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On Wednesday 9 January 2019, 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, 14 of our academics introduced their research.

The talks were grouped together into four sessions, followed by a Q&A. Visitors could attend a single session or all four.

Research in the spotlight

From looking at child wellbeing in an unequal world to measuring the risks of banks ten years after the global financial crisis, the deep creativity and imagination required in science to using virtual augmented reality to visualise historical settlements from viking camps to demolished castles, YorkTalks 2019 had some intellectually challenging entertainment for everyone.

Throughout the day

The exhibition pieces were available to browse at any time throughout the day. During breaks in the programme, PhD students were available to talk about their work.

A judging panel awarded prizes for the best exhibition pieces during the drinks reception at the end of the day.

The University has invested £2.5m in a new high performance computing cluster. The team were at the exhibition to provide more information on the Viking cluster.

The  team were on hand with information and advice on sustainable research, work and living.

Session one

Then-Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Saul Tendler introduced the day and opened proceedings.

We all like to hear a good story. And Damian Murphy, Professor in Audio and Music Technology and Research Champion for Creativity, had a great story to tell. It was about the way technology has always shaped how we communicate with one another: from tablets of stone, to the digital tablets of today. His talk showed how York is at the forefront of a new storytelling and communication revolution.

The Creative Media Labs project will harness immersive and interactive digital technologies to develop innovative and commercially viable models for the next generation of screen storytelling. He showed how digital technologies can transform the way we see and engage with the world, and how storytellers will be able to use these technologies to provide deeper and richer experiences for their audiences.

Medieval archaeologist and historian, Professor Dawn Hadley discussed the value of creating virtual and augmented reality representations of historical sites, the collaborations and decision-making processes that this requires, and the technological challenges it brings. Drawing on examples that include a Viking camp, a 13th century charnel chapel, Tudor hunting lodge and a castle demolished during the English civil war she showed the importance of visualisation, both for public engagement and for the research process itself.

Her talk explored the role of visualisation in presenting the results from archaeological and historical investigations of the medieval period, and the possibilities now available to researchers.

Literary scholar and theatre historian Professor Gillian Russell is fascinated by paper ‘rubbish’ - material such as the flyers and brochures that we find stuffed in our letterboxes or lying discarded on the street. These documents, along with tickets, posters and newsletters are classified as ‘ephemera’. Rather than throwing ephemera in the bin, as most of us do, some people preserve it; creating a record of the kind of social experience that is transient and otherwise lost forever.

Professor Russell explored these amazing archives of the everyday, sometimes buried in libraries today. She tracked down the origin of the term in the 18th century, its relevance to the history of the book, and its continuing significance in ephemeral forms of digital communication today.

Session two

Many of those who are diagnosed as having a severe psychiatric illness remark on how 'everything seems profoundly different'. Different in ways that are difficult, or even impossible, to express and for other people to understand. Some add that this inability of others to appreciate what the sufferer is experiencing adds to their feelings of distress and helplessness.

Professor Matthew Ratcliffe works in an area called 'phenomenology', the philosophical study of experience. In this talk, he explored how phenomenology can help us make sense of these experiences in ways that have important practical benefits, and also inform our wider understanding of human experience. Above all else, he suggested, the phenomenological study of so-called 'mental disorder' reveals the ways in which, and the extent to which, we are dependent on other people.

How do you decide what information to trust when you have questions about health, mental health and well-being? Who are the ‘experts’ and is the information they provide reliable? Rachel Churchill, Professor of Evidence Synthesis, argued that an explosion in health information from multiple sources, frequently via social and mainstream media, is making it all the more difficult for practitioners, policy makers, patients and the public to distinguish between facts, opinions and myths.

Against this swirling backdrop of competing and opposing views, the need for accurate, evidence-based information has never been greater. But how do academic researchers ensure their evidence gets heard above the growing cacophony of often conflicting voices? A major challenge in our ‘post-truth’ era.

Most parents like to think they instinctively understand the needs of their young babies. But Professor Elizabeth Meins, natural scientist turned psychologist, is not so sure. Her talk explored the concept and practice of mind-mindedness - a parent’s ability to ‘tune in’ to what their young babies are thinking and feeling. Numerous studies over the past 20 years have shown that mind-mindedness predicts wide-ranging positive aspects of children’s development.

Professor Meins talked about the interventions developed here at York to help teach parents to become more mind-minded. This research involves working with mothers hospitalised with their babies due to severe mental illness, and a community-based study testing the effectiveness of a smartphone app developed by her team.

