Campus round-up

January 20, 2011

University of Aberdeen

Life on Mars rocks...or does it?

Rocks found on Earth are helping researchers to examine the potential for life on Mars. In 2004, methane was detected in the Martian atmosphere - an indication that primitive life could exist on the planet. Now geologists and microbiologists at the University of Aberdeen are looking at how rocks could explain the existence of methane on Earth, and what that might mean for the creation of the gas on the Red Planet. "The methane (on Mars) is possibly being produced by a biological process...if this life does exist, the hostile surface environment of Mars means it is most likely to live at subsurface levels, in rocks on the planet," said John Parnell, professor in the department of geology at Aberdeen.

Newcastle University

Deathly dull

As many as a third of drivers take unnecessary risks at the wheel because of boredom, psychologists have found. According to academics at Newcastle University, straightforward driving conditions are likely to lead to higher levels of boredom, and thus higher levels of risk-taking. The study of more than 1,500 drivers concludes that making roads more complicated could actually make them safer. Lead researcher Joan Harvey, senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, said: "Contrary to what you might expect when driving, hazards can actually increase our attention to the road, so this may well be the way forward for planners. We may need to start considering some radical schemes such as putting bends back in."

Central School of Speech and Drama

Doctor, doctor

Four years after the creation of its research department, a University of London drama school has awarded its first doctoral degree. The Central School of Speech and Drama said that the graduate, Broderick Chow, presented his research in performance comedy together with a thesis titled: "How to Do Things with Jokes: relocating the political dimension of performance comedy". Andrew Lavender, dean of research, said: "This marks Central's maturity as a fully rounded higher education institution and a centre of expertise in research into contemporary performance."

University of Sussex

Life on the wards recalled

Researchers are asking past and present employees of five university hospitals to share their memories. The team at the University of Sussex's Centre for Community Engagement is interested in the recollections of people who have worked in hospitals operated by the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust. "Hospitals are more than bricks and mortar," said Sam Carroll, project coordinator. "We are interested in hearing about training, social life, hierarchies and comradeship. We want to know about changes in the way patients have been treated, medical and technical innovations, and even difficulties or struggles." The stories will be recorded to create a new oral archive, which will form the basis of a small exhibition and publication when the project ends in July.

Aberystwyth, Leeds

How cold was cold back then?

British scientists are teaming up to lead an Antarctic polar expedition to learn more about the climate history of the region. Researchers from the universities of Aberystwyth and Leeds, led by Neil Glasser, professor of glaciology at Aberystwyth, will be investigating the nature of the coldest, windiest, highest and driest continent on Earth. They aim to understand more about how the glaciers and ice sheets of the northeastern Antarctic peninsula behaved in past climates, and the implications for future climate change.

University of Hull

Sailors' haul shipped to shore

A mariners' welfare charity has donated its archive to a coastal university. The Mission to Seafarers' collection of photographs, magazines, reports, film footage and paper reports dates back to 1856, when the charity was founded. The society, which has a network of missions across the world caring for sailors' "spiritual and practical" welfare, will donate the collection to the University of Hull Archives, which specialises in maritime organisations. Judy Burg, university archivist, said the long and relatively complete runs of documents would be particularly useful to researchers in geography, citizenship and cultural studies, as well as historians.

University of Nottingham

'Off switch' sticky in ADHD cases

Scientists studying children playing a computerised Whac-A-Mole-style game have discovered why those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have difficulty concentrating on "boring" tasks. Using brain-imaging techniques, the University of Nottingham study found evidence that those with ADHD - about 2 per cent of all children - require either greater incentives or stimulant medication to focus on a task. Without it, they fail to "switch off" the brain patterns involved in mind-wandering. Elizabeth Liddle, one of the researchers, said: "Some people think children with ADHD are just being naughty when they misbehave. We have shown that concentrating may be a very real difficulty for them."

Liverpool John Moores University

Heartfelt reaction by stem cells

Time heals all wounds, the saying goes, and now researchers have found that the adage may be true - at least for the heart. The stem cell and molecular physiology team in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University has uncovered findings that could change medical opinion about the best type of cells to use to treat heart attack victims. The researchers have produced evidence that stem cells resident in the adult heart play a key role in both heart-cell regeneration and survival, placing a new focus on cell-to-cell communication and cell survival and contractility, as well as the type of cell that should be used in treatment.

Staffordshire University

Quick thinking wins honours

A project to improve mental health care and save millions of pounds at two NHS trusts has won a national award for innovation. The rapid assessment and interface discharge service, which was set up with help from Staffordshire University's Centre for Ageing and Mental Health, won the title of Best Innovation in Mental Health at the recent Health Service Journal Awards. The service is in operation at the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust and Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust, where specialist teams work closely with doctors, nurses and charities to provide 24-hour services for patients with mental health, alcohol or drug problems. The project saves the trusts about £8 million a year.

University of Leeds

Luring King Coal to the surface

An international team of researchers is investigating the feasibility of an environmentally friendly way of using coal from inaccessible underground seams as a power source. The team, which includes researchers from the University of Leeds, plans to overcome the prohibitive cost of extracting coal from very deep seams by using a technique to burn it underground and turn it into a combustible gas that can be piped to the surface and used to drive conventional turbines. The carbon dioxide generated can then be injected back into the rock, rendering the process virtually carbon neutral. A €3 million (£2.5 million) grant from the European Commission will pay for a test plant in Bulgaria.

University of Essex

NO, CO, H2S, go!

Scientists have begun research to help gain a better understanding of the role toxic gases play in the human body. Scholars at the University of Essex will focus on three gases: nitric oxide, hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide. Although they are more usually associated with environmental pollution, the gases also play a role in the normal functioning of all animals. They can be used to control blood flow and blood pressure as well as being key components of the immune system's fight against disease. However, at high concentrations they stop the body's ability to consume oxygen. What is not clear is how the body manages to make use of the molecules without falling foul of their toxicity.

Edge Hill University

'More hip op than hip hop'

There should be more investment to support dancers as they grow older, an academic has argued. Mark Edward, senior lecturer in performance theatre at Edge Hill University, has been investigating ageing bodies and mature dancers. In a research paper that will appear in Animated Dance Journal, he probes the expectations placed on dancers to switch from performance to direction as they get older and the prejudices that surround the process. Mr Edward said the study was inspired by his own advancing years: "The ageing dancer appears unwelcome...reluctantly undergoing physical and psychological changes where the aches and pains of the parents' generation now increasingly belong to me."

Safer seafood

Scientists have created a more effective test to determine whether shellfish are safe to eat. Technology developed by researchers at Queen's University Belfast enables the testing of seafood such as mussels, oysters, cockles and scallops to ensure that they are free of toxins before they reach the plate. It is hoped that the work will bring benefits to the fisheries industry, cutting testing time for dangerous toxins from two days to just 30 minutes. Queen's reports that the test uses biosensor technology to rule out the presence of poisons that can induce paralysis and, in about 25 per cent of cases, death.

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