Campus round-up

October 4, 2012

University of East Anglia

Chained letters

A collection of letters that paints a vivid picture of 19th-century American slavery has gone on display in Norwich as part of Black History Month. The letters, which were written by Sarah Hicks Williams, a white middle-class woman who left her New York roots to marry a slaveholder in the American South, have been loaned to the University of East Anglia by the University of North Carolina. They span the 1850s and 1860s and chart Sarah's initial discomfort with aspects of Southern living - particularly slaveholding - and her subsequent assimilation into the "Southern way of life". Exhibition organiser Rebecca Fraser, from UEA's School of American Studies, has written a book about Ms Hicks Williams' life, which is to be published in November.

University of Salford

Empty nests

Finding new ways to engage with the owners of 930 empty homes in Greater Manchester is the aim of a collaboration between a university and local authorities. Experts from the University of Salford's Housing and Urban Studies Unit and Salford Business School will work with the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, exploring ways to contact homeowners - including via social media - and linking owners to housing organisations able to manage empty homes on their behalf. Lisa Scullion, a researcher at the university's Housing and Urban Studies Unit, said the team was "hopeful that a method can be developed that will allow us to increase the number of homes being used as they were intended when built".

University of Sheffield

Epic journey

The winning entries in a poetry competition have been launched to the edge of space. The space-themed competition was organised as part of the University of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind. The winning two entries, chosen by Sheffield's professor of poetry Simon Armitage, were launched on a helium balloon by two mechanical engineering doctoral students. The students, Alex Baker and Chris Rose, became media sensations last year when their first craft, built for £350, took photographs of Earth from a height of 37km. "A good poem can transcend space and time...We thought the reward should match the ambition of whichever poem dared to fly the highest," Professor Armitage said.

Queen Mary, University of London


Bumblebees seeking nectar remember which flowers are empty and avoid them on their honey-collecting journeys. Researchers from Queen Mary, University of London tracked bumblebees across a 1km diameter field using radar to see how they selected the optimal route to collect nectar from multiple flowers and returned to their nest. They found bees soon ignored empty flowers and instead visited five artificial flowers, set up by researchers, which contained drops of sucrose in the middle. They also developed increasingly efficient routes between the flowers as they acquired more awareness of which plants were nectar-bearing.

University Campus Suffolk

Travelling lighter

A restored horse-drawn barge that was last used around a century ago has gone on view for the first time since it was scuttled in 1914. The John Constable, a type of cargo barge known as a lighter, went on display at University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich last week after experts from the campus assisted with restoration work. The lighter was originally rescued from the River Stour in the 1970s, but remained at Sudbury and was only raised from the silt in June 2010. On leaving Ipswich, the John Constable will be further renovated before beginning its new life carrying tourists on the river from which it was pulled.



Researchers are developing a computer that writes music designed to alter a listener's mood. Using a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, researchers at the universities of Plymouth and Reading will develop a computer capable of analysing listeners' brain activity for emotional indicators and, based on the feedback, generating sounds to alter their emotions. The team hopes the computer will be useful in combating stress and depression. Its first public demonstration will be at a performance of the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth on 22-24 February 2013.

Canterbury Christ Church University

Keys to the city

A university is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a treasure hunt. In the coming weeks, Canterbury Christ Church University will publish a series of cryptic clues through a social media app that hint at the location of 50 souvenir keys hidden on its campuses and in city locations. Organisers hope the hunt will help students, staff and the general public to become more familiar with the city's historical attractions. Successful treasure hunters can also enter a draw to win further prizes.

Durham/King's College London

Balancing the equation

Rising scores in school maths exams over the past 30 years have not been caused by an increase in mathematical understanding, a study has claimed. Researchers at King's College London and Durham University found there has been little overall change in maths attainment since the 1970s, despite exam pass rates at grade C almost trebling since the early 1980s. The research team asked more than 7,000 students, aged 11 to 14, from across the country to sit a series of maths exams set for students of the same age in 1976 and 1977. The two groups' achievements were largely the same, although today's students tended to be weaker at algebra, fractions and ratios and stronger when it came to numbers.

University of Leicester

Island life

A UK university lecturer is part of a team working to replenish papyrus plants in an African lake using floating plastic islands. David Harper, senior lecturer in ecology and conservation biology at the University of Leicester, will advise on the project in Lake Naivasha, Kenya, funded by a German-owned horticultural firm. It is hoped the papyrus will improve the quality of the lake's water, which has been affected by rapid population growth fuelled by expansion in the horticultural industry. The papyrus will grow in river silt trapped by islands made of recycled plastics.

University of Edinburgh

Cancer may not be colour blind

White Scots have higher rates of cancer than the country's ethnic minorities, new research suggests. Using figures from the NHS, the Scottish Cancer Registry and the 2001 Scottish census, University of Edinburgh researchers found that those with an Indian background had a cancer rate that was less than half that of the white Scottish population. Raj Bhopal, a professor of public health at the university's Centre for Population Health Sciences, said: "There is much to learn here that could benefit the whole population."


Just deserts

Scientists from two UK universities have been chosen to be part of an £8.8 million project funded by the US Department of Energy to investigate how certain desert plants take up carbon and photosynthesise during the night. Researchers from Newcastle University and the University of Liverpool will explore this "crassulacean acid metabolism", which allows plants to close their pores during the day, reducing water loss and enabling them to survive in very dry climates. The research could eventually lead to the creation of biofuel crops that can be grown on land with limited rain.

University of Ulster

Load-bearing walls

A survey has been carried out into attitudes towards "peace walls" in Northern Ireland that segregate communities with the aim of preventing conflict. Researchers from the University of Ulster found that 69 per cent of residents who live near the walls feel that they are necessary "because of the potential for violence". Among respondents from the general population, the figure was 38 per cent. Cathy Gormley-Heenan, of the university's Institute for Research in Social Sciences, said there was "huge public appetite for greater engagement between the communities and those responsible for peace walls".

There's no business like snow business

Credit: Rex Features

A television series co-produced with a UK university has won an Emmy for best non-fiction series. At the ceremony in Los Angeles on 23 September, Frozen Planet, which explored the variety of life in the polar regions, also won awards for best cinematography, picture editing and sound editing. Following on from the series, the university is now offering a short course on the Arctic and Antarctica through its free study site OpenLearn, which includes an in-depth look at the environment, history, science and wildlife of the regions and clips from the series. Two OU academics, Mark Brandon and David Robinson, acted as academic consultants for the programme.

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