear the necessary regulatory processes.

    But the main problem illustrated by this ruling is the deep logical flaw in the whole regulatory approach. Plants that have been bred in more traditional ways, which could have just as serious health or environmental impacts, will continue to be exempt from regulation. Focusing on how a new crop is produced – rather than the new characteristics or agricultural practices it brings – will inevitably result in wholly inadequate protection for the environment and consumers.

    Every new crop variety is genetically different from its predecessors. A lot of genetic variation can arise naturally from errors in DNA copying, mutations caused by environmental factors, cross breeding with wild relatives, viruses and many other sources. All this variation is excluded from the EU definition of GM.

    To increase genetic diversity and generally speed things up, scientists can induce mutations deliberately. Random mutagenesis – purposefully encouraging genetic mutations, for example with radiation – has been used on crops since the 1960s. It has since become possible to add specific new genes, sourced from the same or different species. And, even more recently, genome editing techniques have been developed that allow scientists to alter selected existing genes. These more recent approaches are becoming ever more useful as we build up our understanding of which genes do what.

    All these techniques can be used to introduce new traits into a crop variety, for example to make a plant resistant to herbicides. The new court ruling came about because a group of farming organisations who were worried about the impact of herbicide resistant crops argued they should be regulated regardless of how they were developed.

    This seems to me entirely reasonable. There are of plenty of arguments and counterarguments about the risks and benefits of this approach to weed control – and it is important to assess these before introducing a new herbicide resistant crop. None of these arguments have anything to do with how the crop was produced.

    Yet the court ruling means that herbicide resistant crops produced through conventional breeding can be used freely, while crops produced using newer approaches must be subjected to intense scrutiny. So the farming groups might be happy that a new generation of herbicide resistant crops will have to be extensively assessed for their environmental and health impacts. But herbicide resistant crops produced by traditional methods, which raise identical concerns, will remain exempt from these regulations.

    Natural’s not in it

    This highlights the central problem with the EU regulations on new crop varieties. Anything that could occur naturally is exempt from scrutiny. Yet drawing a line between the natural and artificial is difficult to say the least. After thousands of years of careful human intervention, most “natural” crops look nothing like their wild ancestor. They have many characteristics that mean they would not last more than a few generations if they had to compete in the wild.

    One of the reasons we have spent so long breeding them is that many natural plants carry serious risks. Very few people would say to their children: “Go into the woods and eat anything you can find. It’s all natural so it must be good for you.” The distinction between natural and artificial is both contrived and not relevant when it comes to environmental and health impact assessment.

    We should assess new crop varieties on the traits they are supposed to deliver, not on how those traits were introduced. The system needs to be proportional and risk-based. This should of course include consideration of the unintended effects of whatever genetic improvement process was used. Instead we spend years debating whether or not a new technique counts as genetic modification or not. That this is even a relevant question lays bare the flaws in our current approach.

    This article has been republished from The Conversation.

    A new EU ruling that attempts to draw a line between natural and artificial when it comes to crop production has a "deep logical flaw" at its heart, writes Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director of the University's Sainsbury Laboratory.  

    We should assess new crop varieties on the traits they are supposed to deliver, not on how those traits were introduced
    Ottoline Leyser
    Ratiometric measurement of gene expression

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    The company behind this idea is Entomics Biosystems. It was set up in 2015 by a group of students from the University of Cambridge, with support from the Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Centre’s ‘Accelerate Cambridge’ programme.

    “It’s one of those stories where we came together in a pub over a pint, talking about weird ideas,” explains its CEO and co-founder Matt McLaren. “The team has members from the Department of Biochemistry, from Engineering, from the [Judge] Business School, so it really is a diverse skill set.”

    According to the company, each year over 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted globally – equating to around US$1 trillion of lost value. With an increasing population and modern lifestyles, the burden of food waste on society and the environment is set to increase in the future.

    Entomics focuses on ‘insect biomass conversion’. Larvae of the black soldier fly chew their way through several tonnes of food waste collected from local supermarkets and food processing plants. The insects are fed different ‘recipes’ under controlled conditions to see how these affect growth rates and nutritional profiles. They metabolise the food waste into fats and proteins, growing to around 5,000 times their body weight within just a couple of weeks.

    As McLaren, explains, these fats and proteins “are great sources of nutrition for salmon and poultry – in fact, insects are part of their natural diet”. Entomics is currently working with partners including the University of Stirling, who are world-leading salmon aquaculture experts, to validate and test their products in the field.

    “Farmed salmon in Scotland are currently fed on fishmeal which comes from wild-caught anchovies from as far away as Chile and Peru, which are then shipped across the world to Scotland,” he explains. “Insects provide a nice, sustainable solution.”

    With support including from Innovate UK and the European Institute of Technology (via EIT FoodKIC), Entomics is using a novel bioprocessing technique to boost the nutritional and functional benefits of these insect-derived feeds, using a microbial fermentation technology they have termed ‘Metamorphosis’. Essentially, these specialised feeds represent a sustainable, holistic approach to improving overall fish health and welfare.

    “There are several benefits to this process,” explains Miha Pipan, Chief Scientific Officer and fellow co-founder, “from affecting the gut’s microbiome and trying to preserve a healthier bacterial community there, to training immune systems to make livestock more resistant to disease challenges and at the same time reduce the need for veterinary medicines, antibiotics and vaccines.” 

    “The world’s looking for more sustainable sources of feed and I think increasingly there’s a recognition that it’s not just about basic nutrition, but it’s about overall health,” says McLaren. “We’re trying to take a promising, sustainable ingredient of the future – these insect-derived feeds – and trying to add a bit of biotechnology or science focus to it, to really enhance what the effect is in the end application and reduce reliance on traditional antibiotics and veterinary medicines.”

    There is endless potential for innovation in the emerging insect industry in general, and the Entomics team is also working on an engineering project to build a smart, modular system for insect production in the future. This includes developing computer vision algorithms to understand and monitor insect behaviour during the production process – for example, the insects’ growth and health.

    McLaren is grateful of the support that the company received from the Cambridge Judge Business School to get itself off the ground. “The mentorship and coaching provided by the Accelerate Cambridge programme in particular has been vital to getting our business to its current stage, and the credibility of the Cambridge brand has allowed us to engage with some great academic and commercial partners.”

    In a warehouse to the northeast of Cambridge are shelves upon shelves of trays teeming with maggots, munching their way through a meal of rotting fruit and vegetables. This may sound stomach-churning, but these insects could become the sustainable food of the future – at least for fish and animals – helping reduce the reliance on resource intensive proteins such as fishmeal and soy, while also mitigating the use of antibiotics in the food chain, one of the causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

    Farmed salmon in Scotland are currently fed on fishmeal which comes from wild-caught anchovies from as far away as Chile and Peru, which are then shipped across the world to Scotland. Insects provide a nice, sustainable solution
    Matt McLaren
    Black soldier fly larvae

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    PCOS affects about one in ten women and is caused by elevated levels of the hormone testosterone. It is associated with fluid-filled sacs (called follicles) in the ovaries, and with symptoms such as delayed onset of puberty, irregular menstrual cycles, and excess bodily hair.

    Autism is a condition characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication alongside unusually narrow interests, a strong preference for predictability, and difficulties adjusting to unexpected change. Some autistic people also have learning difficulties and delayed language, and many have sensory hyper-sensitivity. The signs of autism are evident in childhood even if the diagnosis is not made until later, and occurs in about 1% of the population.

    The research team previously published work in 2015 which showed that before they are born, autistic children have elevated levels of ‘sex steroid’ hormones (including testosterone) which ‘masculinise’ the baby’s body and brain. The discovery that prenatal sex steroid hormones are involved in the development of autism is one possible explanation for why autism is diagnosed more often in boys.

    The scientists wondered where these elevated sex steroid hormones were coming from, one possible source being the mother. If she had higher levels of testosterone than usual, as is the case in women with PCOS, then some of the hormone might cross the placenta during pregnancy, exposing her unborn baby to more of this hormone, and changing the baby’s brain development.

    Using anonymous data from a large database of GP health records, the study looked at 8,588 women with PCOS and their first-born children, compared to a group of 41,127 women without PCOS. The team found that, even after taking into account other factors (like maternal mental health problems or complications during pregnancy), women with PCOS had a 2.3% chance of having an autistic child, compared with the 1.7% chance for mothers without PCOS. 

    The team stressed that the likelihood of having an autistic child is still very low, even among women with PCOS – but finding this link provides an important clue in understanding one of the multiple causal factors in autism.

    The team presented their findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research in 2016, and their findings were replicated in a Swedish study in the same year, adding to the reliability of the result.

    The team also conducted two other studies using the same data and found that autistic women were more likely to have PCOS, and women with PCOS were more likely to have autism themselves. This strongly suggests that these two conditions are linked, probably because they both share elevated sex steroid hormone levels.

