What is life?

Posted on: December 7th, 2022 by mlpEditor

Multi-award-winning scientist Sir Paul Nurse considers the most fundamental question in biology, “What is Life?”

In a highly anticipated talk, Sir Paul will seek to answer this profound question by first exploring five great ideas in biology:

The cell – the fundamental unit of all living things

The gene – how do cells store, preserve and pass on information?

Evolution by natural selection – how is genetic information accurately transmitted to subsequent generations, whilst at the same time introducing sufficient variability for natural selection to operate and for new species to arise?

Life as chemistry – how do cells host myriad simultaneous chemical reactions in a minute space? What is the central role of carbon polymer chemistry?

Life as information – how do cells and organisms regulate and coordinate their internal environment? And how do they respond to stimuli and conditions in their external environment?

From consideration of these five fundamental concepts, Sir Paul will relate a number of principles which set a direction of travel towards a definition of life – something that requires more than just a description of what living things do.

His book “What is Life” has been published in 22 countries.

Global Citizen: reporting for duty

Posted on: December 5th, 2022 by mlpEditor

What role will today’s and tomorrow’s innovators play in helping us survive and thrive?

The global climate crisis. Famine and drought. Population growth. The battle for diminishing resources. These are no longer visions of some future nightmare. We are facing these challenges today.

Scientists have modelled where we are heading and it doesn’t look good. Protesters have taken to the streets. International targets have been agreed and Governments have laid out their plans.

But will they be enough? Pandemics and conflicts soon knock us off course; deadlines are missed and targets slip. So what can we do to protect our future, deal with today’s issues and learn to live with the extra challenges that are coming down the line?

Our world is evolving quickly. Engineering and Technology are right at the heart of the huge transformation we are experiencing. A career in STEM is becoming more than a career. It is a way of life – a consistent source of boundless creativity.

In this event recording, Yewande Akinola shares her discovery of the roles Innovative Engineering and Technology play in bringing progress and true Sustainability to our world. From the development of our built environment to more specific and intentional problem-solving.

Interview with Yewande Akinola MBE

Posted on: November 23rd, 2022 by mlpEditor

Q: Engineering is such a broad field of study. It requires artistic creativity, rational problem-solving, wild imagination, and a desire to improve the world. As a young student, what drew you to get involved in engineering? 

A: As a child, like most kids, I was drawn to the physical aspect of engineering: form, shape, colour. I didn’t know it as engineering. For a long time, I only knew it as architecture. I was very interested in how I could design better buildings for my family. I was very much drawn to the idea of using creativity to build nicer spaces to be in. 

Q: Can you recall the first time you were inspired by a particular architect, a specific building or structure? 

A: I used to spend a lot of time in the home of an incredible architect called Demas Nwoko. My mum would drop us off there when she was at work. He’s one of Africa’s finest architects. He ensures that his architecture speaks the language of the people of the land. Every aspect of his structures speaks to the history and the culture of the community.  

I loved the fact that the chairs were all hand carved. The tiles in the bathrooms had all been carefully hand-produced. They each told a very deep story. He built the house from materials that surrounded it. He produced the clay using a soil that was very much associated with the area. 

“These days, everybody’s trying to ensure that their architecture speaks to its environment. That it doesn’t take away from the context but adds to it. It tells the story or the history of wherever you are or where you’re situating the building.”

There’s a self-reflective element to the architecture that I experienced as a child. I appreciate that even more now because I can see that many people are trying to get back to that. 

Q: What does it mean for you to be a ‘Global Citizen’ and why should we strive to be one? 

A: I’ve had the incredible opportunity of experiencing many different countries and cultures. Engineering, which is such a beautiful, universal language, has opened the world to me. It’s allowed me to speak the language of lots of different countries by being able to design for them.

I’m on a bit of a mission because we’ve got so many similar challenges all over the world. Yet, we lose so much time and efficiency in our attempts to find local solutions to local problems.

“When one country has a problem, it starts trying to find a solution to a problem that another has already solved. I’ll show the audience how they can use very basic but interesting, creative tools to solve global issues.”

Engineering requires us to rise to the task of solving these problems. We must be courageous and intentional in doing so. 

Q: You’ve mentioned that you don’t consider what you do as ‘a living’ but as ‘your purpose’. Do you have an over-arching mission that you wish to achieve? If so, what is it?

A: To empower a generation of people to solve problems through engineering. By giving them access to education, we can help them understand exactly how they can use their skills to do so. 

Q: What advice do you have for those who seek to find their calling in life and their own way to contribute to society? 

A: For me, the first point is about looking at one’s journey so far, taking stock and being so grateful for it. You already have what you need to take the next step. If you’ve got experience or an interest, think about how you can use that to get yourself there. 

