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Nanogon formerly N8, and then N9 science events

Round up of Thursday at British Science Association (BSA) 2015

by Helen Gavaghan, Bradford, UK

Published 11th September, 2015


1. The wonderful world of algae
From her knowledge of the metabolism of algae, Carole Llewellyn of Swansea University told BSA 2015 there are 7000 different species of algae, estimated to produce 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe. These marine plants have a wide variety of form and function, and some, because of their high oil content, might have potential as biofuels. Others clean up waste, from nitrates to carbon dioxide, metals and organic pollutants. Llewellyn's research is focussed on obtaining a better understanding of the metabolite profile of algae. She has work in preparation for publication.

2. Advances in alternatives to animal testing
Epilepsy and breast cancer are two of the research areas in which scientists are exploring how to develop safe medical treatments without testing products on higher animals. Robin Williams from Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London told BSA 2015 of work with the amoeba, dictyostelium discoideum to investigate drugs related to epilepsy. Christine Watson, from the department of pathology at the University of Cambridge, is working with engineered collagen as a scaffold for culturing normal and cancerous breast cells, enabling drug screening of embedded cells rather than in animals.

3. Ethnicity and medical education
Differences in individual factors, such as study habits, socio-economic status and personality do not alone explain ethnic differences in how medical students perform in exams. Katherine Woolf, senior lecturer in Medical Education at UCL Medical School, uncovered this insight during her Ph.D research. At the 2015 BSA she said learning is a social process, and we learn facts, attitudes and ways of being from those around us. Her take home message was try mixing it up a bit, "You might find you have more in common with someone unexpected than you think."

4. Of kneecaps and penguin waddles
Bones and flesh together reflect animal function. From bone shape and structure we learn about soft-tissue anatomy, and gain insight into behaviour and evolution. "Bones are not just boring things supporting our bodies," said John Hutchinson, professor of evolutionary biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College, at BSA 2015.

5. Agricultural sustainability works
Millions of farmers worldwide have found ways to save nature and increase food production, the 2015 BSA meeting was told. "Sustainability works," said Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the Univerity of Essex, "though many are not yet aware of the evidence." By mid 21st century agriculture, it is thought today, needs to increase food production by 50 to 70 percent.

6. Small technology changes leverage athletic performance
It doesn't take much to leverage sporting performance by technology, Bryce Dyer told BSA 2015. A senior lecturer in product design at Bournemouth University, Dyer's research now centres on designing prosthetic limbs for athletes going to the 2016 paralympic games.

7. Light applications expand in medicine and encompass the Universe
2015 is the International Year of Light. At BSA 2015 astronomers, medical imagers and electronics experts gave insight into light's probing nature in medicine, its power to drive communication over the Internet, and the knowledge content about the Universe embedded in what telescopes collect. For example optical measurement of microcirculation is possible, said Dr John Allen, lead clinical scientist and senior research scientist in the regional medical physics department at Freeman Hospital, Newcastle University.

8. Taking the heat out of the Internet
Coolers carry heat from the energy hungry processing, storage and transmission of digital content; it is a need which becomes more urgent in high performance computing with big data, big algorithms and ever faster computations. Jon Summer, from the school of mechanical engineering at the University of Leeds, told BSA 2015 that the need for energy efficiency is driving advances in ways of moving heat from digital circuitry.

9. Don't fear flying
Those bouncing back from disappointments achieve more than those constrained by fear, BSA 2015 was told. Failure can drive scientific progress, according to Joseph Roche, assistant professor in science education at Trinity College Dublin. An astrophysicist by background, his research focusses now on the role of science in society.

10. You are probably not alone
Britain's national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles (Natsal) was last carried out in 2010 - 2012, and gives a more accurate picture than that from the media, BSA 2015 learned. People aren't always having lots of sex with lots of different people, according to the speakers, Soazig Clifton and Clare Tanton, from, respectively, the Centre for Sexual Health & HIV research and UCL. AIDS and HIV outbreaks from the 1980s prompted creation of the survey, which was first carried out in 1990.

11. From bench to bed
BSA 2015 was told by Paul Whiting from Pfizer that his company shares the wider goal of developing safe and effective drugs. "We are in an age of rapid progress yet we still lack effective medicines to treat many devastating conditions and illnesses," he writes. His co speaker was Maggie Helliwell, vice chair of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

12. Math models human behaviour
Hannah Fry, lecturer in the mathematics of cities at UCL, listed for BSA 2015 calculations of the chances of finding a partner in online dating and predictions of terrorism among examples of the potential math has for understanding human emotion. She and colleagus have work under review on temporal patterns in the IRA's actions.

13. Science and religion
In his work on science communication, David Kirby, senior lecturer in science communication studies at the Uiversity of Manchester, is looking at how religious groups have tried to influence stories about the biosciences through censorship and theologically-based film reviews. Kirby's take home message from BSA 2015 is, "... the stories religious groups want to tell about science in cinema can be particularly complicated because it often involves questions about the origins of life and explorations of human nature."

14. The social brain
Social cognitive neuroscience is the discipline under which the study of creativity and the creative brain falls, according to Valerie Lesk, from the division of psychology at the University of Bradford. New techniques are becoming available to help study the social brain, Lesk told BSA 2015.

15. Plans afoot to investigate 65.5 million year old asteroid impact
In April/May 2016 scientists will drill the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico, site of the most catastrophic event on Earth in the past 100 million years. The impact 65.5 million years ago changed the course of evolution forever, says Joanna Morgan, from Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College, London. BSA 2015 learned from her that the crater buried beneath the surface was discovered about 25 years ago. Morgan has led two international seismic experiments, which have imaged the crater, and allowed scientists to calculate the energy of the asteroid impact.

16. Research into scourges of our time
Osteoarthritis, osteoporisis and dementia are the unsolved problems in our ageing society - and we are all ageing. Jim Gallagher, professor at the department of musculoskeletal biology at the University of Liverpool, told BSA 2015 new chemicals enabling changes in bone and cartilage to be seen, and therapies to be developed are urgently needed. His co speaker, Jonathan Rohrer from UCL, works in neuroimaging, and his massage was that those working on dementia need a better understanding of what happens in the brain in the twenty to thirty years before people develop symptoms.

17. Academics ponder message content for ET
One million dollars (US) is up for grabs by the creator of the most insightful message which could be sent out of the solar system in hope extraterrestrials will be interested. Anders Sandberg from the Future Humanity Institute at The University of Oxford says that though he and colleagues are uncertain whether such a message should be sent, "it is worthwhile and important to try to devise that message".

18. Humanity's new cousin, but no DNA yet
Found in a cave undisturbed for millenia lay bones disposed of ritually by fellow members of a newly discovered species of the genus, homo. The new human relative is called homo naledi, BSA 2015 was told. No-one had, as of yesterday, looked to see whether there might be any ancient DNA. The announcement was made in Johannesburg in South Africa at The University of Witwatersrand, and relayed to The British Science Association.

Next year's British Science Association meeting will be at The University of Swansea.
This year's was held at the University of Bradford between 7th and 10th September.
Three minor corrections made 07.48 to 07.54 BST 12th September, 2015.
13th September, 2015
Corrections made from 07.16 to 07.25 BST
a) Items numbered.
b) Fourth minor correction made - in item one.
c) Second sentence in item 16 rewritten for clarity.
d) Sentence added to item 18.
This url is now closed to corrections.
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