    Adriana Cherskov, the Master’s student who analysed the data, and who is now studying medicine in the US, said: “This is an important piece of new evidence for the theory that autism is not only caused by genes but also by prenatal sex steroid hormones such as testosterone.”

    Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre, who supervised the research, said: “This new research is helping us understand the effects of testosterone on the developing fetal brain, and on the child’s later behaviour and mind. These hormonal effects are not necessarily independent of genetic factors, as a mother or her baby may have higher levels of the hormone for genetic reasons, and testosterone can affect how genes function.”

    Dr Carrie Allison who co-supervised the research, said: “We need to think about the practical steps we can put in place to support women with PCOS as they go through their pregnancies. The likelihood is statistically significant but nevertheless still small, in that most women with PCOS won’t have a child with autism, but we want to be transparent with this new information.”

    Dr Rupert Payne from the University of Bristol Centre for Academic Primary Care, a GP and the expert on the team in using GP health record data for this type of research, said: “Autism can have a significant impact on a person’s wellbeing, and on their parents, and many autistic people have significant health, social care and educational special needs. This is an important step in trying to understand what causes autism. It is also an excellent example of the value of using anonymous routine healthcare data to answer vital medical research questions.”

    The study was supported by the Autism Research Trust, the Medical Research Council, Wellcome, a Gates Cambridge Trust Scholarship and Rouse Ball/Eddington Research Fund Award at Trinity College.

    Reference
    Cherskov, A., Pohl, A Allison, C, Zhang, H, Payne, R, and Baron-Cohen, S. Polycystic ovary syndrome and autism: A test of the prenatal sex steroid theory. Translational Psychiatry; 1 Aug 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41398-018-0186-7 

    Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are more likely than other women to have an autistic child, according to an analysis of NHS data carried out by a team at Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre. The research is published today in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

    This is an important piece of new evidence for the theory that autism is not only caused by genes but also by prenatal sex steroid hormones such as testosterone
    Adriana Cherskov
    In His Own World

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    Professor Birkar, who originally came to the UK as a Kurdish refugee, was given the award today at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    The Fields medals, often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics, are awarded every four years. Medallists must be under the age of 40 by the start of the year they receive the award, with up to four mathematicians honoured at a time. Awarded for the first time in 1936, the medal is recognition for works of excellence and an incentive for new outstanding achievements.

    Birkar, a member of Cambridge’s Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, won the award for his work on categorising different kinds of polynomial equations. He proved that the infinite variety of such equations can be split into a finite number of classifications, a major breakthrough in the field of arithmetic geometry. Born in a Kurdish village in pre-revolutionary Iran, Birkar sought and obtained political asylum in the UK while finishing his undergraduate degree in Iran.

    “War-ridden Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics,” Birkar told the ICM today. “I'm hoping that this news will put a smile on the faces of those 40 million people.”

    Birkar, who just this year received recognition for his work as one of the London Mathematical Society Prize winners, was born in 1978 in Marivan, a Kurdish province in Iran bordering Iraq with about 200,000 inhabitants. His curiosity was awakened by algebraic geometry, the same interest that, in that same region, centuries earlier, had attracted the attention of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) and Sharaf al-Din al-Tusi (1135-1213).

    After graduating in Mathematics from Tehran University, Birkar went to live in the UK, where he became a British citizen. In 2004, he completed his PhD at the University of Nottingham with the thesis “Topics in modern algebraic geometry”. Throughout his career, birational geometry has stood out as his main area of interest. He has devoted himself to the fundamental aspects of key problems in modern mathematics – such as minimal models, Fano varieties, and singularities. His theories have solved long-standing conjectures.

    In 2010, the year in which he was awarded by the Foundation Sciences Mathématiques de Paris, Birkar wrote, alongside Paolo Cascini (Imperial College London), Christopher Hacon (University of Utah) and James McKernan (University of California, San Diego), an article called “Existence of minimal models for varieties of general log type” that revolutionised the field. The article earned the quartet the AMS Moore Prize in 2016.

    Founded by the Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields to celebrate outstanding achievements, the Fields Medal has already been awarded to 56 scholars of the most diverse nationalities, among them, Brazilian Fields laureate Artur Avila, an extraordinary researcher from IMPA, awarded in 2014 in South Korea. Due to its importance and prestige, the medal is often likened to a Nobel Prize of Mathematics.

    “This is absolutely phenomenal, both for Caucher and for mathematics at Cambridge,” said Professor Gabriel Paternain, Head of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics. “Caucher was already an exceptional young researcher when he came to Cambridge, and he's now one of the most remarkable people in this field. At Cambridge, we want to give all of our young researchers the opportunity to really explore their field early in their career: it can lead to some truly amazing things.”

    The winners of the Fields medal are selected by a group of specialists nominated by the Executive Committee of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), which organize the ICMs. Every four years, between two and four researchers under the age of 40 are chosen. Since 2006, a cash prize of 15 thousand Canadian dollars accompanies the medal.

    In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Birkar spoke of the math club at Tehran University, where pictures of Fields medallists lined the walls. “I looked at them and said to myself, ‘Will I ever meet one of these people?’ At that time in Iran, I couldn’t even know that I’d be able to go to the West.

    “To go from the point that I didn’t imagine meeting these people to the point where someday I hold a medal myself — I just couldn’t imagine that this would come true.”

    Professor Birkar is Cambridge’s 11th Fields medallist.

    The other three winners of the 2018 Fields medals are Peter Scholze from the University of Bonn, Akshay Venkatesh from the Institute of Advanced Studies and Alessi Fegalli from ETH Zurich.

    University of Cambridge mathematician Caucher Birkar has been named one of four recipients of the 2018 Fields medals, the most prestigious awards in mathematics. 

    Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics - I'm hoping that this news will put a smile on the faces of those 40 million people.
    Caucher Birkar
    Caucher Birkar

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    The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB), found that the chances for life to develop on the surface of a rocky planet like Earth are connected to the type and strength of light given off by its host star.

    Their study, published in the journal Science Advances, proposes that stars which give off sufficient ultraviolet (UV) light could kick-start life on their orbiting planets in the same way it likely developed on Earth, where the UV light powers a series of chemical reactions that produce the building blocks of life.

    The researchers have identified a range of planets where the UV light from their host star is sufficient to allow these chemical reactions to take place, and that lie within the habitable range where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.

    “This work allows us to narrow down the best places to search for life,” said Dr Paul Rimmer, a postdoctoral researcher with a joint affiliation at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, and the paper’s first author. “It brings us just a little bit closer to addressing the question of whether we are alone in the universe.”

    The new paper is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, bringing together organic chemistry and exoplanet research. It builds on the work of Professor John Sutherland, a co-author on the current paper, who studies the chemical origin of life on Earth.

    In a paper published in 2015, Professor Sutherland’s group at the MRC LMB proposed that cyanide, although a deadly poison, was in fact a key ingredient in the primordial soup from which all life on Earth originated.

    In this hypothesis, carbon from meteorites that slammed into the young Earth interacted with nitrogen in the atmosphere to form hydrogen cyanide. The hydrogen cyanide rained to the surface, where it interacted with other elements in various ways, powered by the UV light from the sun. The chemicals produced from these interactions generated the building blocks of RNA, the close relative of DNA which most biologists believe was the first molecule of life to carry information.

    In the laboratory, Sutherland’s group recreated these chemical reactions under UV lamps, and generated the precursors to lipids, amino acids and nucleotides, all of which are essential components of living cells.

    “I came across these earlier experiments, and as an astronomer, my first question is always what kind of light are you using, which as chemists they hadn’t really thought about,” said Rimmer. “I started out measuring the number of photons emitted by their lamps, and then realised that comparing this light to the light of different stars was a straightforward next step.”

    The two groups performed a series of laboratory experiments to measure how quickly the building blocks of life can be formed from hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulphite ions in water when exposed to UV light. They then performed the same experiment in the absence of light.

    “There is chemistry that happens in the dark: it’s slower than the chemistry that happens in the light, but it’s there,” said senior author Professor Didier Queloz, also from the Cavendish Laboratory. “We wanted to see how much light it would take for the light chemistry to win out over the dark chemistry.”

    The same experiment run in the dark with the hydrogen cyanide and the hydrogen sulphite resulted in an inert compound which could not be used to form the building blocks of life, while the experiment performed under the lights did result in the necessary building blocks.

    The researchers then compared the light chemistry to the dark chemistry against the UV light of different stars. They plotted the amount of UV light available to planets in orbit around these stars to determine where the chemistry could be activated.

    They found that stars around the same temperature as our sun emitted enough light for the building blocks of life to have formed on the surfaces of their planets. Cool stars, on the other hand, do not produce enough light for these building blocks to be formed, except if they have frequent powerful solar flares to jolt the chemistry forward step by step. Planets that both receive enough light to activate the chemistry and could have liquid water on their surfaces reside in what the researchers have called the abiogenesis zone.

