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Wednesday 8 January 2020

Free of charge and open to all

Wednesday 8 January 2020

15-minute talks, no prior knowledge needed

Come for a couple of hours or the full day

Hosted in the Ron Cooke Hub building on Campus East

Free tickets

From Utah's Great Salt Lake to the majestic mountains of Africa, YorkTalks 2020 crosses continents - and academic boundaries. Join us for a fascinating whistle-stop tour through neolithic society, the world of competitive video games - and the deepest, darkest recesses of our sewage systems. We ask: is singing together good for us? Are modern hospital designs making us sick? How do we make robots safe?

Photography and video recording will take place during YorkTalks, which may be used for marketing purposes by the University of York. If you have any concerns or would prefer not to feature, please email For further information about how we use photography or video that includes you, please see our privacy notice.

Event schedule and format

There will be a series of 15-minute talks throughout the day, grouped into four sessions, and a Q&A. You can attend a single session or all four.

Refreshments will be available before and between sessions, and a drinks reception will take place at the end of the day.

Throughout the day

Exhibition pieces will be available to browse in a research fair throughout the day, and during breaks in the programme PhD students will be on hand to talk you through their work.

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

9.10am - 11am: Session 1

A short welcome and introduction for the day.

With more than two million people singing regularly in choirs and a record 40,000 singing groups operating across the UK, former opera singer and chorister Dr Helena Daffern is using cutting edge digital technologies to provide a deeper understanding of why singing together creates such powerful therapeutic effects. Dr Daffern’s talk takes us from the summit of Great Gable in the Lake District, where a choral group sing at the top of their voices to experience the benefits of the natural environment and group singing, down to the inner recesses of York’s high-tech AudioLab.

Her research explores how experiments with immersive technologies such as virtual reality are unlocking the secrets of why singing together has such a profound impact on participants and how it might be used to widen access to those with restricted mobility through her Sing from your Seat project.

 With the prospect of sophisticated robots working ever more closely with humans, it is vital that software engineers have the tools and techniques to ensure safety and reliability. Professor Ana Cavalcanti, a computer scientist whose research is changing the very language of robotic software development, is on a mission to ensure that, unlike the computer, the robot never says no: that it does the right thing at the right time, every time.

To achieve this, Professor Cavalcanti and her team are developing a framework for the modelling and simulation of mobile and autonomous robots, bringing outdated software engineering practices, based on trial and error, into the state-of-the-art. Her vision is a 21st-century toolbox for robot-controller developers that will enable the safe application of socially beneficial robotics, allowing the UK to tap into a multibillion dollar global robotics market.

With audiences of 380 million growing at a rate of 20 per cent a year, the esports market in 2018 consumed 2.6 billion hours of content globally. This rich data stream is being explored by Dr Florian Block and his team at York’s Digital Creativity Labs as they help develop a cross-reality, highly personalised viewing experience for esports audiences. Funded through the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund immersive technologies for audiences of the future programme, the industry-led Weavr consortium is harnessing York’s research expertise in Artificial Intelligence, UX design and human computer interaction.

Dr Block will show how York is bringing the UK’s creative businesses, researchers and technologists together to create the next generation of highly immersive experiences. This should help secure a hugely lucrative market for UK creatives, while at the same time providing a rich data source for academic researchers interested in human cognition.

Drawing on the direct testimony of prisoners in the Jewish ghetto at Terezín (in German, Theresienstadt), Dr Lisa Peschel reveals 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 shows 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.

Book tickets for session 1

11.30am - 1.00pm: Session 2

Our reliance on fossil fuels is not only unsustainable, it is also resulting in increasing atmospheric CO2 levels which are causing climate change. Professor Mike North shows how green chemists at York have developed a novel process for carbon capture and utilisation that converts CO2 from a waste into a valuable resource for the production of chemicals and fuels that would otherwise be made from crude oil.

In a little over a decade of dedicated research he and his team have taken an elegantly simple idea from proof of concept in the laboratory to a technology that has been licensed to a european company who are currently designing and raising the funding for the first production facility: a commercially viable carbon capture and utilisation refinery that is both environmentally and financially sustainable.

