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YorkTalks

A whistle-stop online tour through some of our most inspirational and innovative research.

From climate change to covid, malaria to social media - join us on Wednesday 13 January 2021 to hear some of our best and brightest academic minds bring new thinking to major global and societal challenges. Closer to home, we delve into historic archives - and uncover the hidden meanings of medieval art.

For the first time delivered entirely online, 2021's event will open up York research to audiences around the globe.

Given just 15 minutes each, 16 of our academics will introduce their research. The talks will be grouped into four sessions, each followed by questions and answers where you can join the live conversation with our speakers. Stay for the day, or pick and choose the sessions which grab your attention.

All talks will be pre-recorded in covid-secure conditions.

Session one - 9.10am to 11am

Leverhulme prize winner and passionate advocate of participatory research Professor Stringer returns to rural Eswatini to see what has changed since her last visit as a doctoral student investigating the impact of land degradation on local communities. Having never shared her research findings with the people she engaged with, this was an opportunity, 14 years later, to make good that deficit and to follow through with updated research and a series of interviews with many of the original participants.

In this talk Professor Stringer shares with us what happened when she asked the participants how they wanted to share the findings. The three-month long village preparation for the research ‘celebration’ day vividly reinforced her belief that this is a model other environmental researchers could adopt to ensure their findings gain maximum traction with those who it affects the most. It's also a glorious way to celebrate the positive impact research can have on people whose voices are often ignored or go unheard.

One of the few positive impacts of Covid-19 has been the improvement of the air quality in our cities. Or has it? Answering that question, it turns out, is far from simple. How for instance do you eliminate the influence of the weather on air pollution?

Professor Evans and his team at the Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories joined forces with global modelling experts at NASA. Using machine learning techniques along with NASA’s immense computing power, they collated data from almost 6,000 air quality monitoring sites in 46 countries around the world. What they found was a massive and almost immediate drop in air pollutants as the first wave of lockdowns began to bite (60 per cent in the case of Wuhan). The modelling developed with NASA was then turned to examine the impact of coronavirus on climate change in a wider research collaboration with the University of Leeds - here the results were very different.

In his talk Professor Evans outlines the positive policy measures the research flags up in this deeply gloomy period.

Focusing on the developing economies of the Caribbean Islands, modern history professor and Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre Henrice Altink reveals the unequal exposure to environmental risk of people living in regions impacted by rising sea levels. Building on the research for her latest book, which maps the multiple and often covert forms of discrimination in Jamaica, Professor Altink takes the country’s capital, Kingston, as the starting point for a talk that adds a vital new dimension to our perception of climate change.

By deploying a historical approach to a ‘man-made’ global problem Professor Altink reveals how the poor are much more vulnerable to the impact of extreme weather events because of long-standing social, economic and political factors, including racial discrimination. Tackling these deep rooted, structural factors, not just in Jamaica but in regions across the globe where climate change is destroying lives and livelihoods, is every bit as vital to meeting the challenge of global warming as the quest for science based solutions.

Professor Bob Doherty ­– and the interdisciplinary IKnowFood research team he leads – have spent the last four years unpacking the inner workings of the food system to reveal why it is making us and our planet sick. In this talk he shows just how close we have come to empty shelves, and why now is the perfect time to learn the lessons from the IKnowFood research.

Recently appointed by government to form part of a six-strong team tasked with examining food chains and the environment, Professor Doherty and his team are playing a key role in shaping UK food policy. They are working with industry to identify the impact our food production and consumption systems are having on people and the planet, and to sustainable food strategies that lead to a more ‘regenerative food system’. Without this shift, he warns, the UK food chain will remain vulnerable to sudden shocks such as the unknown trade implications of Brexit.

Session two - 11.30am to 1pm

With the public still deeply divided over Brexit and increasingly frustrated with the government’s attempts to contain the coronavirus, the role of the judiciary in holding the executive to account becomes ever more important. From the proroguing of Parliament to the exercise of pandemic emergency powers, the government appears to be taking the law into its own hands. But can we trust the judges to defend the citizen against an over-mighty state? Or are they politically biased in favour of our rulers?

Law professor TT Arvind and his team have developed a data-rich analytic model that shines a forensic light on the decision-making record of our most senior judges in search of evidence for signs of bias.

Humanitarian norms aim to 'humanise' war by requiring parties to armed conflict to protect civilians from attacks, detainees from abuse and to facilitate humanitarian assistance. Yet all too often across the globe civilians are killed, detainees ill-treated and hospitals and aid convoys bombed. This stark reality results from the manifold systemic and structural challenges to the effectiveness of humanitarian norms in times of war.