    Among the known exoplanets which reside in the abiogenesis zone are several planets detected by the Kepler telescope, including Kepler 452b, a planet that has been nicknamed Earth’s ‘cousin’, although it is too far away to probe with current technology. Next-generation telescopes, such as NASA’s TESS and James Webb Telescopes, will hopefully be able to identify and potentially characterise many more planets that lie within the abiogenesis zone.

    Of course, it is also possible that if there is life on other planets, that it has or will develop in a totally different way than it did on Earth.

    “I’m not sure how contingent life is, but given that we only have one example so far, it makes sense to look for places that are most like us,” said Rimmer. “There’s an important distinction between what is necessary and what is sufficient. The building blocks are necessary, but they may not be sufficient: it’s possible you could mix them for billions of years and nothing happens. But you want to at least look at the places where the necessary things exist.”

    According to recent estimates, there are as many as 700 million trillion terrestrial planets in the observable universe. “Getting some idea of what fraction have been, or might be, primed for life fascinates me,” said Sutherland. “Of course, being primed for life is not everything and we still don’t know how likely the origin of life is, even given favourable circumstances - if it’s really unlikely then we might be alone, but if not, we may have company.”

    The research was funded by the Kavli Foundation and the Simons Foundation.

    Reference:
    Paul B. Rimmer et al. ‘The Origin of RNA Precursors on Exoplanets.’ Science Advances (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar3302

    Inset image: Diagram of confirmed exoplanets within the liquid water habitable zone (as well as Earth). Credit: Paul Rimmer

    Scientists have identified a group of planets outside our solar system where the same chemical conditions that may have led to life on Earth exist. 

    This work brings us just a little bit closer to addressing the question of whether we are alone in the universe.
    Paul Rimmer
    Artist's concept depicting one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b

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    Maybe it was the language, architecture, codified legal system, regulated economy, military discipline – or maybe it really was public safety and aqueducts. Whatever the Romans did for us, their reputation as a civilising force who brought order to the western world has, in the public imagination, stood the test of time remarkably well. It is especially strong for an Empire that has been battered by close historical scrutiny for almost 2,000 years. 

    The reputation, of course, has more than a grain of truth to it – but the real story is also more complex. Not only did the Empire frequently endure assorted forms of severely uncultured political disarray, but for the kaleidoscope of peoples under its dominion, Roman rule was a varied experience that often represented an unsettling rupture with the past. As Professor Mary Beard put it in her book SPQR: “there is no single story of Rome, especially when the Roman world had expanded far outside Italy.” 

    So perhaps another way to characterise the Roman Empire is as one of cultures colliding – a swirling melting pot of ideas and beliefs from which concepts that would define western civilisation took form. This is certainly closer to the view of Tim Whitmarsh, the A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, who is the principal investigator on a project that has examined Greek epic poetry during this period.

    “This is perhaps the most important period for thinking about where European culture comes from,” says Whitmarsh. “We really are at the dawn of modernity. To tell the story of an Empire which remains the model for so many forms of international power is to tell the story of what we became, and what we are.”

    His interest in the Greek experience stems partly from the fact that few cultures under Roman rule can have felt more keenly the fissure it wrought between present and past. In political terms, Ancient Greek history arguably climaxed with the empires established in the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE). In the period when this poetry was written, from the first to the sixth centuries CE, the Greek world had been annexed by the Romans.

    Yet the relationship between the two cultures was ambiguous. Greek-speaking peoples were subordinate in one sense, but their language continued to dominate the eastern Empire – increasingly so as it became a separate entity centred on Byzantium, as Christianity emerged and as the Latin-speaking west declined. Greek remained the primary medium of cultural transmission through which these changes were expressed. Greek communities therefore found themselves linked closely to their past, while also coming to terms with a fast-metamorphosing future.

    Epic poetry, which many associate with Homer’s tales of heroic adventure, seems an odd choice of lens through which to examine the transformation. Whitmarsh thinks its purpose has been misunderstood.

    “In the modern West, we often get Greek epic wrong by thinking about it as a repository for ripping yarns,” he says. “Actually, it was central to their sense of how the world operated. This wasn’t a world of scripture; it wasn’t primarily one of the written word at all. The vitality of the spoken word, in the very distinctive hexametrical pattern of the poems, was the single way they had of indicating authoritative utterance.”

    It is perhaps the most important tool available for understanding how the Greeks navigated their loss of autonomy under the Romans and during the subsequent rise of Christianity. In recent years, such questions have provoked a surge of interest in Greek literature during that time, but epic poetry itself has largely been overlooked, perhaps because it involved large, complex texts around which it is difficult to construct a narrative.

    Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Whitmarsh and his collaborators set out to systematically analyse the poetry and its cultural history for the first time. “We would argue it’s the greatest gap in ancient cultural studies – one of the last uncharted territories of Greek literature,” he adds.

    The final outputs will include books and an edited collection of the poems themselves, but the team started simply by establishing “what was out there”. Astonishingly, they uncovered evidence of about a thousand texts. Some remain only as names, others exist in fragments; yet more are vast epics that survive intact. Together, they show how the Greeks were rethinking their identity, both in the context of the time, and that of their own past and its cultural legacy.

    A case in point is Quintus of Smyrna, author of the Posthomerica– a deceptive title since chronologically it fills the gap between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, even though it was written later. Quintus’ style was almost uber-Homeric, elaborately crafted to create an almost seamless connection with the past. Yet there is evidence that, having done so, he also deliberately disrupted it. “His use of similes is quite outrageous by Homer’s standards, for example,” Whitmarsh says. The reason could be Quintus’ painful awareness of a tension between the Homeric past and his own present. Conflicted identity is a theme that connects many poems of the period. The poet Oppian, for instance, who wrote an epic on fish and fishing, provides us with an excellent example of how his generation was seeking to reconceive Greek selfhood in the shadow of Rome.

    The work ostensibly praises the Emperor as master over land and sea – a very Roman formula. Oppian then sabotages his own proclamation by questioning whether anyone truly can command the sea’s depths, a feat that must surely be a journey of the intellect and imagination. Having acknowledged the Emperor’s political power, he was, in effect, implying that the Greeks were perhaps greater masters of knowledge. 

    The researchers expected to find that this tension gave way to a clearer, moralistic tone, with the rise of Christianity. Instead, they found it persisted. Nonnus of Panopolis, for example, wrote 21 books paraphrasing the Gospel of St John, but not, it would seem, from pure devotion, since he also wrote 48 freewheeling stories about the Greek god Dionysus. Collectively, this vast assemblage evokes parallels between the two, not least because resurrection themes emerge from both. Nonnus also made much of the son of God’s knack for turning water into wine – a subject that similarly links him to Dionysus, god of winemaking.

    Beyond Greek identity itself, the poetry hints at shifting ideas about knowledge and human nature. Oppian’s poetic guide to fishing, for instance, is in fact much more. “I suspect most fishermen and fisherwomen know how to catch fish without reading a Greek epic poem,” Whitmarsh observes. In fact, the poem was as much about deliberately stretching the language conventionally used to describe aquaculture, and through it blurring the boundaries between the human and non-human worlds.

    Far from just telling stories, then, these epic poems show how, in an era of deeply conflicted identities, Greek communities tried to reorganise their sense of themselves and their place in the world, and give this sense a basis for future generations. Thanks to Whitmarsh and his team, they can now be read, as they were meant to be, on such terms. 

    “The poetry represents a cultural statement from the time, but it is also trying to be timeless,” he adds. “Each poem was trying to say something about its topic for eternity. The fact that we are still reading them today, and finding new things to say about them, is a token of their success.”

    Inset image: Wine jar made in Athens around 535 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

    Epic poems telling of cultures colliding, deeply conflicted identities and a fast-changing world were written by the Greeks under Roman rule in the first to the sixth centuries CE. Now, the first comprehensive study of these vast, complex texts is casting new light on the era that saw the dawn of Western modernity.  

    Each poem was trying to say something about its topic for eternity. The fact that we are still reading them today, and finding new things to say about them, is a token of their success
    Tim Whitmarsh
    Achilles killing Penthesilea, as described in the epic poem Posthomerica written by Quintus of Smyrna in the 3rd century CE; detail from a wine jar made in Athens around 535 BC

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    Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Florida developed a method to measure the different isotopes of water trapped in gypsum, a mineral that forms during times of drought when the water level is lowered, in Lake Chichancanab in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula where the Maya were based.

    Based on these measurements, the researchers found that annual precipitation decreased between 41% and 54% relative to today during the period of the Maya civilisation’s collapse, with periods of up to 70% rainfall reduction during peak drought conditions, and that relative humidity declined by 2% to 7% relative to today. The results are reported in the journal Science.