Do you ever think about what happens to what you wash down the sink, or is it just a matter of ‘flush and forget’? The UK disposes of more than one million tonnes of solid material through its sewer systems each year. The treatment and disposal of this material has a cost that can potentially be offset by recovering precious resources. Royal Society Industry Fellow Professor James Chong is unravelling the complexities of anaerobic digestion – a biological process where organic material is broken down by a complex community of microbes in the absence of oxygen.

In collaboration with leading water industry figures, Professor Chong and his team are exploring how smart anaerobic digestion can be used to recover energy and resources from sewage and the use of cutting edge data analytical techniques are providing industry with deep insights into this process so that it becomes a commercially viable tool in combating the impact of climate change.

Whether stood freezing on the edges of the Great Salt Lake, or peering through the darkness of the deepest mines, physicist Dr Laurence Wilson has journeyed to some of the most inhospitable environments on earth to learn more about a microbial form that was only discovered in the late 20th century. Archaea joined the ‘tree of life’ as a third distinctive domain in 1977 alongside bacteria and eukaryote. Dr Wilson works at the interdisciplinary interface between biology and physics and has made it his quest to understand how this remarkable life form thrives in extreme conditions.

Using bespoke high-speed digital holographic microscopy – developed here in York – he and his team are uncovering the mysteries behind the puzzling swimming mechanics that enable these microbial forms to find nutrients; research that has potential implications for the fight against antibacterial resistance and disease.

The mountain regions of Africa support the majority of its population as they have the highest rainfall, biodiversity and agricultural production. But, as Professor Rob Marchant argues, they are also vulnerable to change. To meet that change Professor Marchant has pioneered a research method that draws on the wisdom and insights of those who know the landscape first-hand, developing solutions that have credibility and traction with communities and their leaders.

This talk traverses a landscape that ranges from rainforest to permanent ice. It also explores the remarkable range of African expertise here in York, as Professor Marchant explains how more than 120 researchers across all three faculties are engaged in 43 of Africa’s 56 nations. These academics have come together as the Africa Network at York to harness their research insights and efforts to the sustainability goals of African people.

Book tickets for session 2

1.45pm - 3.15pm: Session 3

‘A tide of hunger is sweeping across the UK,’ says independent MP Frank Field, describing the findings of a recent report by the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN). Research Fellow Dr Maddy Power argues that rather than eliminating food poverty, policy makers and their reliance on food banks, increasingly backed by supermarket chains, are in danger of ‘normalising’ the problem.

Drawing on research in Bradford and York, Dr Power reports from the frontline where women struggling to feed their families are battling against a welfare system that plunges them deeper into debt, increases their sense of isolation and forces them to rely on – often church-based – food banks as the UK drifts towards US-style corporate food banking.

Dr Anna Einarsdóttir and her interdisciplinary team are working with nine NHS Trusts across the UK to explore whether LGBT+ networks are making the NHS a better place to work. The early diagnosis is somewhat discouraging.  An unappetising diet of formal meetings and rigid agendas, coupled with the time required to attend, makes it all but impossible for anyone other than managers to turn up. For those who can make it, the long wait until AOBs is often the only opportunity to talk about issues other than the ‘strategic’ ones set down by Trusts.

With a wealth of data collected, Dr Einarsdóttir and her team are providing the evidence base from which to assess the performance of these networks. Initial signs are that, rather than promoting inclusivity and diversity, LGBT+ meetings are fast becoming ‘exclusive clubs’ dominated by gay men.

In the 17th century, science, religion and the humanities were intertwined in very alien ways, and it was still conceivable that one could be an expert in them all. In this talk, literary historian Professor Kevin Killeen discusses the ideas of Sir Thomas Browne, whose writings are a rag-bag of everything that was worth knowing in the seventeenth century, plus quite a lot of things that weren’t.

Browne, writing in the midst of the English Civil War, was an encyclopaedic thinker, a collector of curiosities, a debunker of error, a mystic and a scientist, a physician and an antiquarian. He was also one of the greatest prose writers in English, loved by artists ranging from Coleridge to Virginia Woolf, but now largely a hidden and unknown genius.