In collaboration with the humanitarian organisation Geneva Call, Dr Ioana Cismas and her team are developing an innovative approach that could assist humanitarian practitioners to forge greater norm compliance. The Generating Respect Project examines how religious leaders act as influencers in armed conflicts and how their religious interpretations can generate greater respect for humanitarian norms.

By documenting the roles played by religious leaders in ongoing conflicts in Colombia, Libya, Mali and Myanmar, this research is providing the evidence-base for expanding the interlocutors of humanitarian organisations beyond the direct parties to an armed conflict and their engagement tools to value-based arguments. This in turn may lead to a paradigm shift in humanitarian engagement strategies.

Like the over-promised benefits of the dot-com boom, the power of social media to drive innovation in business is experiencing a giddy ride on the hype curve. Deborah Roberts, Professor of Innovation and Marketing Management, pricks the hype bubble and throws a lifeline of research-driven wisdom to business leaders who find themselves at risk of being submerged in a tidal wave of data.

Drawing on research published in MIT Sloan, Professor Roberts highlights just how easily senior managers can be distracted by the sheer volume and diversity of data that flows from social media, mistakenly thinking it is just as valid as information from traditional online databases. Join her to hear about the skill sets and strategies firms need if they are to maximise social media’s potential benefits, from product design and market analysis through to product launch.

Health economists at the Centre for Health Economics are shedding new light on the critical role of GPs in the treatment of conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and psychoses, which cost the UK more than £18 billion a year. Using powerful computers to crunch complex data, Professor Jacobs and her team are analysing the entire patient pathway, from the GP surgery through to acute services and long-term care in specialised mental health hospitals.

This pioneering work, using advanced statistical techniques, is helping shape healthcare policy by providing a deeper understanding of how spending on high quality GP interventions - such as annual physical health checks and bespoke care plans - can help unlock savings elsewhere in the NHS, while at the same time improving outcomes for patients who typically have a life expectancy 20-years shorter than the rest of the population.

Session three - 1.45pm to 3.15pm

Algae are removing close to 50 per cent of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, at a rate five times faster than humans are releasing carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Future Leaders fellow Professor Luke Mackinder takes us on a breathtaking journey from the atmosphere to the bottom of the deepest oceans, from global warming to the nanoscale workings of these remarkable photosynthetic microorganisms.

Not just content with helping tackle climate change, Professor Mackinder tells us how algae could also become crucial allies in raising crop yields by as much as 60 per cent. To do this, researchers in the Mackinder Lab at York - in collaboration with colleagues at Princeton, Cambridge and Edinburgh - are lifting the bonnet on algae to tweak their carbon dioxide concentrator mechanisms in a way that will turbocharge their photosynthetic efficiency.

It might seem odd to consult an entomologist on the construction of a new house or the adaptation of an old one - but not if you live in Africa where 94 per cent of the world’s malaria deaths occur. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and combining the research skills of epidemiologists, social scientists, economists and industry partners, entomologist Professor Thomas and his team have been working with householders from 40 villages in central Côte d'Ivoire to evaluate a novel approach to mosquito control. This involves housing improvements to reduce mosquito entry, together with an innovative way to target mosquitoes with insecticide, called the ‘eave tube’.

Early findings indicate that these housing modifications could dramatically reduce infection rates, at a time when the impact of existing control tools is under threat. Professor Thomas sees this kind of large scale, collaborative approach to research as core to his role as the new Director of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute and key to directing the power of research and development to the grand challenges facing our planet today.

Whether it’s the blood drenched streets of Grand Theft Auto or collecting cats in Neko Atsume – a mobile phone game downloaded ten million times – exploring the diverse cognitive experiences of playing games has become a mission for Professor Paul Cairns. The former pure mathematician – ‘my career took a sideways turn’ – now leads a remarkable team of young researchers at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Intelligent Games and Game Intelligence (IGGI), getting inside the minds of the more than two billion gamers around the world.

Professor Cairns sees the immersive experience of playing games as going beyond the simple pleasure of being lost in a good book, to where players confront the challenge and uncertainty games throw at them to lead to fulfilling and enduring experiences. He will show how IGGI’s smart graduates and postgraduates – it will produce more than a hundred of the latter – are seen as critical to the continuing success of a creative industry that adds close to £6bn to the UK economy and whose products are enriching lives around the world.

