Campus round-up

November 17, 2011

University College London/Nottingham

Off with their heads

Scientists have created an interactive website based on Lewis Carroll's Wonderland stories to help children learn about the brain. The Wondermind site, developed by neuropsychologists from University College London and the University of Nottingham, features games, videos and blogs. It forms part of an exhibition at Tate Liverpool, which examines how Carroll's stories have influenced the visual arts. Nicola Pitchford, an associate professor in the School of Psychology at Nottingham, said: "Developing a better understanding of key cognitive functions...early on can help individuals significantly in later life through heightened self-awareness and greater appreciation of preferred learning strategies."

University of Greenwich

Rescuer is rescued

The paddle steamer Medway Queen - one of the most famous of the "little ships" involved in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 - rescued some 7,000 Allied troops. Now, technological experts from the University of Greenwich are helping to ensure that new generations will be able to take a trip on this national treasure for themselves. A team led by Chris Bailey, head of the computational mechanics and reliability group, has been developing models to assess the steamer's strength, stability and seaworthiness under different conditions. The team's earlier work on the conservation and rebuilding of the Cutty Sark won it a Times Higher Education Award in 2009 for Outstanding Engineering Research Team of the Year. The restored Medway Queen will also function as a floating museum based at Gillingham Pier.

University of Cambridge

Tales of yore

A major exercise in "linguistic archaeology" has been launched that aims to catalogue a university's collection of 2,000 South Asian manuscripts. The comprehensive survey of the University of Cambridge Library's collection, led by two Sanskrit specialists and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will study each manuscript and place it in a broader historical context. It also hopes to digitise many of the items. Written on fragile birch bark, palm leaf and paper, the manuscripts express centuries-old thinking on religion, philosophy, astronomy, grammar, law and poetry. They include a 10th-century Buddhist manuscript from India - the oldest dated and illustrated Sanskrit manuscript known worldwide.

Lancaster University

White lines, unknown ingredients

Young adults in the North West of England have turned to potentially harmful substances following the ban on former "legal high" mephedrone, according to research. Fiona Measham and Karenza Moore, lecturers in criminology at Lancaster University, surveyed more than 200 young adults in four Lancashire towns and cities to see how drug use had changed since the ban. They found that young adults were still seeking out and ingesting white powders sold as recreational drugs, but were uncertain - and sometimes unconcerned - what they were.

Imperial College London

Deadly trade

Chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease, has wiped out up to 40 per cent of wild amphibians in Central America, caused as many as 200 species to become extinct around the world and led many other populations to decline. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists led by a team at Imperial College London argue that the global trade in frogs, toads and other amphibians may have accidentally helped to create and spread the disease by allowing different strains of fungus to come into contact and combine. Amphibian numbers started to decline in the 1970s when the trade began to get under way, indicating that regulation is now urgently required to prevent the emergence of even more devastating forms of the disease.

Kent/Canterbury Christ Church

Teaming up for health kick

Ten senior academics from two universities have agreed to work together on health research projects that could benefit their local area. The researchers at the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University will collaborate through a series of joint workshops and seminars in three cross-disciplinary subjects where both institutions have strengths. It follows an earlier agreement by the institutions' vice-chancellors to explore mutual interests in health research with a view to developing a wider strategy for Kent and Medway.

University of the West of England

Piss power

Scientists have published what they claim is the world's first research paper on work that tests the viability of urine as a potential source for microbial fuel cells in order to directly produce electricity. The paper from a team at the University of the West of England outlines research that looks at whether urine can be used as a fuel and how much power could be generated. So far the use of urine as a biomass that can be converted to power has been neglected, but the scientists suggest that a consistent electricity output is possible, "depending on the volume of urine and the timing of the doses".

University of Dundee

Beneficial side-effects

Drugs taken by patients to lower blood pressure could also significantly reduce the danger of leaking heart valves, research has found. A team led by Chim Lang, professor of cardiology at the University of Dundee, found that patients taking drugs such as ACE inhibitors or angiotensin blockers had lower rates of death and hospitalisation from aortic regurgitation. The study was based on records of Tayside patients and now needs to be followed up with clinical trials, Professor Lang said.

Queen Mary, University of London

Counter intelligence

It is often suggested that receptionists in doctors' surgeries act as a barrier to patients getting the treatment they need. This notion has been challenged by a study in the British Medical Journal, in which researchers at Queen Mary, University of London demonstrate the levels of creativity and judgement required to decide which prescriptions can be processed by the "automatic" system and which require input from a doctor. Even complex queries were usually resolved within 48 hours, ensuring that patients receive appropriate treatment quickly and efficiently. Although receptionists' work is "hidden", said Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary healthcare at Queen Mary, "high-quality medical care can depend as much on the common sense and practical judgements of frontline reception staff as it does on the formal safety features built into computer systems".

Glasgow Caledonian University

Education for busy people

People with work commitments are to be offered round-the-clock access to pay-as-you-go online courses in subjects such as construction work, thermal insulation and fire safety. Audrey Meikle, business manager for the School of Engineering and Built Environment at Glasgow Caledonian University, said that workers often could not attend a course on a particular date or take time off work, so the modules had been made available online. The university currently offers a range of such courses, which lead to Glasgow Caledonian certificates on completion. Fees start at just £25.

Leicester/Sheffield

Higher flyers

People who complete professional doctorates report numerous professional and personal benefits, a study has found. Interviews with former students, carried out by academics from the universities of Leicester and Sheffield, found that nearly all holders of professional doctorates report improvements in their analytical and verbal skills. The interviewees also say they listen more closely to colleagues' views and are better able to empathise with fellow professionals. In some cases, this had led to rapid promotion and pay rises. The study coincided with the launch of a doctorate in education at Leicester this month.

University of Liverpool

Anyone smell a rat?

Research into the scent signals of mice and rats will help to inform future rodent-control strategies aimed at reducing damage to crops. The £4.7 million study by researchers from the University of Liverpool and Rothamsted Research will look at the scent-signal mechanisms rodents use to navigate around their habitats, communicate and reproduce. The scientists hope their findings will enable the development of improved methods of monitoring rats and mice and manipulating their behaviour.

University of Edinburgh

Cut the crap

Researchers will receive $100,000 (£62,800) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to look into ways of vaccinating people against diarrhoea. Garry Blakely, senior lecturer in molecular microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, has been funded by the Microsoft billionaire's foundation to carry out a year-long investigation into the use of bacterial nanoparticles as a potential oral vaccine against the disease. The foundation's Grand Challenges Explorations initiative funds projects that "explore ideas that can break the mold" in tackling global development and health problems.

Spot check

Prehistoric cave paintings of horses may be more realistic than researchers had suspected. An international team, which included scholars from the University of York, has used ancient DNA to show that horses with the leopard-like spotting depicted in Palaeolithic cave paintings, such as the 25,000-year-old "Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle" in France, actually existed. Michi Hofreiter, a professor in York's department of biology, said: "Our findings lend support to hypotheses that argue that cave paintings constitute reflections of the natural environment of humans at the time and may contain less of a symbolic or transcendental connotation than is often assumed."

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