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On Wednesday 11 January 2017, hundreds of staff, students and members of the public joined us for a day of inspirational short talks about the world-leading research happening at York.

Given just 15 minutes each, 16 of our academics introduced their research. Their accessible talks covered subjects from ozone to e-sports, robots to waste-regulation.

The talks were grouped together in sessions of four, followed by a Q&A.

Session one

Vice-Chancellor Koen Lamberts introduced the day and opened proceedings.

York’s researchers are deploying cutting edge technologies and forensic approaches to understand how Mesolithic people at Star Carr in North Yorkshire used flint tools to remove the brains of red deer in the manufacture of what might be a shaman’s ceremonial headdress.

Archaeologist Professor Nicky Milner showed how the research is challenging previously held assumptions about the care and time invested in the modification of the animal’s ‘skull cap’ in order to create this ritualistic headgear.

Dr Tim Stanton, recipient of a £1 million research grant into the way political theorists have framed the relationship between civil society and the state, challenged the dominant conception of civil society in use in politics today.

He exposed the historical roots behind this view, and showed some of the potential difficulties produced by it in contemporary thinking about civil society across the world.

Along the way he took in Aristotle, Hobbes, Hegel, Max Weber and others, and even drew on the comic genius of Tommy Cooper to explain why the history of civil society remains an issue of great contemporary relevance.

The global effort to eradicate child labour is one of the most contentious human rights issues of our times – yet we cannot be certain that children are always harmed by work, or that they experience more harm than if they did not work.

For this reason, governments with high percentages of working children react differently to campaigns that advocate total eradication.

Instead of pushing for rapid elimination of child labour, development expert Professor Jean Grugel advocated a more subtle and nuanced approach, based on investments in welfare, job creation and living wages, as well as listening to the voices of young people.

As one of the world’s leading authorities on Dickens, Professor John Bowen argued that, far from exhausted, research into the life and times of this global literary giant is only just beginning.

In collaboration with the V&A, one of the world's great museums, Professor Bowen is leading a global quest to decipher a treasure trove of the author’s handwritten drafts, notes and corrected proofs that together form one of the most remarkable records of a major author’s creative processes.

Until now this collection has been known mainly to scholars. But by digitising the whole collection, Professor Bowen and his colleagues will recruit Dickens lovers throughout the world to help decipher Dickens's handwriting. Through crowdsourcing, the project aims to illuminate the thought processes and changes of mind through which he created his immortal characters and stories.

Session two

Much more than you might think. The names gamers choose for themselves reveal a lot about a player’s personality, according to psychologist Professor Alex Wade.

He spent three years deep-mining data from one of the world’s most successful tactical multi-player games, League of Legends.

Working with the game’s designers, Riot Games, Professor Wade and his team found that user names have a bit more to them than just a random assortment of words and numbers.

As well as helping Riot curb the excesses of the game’s more anti-social elements, his insights could also have more far-reaching applications.

One of the reasons we think electrons exist is that they play an important explanatory role in our understanding of the physical universe.

But does it then follow that mathematical objects such as numbers must also exist since they, too, play a vital role in our understanding of the way the world works?

Dr Mary Leng took us on a challenging philosophical journey from Plato to Prince by way of prime numbers, cicadas, God, Darwin and Bertrand Russell.

Physicist David Jenkins and his team of researchers are at the forefront of radiation detection technologies that play a vital role in the US and UK homeland defence against dirty bombs.

In his talk, Professor Jenkins explained that the same technology is behind the development of new tools for detecting and monitoring the treatment of cancer.

Working with a fast-growing northern technology partner, Professor Jenkins and his team are also pioneering safe ways of monitoring radioactive contamination at Sellafield, putting them at the heart of three key global challenges - healthcare, defence and energy.

Electronics engineer Professor Jon Timmis is investigating how robots might evolve their intelligence by learning from one another in a way that helps them adapt to their environment and improve how they operate. The research is a collaboration with colleagues in the biological sciences.

Accompanied by some of his robotic friends, Professor Timmis argued that while the pace of robotic development is accelerating we should not fear the advent of the Terminator robot for quite some time.