The other thing I would say is that you need to be curious. You need to be willing to ask questions, to Google search to find out who you need to talk to. 

“Purpose is an ongoing thing… You don’t wake up one day knowing all that you’re supposed to be about. It reveals itself through action, the process of trying things.”

By doing, you start to connect the dots.  There’s something beautiful about that. You don’t know where it will lead you but you know what you need to be doing right now, using what you currently have. 

Q: Your career has allowed you to work in many different capacities. Public speaker, TV presenter and engineer. What’s next for Yewande Akinola?  

A: I’m involved in the academic industry. I work as an engineer. I speak at events. I am currently working on a YouTube series intended to inspire young people. This means that I’m now exploring how to write scripts and direct videos.  

If a young person is thinking of becoming an engineer, I want to ensure that they have the resources to do so.

Thank you to Yewande for taking the time to answer our questions.

‘Global Citizen: reporting for duty’ takes place at the National Football Museum on the 29th of November 2022.

The secret of biodiversity and evolution in plants

Posted on: November 9th, 2022 by mlpEditor

Our planet has an enormous range of plant and animal species, biodiversity. Why is this? How have they evolved and how are they evolving now?

Natural crossbreeding, or hybridisation, between species is widespread in both plants and animals but it is especially common in plants where it is recognised as an important ‘creative’ force in evolution. In plants hybridisation is frequently associated with genetic changes which can lead to the abrupt formation of new species. In some cases, this combination of hybridisation and genetic changes creates complex patterns of variation causing challenges for scientists working on plant classification and the determination of a particular plant’s place in evolution. These processes are especially frequent in the daisy family (Asteraceae), the rose family (Rosaceae) and in grasses (Poaceae) leading to extreme challenges in classification for these particular plants.

Simon Hiscock will discuss how such plant diversity has arisen, using various examples of evolutionary processes from the rose family, where these changes are especially frequent. He will include a discussion of the famous Oxford Ragwort which has an intriguing evolutionary history and future.

Pandemic Resilience: how to control a virus

Posted on: October 13th, 2022 by mlpEditor

What role does the environment play in the transmission of respiratory diseases? And how do our interactions in indoor spaces determine the risk of infection?

COVID-19 has presented us with the most difficult healthcare and societal challenge we have faced in living memory. As a new disease, we have had to rapidly build the knowledge base on every aspect of the virus.  To understand the mechanisms of transmission we have had to draw on experiences with other respiratory viruses. And the growing evidence based on the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Understanding the routes of transmission is challenging. But modelling of aerosols, droplets and indoor airflows can play an important role in identifying mechanisms.

Catherine Noakes’ talk outlines some of the approaches used to understand mechanisms for transference and the effectiveness of mitigation strategies.  She highlights some of the scientific understanding and how that has changed as we have learned more about the disease.

How is scientific advice used to support policymakers and public messaging? And what are the challenges and complexities in this process?

Interview with Professor Alice Larkin

Posted on: August 15th, 2022 by mlpEditor

Q: To begin, could you briefly describe your motivations behind entering climate science?

A: I was a keen star gazer as a child, and enjoyed maths, so ended up studying physics with astrophysics. I always also had a great passion for the outdoors. So, when thinking about future careers, I was keen to apply my skills to focus on this planet, rather than the ones I would star gaze as a child. I chose to do a PhD in climate modelling, which linked up my two interests, as the study was about the sun’s natural variability – how the solar cycles influenced the composition and circulation of the atmosphere.

Q: Starting at home, what do you believe are the day-to-day changes people can make to help combat the climate crisis?

A: Firstly, having a think about the kinds of things you typically do. We are all different. Some people will spend more time travelling either at home or abroad than others. Some may find they like their home to be a very warm environment, others cooler. Others may be fans of shopping, always wanting the latest gizmo. Different people’s lives will have different amounts of greenhouse gases associated with them – so using one of the available online carbon calculators to firstly understand which elements of your life might be making the biggest contribution, is a useful start. It is also the case that on average, the more disposable income you have, the higher your emissions will be. For example, most people don’t fly much, but some fly a lot. Flying is the most carbon intensive thing most of us do as individuals, so if this is you, then the quickest way to make a big dint in your emissions is to reduce the number of times you fly, and/or the distance you travel.

“Flying is the most carbon intensive thing most of us do as individuals, so… the quickest way to make a big dint in your emissions is to reduce the number of times you fly.”

But it isn’t all about individual action. We all live and work in communities and wider society. We influence each other’s choices and decisions. This might be through inviting someone to a hen party overseas, or simply having a chat about how you travel to work. It might also be that you have influence in your job – so teachers can influence pupils, I can influence students and staff etc. If you are in a position that has influence within an organisation, you may also be able to develop or support policies that cut emissions. This can be very powerful – not just thinking of ourselves as individuals is key to radically cutting emissions on a large scale.