The world's daily data - estimated to be 44 zettabytes - is protected by seemingly impregnable encryption algorithms as it traverses the digital universe. However the advent of game-changing quantum technologies threatens these digital defences.

In her talk Chair of Cyber Security Professor Delaram Kahrobaei reveals how the speed and power of quantum computing could soon break these protective codes, just as Turing cracked Enigma. With more than 294 billion emails a day, some of which contain bank details and perhaps your unique DNA profile (if you’ve signed up for an ancestry trace) this is a serious worry. So serious that the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has fired the starting gun on a race to develop the next generation of cryptography before quantum supremacy is achieved.

Professor Kahrobaei looks at the runners and riders in this race, asks whether those leading the quest for new security standards may have backed the wrong horse and what this might mean for both our personal and our national security. 

Session four - 3.45pm to 5.15pm

From world-leading scholars to amateur genealogists, the Borthwick Institute for Archives provides a rich vein of raw material for research, curiosity and discovery, deepening our understanding of the world around us and quenching our curiosity to know more. For its Keeper, Gary Brannan, no two days are ever the same. Whether it’s a creative theatre company turning a fourteenth century Archbishop’s Register written in Latin into a bawdy morality play for the London stage featuring a runaway nun or a high tech analysis of the DNA of parchment, the gems stored inside the archives never cease surprise and thrill.

Hear how the Borthwick was – and remains – central to the University of York story and its mission to harness knowledge to the public good and how the digitalisation of its assets is opening this remarkable repository to a global audience at the click of a mouse.

Every family has a relative that’s done something naughty. Sometimes the stories surface at weddings, other times they remain hidden forever, but occasionally they become so public that no family member can escape the taint. Now, suppose your family has more aunts, uncles and distant cousins than there are stars in a galaxy and begin to imagine the endless possibilities of what they have been up to.

In this talk, Dr David Kent explores how advances in genome sequencing are providing powerful tools to identify these ‘naughty cousin cells’, constructing complex family trees to trace their lineage back to sperm and egg. With international collaborators at Harvard University, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the University of Cambridge, Dr Kent’s pioneering work is a cutting-edge detective story, uncovering the ‘dirty little secrets’ of these rogue cells that drive disease. Armed with this knowledge, more effective therapies can be developed to save children’s lives and deepen our understanding of the galaxy of cells inside the human body.

Covid-19 has exposed deep cracks in today’s social and economic systems, from the clear links between the destruction of nature and the rise of new infectious diseases to the inequalities between those who are suffering the consequences of the pandemic most and those who are least affected. But the pandemic has also shown how the world can respond to a global crisis: with huge changes of mindsets and habits alongside major social and economic interventions.

Dr Kenter, Reader in Deliberative Ecological Economics, argues that now is the moment to make sure these changes evolve into pathways that create a just future for people and the planet, addressing not just the coronavirus emergency but also the climate, nature and inequality crises. Addressing our global crises demands a radical shift in economic thinking; a new economics grounded in a broad understanding of human wellbeing that underpins the generation of wealth through restoration rather than destruction of nature.

Equal parts drama and detective story, the 600 year-old history of Pickering’s medieval wall paintings of saints and sinners demonstrates the continuing power of a parish church to inspire awe, affection and a sense of place and belonging. For local parishioners and the church’s countless visitors alike these remarkable paintings bring the past vividly to life in the present.

Dr Giles, whose longstanding research relationship with Pickering is a model of York’s civic engagement with the region, peels back the layers of history to reveal the hidden meanings of what many consider an act of Victorian vandalism and explores how sites like Pickering were caught up in national debates about religious tolerance, clerical scandal and public interest in the past. It’s a story that testifies to the vital role that parish churches and academic research can play in connecting and strengthening communities in troubled times.

York Ideas

York Ideas is a year-long series of events led by the University of York to educate, entertain and inspire. As a University for public good, based in a city of ideas and innovation, we're committed to engaging with diverse audiences and widening participation in education.

Find out more about York Ideas

YorkTalks 2020

The benefits of community singing and the consequences of food insecurity were 2020 talks.

YorkTalks 2020

YorkTalks 2019

Talks in 2019 included research into child wellbeing and creativity within the sciences.

YorkTalks 2019

YorkTalks 2018

Fire in the African savannah and pilotless drone warfare were topics featured in 2018.

YorkTalks 2018

YorkTalks 2017

2017's event featured research into the biological life of robots and ozone depletion.

YorkTalks 2017