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Research Projects from the 2017 programme

Automaticity of Social Pragmatic Constraints on Ambiguity Resolution

My research project was focused on how we resolve the ambiguity of homonyms - a word with more than one meaning such as ‘bank’, but always written and spoken the same - alone versus in the presence of another person.

This study involved two conditions: an Alone condition, and a Joint condition. In both conditions, the participant would be primed, using headphones, to one meaning of the following ambiguous word. Sometimes, after the ambiguous word, a word would be presented that was related, but in a different way, to the ambiguous word. So, for example, the participant may have heard ‘’The canoe struck the river bank’’, and would have then been shown the word ‘’Bank’’ but would’ve then been shown the word ‘’Finance’’. Even though Bank and Finance are related, the participant may have forgotten about this meaning, because they were primed to think of the river bank. In the Joint condition, the participant would be seated next to the experimenter posing as a participant, who was not exposed to priming sentences.

As a measure, we used electroencephalography - brain imaging equipment - as well as behavioural responses. We predicted that participants in the Joint condition would be more likely to relate the ambiguous word to unprimed - but related - meanings, therefore accommodating for the co-listener’s lack of priming information, and we would see a less ‘shocked’ brain response to these unprimed meanings. I also used the Interpersonal Reactivity Index to investigate whether this ability was related to empathy and perspective-taking.

Using Signal Amplification by Reversible Exchange (SABRE) to hyperpolarise Zeatin.

Hyperpolarisation is a very recent scientific development which manipulates chemical and magnetic properties in order to enhance the signal of MRI and NMR scans. The SABRE technique, which was developed in York's Centre for Hyperpolarisation in Magnetic Resonance (CHyM), uses para-hydrogen (low energy spin state of hydrogen) and transition metal catalysts to hyperpolarise various molecules.

The aim of my project was to hyperpolarise Zeatin, a plant growth hormone related to many other biologically relevant molecules, and optimise the SABRE process in order to maximise the enhancement. This involved a large amount of chemical analysis, sample preparation and NMR data collection in order to understand the effects of various parameters on the polarisation transfer. After investigating the effects of everything from the composition of the catalyst to the temperature of the NMR machine, I was extremely proud to achieve a 2300-fold enhancement for Zeatin. In other words, the hyperpolarised scan was 2300 times more sensitive than before SABRE conditions were applied.

The work I completed over summer resulted in an invitation to the global Spin Chemistry Conference in Germany, where I was able to learn more about developments at the forefront of scientific research and network with world leaders in their respective fields. This research will now provide a basis for further research being conducted within CHyM, demonstrating that the research was a worthwhile contribution to science. I hope to publish my research formally in the near future.

Dissolving cellulose: how can we apply thermodynamics for a molecular level understanding?

Cellulose is the most common organic compound found on earth. In order to exploit the potential of cellulose as much as possible, the polymer needs to be dissolved. However, this is a complicated process, as cellulose is a very stable molecule, which is insoluble or only partly soluble in the most common solvents. How can we dissolve the cellulose in the most environmentally-sustainable and economically viable way?

This question is very important as we are currently facing the shortage of cotton, which is pure cellulose. Therefore, we need to find ways of regenerating this fibre. If the solution to this problem is not found, the world will shortly encounter the rapid rise in the prices of cotton.
The properties of cotton have been investigated for more than 100 years now, but only a little progress has been made. Previous studies found a way of dissolving cellulose, but they require the use of toxic solvents, which leads to the pollution of both air and water. Therefore, we need to come up with safe, cheap and environmentally-friendly alternatives. Solvents, called protic ionic liquids have all the features mentioned above. We conducted solubility measurements on protic ionic liquids at different conditions in order to find out what the best conditions for the solvents are, so that we can design better, environmentally-friendly solvents.

Reclaiming and writing realistic female characters on screen

This project tackles the portrayals on female protagonists in films, looking closely at storylines concerning sexual violence. This is a topic at the forefront of conversations surrounding the visual medium and is very real for many women today. The research paper produced from this project looks at two recent films, Elle (2016) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), and analyses the textual and filmmaking elements of the depiction of the recovery process from sexual trauma and evaluates the suitability of their depictions and their contribution to the discussion. This research also informs the development and writing of an original 30-minute script which centres around similar themes.

Dynamical Music with Boolean Networks

A piece of music can be thought of as a precise sequence of events. Each event – each note or rest – occurs at a particular moment in time and has a particular duration. The job of a composer is to decide, perhaps using the guidelines of music theory, which events should follow which. This project proposes an alternative method of composing music in which each musical event directly causes the next event.

In a “dynamical” composition, the entire piece of music is determined by the rules for transitioning between states and the initial state from which the piece is started. There are many ways of implementing this idea, and this project opted to use Boolean networks. Using this model, a composer defines a collection of vertices, each of which can be turned on or off and can have an assigned musical note. When the vertex is “on”, its note plays. When the vertex is “off”, the note does not play. The states of all the vertices together define the state of the whole system. The vertices can be connected together in any arrangement, and the states of the inputs to each vertex determine whether that vertex should turn on or turn off at the next time step, according to some predefined rules. The process of composing using the musical Boolean network model amounts to defining the vertices, assigning notes, and making the rules which determine what inputs will activate each vertex. The evolution of the state as time progresses is then a piece of music, produced by a dynamical system.

Automatic Processing of Emotional Body Language

In my experiment, participants viewed photographs of 3 bodies in a row on a computer screen, all expressing emotions such as sadness (head down, shoulders slumped), anger (fists clenched, arms in front of body) or happiness (arms up, palms open). Participants were told to identify the emotion shown by the person in the middle by pressing a button, and to ignore the pictures on either side (flankers). The flankers could express the same emotion as the target (congruent condition), a different emotion (incongruent condition) or a neutral bodily expression (neutral condition). For this main task, I hypothesised that anger would be recognised the fastest, followed by sadness then happiness. I also hypothesised that incongruent flankers would slow down reaction times compared to congruent or neutral flankers.

In a control task, participants viewed 5 symbols (< or >) in a row. Similarly to the main task, participants had to identify the symbol in the middle, and the flankers, this time the 2 symbols to the left and right, were either the same as the central target (congruent), different (incongruent) or the dash symbol (neutral). I hypothesised that incongruent flanker symbols would produce slower reaction times compared to congruent or neutral flankers. I also predicted that reaction times for this control task overall would be faster than the main task, as more processing is required of bodies expressing emotions than symbols.

Finally, my participants completed an empathy questionnaire, giving them an empathy score between 0 and 80. These scores will be correlated with reaction times in the main task to see if being more empathetic means you can identify the target faster or if you are more distracted by the flankers and so react to the target slower.