By Dr Manabu Sakamoto, palaeontologist, University of Reading

Think of a palaeontologist. What comes to mind? You might be thinking of Sam Neill in the film ‘Jurassic Park’, Ross from the sitcom ‘Friends’, or some white-gloved employee of the Natural History Museum.

Now think of them ‘doing’ palaeontology. You will probably imagine them digging up fossilized bones, extracting ancient DNA from amber, or piecing together a skeleton like some kind of Jurassic jigsaw.

What about doing maths, or poring over a spreadsheet? Probably not. Yet some of the most exciting dinosaur discoveries in our field come not from fieldwork, but from detailed analysis and reanalysis of the data.

Why is that? Well, understanding how and why biodiversity waxes and wanes through Earth history over hundreds of millions of years is a fundamental goal of paleontology and evolutionary biology alike.

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Dinosaurs, chickens and the Russian revolution were among the topics that won University of Reading academics prizes for their research last week.

The prize winners with Prof Steve Mithen, Lord Waldegrave, and Sir David Bell

The five academics, one from each research theme, were honoured with a Research Output Prize for Early Career Researchers at University Court, the showcase annual event for the University community, on 20 March.

Professor Steve Mithen, Deputy Vice Chancellor, said: “Congratulations to all five winners. They were selected by peer-review from a strong field of outputs by our Early Career Researchers in each of our five research themes.

“Whether having produced single or multi-authored works, the success of these award winners represents not only their own outstanding achievement , but the support and hard work of many more people at the University and further afield.”

The winners from each theme were:

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By Rebecca Emerton, Water@Reading research group

When an El Niño is declared, or even forecast, we think back to memorable past El Niños (such as 1997/98), and begin to ask whether we will see the same impacts. Will California receive a lot of rainfall? Will we see droughts in tropical Asia and Australia? Will Peru experience the same devastating floods as in 1997/98, and 1982/83?

El Niño and La Niña, which see changes in the ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific, are well known to affect weather, and indeed river flow and flooding, around the globe. But how well can we estimate the potential impacts of El Niño and La Niña, and how likely flooding is to occur?

This question is what some of us in the Water@Reading research group at the University of Reading have been looking to answer in our recent publication in Nature Communications.

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By Dr Faustina Hwang, Biomedical Engineering, University of Reading

Most people know the importance of staying well hydrated on a hot sunny day.  However, for vulnerable older adults, ensuring adequate fluid intake day-to-day is key to maintaining mental and physical health and lowering the risk of hospital admission.

Care home staff used a mobile app to record how much clients ate and drank

A team from the University of Reading has been working in partnership with Perton Manor specialist care home in South Staffordshire to develop Hydration HEALTH (Hydration in Elderly Adults Linked to Temperature and Humidity), a technology-based system which aims to detect risk of dehydration and help care home staff ensure all their clients are drinking enough to stay healthy.

The Hydration HEALTH system monitors the temperature and humidity inside and outside the building as well as the client’s food and drink intake and fluid loss in order to better understand how these factors interact and affect their hydration levels.

The system was designed in collaboration with Perton Manor, and was recently trialed for a week in the specialist care home.  During this pilot study, sensors were installed inside and outside the care home for continuous logging of temperature and humidity, staff used a mobile app to record clients’ food and drink intake throughout a 24-hour period, and six clients gave biological samples to be analysed for biomarkers of hydration.

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By Tim Mayo, University of Reading press officer for health research

Throughout British Science Week this week, University of Reading scientists from across the health research theme are presenting the ‘body of evidence’.

They are showcasing the areas where Reading research is tackling some of the global health challenges – from dementia and heart disease to nutrition and food hygiene.

The health of people in Britain has never been better. Yet with shifting patterns of disease, an ageing population, and rapid social and environmental change, the diagnosis has perhaps never been more troubling.

Reading has for decades been in the forefront of study into some of the most fundamental areas of human health. The University’s key research areas of biomedical science, psychology, mental health, food and nutrition, pharmacy, and language development inform some of the key issues facing the health of the nation, now and in the future.

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By Inge Lasser, Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics, University of Reading

Professor Doug Saddy’s lecture entitled “Augmented Humans: mind and machine” changed the way I think about myself and about the role that brain science will play in the progression of society. As an administrative manager at the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics (CINN), of which Doug Saddy is the Director, I speak to brain scientists every day. I hear them talk about data, methodology, analytics, responses, levels, and everything that matters for doing fundamental research. Like all scientists, the members of the CINN rejoice when a new study is funded or a paper has been accepted. What Saddy’s presentation gave me is a hugely fascinating view of the “bigger picture” in cognitive neuroscience.

Listen to Saddy and you will learn that you extend into the environment beyond your physical self. In other words, we are all incessantly generating not only acoustic signals, but also electrical, magnetic and biochemical information, voluntarily and involuntarily. Vice versa, our environment extends into us. Humans constantly leak and absorb information. This leads to them, you and me, being in a constant mode of change.

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University of Reading coat of arms

Researchers at the University of Reading secured more than £3.3 million in research grants and awards in January.