Q: Do you feel enough is being done to combat the damaging effects that flying has on the climate? Is the industry evolving – or is it the responsibility of the consumer?

A: No, not enough is being done. We are practically still in the position we were in when I started researching this in 2003. Technologies to cut CO2 in aviation are few and far between, and with aircraft lasting 20-30 years, progress and change will always be slow. Consumer pressure is very important. Not just in relation to reducing our own flying activities, but also influencing policymakers to make difficult decisions, such as stopping the expansion of our airports, or bringing in prices such that the pollution that is produced by aircraft is taxed more fairly. At the moment there are exemptions on fuel used for international flights.

“Consumer pressure is very important. Not just in relation to reducing our own flying activities, but also influencing policymakers to make difficult decisions, such as stopping the expansion of our airports.”

Writing to your local MP shouldn’t be underestimated. Matters that voters contact MPs about do have traction, and it doesn’t take many letters on the same topic to prompt further discussion in parliament.

Q: What are some of the more shocking statistics that you think people should be aware of in terms of the damaging effect that flying has on the environment?

A: Travelling on a long-haul first-class flight can be over 130 times worse in terms of CO2 emissions than travelling by international rail. Most people compare sources of emissions in terms of CO2, but aircraft cause more warming than other modes due to other emissions released at altitude. Estimates vary on how much more damaging this is, but estimates are that 3 times more warming has been caused by aircraft than would have happened if the only emission was CO2.

Q: The damage flying has on the climate is widely publicised – whereas the effects of shipping perhaps less so. How do the two industries differ in relation to negative impact on the environment, and which industry is making greater progress in terms of safeguarding our future?

A: This is a difficult question – I could write a long essay here!

They both have quite a similar impact globally in terms of CO2. But one is principally used for leisure and by a small proportion of the population. Whereas the other is principally used for freight, and serves people all over the world with food, energy, manufactured goods and raw materials. In terms of options to cut emissions, shipping has many more options available, including slowing down – which may sound odd, but actually with just modest speed reductions, CO2 emissions drop significantly. Shipping now has a target to cut CO2 by 50% by 2050. This isn’t sufficient to align the sector with the Paris Climate Agreement but is more ambitious that the aviation sector, which continues to rely on offsetting schemes and action by industry but without a sector-wide agreed target.

Q: What are you currently researching and working on? Are there any exciting projects you’d like to alert us to?

I’m current focused on shipping more than aviation.  We are quantifying some of the impacts of fuel changes on ship patterns, as well as further work on how to decarbonise ships using wind propulsion with route optimisation. Another project I’m involved with is trying to see what role ammonia or hydrogen might have as a shipping fuel, and whether or not connections between fuel supply chains for aviation and shipping might influence each other.  I’d like to be working on more projects but unfortunately, most of my job is focused on more managerial tasks as the moment – as Head of the Engineering School. As such, I rely heavily on a great team of researchers in the Tyndall Centre in Manchester to keep me up to date.

Thank you to Alice for taking the time to answer our questions.

Interview with Professor Eleanor Stride

Posted on: August 15th, 2022 by mlpEditor

Q: Your CV is littered with qualifications and awards — a Philip Leverhulme Prize, The Royal Society Interface Award, an Engineering Medal at the Parliamentary Science, Engineering & Technology for Britain awards — but which part of your success are you the proudest of?

A: For me it’s the work that we’ve been doing that we’re now translating into the clinic – specifically for the treatment of pancreatic cancer and chronic infection.  The first time we saw a beneficial effect in human volunteer was incredibly exciting!

Q: How long have we been studying the use of microbubbles in cancer treatment? Have we realised the potential of this technology yet — or have we only scratched the surface?

A: We’ve definitely only scratched the surface!  The first paper published on using ultrasound to enhance drug delivery was published in 1981 and it’s only in the last 5 years that this method has started being tested clinically.

There’s still a huge amount that we need to understand better in terms of fundamental science and that’s vital to make sure we’re using bubbles as safely and effectively as possible. The range of potential applications though is absolutely huge, encompassing neurological diseases, stroke and bacterial infections.

“There’s still a huge amount that we need to understand better in terms of fundamental science and that’s vital to make sure we’re using bubbles as safely and effectively as possible.”

Q: What are the advantages of using microbubbles for targeted drug delivery? And does the process have any drawbacks? 

A: Microbubbles enable us to be much more precise in how we control when and where a drug is delivered because we can destroy them using focused ultrasound at a target site in the body. This greatly reduces the risk of side effects. We can image them non-invasively to check that they’re in the right place. And the movement of the bubbles when we hit them with ultrasound helps to increase the depth to which the drug penetrates, which means we can use much lower doses. There is also increasing evidence that bubbles may stimulate the immune system which could be extremely important in a range of different applications.