On the contrary, the benefits of this research range from a deeper understanding of immunological processes to developing healthcare in the home, drug discovery, environmental monitoring and advanced manufacturing.

Session three

A collaborative research project between three major York employers and our researchers aimed to identify sustainable approaches to reducing in-work poverty.

Professor Jo Swaffield revealed the findings to show how employers wishing to embrace an ‘anti-poverty’ strategy might consider a range of effective measures, beyond a voluntary Living Wage policy, to reduce the risk of poverty in their workforces.

With the government resurrecting the idea of selection in schools, grammar school-educated Dr Chris Renwick asked whether our understanding of social mobility is all it is cracked up to be.

He explored – and often exploded – many of the myths surrounding the benefits of social mobility and the role it plays in the creation of a good and fair society.

In tracing the intellectual roots of the debate, Dr Renwick not only provides a reality check on the place of social mobility in progressive politics but also on the popular misconceptions of what actually happened during the so-called ‘golden age’ of social mobility.

Having exposed the unforeseen and unintended consequences of Corporate Social Responsibility, York Law School’s Carrie Bradshaw turned her forensic eye to the regulation of food waste.

What she uncovered is a system that puts too much blame on the shoulders of consumers and allows supermarkets to escape their responsibilities.

At the heart of this is a systemic failure to ‘value food as food’, propped up and legitimised by a legislative framework that encourages us to throw away millions of tonnes of perfectly edible food while millions go hungry.

Health economist Professor Richard Cookson argued that the NHS has been over-reliant on blunt analytical tools that focus on a mythical ‘average’ citizen and ignore social inequalities in health outcomes.

Now he and his team are developing precision instruments to identify who gains and who loses most from decisions in terms of health outcomes. This will help the NHS and other public services do more to bridge the UK’s health divide and curb the rising cost of preventable illness associated with inequality.

Session four

With the number of visually impaired people in the UK expected to rise to four million by 2020, Dr Mariana Lopez is bringing the creative and technological industries together to widen access to the many millions of them who watch film and television.

She argued that the film and TV industry has failed to catch up with new technologies in the field of sound design, which can be used to reduce the number of verbal descriptions and provide an immersive experience. Her goal is to exploit the potential of existing technologies - getting film directors, scriptwriters and actors to ‘see’ with their ears.

Ozone is inflicting a dangerous triple whammy on climate, food production and CO2 emissions.

The third most important greenhouse gas after CO2 and methane, ozone is reducing crop yields at a time of ever-greater demands on food production. It is also reducing the capacity of the world’s forests to store carbon at a time when we are trying to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Air-pollution expert and climate scientist Dr Lisa Emberson explained how she and her colleagues are at the forefront of designing predictive models that will help policy-makers develop more effective responses to the problem.

Our breakthrough research into the mechanics of sperm tails has profound implications for life itself, from human reproduction to the development of sustainable food production.

Fluid dynamics and elasticity can provide potentially predictive insights into the mechanics of these specialised cells, especially during their arduous journey through the often hostile environment of the female reproductive tract.

Brazilian-born Dr Hermes Gadelha, works at the fertile union of mathematical logic, biomechanics and medicine. His work is a collaborative venture with fertility clinicians and reproductive biologists.

Healthcare-associated infections affect 300,000 patients in the UK each year. Some infections can be life-threatening. Many occur when bacteria form biofilms on the surface of medical devices such as catheters, mechanical heart valves and pacemakers.

Molecular biophysicist Professor Jennifer Potts and her team are investigating how these biofilms form. Their work is breaking new ground in understanding how Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis have become such formidable human adversaries – costing patients’ lives and millions in healthcare funding.

PhD Research Spotlight competition

Alongside the talks, PhD students from across the University were invited to create exhibition pieces introducing their work. The winners were:

  • Arts and Humanities Charlotte Rowley (Archaeology);
  • Sciences Michael Bottery (Biology);
  • Social Sciences Rosie Smith (Sociology) overall winner.

Rosie Smith with her winning stand.