A total of 25 research projects were confirmed in the first month of 2017, with a total value of £3,329,759 – an average of more than £130,000 per project.

Steve Mithen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for research, said: “Another strong month for research grants shows that funders share our belief that Reading researchers are among the best in the world.

“Congratulations to everyone who is beginning work on new research projects. I look forward to hearing more about their work, and seeing how their research changes people’s lives for the better.”

Among those winning funding in January were…

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By Hannah Parker, Walker Institute, University of Reading

During the wet season of 2012 heavy rainfall across West Africa led to flooding with devastating impacts. More than 3 million people were affected, with hundreds of thousands made homeless (Figure 1). When extreme events such as this occur, it is important to question whether climate change had a role to play. At the Walker Institute we have investigated the impact of climate change on this event, by assessing whether the probability of such high precipitation in the 2012 rainy season was affected by anthropogenic emissions.

Impacts of heavy rainfall-induced flooding across West Africa in 2012

Observations show that there was anomalously high rainfall across much of West Africa during the 2012 rainy season. To look at changes in the probability of such high precipitation, we used hundreds of climate model simulations of the year 2012. By comparing simulations with and without anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, we were able to assess whether the probability of the event had been changed.

We found that the probability of such high precipitation in West Africa had been decreased by climate change. This was the case under both general climate conditions (using simulations with the atmosphere coupled to the ocean, therefore including all climate variability), and with conditions specific to 2012 (using atmosphere-only simulations with observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs)). Using different model ensembles, the decrease in probability was found to between a factor of 0 and 16.

However we also found some disagreement between the climate model ensembles. When considering the world without anthropogenic emissions, in the atmosphere-only simulations the effect of anthropogenic emissions had to be removed from the SSTs as well as the atmosphere. We estimated the effect on SSTs using coupled climate model simulations, which showed a decrease in the probability of high precipitation in 2012. However we also used an estimate based on the observed trend in SSTs, and in this case the probability of high precipitation was shown to have been decreased by anthropogenic emissions. Further analysis showed that this discrepancy was likely due to the climate models having much greater warming trends than observations did in the Niño3.4 region in the Pacific Ocean.

Understanding how individual events such as this have been affected by climate change is relevant for policymakers to better understand climate change impacts on extremes. In particular, comparing results from different climate model ensembles is important if we are to better understand such attribution results and their uncertainties, to characterise whether or not they are robust. Few event attribution studies have done this to date, but this will be key if results are be used appropriately in climate policy to address the impacts of such events.

 

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by Dr Jacqui Turner, Department of History, University of Reading

This week was International Women’s Day and women were everywhere.

We were in the media, online, on TV, and crowded around both front benches in the House of Commons as, in the Budget, the Chancellor announced a further £5 million for projects to celebrate the centenary of the partial franchise in 1918, which first gave women a vote:

‘It is important that we not only celebrate next year’s Centenary but also that we educate young people about its significance. It was the decisive step in the political emancipation of women in this country and this money will go to projects to mark its significance and remind us all just how important it was.’ –Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond MP

Yes, it was, and yes, it is. My initial reaction, of course, is that this should be done in schools every year and beyond a few weeks on the GCSE History curriculum.

Maybe we do need that £5 million from Mr Hammond, which was  allocated alongside £20 million to tackle domestic violence and abuse and £5 million for ‘returnships’ to support people returning to work after long breaks.

The positioning of women around the front benches on significant days or when key legislation is being announced is a long-standing tradition –very few ever find themselves there by seniority, some maybe, but they are often window dressing.

And why do they need to be there at all?  Are we harking back to the days of our first female MP, Nancy Astor, who would ‘disrupt proceedings’ with claims that she knew best on issues relating to women because she was a woman?  She may have done, but it is the very old feminist debate – equal rights versus inherent suitability based on gender difference (whilst acknowledging that the gender debate is much wider today). Read the rest of this entry »

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By Stephanie Bull, food scientist, Chemistry Food & Pharmacy

Reading is known as one of the world’s leading centres for the study of food and health. We have outstanding facilities and expertise to study the whole food chain – from climate, weather, soil, farming, food processing, nutrition, to human health and cognition.

Michael Mosley at the University of Reading

So it’s no surprise that TV producers beat a regular path to our door when they want to see the latest scientific research. And none does so quite as innovatively and beautifully demonstrated as BBC Two’s latest science documentary, The Secrets of Your Food

The programme, which has its final episode this week (Friday 10 March) at 9pm on BBC Two, shows the effects food has on our taste buds, brains, and bodies. Alongside the widespread locations and elegant CGI are, of course,  frequent shots of scientific demonstrations carried out at the University of Reading in the Department of Food and Nutritional Science, and in the Department of Chemistry.

In the first episode, We Are What We Eat, I helped presenter Michael Mosley to separate the various components of breast milk in our Food Pilot Plant; investigate how the proteins in egg unfold and denature at different temperatures to create the perfectly cooked egg; demonstrate the production of gas by yeast; and compare fats from different food.

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