The drawbacks of microbubbles are that they are quite fragile so we don’t have very long to complete the treatment. Also, because we have to use ultrasound, the procedure is more complicated than standard chemotherapy and that makes it more expensive.

Q: In 2016, you were recognised as one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering. Is the engineering industry now more diverse, or is there still work to be done? If so, what should be done to increase accessibility for women who want to work in engineering?

A: There have definitely been improvements in some areas, certainly the number of female students applying to do Engineering. But it’s far from 50:50 and we still have significant problems both in terms of attracting new engineers and losing them after they complete their first degree or even a PhD.

I think there are several things that need to happen. The first is looking at how science is taught in schools and making sure we do a better job of explaining what engineering actually is.

A lot of people still think it’s something do with engines and “for boys.” There are lots of really fantastic initiatives out there, but we need to keep up the momentum. The problem of retaining talented engineers really worries me. A lot of my students (male and female) look at the work/life balance, salary and working conditions offered by jobs in Engineering and turn away. I find that really surprising given the incredible job satisfaction that Engineering has to offer and the very high pressures that, for example, lawyers or bankers have to work under. But there’s clearly a big problem and we need to fix it.

Engineers are going to become more and more important as we tackle global issues such as climate change and we need to make it something that talented young people want to do.

“Engineers are going to become more and more important as we tackle global issues such as climate change and we need to make it something that talented young people want to do.”

Q: What do you have planned for the future? What are you currently researching?

A: We’re very much hoping to run several clinical trials in the next couple of years. We’ve been badly set back by COVID but hopefully we’ll be back on track soon. We’ve also recently started a major new program on developing new antimicrobial therapies.

Thank you to Eleanor for taking the time to answer our questions.

Looking inside volcanoes

Posted on: August 15th, 2022 by mlpEditor

Volcanoes are big, hot, loud, and scary.  Because of this, we know little of their internal structure or underlying ‘plumbing system’, despite them representing a global natural hazard.

In this talk, Professor Christopher Jackson shows how new 3D seismic imaging techniques – essentially X-ray scanning of the Earth – can be used to illuminate the structure of volcanoes and the evolution of their underlying ‘hot rocks’.

Christopher is passionate about communicating science to the public and was one of the Royal Institution Christmas lecturers in 2020 for the series ‘Planet Earth – a user’s guide’, focussing on how we can achieve a sustainable future.

He has also appeared in ‘Expedition Volcano’ a BBC2 series with a team of international volcanologists visiting two of the world’s most volatile and spectacular volcanoes – in DRC and Rwanda.  He released a very well-received Audible podcast ‘The Grown Up’s Guide to Planet Earth’.

Christopher is keen to inspire young people in science, particularly from under-represented groups, aiming for a future geoscience community that is far more diverse and inclusive.

Climate change: the urgency for action now

Posted on: August 11th, 2022 by mlpEditor

Policy positions and interventions show global warming is still underestimated, or misunderstood. Can we still win back the chance of surviving and thriving?

In this talk, Professor Sir David King argues that ‘climate repair’ offers a scalable, safe recipe for future climate stability.  The strategy applies immediate climate repair measures: very rapid progress to net zero global emissions; additional reduction of the volume of atmospheric greenhouse gases; and halting the heating of the Earth and its oceans. ‘Climate repair’ will refreeze Earth’s poles and the glaciers of the Himalayas. It will stabilise sea level and break feedback loops that relentlessly accelerate global warming.

Net zero emissions exist as a target for about 70% of the world’s economies, over a range of timescales.  This target offers an important starting point for climate repair.  But emissions reductions must become more rapid than current proposals. And combined with speedy expansion of carbon sinks to create negative growth of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs).

‘Net-zero’ alone is insufficient. Net-negative emissions will provide foundations for shifting current dangerous GHGs back towards pre-industrial levels that underpinned stable, hospitable climate patterns for millennia.

We can choose our future

Posted on: August 11th, 2022 by mlpEditor

Would you change your flying habits or aspirations to combat climate change?

Anthropogenic climate change is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced.  Yet the fact that we know humans created this challenge can be empowering. It means that we have some control over how much future climate change we will all need to adapt to.

In richer countries, our per person emissions are very high and will need to be cut significantly. Our choices also have an influence over others’ futures, where per person emissions are very low. And these tend to be places where climate impacts will be most keenly felt.

Professor Alice Larkin’s talk focusses on the scale of the climate change challenge and why it matters that we make different choices now.  In particular, it will use aviation and shipping to highlight some of what needs to change, and how to influence it.