    “The role of climate change in the collapse of Classic Maya civilisation is somewhat controversial, partly because previous records are limited to qualitative reconstructions, for example whether conditions were wetter or drier,” said Nick Evans, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the paper’s first author. “Our study represents a substantial advance as it provides statistically robust estimates of rainfall and humidity levels during the Maya downfall.”

    Maya civilisation is divided into four main periods: the Preclassic (2000 BCE – 250 CE), Classic (250 CE – 800 CE), terminal Classic (800 - 1000 CE) and Postclassic (1000 CE – 1539 CE). The Classic period was marked by the construction of monumental architecture, intellectual and artistic development, and the growth of large city-states.

    During the 9th century however, there was a major political collapse in the central Maya region: their famous limestone cities were abandoned and dynasties ended. And while the Maya people survived beyond this period, their political and economic power was depleted.

    There are multiple theories as to what caused the collapse of the Maya civilisation, such as invasion, war, environmental degradation and collapsing trade routes. In the 1990s, however, researchers were able to piece together climate records for the period of the Maya collapse and found that it correlated with an extended period of extreme drought.

    Professor David Hodell, Director of Cambridge’s Godwin Laboratory for Palaeoclimate Research and the senior author of the current paper, provided the first physical evidence of a correlation between this period of drought at Lake Chichancanab and the downfall of the Classic Maya civilisation in a paper published in 1995.

    Now, Hodell and his colleagues have applied a new method and estimated the extent of this drought. Using a new geochemical method to measure the water locked within gypsum from Chichancanab, the researchers have built a complete model of hydrological conditions during the terminal Classic Period when the Maya collapsed.

    The researchers analysed the different isotopes of water trapped within the crystal structure of the gypsum to determine changes in rainfall and relative humidity during the Maya downfall.

    They measured three oxygen and two hydrogen isotopes to reconstruct the history of the lake water between 800 and 1000 CE. When gypsum forms, water molecules are incorporated directly into its crystalline structure, and this water records the different isotopes that were present in the ancient lake water at the time of its formation. “This method is highly accurate and is almost like measuring the water itself,” said Evans.

    In periods of drought, more water evaporates from lakes such as Chichancanab, and because the lighter isotopes of water evaporate faster, the water becomes heavier. A higher proportion of the heavier isotopes, such as oxygen-18 and hydrogen-2 (deuterium), would indicate drought conditions. By mapping the proportion of the different isotopes contained within each layer of gypsum, the researchers were able to build a model to estimate past changes in rainfall and relative humidity over the period of the Maya collapse.

    This quantitative climate data can be used to better predict how these drought conditions may have affected agriculture, including yields of the Maya’s staple crops, such as maize.

    The research was supported by the European Research Council.

    Reference:
    Nicholas P. Evans et al. ‘Quantification of Drought During the Collapse of the Classic Maya Civilization.’ Science (2018). DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9871

    Inset image: Lake Chichancanab, the site of the study. Chichancanab means “Little Sea” in Yucatec Maya, reflecting its relatively salty water composed dominantly of calcium and sulfate. (Credit: Mark Brenner)

    The severity of drought conditions during the demise of the Maya civilisation about one thousand years ago has been quantified, representing another piece of evidence that could be used to solve the longstanding mystery of what caused the downfall of one of the ancient world’s great civilisations. 

    The role of climate change in the collapse of Classic Maya civilisation is somewhat controversial, partly because previous records are limited to qualitative reconstructions.
    Nick Evans
    Edzná ruins, Campeche

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    For a chemical engineer, Jurong Island is a kind of paradise. The artificial island, built upon seven smaller islands off the Singapore mainland in the 1980s and 1990s, is now home to nearly 100 global petroleum, petrochemical and speciality chemical companies, indicating Singapore’s status as a global crossroads.

    All those plants and factories produce a lot of carbon emissions – in fact more than half of global emissions come from industries like those based on the Island. With so many companies in such a small space, Jurong is an ideal laboratory for looking at ways to reduce emissions and improve sustainability. Little wonder that it has become the centre of Singapore’s efforts to cut its emissions intensity by 36% (compared with 2005 levels) by 2030.

    “Because Singapore is a city-state, you’re never too far from the people who have the power to enact policy change,” says Professor Markus Kraft. “In Singapore, it’s easier to see the impact that certain changes can have on the carbon footprint of the whole country – it’s an ideal test bed for researchers.
    We can then use our results from Singapore as an example to roll out to other cities and other countries.”

    Kraft is Director of the Cambridge Centre for Advanced Research and Education in Singapore (CARES), a wholly owned subsidiary of the University based at Singapore’s Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE), which was established in 2007 with funding from Singapore’s National Research Foundation to encourage collaboration between universities and industry.

    The team in Singapore is made up of researchers from Cambridge, local universities and other institutions. Its unique setting, combined with a diverse membership that ranges from PhD students to professors, has enabled CARES, which was established in 2013, to be involved in several research and industry collaborations. The most recent, with fellow CREATE partners, the University of California, Berkeley, the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University, will develop new ways to transform industrial CO2 emissions into compounds that are useful in the chemical industry supply chain.

    The overall goal of the researchers based at CARES is to reduce industrial carbon emissions and improve sustainability through the development of cleaner fuels, carbon capture and efficiency improvements in industrial processes.

    Research to assess and reduce the carbon footprint of an eco-industrial park like Jurong Island is happening under CARES’ first research programme (the Cambridge Centre for Carbon Reduction in Chemical Technology). The work has been split into complementary areas that include making chemical processes and reactions more efficient, creating cleaner fuel blends and reducing energy consumption within electrical and chemical supply systems.

    Their flagship project is the J-Park Simulator, an AI-driven engine that combines mathematical modelling with the ‘Internet of Things’ to help reduce carbon emissions, as Kraft describes: “In the future, we may be able to access whole networks of machines, and the machines will talk to each other.

    “There are models behind industrial processes, but to build them you need a semantic representation of everything you might find in an industrial plant. You also need mathematical models that contain knowledge about any given physical entity. These entities can broadcast data into the model – it’s a bit like the nerves in your hand sending a signal to your brain. The J-Park Simulator is essentially that brain.”

    The J-Park Simulator aims to provide a virtual representation of multiple domains in real time. It could have the ability to represent every plant on Jurong Island, and every piece of equipment in each of those plants from data that is constantly fed into it.

    “Each piece of data is like a single brick – when you have enough bricks, you can start to build walls and houses; the idea of the Simulator is to allow you to design plants in ways that you couldn’t before because now we can make better use of mathematical optimisation,” says Kraft, who is a Fellow of Churchill College.

    The Simulator attempts to represent the highly interconnected nature of Jurong Island, and could be a powerful tool to demonstrate the effects of certain policies. For example, if a single power plant was able to reduce its carbon emissions by 10% through optimising its processes, the J-Park Simulator could show the effect of that reduction across multiple domains – it could allow the impact of different ‘what-if’ scenarios to be modelled in real time.

    “We are developing the Simulator with the aim of helping us to understand cross-domain connectivity and to create alternative scenarios for us to study which policy to implement,” says Kraft. “To reach an optimum symbiotic relationship among industries and other networks, all resources need to be taken into account simultaneously.”

    In its first phase, the CARES team investigated technologies with the potential to save more than eight million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year from Singapore – approximately 18% of Singapore’s 2012 emissions. In its second phase, the team want to take its ideas forward and closer to real-world application.

    “One of the ideas we developed in Phase One was to blend biodiesel with diesel fuel for road transport,” says Kraft. “We’ve estimated that this could save approximately 0.8 million tonnes per year of CO2 for Singapore. What we plan to look at in Phase Two is whether we can do something similar for marine shipping traffic. We have estimated that this has the potential to save approximately an additional 0.5 million tonnes per year of CO2 in Singapore, but it also has the potential to be adopted worldwide. This could have a much broader global impact, far beyond just shipping in the Singapore Strait.”

    In CARES’ second phase, the J-Park Simulator will be extended and expanded, and the team is exploring the possibility of connecting it to a real-world smart grid. Kraft and his team are also busy building relationships with government and policymakers in Singapore to implement their research and help
    reduce Singapore’s carbon footprint.

    “I’m grateful that we can work in Singapore with so many colleagues from around the world,” says Kraft. “Our work here has also had a positive impact in Cambridge – not just because of the funding, but also because of the international exchange of ideas and talent. It’s an ideal platform for collaboration.”

     

    From their base halfway across the globe in Singapore, Cambridge researchers are working with colleagues from around the world to reduce carbon emissions in industry.

    Jurong is an ideal laboratory for looking at ways to reduce emissions and improve sustainability.
    Markus Kraft
    Jurong Island

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    A team of scientists, including a volcanologist and mathematician from the University of Cambridge, discovered the phenomenon through detailed observations of gas emissions from Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii.