Session three

In 2007, a Unicef report claimed that child wellbeing was lower in the UK than in any other rich, developed country. Is growing up in the UK really so awful for our children? Social epidemiologist and co-author of The Inner Level, Professor Kate Pickett, drew on international, national and local evidence, including the ground-breaking Born in Bradford study, to reveal the true state of our nation’s children and answer the question of whether we are failing the next generation and risking all of our futures.

In the decade since the global financial crisis of 2007-08, the regulation of banks has been the focus of national financial supervisors. Professor Alexander McNeil has been helping regulators across the world to sharpen the tools by which 'good banks' and 'bad banks' may be distinguished according to their ability to quantify their own trading risks.

The author of the financial bible on financial risk management, Professor McNeil talked about the models banks use to quantify their capital requirements, and the process of continual monitoring to which they are subjected known as ‘backtesting.’ He showed how, from the point of view of a mathematical statistician, the methods used to evaluate the results of these backtests remain quite rudimentary.

No one would be surprised to discover that their wages and career prospects depend on their education, skills, occupation and the type of employer they work for. But does our labour market success also depend in important ways on those we work with and alongside? Do good co-workers make us more productive, improving our earnings and career prospects? Could this be because we learn from them or because they motivate us to work harder?

Professor Thomas Cornelissen talked about what we know about these questions and how his own research, based on administrative labour market records of millions of workers and co-workers, has advanced this active field of research in economics.

Around one seventh of the world’s population is affected by a mental disorder and the numbers are increasing. In the UK, one in six people experience mental health problems. The environment in which people live has long been recognised as an important determinant of their health, but the importance of nature as part of this environment has been overlooked.

Professor Piran White showed how natural hazards such as flooding can be damaging to mental health, yet other aspects, such as green space and biodiversity, bring substantial benefits to health and wellbeing. The power of nature in influencing mental health is only starting to be realised, and presents new opportunities for nature-based interventions to reduce mental disorders, while also helping to improve biodiversity and reduce pollution.

Session four

Molecular parasitologist Professor Jeremy Mottram is working with the pharmaceutical company Novartis to find new drugs to treat three killer infections, sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease, which affect 20 million people worldwide and lead to more than 50,000 deaths each year. 

The aim of the research is to find differences between the biology of parasites and humans so that we can develop effective new drugs.  As these diseases affect some of the world’s poorest people, we also need to find innovative ways to make affordable medicines available to the people that really need them.

The universe is composed of atoms with virtually all of the mass deriving from the collection of protons and neutrons (hadrons) bound together inside the atomic nucleus. This hadronic matter has extraordinary properties: a piece the size of a grain of sand would weigh the same as a cargo ship!

However, our understanding of hadronic matter is poor when we ask simple questions like how easy is it to squash? How hard do we have to squash to force the protons and neutrons to break up and form a plasma from their ingredients - quarks and gluons? Professor Dan Watts delved deep into these questions, the answers to which are vital to our understanding of neutron stars – the remnants of exploding stars that contain hadronic matter squashed by gravity up to ten times as dense as the nucleus of an atom. He reported back from the frontiers of research into hadronic matter, a world where measuring occurs at the femtoscale – or 1000 trillionths of a metre!

Music is an integral part of modern life. Whether listening to Spotify on your headphones or your favourite radio station at home, listening to music is a very personal activity. But as music psychologist Dr Hauke Egermann showed, music is also a tool used by commercial companies to create audio contexts for branding. Here, music pieces are chosen by experts who anticipate listeners’ responses to express a brand image; however, all too often this approach lacks a scientific foundation in listener research and requires a lot of manual labour.

Dr Egermann presented findings from the EU-funded project ABC_DJ, in which his team successfully trained a machine learning algorithm to predict listener responses to music that are relevant for branding. Could this be the sound of things to come?

Professor Tom McLeish is a physicist and natural philosopher who uncovers connections in the most unlikely places. His book, Faith and Wisdom in Science, made a compelling case for seeing science as a questioning discipline in continuity with a Biblical, faith-based tradition. His new research makes a different connection: this time between scientific endeavour and the arts.

Drawing on his then-forthcoming book, The Poetry and Music of Science, his talk broke the silence surrounding the deep creativity and imagination required in science. Professor McLeish highlighted connections between the art of the novel and scientific experimentation, between visual thinking in painting and physics and between abstract structures in music and mathematics. He showed how the medieval philosophy of thinking and feeling illuminates some of today’s confusions. Connections were made and boundaries were broken as he showed how painters, composers and scientists all share a creative imagination.

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 and overall winner Anna Detari, Music
  • Sciences Jack Smith, Electronic Engineering
  • Social Sciences Caroline Casey, Education

Find out more on the 2019 competition

The winners of the PhD Spotlight competition.