Campus round-up

August 15, 2013

For good growth, add soap and water

Children under the age of five who have access to clean water and soap are half a centimetre taller than those who lack such basics, a study shows. The Cochrane Review, authored by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and WaterAid, examined data on nearly 10,000 children taken from 14 studies conducted in low- and middle-income countries, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Chile. Children who used clean water and soap were taller and less likely to have suffered from diseases caused by growth stunting or to die from diarrhoea – the third-biggest killer of under-fives worldwide. “Unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene can affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, impacting on child development and contributing to their stunting,” said Barbara Frost, WaterAid chief executive.

Queen Mary, University of London/University of Warwick

Souped-up secret of the starfish

Scientists have unlocked the secret that enables starfish to carry out one of the most remarkable forms of feeding in the natural world. A starfish eats by extending its stomach out of its mouth and over its prey, such as mussels and clams, before dissolving it into a soup-like “chowder” and drawing it back into its body. Academics at Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Warwick have identified a neuropeptide that triggers the unusual feeding process. The discovery may help in the development of chemical-based strategies to control the growing starfish populations that threaten the health of Pacific coral reefs.

University of Surrey

Queasy truth about tiny feet

Flies can contaminate clean surfaces within seconds because they have as many as 6 million bacteria on their feet, research suggests. Scientists at the University of Surrey measured the trail left behind by three bluebottle flies that were trapped in a plastic Petri dish and allowed to walk around for 10 minutes. After the bacteria they deposited were left to grow for a day, the extent of the flies’ contamination was analysed. “I must admit that even as a well-seasoned microbiologist, these images make me slightly queasy,” said Simon Park, senior lecturer in molecular biology, who led the research. Dr Park said the study underlined the need to keep food covered or refrigerated in hot weather.

University of Leicester

Fans flock to royal dirt-digging

The further excavation of the site of Richard III’s grave has attracted sightseers from as far afield as Canada and New Zealand. The University of Leicester’s month-long second excavation of the site of the city’s medieval Grey Friars church, where the Plantagenet king’s remains were uncovered last year, made a series of further discoveries, including a medieval stone coffin containing an inner lead coffin. A public viewing platform has been erected and the university has employed a “Richard III outreach officer”, Charlotte Barratt, to field questions. A visitor centre is being built on the site to showcase some of the finds.

University of Nottingham

Warming up to energy’s hot potato

The prospect of fracking to extract shale gas may be spurring heated protests in the Home Counties, but public attitudes towards shale gas extraction appear to be warming in the UK as a whole. A series of surveys over 16 months, carried out by a University of Nottingham team, found significant rises in the proportion of respondents who saw shale gas as a cheap and clean energy source. Sarah O’Hara, pro vice-chancellor at Nottingham and one of the project leaders, noted that the findings did not mean shale gas “is a wildly popular alternative to other forms of energy – though that [may] change if the movement in the climate of opinion continues”.

Aston University

Rubbish idea seeks support

Researchers are calling on manufacturers in the West Midlands to send in their waste to help hone a new bioenergy technology. The European Bioenergy Research Institute, based at Aston University, has developed a device called a Pyroformer to generate cost-effective heat and power from waste sources. To take this further, the institute is asking companies to supply agricultural waste, sewage sludge, manure and biomass, as well as “tall oil” from the pulp industry and waste in the form of pellets created by food processing and water-treatment plants. Tim Miller, director of operations at the institute, said: “The city of Birmingham has the potential to power itself using the waste it produces.”

University of Wolverhampton

Business plans await council OK

Plans for an £11 million, six-storey building to house a business school have been submitted by a university. Anthea Gregory, dean of the University of Wolverhampton’s Faculty of Social Sciences (which incorporates the business school), said the new development should “provide an exciting learning environment supported by the latest technology and able to offer tailored facilities to meet the needs of learners from sub-degree level right the way through to executive education”. A planning application has been submitted to Wolverhampton City Council. If it is approved, construction will start in December, with completion projected in May 2015.

The Open University

The prime of youth

A 16-year-old from Wales has become The Open University’s youngest graduate after gaining a BSc honours degree in mathematics. Cameron Thompson, who has Asperger’s syndrome, began studying with the institution aged 11. “I’m very happy about my degree. I’ve always enjoyed maths,” he said after receiving news of his achievement. Rob Humphreys, director of The Open University in Wales, said: “The flexible mode of study offered by The Open University means that students of all ages and circumstances can study with us to achieve their potential.”

University Campus Suffolk

Teacher training is top class

An East Anglia higher education institution has been recognised by Ofsted for its “outstanding” primary teacher training courses. University Campus Suffolk, which runs training courses at six locations in Norfolk and Suffolk, was given the top mark, “outstanding”, for its programme of primary teacher training, while its secondary and post-16 teaching courses were rated “good”. Only providers classed as outstanding are guaranteed to keep their core allocation of student numbers for 2013‑14 and 2014-15. Simon Hallsworth, professor of sociology and head of the School of Applied Social Sciences, said: “This is an amazing result for UCS, especially as in the country overall, universities are losing places over reported falls in teacher training standards.”

University of Bedfordshire

Call to tighten net on cybercrime

The co-director of the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research at the University of Bedfordshire has backed the findings of a parliamentary report highlighting the dangers of e-crime. Carsten Maple said that the Home Affairs Committee’s report, which was published last month and identified a sharp rise in online criminal behaviour, showed that the government’s current policy on combating such threats – particularly those aimed at children – are “out of touch”. “There has been an increase in funding generally to combat e-crime, but some areas are facing significant cuts, such as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre,” said Professor Maple, who is also Bedfordshire’s pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise.

Newcastle/Sunderland

One more might well hurt

Researchers have called for the government to consider lowering the safe drinking limit for people over 65. Experts from the universities of Newcastle and Sunderland have warned that messages about safe drinking levels are not getting through to older people, after interviewing 53 men and women aged between 65 and 90. Some respondents drank a bottle of wine a day or five or six pints of beer in one sitting but did not see this behaviour as a health risk. But the researchers warned that heavy drinking is linked to depression and anxiety and could interfere with prescribed medicines.

University of Dundee

A lecturer walks into a bar…

Academics will turn their hand to comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Five University of Dundee scholars will perform at events organised by the Bright Club, which encourages academics to present their research to the public at comedy club-style events. This is the first time that Dundee staff have taken part in the Fringe. The gigs aim to “dispel the stereotype of the stuffy academic with fresh and inventive stand-up that both entertains and enlightens”.

Bangor University

Doping in mind

A neuroscientist has warned that athletes could use “neurodoping” – stimulating parts of the brain during practice – to improve their performance in a similar way to taking banned drugs. Nick Davis of Bangor University’s School of Psychology warned that if tennis players, for example, wore electrodes to stimulate parts of the brain during training they might improve their motor skills more rapidly. Each sport must decide whether “neurodoping” is cheating or a legitimate aid, he argues in the August edition of the peer-reviewed journal Sports Medicine.

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