    At many volcanoes around the world, gas emissions are monitored routinely to help with forecasting eruptions. Changes in the output or proportions of different gases - such as carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide – can herald shifts in the activity of a volcano. Volcanologists have considered that these chemical changes reflect the rise and fall of magma in the Earth’s crust but the new research reveals that the composition of volcanic gases depends also on the size of the gas bubbles rising up to the surface.

    Until the latest spectacular eruption opened up fissures on the flank of the volcano, Kīlauea held a vast lava lake in its summit crater. The behaviour of this lava lake alternated between phases of fiery ‘spattering’ powered by large gas bubbles bursting through the magma, and more gentle gas release, accompanied by slow and steady motion of the lava.

    In the past, volcanic gases have been sampled directly from steaming vents and openings called fumaroles. But this is not possible for the emissions from a lava lake, 200 metres across, and at the bottom of a steep-sided crater. Instead, the team used an infrared spectrometer, which is employed for routine volcano monitoring by co-authors of the study, Jeff Sutton and Tamar Elias from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (US Geological Survey).

    The device was located on the edge of the crater, pointed at the lava lake, and recorded gas compositions in the atmosphere every few seconds. The emissions of carbon- and sulphur-bearing gases were measured during both the vigorous and mild phases of activity.

    Each individual measurement was used to compute the temperature of the volcanic gas. What immediately struck the scientists was that the gas temperatures ranged from 1150 degrees Celsius – the temperature of the lava – down to around 900 degrees Celsius. “At this temperature, the lava would freeze,” said lead author Dr Clive Oppenheimer, from Cambridge’s Department of Geography. “At first, we couldn’t understand how the gases could emerge much colder than the molten lava sloshing in the lake.”

    The clue to this puzzle came from the variation in calculated gas temperatures – they were high when the lava lake was placid, and low when it was bubbling furiously. “We realised it could be because of the size of the gas bubbles,” said co-author Professor Andy Woods, Director of Cambridge’s BP Institute. “Larger bubbles rise faster through the magma and expand rapidly as the pressure reduces, just like bubbles rising in a glass of fizzy drink; the gas cools down because of the expansion.” Larger bubbles form when smaller bubbles bump into each other and merge. 

    Woods and Oppenheimer developed a mathematical model to account for the process, which showed a very good fit with the observations.

    But there was yet another surprising finding from the gas observations from Hawaii. As well as being cooler, the emissions from the large gas bubbles were more oxidised than expected – they had higher proportions of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.

    The chemical balance of volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (or sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide) is generally thought to be controlled by the chemistry of the surrounding liquid magma but what the new findings showed is that when bubbles get large enough, most of the gas inside follows its own chemical pathway as the gas cools.

    The ratio of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide when the lava lake was in its most energetic state was six times higher than during the most stable phase. The scientists suggest this effect should be taken into account when gas measurements are being used to forecast major changes in volcanic activity.

    “Gas measurements are critical to our monitoring and hazard assessment; refining our understanding of how magma behaves beneath the volcano allows us to better interpret our observations,” said co-author Tamar Elias from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

    And there is another implication of this discovery – not for eruptions today but for the evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere billions of years ago. “Volcanic emissions in Earth’s deep past may have made the atmosphere more oxidising than we thought,” said co-author Bruno Scaillet. “A more oxygen-rich atmosphere would have facilitated the emergence and viability of life on land, by generating an ozone layer, which shields against harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun.”

    Reference:
    Clive Oppenheimer et al “Influence of eruptive style on volcanic gas emission chemistry and temperature” Nature Geoscience (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41561-018-0194-5

    ​Inset image: Clive Oppenheimer in Hawaii. Credit: Clive Oppenheimer

     

    The chemical composition of gases emitted from volcanoes – which are used to monitor changes in volcanic activity – can change depending on the size of gas bubbles rising to the surface, and relate to the way in which they erupt. The results, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, could be used to improve the forecasting of threats posed by certain volcanoes. 

    At first, we couldn’t understand how the gases could emerge much colder than the molten lava sloshing in the lake.
    Clive Oppenheimer
    Kīlauea eruption, 2018

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    This year marks the 20th anniversary of the University’s association with the Sutton Trust, a charitable foundation which was set up by the philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl to promote equality in educational opportunity for all young people, regardless of their background.

    Since 1998 more than 6,000 young people have attended Sutton Trust summer schools offered by the University.

    More than 500 have gone on to study in Cambridge, with many more feeling inspired to apply to other Russell Group Universities.

    For the first time, this year, the summer schools are taking place over 6 days - from Monday to Saturday.

    When Jenny O’Sullivan came to Cambridge from Huddersfield for her first summer school in 2014 she found the experience extremely helpful in planning her degree.

    This paved the way for her to read German and Spanish at King’s College, Cambridge. She’ll be volunteering as a student ambassador this summer, for the second time, offering advice to young people who she hopes will follow in her footsteps.

    “Going on both of the summer schools as a student is honestly one of my happiest memories.

    "I had such a good time and it made me feel like getting into Cambridge, or Oxford, was possible.

    "So getting the chance to relive that and provide the experience for others from similar backgrounds is something I knew from the start I wanted to be part of.”

    The Sutton Trust aims to raise aspirations among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds by providing universities with a framework to pass on practical advice on how to secure a place on a course.

    Summer schools are a key component of the diverse range of work being undertaken at Cambridge to widen participation.

    This has led to 64% of its new undergraduates coming from state schools, the highest rate on record.

    Sutton Trust attendees on a tour of one of the Cambridge Colleges

    Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Professor Graham Virgo, says: “The Collegiate University is committed to the principle that no UK student should be deterred from applying to study at Cambridge for financial reasons.

    "We’re working hard to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have the ability to do well, receive the support and encouragement they need in order to secure a place on one of our courses.

    "We are proud of our association with the Sutton Trust which has an outstanding record in helping to raise aspirations.

    "Together we have assisted thousands of young people gain access to the country’s leading Universities, and we look forward to working with the Trust in future years.”

    The chairman of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl, says: “Over the past 20 years, our summer schools at Cambridge have given thousands of young people the opportunity to change their life.

    "Many of our alumni have gone on to study at the best universities in the country, and secure jobs in the most competitive fields.

    "We are thrilled to be in partnership with Cambridge. 

    "Cambridge offers unbelievable quality which we want our students to experience. 

    "We look forward to building on this partnership in the years to come.”

    In addition to the Sutton Trust, the University of Cambridge hosts other residential courses for schools, including those for Target Oxbridge, as well as various Open Days.

    This summer more than 500 teenagers from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds will have stayed at the University of Cambridge to learn more about what it’s like to study at one of its 31 Colleges. They’ll come from all corners of the UK, keen to find ways of achieving their dream of becoming an undergraduate at one of the world’s leading academic institutions.

    Together we have assisted thousands of young people gain access to the country's leading Universities
    Prof Graham Virgo, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor
    Sutton Trust

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    The Icelandic Sagas tell of Erik the Red: exiled for murder in the late 10th century he fled to southwest Greenland, establishing its first Norse settlement.

    The colony took root, and by the mid-12th century there were two major settlements with a population of thousands. Greenland even gained its own bishop.

    By the end of the 15th century, however, the Norse of Greenland had vanished – leaving only abandoned ruins and an enduring mystery.      

    Past theories as to why these communities collapsed include a change in climate and a hubristic adherence to failing farming techniques.

    Some have suggested that trading commodities – most notably walrus tusks – with Europe may have been vital to sustaining the Greenlanders. Ornate items including crucifixes and chess pieces were fashioned from walrus ivory by craftsmen of the age. However, the source of this ivory has never been empirically established.

    Now, researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Oslo have studied ancient DNA from offcuts of tusks and skulls, most found on the sites of former ivory workshops across Europe, in order to trace the origin of the animals used in the medieval trade.

    In doing so they have discovered an evolutionary split in the walrus, and revealed that the Greenland colonies may have had a “near monopoly” on the supply of ivory to Western Europe for over two hundred years.

    For the latest study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the research team analysed walrus samples found in several medieval trading centres – Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Dublin, London, Schleswig and Sigtuna – mostly dating between 900 and 1400 CE.

    The DNA showed that, during the last Ice Age, the Atlantic walrus divided into two ancestral lines, which researchers term “eastern” and “western”. Walruses of the eastern lineage are widespread across much of the Arctic, including Scandinavia. Those of the western, however, are unique to the waters between western Greenland and Canada.    

    Finds from the early years of the ivory trade were mostly from the eastern lineage. Yet as demand grew from the 12th century onwards, the research team discovered that Europe’s ivory supply shifted almost exclusively to tusks from the western lineage.

