Campus close-up: University of Bristol

New hilltop facility’s made-to-measure features aim to help biological research achieve liftoff

December 18, 2014

“It was like the maps of great tits in Wytham Woods,” says Jane Memmott, head of the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, about the territorial behaviour of the school’s academics in its previous building, and referring to the great tit population in the University of Oxford’s Wytham woodland, whose territories have been studied by scientists for almost 70 years.

“Everything was highly territorial,” she says. “Even if they did not have a [research] group any more they still had their lab, and the new people coming in were having [to work in the] broom cupboard,” she explains. During the undergraduate summer holidays, she adds, she would often decamp to the teaching laboratories because of the apparent lack of space.

But in the school’s new £56.5 million Life Sciences Building there are no such problems, as the space has been allocated according to need. Memmott admits that this has not got rid of tensions altogether, but has instead created other things that researchers must adapt to. There is now 100 per cent laboratory coat use, for example, and the layout of the space encourages more mixing between research groups than happened previously.

The 13,500 sq m building, which sits at the top of St Michael’s Hill overlooking Bristol’s city centre, offered the school a chance to “change habits in a fairly major way”, she adds. Opened by Sir David Attenborough in October, the building’s state-of-the-art assets include acoustic chambers for research on bats, vibration-free facilities and insectariums for work on bees and ants.

On its roof is a “GroDome”, in which researchers can control light, humidity and temperature when growing plants for research. Classrooms are set on the corner of the building, and their large windows allow passers-by to see what is going on inside.

Modern facilities

A new teaching laboratory that can accommodate 200 students at once means that practical classes need be repeated only once instead of twice, as was the case in the school’s previous facilities in the grade II-listed Fry Building, which is now being refurbished for use by the department of mathematics.

“It was a very old fashioned building, which made it very difficult to work in from a teaching and science point of view,” Memmott says. “We feel at an advantage here [in the new facility].”

During practical classes, for example, instructors use cameras that stream what they are doing on to screens so that students can see. “On open days it has been great. You had to apologise for the labs in the old building. Now, it looks like this is where modern real science happens,” she says.

But building such a development in the city centre site was far from simple, not least because it sits next door to the Bristol Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information, a vibration-free building, which means the Life Sciences Building is suspended so that its vibrations do not affect the neighbours. Planning restrictions also dictated that the facade had to look like a Georgian terrace from the bottom of the hill. It also could not exceed the existing skyline in height, so space had to be carved out below ground.

The building has been designed with researchers in mind. When the architects spent a week at the old laboratories observing how scientists used the facilities, they noticed that fridges and freezers took up a lot of floor space. But they were seldom used, mainly only to get things out and put them away at the start and end of each day. Now much of this equipment is stored in smaller ancillary rooms across the corridor from the main laboratories, thereby freeing up space.

With all these new facilities, Bristol’s biological scientists are expected to raise their game, Memmott observes.

“We have to effectively double our research income in the next few years. We are under particular pressure,” she says, admitting that the school’s game “needed raising”.

This has spurred a significant increase in grant applications last year, the results of which are already starting to come through, she says.

In numbers

1km of bench space inside the new Life Sciences Building at the University of Bristol

Campus news

University of Warwick
A new doctoral scholarship programme aims to bridge the gap between mathematical and social sciences. The University of Warwick is one of 14 institutions awarded £1 million by the Leverhulme Trust to fund 15 PhD students nationally over the next five years. Thomas Hills, professor of psychology at Warwick, said the challenge was “to train researchers who, in addition to quantitative sophistication, have deep knowledge of the underlying problems driving the questions at the forefront of the behavioural and social sciences”.

Cardiff University
Staff and students at a university have been praised for helping to overturn a murder conviction. Appeal judge Sir Brian Leveson praised the “diligent” work of the Innocence Project at Cardiff University’s law school when he cleared 30-year-old Dwaine George – who was jailed for life in 2002 – of the shooting of teenager Daniel Dale in Manchester. Students and staff at Cardiff prepared Mr George’s case, which successfully argued that he had been convicted on the basis of “flawed” gunshot residue and voice identification evidence.

Swansea University
Swansea University has bought a notebook containing the early work of Dylan Thomas for £104,500 including buyer’s premium. The notebook, which had lain in a drawer for several decades before recently coming to light, is one of only five such pads used by the Swansea-born poet. The other four are kept at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York. The notebook, described as “the holy grail of Thomas scholars” by John Goodby, professor of English language and literature at Swansea, went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London on 9 December.

Plymouth University
A southern university has launched two schemes to boost student entrepreneurship. Plymouth University has developed a two-year intensive undergraduate degree course in business enterprise and entrepreneurship, which will begin in 2015. The second project, known as Enterprise Beta, will provide start-up capital and support to help students start businesses. Both programmes involve the new Futures Entrepreneurship Centre at Plymouth.

Lancaster University
Journalist Caroline Criado-Perez was among an audience invited to Twitter headquarters to learn about university research into the abuse she suffered online. In 2013, Ms Criado-Perez campaigned to have historic female figures on banknotes, exposing her to misogynistic abuse on Twitter. The case led Claire Hardaker and Mark McGlashan of Lancaster University to start research into social media abuse. They found that their dataset of 100,000 tweets contained a network of 202 risky accounts, of which 61 were “high risk” accounts where people were making “rape, death, and bomb threats”.

University of Manchester
New evidence has been found that casts further doubt on the supposed harmful effects of the magnetic fields created by power lines and mobile phones. Previous studies have suggested an association between people living near overhead power lines and an increased risk of childhood leukaemia. However, a team from the University of Manchester’s Manchester Institute of Biotechnology has discovered that weak magnetic fields have no detectable impact on flavoproteins, which are key to processes vital for healthy human function.

University of Sheffield
A university has returned an 18th-century tapestry looted by the Nazis to its original home. The tapestry was stolen from Chteau de Versainville in Normandy during the Nazi occupation of France, while its owner was imprisoned for being a member of the Resistance. It was bought on the open market in 1959 by the University of Sheffield, and it has been hanging in its council room ever since. Recent research by university staff uncovered the tapestry’s history and so the institution offered to return it.

Anglia Ruskin University
A university has opened a £160,000 state-of-the-art trading room designed to enable students to understand the strategies and techniques employed by real-life traders and investors. The Bloomberg Financial Markets Lab on Anglia Ruskin University’s Chelmsford campus features 16 trading terminals and a “ticker” displaying share prices from stock markets worldwide. Hassaan Khan, senior lecturer in finance, said: “Our aim is to provide students with an experience as close as possible to a real financial organisation.”

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