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On Wednesday 10 January 2018, 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 drone war to voice cloning, smallpox eradication to popular culture.

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

Session highlights

Professor Mike Burton introduced the mechanics of human face recognition and identifies problems the brain has in recognising unfamiliar faces.

This has practical consequences for professions such as the police and border control and Mike will discuss how we can make improvements in this area.

Dr Alison Parkin of the Department of Chemistry explained how her research is exploring new ways to generate energy.

Her work with micro-organisms to couple sunlight and seawater to produce hydrogen and oxygen may pave the way to replace oil and gas with new clean-burning fuels.

Session one

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

Few images are quite as dramatic as those of fire officers silhouetted against a towering inferno of flames. Wildfires are regularly portrayed as dangerous and destructive, easily leading to the conclusion that we should do all we can, wherever we can, to prevent fires. In the savannahs of Africa, however, the opposite may be true.

Ecologist Dr Colin Beale's research in Tanzania's Serengeti ecosystem, home to the largest mammalian migration in the world and an icon of conservation, suggests that fire could be a surprisingly subtle tool for managing African grasslands. It also asks whether the lack of wildfire in many village rangelands is contributing to poverty, and whether burning could restore both wildlife and livelihoods for pastoralists.

Life is powered by bioelectricity, the flow of electrons from one protein molecule to another. The way that photosynthesis harnesses this process to store light energy from the sun as sugars, or in special cases hydrogen, is inspirational to scientists.

Drawing on that inspiration, Dr Alison Parkin and her team are working to unlock the secret of how nature does this. Their research involves drilling deep into the DNA of bacteria in a way that will enable them to find new methods of producing transport fuel from water and sunshine. This involves the subtle re-engineering of the DNA and measuring the biochemical reactivity of enzymes extracted from bacteria.

A wide range of pharmaceuticals and ingredients used in personal care products have been detected in the natural environment across the globe.

Professor Alistair Boxall spoke about how he and his colleagues are playing a key role in a €10 million European project to help minimise the environmental impact of these chemicals. In collaboration with the drugs industry, he is developing predictive mathematical models that will help industry understand the potential impacts of new drugs on the environment, and identify those legacy pharmaceuticals that should be more closely monitored and regulated.

Advances in technology have enabled biologists and physicists to work at the nanoscale and to combine their expertise in novel ways to solve some of the world's most difficult problems.

In his YorkTalk, Dr Steve Johnson told of his vision of a new technology that is part-natural part-electronic, and that offers great diagnostic power. This is not only scientifically and technically very challenging, but also raises questions about how we ensure that such technology achieves the desired benefits to society. To answer that question, Dr Johnson and his team are working with communities on a remote South Pacific island to co-develop appropriate technologies that will give this disaster-prone region confidence in the cleanliness and safety of their water.

Session two

How do we ensure the public get value for money from the NHS, and that cash is spent in ways that maximise the benefits to all patients? Health economist Professor Mark Sculpher's medicine may not be palatable to the pharmaceutical industry or to some politicians, but it provides a clear and measurable basis on which tough spending decisions can be made. He shows how money spent on one group of patients could lead to deaths in another.

Why, he asks, should new drugs for cancer, which are popular with the media, attract so much funding despite high prices and limited effectiveness, when other less glamorous causes are neglected? And what role, if any, should the public play in helping frame the relevant benefits and how do we trade those off?

One in ten children and young people in the UK experience mental health problems, but research shows that over two-thirds of them will not receive an appropriate intervention at a sufficiently early stage. Specialist mental health services are struggling to meet demand and most interventions for children and young people focus on their parents.

Dr Lina Gega and her colleagues are developing and evaluating standardised interventions that can be delivered by non-health professionals to prevent and improve mental health problems before they warrant specialist services. Their approach challenges the status quo because it promotes therapeutic interventions that put the mental health needs of children and young people at the heart of good practice beyond organisational and professional silos.

Digital technologies have become critical to healthcare, for example, transferring and maintaining electronic health records and electronic prescribing. Recently, the healthcare landscape has expanded with the use of mobile health apps, empowering patients to take a more active role in their care. Patient safety is a fundamental concern, though. While these new technologies can potentially improve patient safety, they may also introduce new hazards. Electronic prescribing can reduce transcription errors, but it may also increase the risk of 'alert fatigue', with patients becoming desensitised to the urgency of alerts.

Using his knowledge of system safety in the aviation and automotive industries, Dr Ibrahim Habli explained how his work with NHS Digital has resulted in new tools and models being developed that enable clinicians and engineers to work together to identify hazards that could compromise patient safety. These models are now being deployed in the NHS to improve the way risk of these hazards is communicated, assessed and mitigated.

Cell biologist Professor Ian Hitchcock works with biophysicists, microscopy experts, and clinicians - a successful collaboration that has led to the identification of a receptor blood stem cell that is essential for the development of haematological cancers. The discovery has led to £1.2 million in funding from Cancer Research UK and opens up the possibility of developing more precision targeted drugs; drugs that destroy malignant cells but leave healthy cells intact.