    They say that ivory from western linage walruses must have been supplied by the Norse Greenlanders – by hunting and perhaps also by trade with the indigenous peoples of Arctic North America.

    “The results suggest that by the 1100s Greenland had become the main supplier of walrus ivory to Western Europe – a near monopoly even,” said Dr James H. Barrett, study co-author from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology.

    “The change in the ivory trade coincides with the flourishing of the Norse settlements on Greenland. The populations grew and elaborate churches were constructed.

    “Later Icelandic accounts suggest that in the 1120s, Greenlanders used walrus ivory to secure the right to their own bishopric from the king of Norway. Tusks were also used to pay tithes to the church,” said Barrett.

    He points out that the 11th to 13th centuries were a time of demographic and economic boom in Europe, with growing demand from urban centres and the elite served by transporting commodities from increasingly distant sources.

    “The demands for luxury goods produced from ivory may have helped the far-flung Norse communities in Greenland survive for centuries,” said Barrett.

    Co-author Dr Sanne Boessenkool of the University of Oslo said: “We knew from the start that analysing ancient DNA would have the potential for new historical insights, but the findings proved to be particularly spectacular.”

    The new study tells us less about the end of the Greenland colonies, say Barrett and colleagues. However, they note that it is hard to find evidence of walrus ivory imports to Europe that date after 1400.

    Elephant ivory eventually became the material of choice for Europe’s artisans. “Changing tastes could have led to a decline in the walrus ivory market of the Middle Ages,” said Barrett.

    Ivory exports from Greenland could have stalled for other reasons: over-hunting can cause walrus populations to abandon their coastal “haulouts”; the “Little Ice Age” – a sustained period of lower temperatures – began in the 14th century; the Black Death ravaged Europe.   

    Whatever caused the cessation of Europe’s trade in walrus ivory, it must have been significant for the end of the Norse Greenlanders,” said Barrett. “An overreliance on a single commodity, the very thing which gave the society its initial resilience, may have also contained the seeds of its vulnerability.”

    The heyday of the walrus ivory trade saw the material used for exquisitely carved items during Europe’s Romanesque art period. The church produced much of this, with major ivory workshops in ecclesiastical centres such as Canterbury, UK.

    Ivory games were also popular. The Viking board game hnefatafl was often played with walrus ivory pieces, as was chess, with the famous Lewis chessmen among the most stunning examples of Norse carved ivory.

    Tusks were exported still attached to the walrus skull and snout, which formed a neat protective package that was broken up at workshops for ivory removal. These remains allowed the study to take place, as DNA extraction from carved artefacts would be far too damaging.

    Co-author Dr Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo said: “Until now, there was no quantitative data to support the story about walrus ivory from Greenland. Walruses could have been hunted in the north of Russia, and perhaps even in Arctic Norway at that time. Our research now proves beyond doubt that much of the ivory traded to Europe during the Middle Ages really did come from Greenland”.

    The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Nansenfondet and the Research Council of Norway.

    New DNA analysis reveals that, before their mysterious disappearance, the Norse colonies of Greenland had a “near monopoly” on Europe’s walrus ivory supply. An overreliance on this trade may have contributed to Norse Greenland’s collapse when the medieval market declined.

    The very thing which gave the society its initial resilience, may have also contained the seeds of its vulnerability
    James Barrett
    Left: Upper jaw bones of a walrus, with tusks removed. Right: an elaborately-carved ecclesiastical walrus ivory plaque.

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    A new study shows that men only have to believe they’ve bested another man in competition to get raised testosterone levels and an inflated sense of their own value as a sexual prospect.

    Scientists found that this hormonal and psychological shift made men more inclined to approach new potential partners.

    The research team measured hormone levels, as well as self-perceived attractiveness and confidence in approaching women, in 38 men in their twenties before and after competing in head-to-head battles on rowing machines.

    Unbeknownst to participants, the competitions in the study were rigged to randomly declare the winner, regardless of who was the stronger rower.

    While previous studies have shown that winning can affect male hormones, it was not known whether this was down to the efforts it takes to win or the belief that one is victorious.

    The latest study, led by biological anthropologists from the University of Cambridge and published today in the journal Human Nature, reveals that just being convinced you have won, or indeed lost, is enough to cause male hormonal fluctuations that can influence sexual behaviour. 

    Researchers say this is an example of “plasticity”: the body adapting quickly – without altering genetic make-up – to suit a change in circumstance. In this case a perceived change in social status, due to the men believing they have defeated a rival.

    The body attempts to take advantage of this apparent status improvement by inducing chemical and consequently behavioural changes that promote a “short-term” approach to reproductive success, say the researchers. Namely, more sex with new and different partners.

    “Much of evolution consists of trade-offs in energy investment,” said study lead author Dr Danny Longman, from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology. 

    “A common trade-off for males both across and within species is between mating strategies. One reproductive approach is short-term, investing time and energy in attracting and pursuing many mates, and fighting off competition. Another approach is long-term, investing energy in raising offspring with a single mate.”

    “We found that a perceived shift in social status can cause male physiology to adapt by preparing to shift mating strategies to optimise reproductive success.”

    Longman points out that in many animal populations, male social hierarchies correspond with reproductive success, and social status is determined by competition between males.

    The study used a simple proxy for social and sexual competition by pitting athletic young men against each other to see who was the most powerful rower.

    “Victory in a rowing contest strongly implies the possession of greater physical strength than the opponent, a trait found to be valued by women in our evolutionary past when choosing a mate,” said Longman.

    He took saliva samples to test hormone levels before and after the races. A number of psychological questionnaires were also administered, designed to gauge self-esteem, ‘sociosexuality’ (willingness to engage in casual sex), ‘self-perceived mate value’ and mating behaviour (e.g. the likelihood of approaching attractive women). Crucially, Longman and colleagues then manipulated the results of the races.

    The men who believed they had won received an average testosterone increase of 4.92%, while those convinced they had lost dropped by an average of 7.24%. Overall, men who thought they were winners had testosterone levels 14.46% higher their deflated opponents.

    The men who thought they had lost showed no difference in their perceived value as a mate or confidence approaching women. However, the men who felt like winners had a ‘self-perceived mate value’ that was 6.53% higher, on average, than their rivals, and were 11.29% more likely to approach attractive women in an effort to instigate sexual relations.

    “The endocrine system that controls hormones is responsive to situational changes. Previous research has shown that testosterone is lower when men are in a committed relationship, or have children, to promote long-term mating strategies,” said Longman.    

    “Our results show that both testosterone and its corresponding psychological effects can fluctuate quickly and opportunistically, shifting towards short-term mating in response to a perceived change in status that may increase mating value.”

    Male social status has less to do with physical strength in many modern societies, and Longman would be curious to see if similar results arise from intellectual challenges more familiar to the office-based culture many men now inhabit. There is always the issue of free will, however.

    “Male physiology may shift to take advantage of certain situations, but ultimately a man’s decisions are up to him.”   

    New findings suggest that the male body tries to “optimise” self-perceived improvements in social status through hormonal shifts that promote “short-term mating”.

    Our results show that both testosterone and its corresponding psychological effects can fluctuate quickly and opportunistically
    Danny Longman
    U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program wrestler Spc. Jeremiah Davis (right) squares off against Sunkist Kids' Joe Betterman

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    Dr Ryan Williams has become accustomed to uncomfortable moments. His research into the lived experiences of people in the criminal justice system (CJS) has taken him into high-security prisons to interview people convicted of serious crimes, and to East London to speak to recently released prisoners. All his interviewees were Muslim.

    He describes this area of study as highly problematic: “I was working with people who often feel doubly marginalised – as individuals with a criminal record and seeking to rebuild their lives, and as Muslims living in British society and having to fight against stereotypes. You run the risk of bringing genuine harm to people by failing to reflect their complex life realities.”

    Williams is based at Cambridge’s Centre of Islamic Studies and at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. An interest in Islam and society took him into a domain usually studied by criminologists. His interviews explored the journeys, values and struggles of people caught up in the CJS. They took place in prisons (including segregation units), probation offices, cafés, mosques and ‘chicken shops’.

    In 2017, an independent review by the Rt Hon David Lammy put race equality in the spotlight by highlighting a rise in the proportion of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) young offenders in custody: from 25% in 2006 to 41% in 2016. Lammy stated that his “review clearly shows BAME individuals still face bias – including overt discrimination – in parts of the justice system”.

    The same review drew attention to the over-representation of Muslims in the CJS. Between 2002 and 2016, the proportion of Muslims in the prison population doubled.

    “The higher up the CJS you go, the greater the proportion of people identifying as Muslim,” says Williams. “More than 40% of the prisoners in the high-security prison that I was working in were Muslim.”