Blending smart data modelling, high resolution strontium isotope and dental calculus analysis with existing osteological information and evidence from ancient burial rites, Dr Penny Bickle and her eight-strong team of archaeologists are exploding myths about the early inhabitants of Europe. Penny will reveal how our ancestors lived through periods of rapid innovations; more like today’s boom and bust than through a slow transition from simple to complex. She will also show that inequality in Neolithic times is much more nuanced than conventional archaeological wisdom – hugely influenced by Karl Marx – has claimed.

By providing a more accurate understanding of the past, Dr Bickle argues, we are better equipped to negotiate the challenges of today. The centrality of food, for instance, and its sharing through the community, meant there were no food banks in Neolithic times. A lesson for today?

Book tickets for session 3

3.45pm - 5.15pm: Session 4

Since the first face transplant in 2005, the race to lead this elite surgical field has accelerated, with medical teams around the world participating in what remains a novel and high risk clinical practice. UKRI Future Leaders Fellow Dr Fay Bound Alberti is a researcher who works on the histories of emotion, the body, medicine and cosmetic surgery.

Her latest project, About Face, challenges media reports on face transplantation, as she explores the emotional contexts of face transplant surgery and shows how surgical innovation can outpace our capacity to cope with the ethical and emotional dimensions. In collaboration with clinicians, her work will inform UK clinical practice with new tools for evaluating the emotional dimension of this transformative surgery

Please be aware that this talk may contain images of facial trauma and surgery which could be distressing for some audience members.

The World Health Organisation identifies antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as one of the greatest threats today to global health, security and prosperity. Social anthropologist Professor Nik Brown heads a multidisciplinary team investigating how contemporary hospital design could actually be making the problem worse rather than better. In the ‘pre-antibiotic era’ infections were managed in healthcare buildings designed to maximise sunlight, fresh air, open space and access to the natural environment.

He will argue that the increasing use of antibiotics, from the mid-20th century, made possible the construction of densely-packed, high-rise, monolithic, industrial-scale hospitals.  These are now characteristically enclosed, poorly lit, sealed and artificially ventilated buildings where infections are managed pharmacologically rather than spatially and environmentally. His team looks at healthcare through a much broader lens to challenge design assumptions and think creatively using examples from history, from specialist areas of treatment and from other country contexts.

With twice as many children suffering life-threatening illnesses as suffer from type 1 diabetes – and just 15 specialist paediatric palliative care consultants across the country – Dr Lorna Fraser and her team are leading a research programme to provide a better evidence base for the support these children and their families really need. Generously funded by the Martin House children’s hospice, this work follows hot on the heels of Dr Fraser’s research in Scotland, which contributed to a £30m investment in children’s palliative care north of the border.

It also runs in parallel to the independent evaluation she is carrying out into NHS England’s pilot for a ‘managed clinical network’ for palliative care that will be rolled out across the country. From the personal stories of children and their parents through to big picture epidemiological studies, York is helping change the face of children’s palliative care. 

Professor Maria Goddard, Director of the Centre for Health Economics (CHE), reveals how her 60-strong team of researchers is shaping the health landscape at a national and global level: from developing robust tools for more effective, efficient and equitable healthcare here in the UK, through to research collaborations with academics and policymakers across Europe, America, Africa and Asia.

She will show that, while former Health Secretary Ken Clarke may have scoffed at taking advice from a newly formed research centre led by ‘a punk professor’ in the 1980s, Ken Clarke’s successors and counterparts across the world frequently seek advice from CHE researchers as they grapple with important questions about how best to spend a global $7.3 trillion healthcare budget.

Venue and directions

YorkTalks 2020 takes place in the main lecture theatre in the Ron Cooke Hub at the University's Campus East.

We recommend using public transport to reach campus. The 66 bus from the city centre stops at the Field Lane carpark, close to the venue. Pay and display car parking is available, but very limited. See our maps and direction pages for more information.

See the Ron Cooke Hub on our campus map

PhD Research Spotlight competition

Alongside the talks, PhD students from across the University in our PhD Spotlight competition will be exhibiting their research. Their exhibitions will:

  • outline the original nature and potential outcomes or impact of their research
  • indicate the relevance of their research outside a single field
  • look to engage an academic, non-specialist audience from different disciplines.

The winners of the PhD Spotlight competition 2019.

Previous events

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

YorkTalks 2016

The role of sleep in vocabulary development and the formation of democracy were 2016 talks.

YorkTalks 2016