His story is all the more remarkable given the scale of the task – by the time you go to bed tonight your body will have created more new blood cells than there are stars in our galaxy. Discovering how this works and where it goes wrong is an astronomical challenge.

Session three

From the Australian Passport Authority to the Metropolitan Police, security and anti-fraud agencies around the world are working with Professor Mike Burton and his team to better understand how the human brain recognises faces.

In his interactive talk he showed just how poor we are at recognising unfamiliar faces, and why even specially trained police officers and border control officials have a worryingly high failure rate when it comes to checking photo-ID.

Research at York is helping law enforcement agencies develop ways of improving their success rate, but with criminals and terrorists being able to access the same technologies as the security services, there is no room for complacency.

With digital technology moving ever closer to recreating authentic-sounding human speech, the potential for identity theft is increasing.

Forensic voice researcher, Dr Dominic Watt, whose expertise has played a crucial role in a number of high profile criminal cases, argues that with 500 million people worldwide expected to use telephone banking by 2050, the security issues cannot be ignored. He argues that audio technology is now at a tipping point, with us getting close to being able to use small samples of speech to convincingly recreate the voices of others. While this could have huge benefits to the entertainment industry – bringing the voice of dead actors back to life – or in medicine by giving Motor Neurone Disease sufferers their voice back, it poses ethical, legal and security issues that legislators have been slow to recognise.

The face of warfare is changing. From automated drones capable of carrying deadly payloads vast distances, to intelligent drone swarms flying pilotless missions, the distinction between violent video games and the real world of modern aerial combat is becoming dangerously blurred.

Dr James Rogers exploded the myth that pilotless drones are a cost-and-casualty-free alternative to more conventional warfare. He showed how China and the United States are now leading a deadly arms race that will see most states in the world – and many terrorist groups – having access to this technology within the next 20 years. While technology races ahead, arms control and other global agencies have failed to keep pace. As a result, drones are being deployed widely in areas of conflict, with terrifying results on innocent civilians.

Adequately feeding the global population with nutritious and safe food, while using the Earth's resources sustainably, is a major scientific challenge. A key part of this is reducing waste including on-farm waste due to plant disease. Climate change is also driving the geographical spread of plant pathogens and hence the search for resilient crops has never been more vital.

Professor Katherine Denby and her team are exploring the components and complex pathways a plant deploys in the fight against pathogens. She explained how they are using big data to build predictive mathematical models, together with data from a wide range of crop cultivars and wild relatives, to speed up breeding of disease resistance.

Session four

Smallpox eradication was inevitable in the 20th century. A vaccine against the disease and a pilot in western Africa provided blueprints for a step-by-step process that led to global public health's greatest success to date. Not really.

Investigative historical work by Professor Sanjoy Bhattacharya paints a different picture. By digging deep into the archives (some of which were assumed to have been shredded) and gaining access to the personal papers of powerful politicians, Professor Bhattacharya presented a powerful narrative of competing priorities, constant negotiations, some accidental successes and significant experimentation in field practice to create the basis for expunging a dreaded disease.

This history matters because it helps prepare the international public health community for future pandemics. But, as Professor Bhattacharya showed, this is only possible if this history is uncompromising in its integrity, inclusiveness and complexity.

Drawing on her experience of delivering prestigious archaeological projects around the world – from Memphis, the ancient heart of Egypt, to the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey – Dr Sara Perry argued that community engagement in heritage can foster togetherness, cross-cultural tolerance, and civic welfare. While the theory of this engagement process is well-developed, Dr Perry says that the practical tools for successful delivery are thin on the ground.

Her presentation explored the many political and cultural obstacles that archaeologists can encounter when trying to develop a community-based approach that connects the past to the present and the future. She showed how these obstacles can be overcome and how the benefits of heritage can be shared by the majority rather than remain the preserve of the few.

Drawing on the direct testimony of prisoners in the Jewish ghetto at Terezín (in German, Theresienstadt), Dr Lisa Peschel revealed how comedy and cabaret were key to their survival.

Coupling her interviews with the recovery of songs and other dramatic texts created in the ghetto, her research provides deep insights into the ways in which these cabaret narratives helped those trapped in the ghetto to endure their imprisonment. Dr Peschel showed how this vibrant theatrical scene also helped the prisoners reclaim their right to interpret their own experiences. By trivialising even the most shocking events in comic performances, they resisted potentially debilitating fear and were able to carry on with the fight for life.

Ever since she discovered that a Wiltshire doctor had kept the arm of a notorious murderer and left it in his attic, criminologist Dr Ruth Penfold-Mounce has been intrigued by the power that the dead – and especially the celebrity and criminal dead – exert over the living.

She challenges the assumption that polite British society does not talk about or engage with death. Instead, we are in thrall to it. From the national outpouring of grief at the death of Princess Diana to the growth in representations of zombie and vampires that exploits our fascination with the dead, Dr Penfold-Mounce showed how popular culture shapes our representations of corpses, making death commonplace, banal and far from taboo.

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 Claire McGinn, Music
  • Sciences Rebecca Hall, Biology
  • Social Sciences Jill Simpson, Sociology

Claire McGinn at her winning stand.