    While the over-representation of Muslims in the CJS forms the backdrop to Williams’ research, his work looks not at the causes of crime but at the experiences of offenders as they serve their sentences and reflect on their lives. “By asking questions around belonging and how people can lead a good life, we begin to see what might help them in the future,” he says.

    Rapport with participants was key. He says: “In effect, they interviewed me to ensure that I wouldn’t reinforce a ‘one-dimensional’ view of them as Muslims.”

    As one interviewee remarked: “There’s more to life than the little bits that you read in the paper.” The interviewee had observed other people taking an interest in Muslims in prison: “They’re all asking the same questions” about discrimination and radicalisation, and “[I’m] just standing there thinking, like, ‘is that all you want to know?”’

    Through his interviews, Williams came to learn how difficult it is for people to put their finger on inequality and discrimination. It was often indirect, found in everyday examples like (says one interviewee) being refused a toilet roll by a member of staff but seeing a white prisoner acquire one with ease. For white Muslim converts, there was a sense that being a Muslim was incompatible with being British – they were seen as ‘traitors’ to their country, reinforcing the view that Islam is a ‘foreign’ religion.

    For one interviewee, the rise of Islamophobia was both tragic and laughable. He observed: “It’s really sad. People are scared of Muslims now and it makes me laugh because I think to myself, ‘Hang on a minute, what are you scared of?’” He also pointed out: “Everybody knows a Muslim. You probably work with one. You might live next door to one. Your neighbour’s cool. Your work colleague’s cool.”

    Since 9/11, and more so in the wake of recent attacks in London, the term Muslim has become linked with negative associations.

    “‘Muslim’ is a badge applied to offenders in a way that masks other aspects of their identity – for example their roles as sons, brothers and fathers. For much of the popular media, it’s a blunt term that hints heavily at terrorism,” says Williams.

    Through guided conversations, Williams encouraged his interviewees to talk about the things that meant most to them, sharing their feelings about family, community and society. He explains: “Broadly speaking, my work is about people’s lives as a moral journey – one marked by mistakes and struggle – and how this connects to belonging and citizenship in an everyday sense.”

    The project was sparked by a conversation that Williams had four years ago with a Muslim offender of Pakistani heritage who’d been brought up in the UK. “He said that he felt so discriminated against that he felt he couldn’t live here any longer. To me, that was shocking,” says Williams.

    “It made me wonder how the CJS might serve to help people feel like citizens and rebuild their lives. What if we brought the end goal of citizenship into view, rather than focusing exclusively on risk to the public? How would this change how people see themselves and how others see them?”

    Williams’ interviews revealed that, for many, learning to be a good Muslim was also tied with being a better citizen, and each had their own way of going about this. “For one person, day-to-day practices of prayer kept them away from crime. For another, for whom crime was less of a struggle, practising zakat (charity) by providing aid to the Grenfell Tower survivors enabled him to fulfil a need to contribute to society,” he says.

    He interviewed 44 Muslim men, sometimes interviewing them more than once, and triangulated his data with conversations with prison and probation staff.

     “My approach was experiential-based – qualitative rather than quantitative. I didn’t have a set of boxes to fill in with numbers. I used one standard survey tool from research on desistance from crime, but I found it removed richness and detail from people’s complex stories. Participants welcomed the chance to reflect more deeply on their lives.”

    An individual’s faith journey, argues Williams, cannot be separated from the complex reality they find themselves in. Faith is always interpreted and filtered through our experiences and can help to construe a positive view of what it means to live a life worth living. As one participant observed: “I want to actually do some things now, like goodness, like volunteering, helping people out, helping the vulnerable… God loves that.”

    Williams says that as a fellow human being he empathises with this improvised desire to find meaning in life by doing good in the world. He says: “The most profound thing to emerge from my conversations is that leading a good life is hard – and harder for some than for others.”

    In April 2018, Williams organised a workshop ‘Supporting Muslim Service Users in Community and Probation Contexts’ for frontline staff and volunteers. Probation officer Mohammed Mansour Nassirudeen, who attended the workshop, said: “We need Ryan and researchers like him to give us the bigger picture. I believe this would help bring about desired outcomes for service users from BAME backgrounds, which is long overdue.”

    Adds Williams: “My contribution is simply to get people to think about the issues in a different way, to facilitate discussion drawing on people’s own strengths and expertise, and then see where it takes us.”

    In July 2018, Williams won a Vice-Chancellor’s Impact Award for his work.

    Ryan's research has been incorporated into: guidelines on countering prison radicalisation, adopted by the European Commission in 2017; the evidence base for the Lammy Review on equality and implementing its recommendations; a course on the Good Life Good Society, adopted in 2016 in a high security prison. Read Ryan's This Cambridge Life interview here. 

    The workshop ‘Supporting Muslim Service Users in Community and Probation Contexts’ was funded by the Arts and Humanities Impact Fund, and supported by the School of Arts and Humanities and the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

    The Lammy Review in 2017 drew attention to inequalities among black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system. It also flagged the over-representation of Muslims in prisons. Research by Dr Ryan Williams explores the sensitivities around this topic.

    The higher up the criminal justice system you go, the greater the proportion of people identifying as Muslim
    Ryan Williams

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    The Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP is a consortium of the three universities for doctoral training and funding in the Humanities. The DTP is underpinned by world-class research and training environments, supported by strategic partnerships with the BBC World Service, the National Trust and British Telecom, and is national and international in mindset, and determined to take a leading role in shaping the future of doctoral training in the UK.

    The AHRC is the UK’s largest funder of postgraduate training in the arts and humanities, and plays an essential role in supporting the next generation of highly capable researchers. By working together, the AHRC, the Open University, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are able to commit to investing in this partnership over its lifetime.

    Professor David Rechter, incoming Director of the Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP, said: “I am pleased by the success of our bid, and look forward to recruiting our first cohort of students next year. Supported by our partners the National Trust, the BBC World Service and British Telecom, the Open-Oxford-Cambridge DTP will offer students a wealth of opportunities to pursue research and engage in training, and to learn from each other as part of a large multi-disciplinary group. These opportunities will equip our DTP students with the research expertise and skills that will allow them to go on to wide range of careers in academia and beyond.”

    Professor Martin Millett, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities at Cambridge, said: “The success of this bid is excellent news. The unique collaboration between Oxford, Cambridge and the Open University opens up exciting new prospects for the next generation of doctoral research students in the Arts and Humanities.”

    Professor Edward Harcourt, the AHRC’s Director of Research, Strategy and Innovation, said: “The AHRC is delighted to announce its renewed commitment to the Doctoral Training Partnerships model. Our support for the next generation of arts and humanities researchers is critical to securing the future of the UK arts and humanities sector, which accounts for nearly a third of all UK academic staff, is renowned the world over for its outstanding quality, and which plays a vital part in our higher education ecosystem as a whole. 

    “We were extremely pleased with the response to our call, which saw high-quality applications from across the UK from a variety of diverse and innovative consortia, each with a clear strategy and vision for the future support of their doctoral students.”

    Professor Kevin Hetherington, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research and Academic Strategy), The Open University, said: “The Open University is delighted that the AHRC has chosen to recognise the commitment to innovation and diversity inherent in the Open-Oxford-Cambridge DTP, and looks forward to participating fully in the delivery of an exciting training programme for our PhD students.”

    Professor Karen O’Brien, Head of the Humanities Division, University of Oxford, said: “This is good news and an endorsement of our collective commitment to developing the next generation of Humanities scholars. We are looking forward to working with the Open University, Cambridge, the AHRC and our strategic partners to deliver a truly exciting opportunity to our consortium students.”

    Stephen Cassidy, Chief Researcher, System Science, BT Labs, said: “As a communication company deeply rooted in the interaction between people, communities and businesses, BT sees great benefit in being part of this DTP. Interaction with the students and academics will extend our understanding of ethical, legal and social ramifications of the possible directions the industry as a whole could (and is) embarking on. These are issues of international scale, and we are pleased to link with the DTP and to provide further links with our research collaborations around the UK and the globe.”

    Jamie Angus, Director, BBC World Service Group, said: “The objectives of the Consortium and the Doctoral Training partnership fit very well with the BBC World Service’s objectives; The BBC World Service Group provides independent impartial journalism to nearly 350 million people around the world each week, across cultural, linguistic and national boundaries.  We look forward to working with world-class doctoral students in the Humanities drawing on their research skills and subject expertise, as well as making the most of the huge range of languages studied at Oxford, Cambridge and the OU. Working together we will play our part so that the Consortium can provide DTP-funded students with skills and experience they need to communicate their ideas beyond academia so that they may be better able to reach a wider audience.”

    Nino Strachey, Head of Research and Specialist Advice at the National Trust, said: “The National Trust is delighted at the success of the bid and excited to work with students and staff from these internationally recognised universities and partners. With a long history of hosting and co-supervising PhDs, we look forward to offering opportunities for students to gain experience of the heritage sector and to work with Europe’s largest conservation charity.”  

    Information on how to apply for scholarships via the Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership for entry in 2019/20 will be available from www.oocdtp.ac.uk from 1 September 2018.

     

    The Open University, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge are pleased to announce the success of their bid for funding for the Open-Oxford-Cambridge Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership, which will create nearly 400 new doctoral places in the arts and humanities.

    The unique collaboration between Oxford, Cambridge and the Open University opens up exciting new prospects for the next generation of doctoral research students in the Arts and Humanities
    Martin Millett
    Faculty of English on the University's Sidgwick Site, home to many of the faculties and departments from the School of Arts and Humanities.

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    Syrian teenager Abdullah Kattineh’s determination to find a cure for the Alzheimer’s that has ravaged his grandmother’s life inspired him to battle power outages, study by candlelight and pore over international chemistry papers on the tiny screen of a battered mobile phone, so he could win a place to study chemistry at the University of Cambridge.   

    “My grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease and I am afraid there is a huge possibility my father will have it too,” Kattineh told the University by Skype this week. “I intend to develop new compounds that would cure popular diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

    The 19-year-old son of two dentists said he is excited to join the historic ranks of Cambridge scientists like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin and to work with the young Director of Studies for Chemistry at his new college, Corpus Christi, when he arrives at Cambridge in October to read Natural Sciences.

    “I was attracted to Corpus Christi for the fact that Dr Ben Pilgrim is there,” said Kattineh, citing Pilgrim’s PhD thesis as a major influence on his choice of university and college.  

    On a day when Sixth Form students across the United Kingdom celebrate the results of their own trials at A-Levels this year, Kattineh talked of how he battled regular power cuts in his hometown of Tartous on the Syrian coast, poverty as a result of the ongoing war in Syria and studied 18 hours a day, sometimes only on a four-inch (10 cm) mobile phone screen, to win his place.

    After a struggle to find a scholarship for his studies, a crowdfunding effort to raise funds and finally a public campaign from Cambridge students brought him to the attention of those who could award him a scholarship, Kattineh’s dream came true.

    “There was magnificent support from the students of Cambridge and I am very grateful for that,” he said. 

    The news that he would receive a fully funded scholarship from the Cambridge Trust and Corpus Christi left Kattineh at first stunned and then howling with elation.  

    “For a couple of minutes I didn’t believe it, but then I was kind of screaming that it’s real and my whole family acknowledged that,” Kattineh said.

    Kattineh said he has dreamed of soaring to academic heights since he was a young boy, but a bronze medal win at the 2016 International Chemistry Olympiad in Tblisi, Georgia, finally led him to realise that a place at Cambridge could be attainable.

    The University of Cambridge is no stranger to realising the dreams of bright young minds from almost any place on the planet.

    Just last month, Cambridge mathematician Caucher Birkar - who was born on a subsistence farm in the Kurdish region of western Iran and grew up during the war between Iran and Iraq - won the most prestigious prize in maths, the Fields Medal.

    Like those students who will successfully take up their places at Cambridge, Kattineh should find a warm reception at Corpus Christi, whose history as the only college at Cambridge or Oxford to be founded by townspeople, make it especially qualified to host Kattineh’s journey from war-weary Syria to world class university education at Cambridge.

    “This is an exceptional case,” said Dr Michael Sutherland, Admissions Tutor. “Abdullah has had to overcome tremendous obstacles to win the place at Corpus and we want to support him and ensure he is fully funded and able to concentrate on his studies and new life here.”

    When he does arrive, Kattineh said he will bring his work ethic, determination and the memories of his childhood in a box of small toys to place on a shelf in his room.

    “All my memories I will bring with me,” he said. “It gives you motivation when you look at something from your childhood and [then] see what have I become now.”

    Inset image: Abdullah Kattineh (front left) with friends at his house in Syria.  

    Syrian teenager Abdullah Kattineh is determined to find a cure for Alzheimer’s by studying chemistry at the University of Cambridge.   

    For a couple of minutes I didn’t believe it, but then I was kind of screaming that it’s real
    Abdullah Kattineh
    Syrian teenager Abdullah Kattineh

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    More than 2,500 A-Level students from across the UK are celebrating today after meeting their offer to become an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge.

    The successful students were among 18,547 high-achievers to apply to the University in October 2017 and received their offers in January 2018. Since then, they have been working hard to secure the A-Level grades in their offer and have had an agonising wait to open their results.

    Graham Virgo, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, said: “Many, many congratulations to all of you who applied to Cambridge and have made your offer. We all look forward to seeing you at the end of September at Cambridge when you begin your studies here. We hope you have an exciting and fulfilling time at the University of Cambridge.”

    Cheadle Hulme High School was celebrating this morning after Harriet and Megan achieved their grades. Megan has a place to study Modern and Medieval Languages at Girton College while Harriet has a place at Trinity College to study Classics.

     

    Jackie Lee at Greig City Academy in Hornsey, London is celebrating after he made the grade to study English.

    St Neots Sixth Form, Cambridgeshire is celebrating after student Melissa made the grade to study at Trinity College, Cambridge.

    Froher from Pimlico Academy, London, achieved A*A*A*A* to gain her place to study Medicine at Jesus College.

    Rachael Davidson from Runshaw College, in Leyland, Lancashire, was celebrating this morning after achieving four A*s to make the grade to study Veterinary Medicine at Robinson College.

     

    Lauren Aitken went above and beyond the call of duty when she opened her A Levels live on the Today Programme this morning at Bilborough College. 

    The Basildon Academies were celebrating the success of their students this morning as Kamran won his place to study at Queens' College.

     

    We celebrate the students who are #GoingToCambridge.

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    Announced by Stormzy himself during A-Level results day at his old school, Harris Academy in Crystal Palace this morning, the ‘The Stormzy Scholarship’ will cover the full cost of four tuition fees and provide a maintenance grant for up to four years of any undergraduate course. The first two students will start their courses at the beginning of the new academic year this October with two further students selected for 2019 entry. This year’s entries will be self-funded by Stormzy however, he hopes to engage more support from additional investors to become part of the scheme. Double BRIT-Award winner Stormzy is a musician and a spokesmen of black empowerment and social activism.

    Despite achieving six A*s, three A’s and three B’s at GCSE, Stormzy did not attend university due to his developing passion for music.

    S​tormzy says:
    “There are so many young black kids all over the country who have the level of academic excellence to study at a university such as Cambridge - however we are still under-represented at leading universities. We, as a minority, have so many examples of black students who have excelled at every level of education throughout the years. I hope this scholarship serves as a small reminder that if young black students wish to study at one of the best universities in the world, then the opportunity is yours for the taking - and if funding is one of the barriers, then we can work towards breaking that barrier down.”

    In 2017, the University of Cambridge admitted fifty-eight black students on to undergraduate courses, a record high. That figure represents a third of all black students admitted to higher education in the UK that year who attained at least A*A*A at A-level (which is the average grade achieved by a Cambridge entrant). However, the University is committed to doing more to encourage young black students to aspire to the top grades to apply. Stormzy’s support, it believes, can help inspire new generations of black students. The University is also determined to ensure black students feel supported at Cambridge. Last year it announced an increase in funding for Target Oxbridge, a programme which helps black students secure places at either Cambridge or Oxford. Many of the Colleges host BAME themed conferences and the University has helped a number of young black student vloggers launch their online profiles.

    The University of Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, says:
    “Stormzy is an inspiration, not just for his music but for his engagement on social issues and encouragement of young people. He has achieved great success in his career, but recognises that this was at the expense of his studies and the option of a place at a top university. He wants to inspire talented young black people who have their sights set on university to follow their dreams. The studentships are a beacon for black students who might otherwise have felt they could not come to Cambridge.

    "Last year, 58 new black students arrived to take up their courses at Cambridge, the largest number ever but not nearly as many as we would like. We know we need to work harder to ensure that black students not only apply to study at the university, but that they feel at home here and achieve their full potential.”

    To be eligible for a 2018 entry ‘The Stormzy Scholarship’ applicants must be of black ethnicity and have a confirmed place to start at Cambridge in October. Applications must be submitted no later than Friday 31st August 2018. The students will be selected from a list of applicants by a panel of University staff. The University encourages all students with high academic potential and enthusiasm for their chosen subject to apply. Students wishing to apply for entry in 2019 should apply via UCAS by 15th October. Applications for the 2019 scholarships will be announced in due course.
    For more details on eligibility criteria, follow this link

    British musician Stormzy has announced the ‘The Stormzy Scholarship’, a brand new studentship scheme for University of Cambridge students which will see four British black students provided with financial support during their degree courses.

    ...if funding is one of the barriers, then we can work towards breaking that barrier down
    Stormzy
    Stormzy and students at Senate House

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